Q&A With the Makers of Star Wars

Q&A with the makers of Star Wars

Last week, Lucasfilm invited selected members of the press to visit the infamous Skywalker Ranch in Northern California, to take a first look at the Star Wars: The Phantom Menace DVD in a dedicated press event. Starting with a close-up look at some of the supplements on the disc, the event also included a Q&A session with the people who made the DVD, including George Lucas.

Before we dive into the lengthy transcript of the entire Q&A, I want to point out that between the lines some interesting information became evident, regarding the potential release of other Star Wars DVD. George Lucas clearly hinted at the fact thatEpisode II  Attack Of The Clones will be the next DVD when it comes to home video and DVD after its theatrical run next year. It will be followed by a release of Episode III some three years later and only then will we see a DVD release of the remaining three Star Wars films. Often have we heard that George Lucas’ required involvement was the reason why Star Wars was held back for so long, and from looking at the Phantom Menace DVD it is clear that his input was indeed required. The same will be true with the remaining DVDs and with his busy shooting and production schedule in the coming years it is easy to see that he won’t have much time left to take care of more Star Wars Special Edition DVDs before he’s done with his epic saga. Still, I can’t get over the fact that Lucasfilm would let the 25th Anniversary of Star Wars: A New Hope slip by without a release.

Anyway, without further ado now, let’s hear what everyone had to say during Lucasfilm’s exciting event at Skywalker Ranch, the most magical place on Earth.

Jim Ward: Okay… so let’s get this thing going. We’re really going to kind of go through, as I mentioned, the ensemble cast that was put together to create this great DVD. And the first person up is a gentleman by the name of Van Ling, who I’m sure is very familiar to most of you. Van was the producer on the Episode I – The Phantom Menace DVD. We wanted to get the best and the brightest to work on this and Van certainly is the leader in the field and that’s who we got. So Van can answer questions about production of the DVD, the menu design, the authoring, the compression – all that sort of thing Van can talk to you about.

Question: When did you come on the project, and what were the initial processes in terms of putting it together?

Van Ling: I came on the project in about October of 2000. I was asked to come in and do a proposal on the disc. And with great trepidation but a lot of enthusiasm I came on project and I really wanted to do a good job. I’ve been a big Star Wars fan for most of my teen and adult life, so it was quite a dream come true.

Question: For the DVD menus how much of it was custom generated versus existing already in the film?

Van Ling: It was about half and half but I have to stress that all of the material started off as material that was provided by Lucasfilm and by Industrial Light & Magic. I was able to take photographs and basically extrude them into 3-D to generate so that the images were of actual footage in a number of cases. And in other cases we used material straight from the height of transfer of the film and then worked away to make it longer. And then in some other cases we did generate things entirely from scratch. But, really tried to maintain the look and feel of the Star Wars universe.

Question: What other DVD discs did Van worked on, and how does this disc differ from those?

JimandVanVan Ling: Well I produced and did the menus for Terminator II The Ultimate Edition, The Abyss Special Edition and Independence Day Special Edition. And this, in terms of approach and design and challenge, was far and away the most challenging disc that I’ve undertaken. And also in many cases the smoothest I have undertaken taken because I had, the filmmaking side really behind the projects. In a lot of cases the filmmaker is off working on other movies, they’re not able to really participate more than cursorily on the disc.

And in this particular instance everybody really took the time to be there and be part of it and be in the decision making process and so it was never a question of my thinking are they going to like this? In this particular instance everybody was really involved and that’s one of the things that made this far and away different from other discs that I’ve done. Also on those other discs I was able to actually work on production of those films at that time. So that had a different approach to it. Here I had the benefit of the entire team at Lucasfilm and at THX to provide me with all the materials that we needed to make a great disc.

Question: How many Easter eggs are on the DVD?

Jim Ward: Van just so you know I’ve already told them we’re not going to tell them. (laughter)

Question: How conscious were you of setting a new standard in terms of technology and entertainment value on this DVD?

Van Ling: I try to take the same approach that most filmmakers do on that kind of question, which is we try not to be conscious of it at all. What we’re conscious of is trying to create the vision or to put together the vision or to, in this particular case for me, maintain the vision of the Star Wars universe. And whatever it takes to do that is what we try to do. And oftentimes that does involve being on the cutting edge or straying into territory that hasn’t been really explored before in terms of the technology.

The key is to take care of the movie first.
Everything else builds around that.

Jim Ward: The adjunct to that too I might add is that very early on we sat down with Van and we made it very clear, we’re not out there trying to just do technology for technology’s sake. We were very much into let’s make what we think is the best thing for our fans and for the consumer out there, so let’s not load this with wacky stuff that nobody ever uses or goofy technology and interactive games and all this kind of stuff. Let’s just do what we think is cool and what we think the fans will like. And Van definitely led us down that path very well.

Van Ling: The key is to take care of the movie first, that’s the most important thing about the disc. You know as much as we all love doing the bonus materials, we want to take care of the movie first. And everything builds around that.

Question: What kind of input and discussion did you have around the vision of the disc?

Van Ling: I think again coming into this, a lot of the previous discs that I’d done have been whether or not correctly so, have been formally called Van Ling discs because they have a particular kind of approach. And I was very adamant on this disc, as is correct, to make sure that this was never perceived as a Van Ling disc. This is a Star Wars disc, and this is a Lucasfilm disc. And the most important thing there is to make sure that it doesn’t overshadow any of the content and the quality of the presentation.

That was one of my most important personal goals on the disc was to make sure that when people look at it they think this is a Star Wars disc, this is exactly what we want from a Star Wars disc. And from that standpoint it was a matter of reviewing the materials that Lucasfilm and George and Rick and everybody wanted to put on the disc and work with them to create the best presentation that maintained it as a Star Wars disc. I tried my best to kind of be “behind the scenes” as their producer, as their consultant on the project and never get in the way of the vision.

Question: Was there anything taken from the (Japanese) laserdisc, or was the DVD made from the ground up from the beginning?

Van Ling: the Japanese have one laserdisc, that’s the only laserdisc that has been available for the show. We didn’t take anything from that. We started from scratch with height of transfer and all sorts of things. Nothing came from the laserdisc that we used.

Question: On some DVDs you can more easily spot the special effects, because of the digital nature of the format and the way it was transferred. Did it seem to be this way for Episode I, and how did you handle this?

Van Ling: I let ILM’s work shine. Because I didn’t have to do anything in that particular instance because the transfer that was done was perfect. If you do your effects right, as ILM does, you don’t have that problem. What you’re referring to is that sometimes like older films, with optical films you’ll see in the video transfer the matte lines will appear. Or other artifacts that say this is a special effects shot. Well that’s how seamless ILM’s work is. It’s phenomenal work and so there wasn’t any problem with that.

Question: In essence what was the process in which the transfer was made and what source material was used for DVD?

Van Ling: There was a very conscious decision to go from the print rather than from the digital files. And I think part of that is that this is a film, and we wanted to maintain the spirit. This is part of the style of colors and look that we wanted to maintain with the picture. And we didn’t want it to feel like perhaps A Bug’s Life. Or something where it has that kind of digital edge to it, which works great for those movies. But we wanted to really say this is a film.

Question: Given the big budget on the disc was there any materials that didn’t unfortunately make it onto the disc?

Van Ling: The answer to that question is always, “Yes.” There’s hundreds of hours of material that as a film geek and a completist I would love to see on the disc but that’s not really what the process is about. Like making a film you don’t put in all your dailies. What you do is you hone it down to the things that are most effective, most entertaining and that you think people are going to enjoy. And people are going to watch. And so that’s kind of what we concentrated on. But we jam packed the disc, it is filled to the brim.

Jim Ward: Van did a great job in guiding us quite honestly because we were the ones that really wanted to explore the boundaries of that. And Van was very good with us on the bit budgets and explaining to us well if we do this this is the consequence, etc. So we had to make some tough decisions and there are a number of EPKs and other things that we had to cut back on. One of you guys mentioned yesterday those other tone poems, there is a lot of that kind of thing that just couldn’t go on and we did have to make some harsh choices.

Question: I just wondered in the deleted scenes section George Lucas talks about the air taxi scene I think, that that actually looked so good he put it back into the film, that’s on the DVD. First of all was that something that you were involved, that process? And is there other scenes that are added to the film as well?

Jim Ward: I’m going to take that one. Van wasn’t involved in that and that scene was reincorporated and as I said I think we all have to get your check disc and go check it out for yourself.

Question: Did we ever consider using the digital prints that were made since we used that to showcase the film in four cities?

Van Ling: Basically we considered it, but we decided we actually wanted to go with the film print because it gave us the look that we were looking for.

Question: Were the deleted scenes ever taken to film, or transferred direct from digital?

Van Ling: Absolutely, they were finished on film. All 300 of those shots were finished on film and put together for the DVD.

This was probably the most challenging disc I’ve ever done.
And probably one of the most satisfying!

Question: What are you most impressed with on the disc, what was your favorite part?

Van Ling: That I’m still standing. Because this was probably the most challenging disc I’ve ever done. And probably one of the most satisfying. I’m really proud of the way the whole disc came together as an integral whole, that’s one of the most important things that we were all striving for that it felt like it wasn’t just a collection of odds and ends, which, unfortunately, a lot of what people call Special Editions today seem to be. They tend to just be a lot of materials that were collected and thrown on a disc. We really tried to make it an integral experience.

And the other thing I’m most proud of is that we were able to work together to do that. As I said earlier, sometimes you’re out there alone as a DVD producer doing stuff, and other times the studios or the filmmakers can tend to be very limiting. And that was absolutely not the case here.

Question: How much time did you spend on this disc? Was it a full-time job?

Van Ling: They paid me for about half my work, so… Because it was a heck of a lot for a full-time job. It was a lifestyle, actually.

Jim Ward: Thanks a lot, Van.Okay… the next person I’d like to bring up here and introduce is somebody that if you didn’t know before you came here, you certainly know him by now after having lived through his saga in helping to create the Episode I – The Phantom Menace. I’d like to introduce Rick McCallum, the producer. So this is the guy that produced the film and certainly lived through not only the film but this DVD as well. Any questions for Rick?

Question: How do you think you came off in the documentary?

Rick McCallum: That’s why I have a fast forward, I just skipped over it. It was very interesting to see how much weight I’ve gained and lost throughout the whole production. (laughter) That was the most interesting thing to me.

Follow-up Question: You were very direct, for instance when the situation was very grim in Tunisia, you said things colorfully. Did you have any concerns about including this? Or did you not care?

Rick McCallum: No, not really. I mean it’s a very weird thing, especially when there’s a documentary crew around. It’s not easy for me to be totally natural around it. But you know, after awhile you get kind of used to it. But no, there’s never any real issue because in the end of the day, we knew the guys who were making the film and they were all pretty trustworthy so it wasn’t too bad. I was just glad that they weren’t there for about 90% of the time… (laughs)

JimandMcCallumFollow-up Question: Well, I had to laugh because since you cuss so much in the documentary, are you concerned about the young kids that will be watching that?

Jim Ward: No, I think we bleeped it out.

Rick McCallum: Well… I think most kids these days know what that is. Everything I’ve learned is from my kids.

Question: As far as the DVD, are you excited about all the extras? But as a filmmaker you work so hard on the episode that, what about the DVD itself?

Rick McCallum: There are two big issues for me. One of the things that was very difficult was that we virtually were making the film right up until three weeks before the film was released. In fact, we were in London shooting six weeks before the film came out. Then we had to supervise the making of five thousand prints. Plus, if you backstep, for ten weeks we had been working on the digital master for the four theatres that we had shown in New York and Los Angeles. So we were just burned out. There was nothing for us to do. The film came out, we had three days where we rushed around to New York and Los Angeles and San Francisco watching the openings, and then virtually that following Monday, George and I started prep on Episode II. The thing that we knew that we didn’t want to do for the DVD was just take the typical route where there’s a video master out there for the videocassette, and then somebody takes that, throws it down, and lays it out on the DVD. Then you have fifteen minutes of how great it is working with George and isn’t Rick nice and his hair is weird and all the other strange stuff that you get on it. We wanted to make it special. But that that takes a long time.

I set up the DVD before I went to Australia. We worked on it for six months. We had to cast for a crew. We had to wait for the supervisors, we wanted Pablo as our chief digital effects supervisor on the DVD. He was on another film. We had to get the artists that we wanted that were available. We had to face the whole reality of was it possible to actually even do this? We wanted Van Ling.

You know there’s a whole bunch of real things, it was like making another movie. And you’ve got to remember that up untilEpisode I, the largest film digital effects-wise was Titanic. And that had about 450 shots. We had just under 2100 visual effects. And this DVD represents, I think it has the third most effects of any feature film that’s ever been made. So you know it was a really complicated process and it was very time consuming, we knew it was going to take a long time. But I think it was worth it.You know we loved it, we loved the whole idea of it. And more importantly for me personally, is that at least within the context of DVD, it’s really about quality. There’s nothing more frustrating than, in the case of Episode I, which was a process that lasted over four years, you spend so much time making it, then you spend so much time mixing it – millions of dollars. And then you let it out to the world and you know there’s probably less than 100 theatres where you can actually see the film that we actually made, or hear it in the way we’ve mixed it. And DVD, believe it or not, still represents probably, in terms of the audience – the largest possible audience, the best visual experience that they’ll ever actually see the film. Because most of the stuff, when you go to a multiplex outside of a major city, is just junk. So on those two levels, I was very happy.

There is a reason why Anakin is eight years old in Episode I

Question: Is there any particular scene in making the movie Episode I that was challenging to you?

Rick McCallum: They’re all painful in their own little way when you think back. But no, I personally like locations the most because you never know exactly what’s going to happen. And to me, that dynamic is very exciting, especially when you’re dealing with the temperatures that we had in Tunisia. Tunisia is a country I personally like. I love the crew that we had, we shot there before on Young Indy.

They’re all difficult in their own little way because you’ve got this army, and it’s like a small village. And one day an actor will get hurt in a car accident, another person will get sick, you know everything is all outside, you never know what’s going to happen. Studio work is much easier – you just know what you’ve got. Usually everybody can get home and get back to work relatively easily. So I think probably, I haven’t answered that question but I like locations the best.

Question: Who was really the target audience for Episode I?

Rick McCallum: Well, you’ve got to remember it’s a saga. It’s a saga of family, it’s also going to be in six parts. It’s designed to be seamlessly interconnected. In fact, in terms of DVD, it’s what Van Ling was saying, one of the reasons why we didn’t go straight from the digital master is that you know there have been three previous films, and they were films, and there’s a look. And as he also mentioned in terms of relationship to Bug’s Life and some of the other Pixar films is there are two different aesthetics. Personally, for me, and this is going way off the question, the digital release of the film that we had in four theatres came closest to the film that we actually made, because it was the only time that we could be in a theatre and actually see the film and hear it that closely resembled what it was that we had made. But the issue about whether or not it’s for kids, you just have to take a deep breath and wait for the whole thing, because it all makes sense. It has to start somewhere, and there is a reason why Anakin is eight years old in Episode I. And when it’s all over, it will all make sense, both thematically and in terms of the evolution of Anakin’s character.

Question: Why isn’t there a DTS track on the DVD? Was there just not enough room on the disc?

Jim Ward: I’ll just take that question. It really comes down to what you exactly said. It was a bit budget issue and that’s one of the hard decisions that we had to make on this thing. You know, in an ideal world yeah, but we just had to, to include everything we wanted to do, make that call.

Question: Can you talk about doing the audio commentary? Sometimes filmmakers are reluctant to do commentaries, but you got everybody, yourself, George, everyone involved in the making of the film to sit down and watch and give your observations. I was wondering what that was like?

Rick McCallum: Well, for me personally it was very weird because I was in London, and I had to do it on a tie-line and so it was very uncomfortable for me. I didn’t have enough time to actually sit back and really think about all the scenes because we were in the middle of shooting for Episode II. But I think everybody else really got into it. They really enjoyed it because, in the end of the day, it allows you to do two things. It helps you, if you’re honest with it, you remember the pain of actually doing it. And then also what it meant in context and how you got through it. And I think everybody was candid enough, you know people like Dennis Muren and John Knowles and everybody else who was working on the film for such a long period, it gave them an opportunity to actually reflect back on their experiences, what it was like to actually do that specific shot. Because that’s the whole dynamic, especially the world that we’re moving into, whether you’re making a small, traditional dramatic film or a big special effects film, there’s so many effects shots. And for the first time, we’re breaking the barrier of visual effects companies where we’re actually working as a team. Because they’re two totally different, distinct groups. You know when you’re making a movie, it’s a totally different experience than when you’re working on the special effects. Different kind of skill set, different kind of person altogether. But I think what was one of the best experiences for me on Episode I is it was a total collective dream and nightmare for a long period of time for a lot of people.

Question: You mentioned that making the DVD was like making a movie, another movie. Can you talk about how much it cost to put the DVD together? What kind of investment you guys have in it?

Rick McCallum: It cost (laughter), that’s something, you know… does it matter?

Question: I think it’s interesting.

Rick McCallum: Let’s put it this way, it cost a lot, it took a lot of effort, a lot of time…

Question: How many Kevin Smith movies could you make? (laughter)

Rick McCallum: Well, it depends. Based on his last one? (laughs) It cost a lot.

Question: What do you think of the DVD technology itself?

Rick McCallum: Well right now, within the world that we live in, there’s nothing that comes close. I mean, the thing I love about it is its potential, especially when we deal with storage issues because, as Van Ling said, right now we’re dealing with a storage problem. And you do have to pick what you think is best to include, and that’s what I think he did a brilliant job of. One of the many things that Van Ling did was focus us and say, “Okay… yes I know you think this is interesting but I think for the general audience this is the best thing. I think there’s enough stuff here for hard core fans, for filmmakers, for everyone else.” He really balanced that out for us really nicely. But what I do love about it, is its future potential to be able to go in directions where you do have the access and the ability to be able to store a phenomenal amounts of material. So that people who are into making films, could have 20 or 30 hours of material. I don’t know if Jim has mentioned this, but we probably shot about 600 hours worth of behind-the-scenes footage. Not that that would all work, but you know there’s a good 2 or 3 hours about how to design costumes. There’s 2 or 3 hours about setting up and budgeting a movie, scheduling a movie. Unfortunately, right now with the limits that we have, we can’t use all that material. But there is that material and one day… in fact, it’s one of my worst nightmares that I’m going to get the call from George saying, “You know, I’ve got a really good idea. Let’s put out a 250 hour DVD.”I don’t know if you guys have seen Terminator 2. One of the things I loved about that and what Van Ling did, you can go in many directions. If you were a hard core film freak and you really love Cameron and you want to understand how he made the picture, you could go in that direction. There are so many areas where you can go and that to me is really the essence of DVD technology. But what I love about it, more than anything, is just the sheer quality for the average person.

Question: In the world of digital technology and DVDs and such, is there really any such thing as a final cut to a movie?

Rick McCallum: Philosophically, I have no problem with it. In fact, I love it because what’s always prevented any filmmaker from doing this in the past is just the cost. We all love movies here. And think about it.

Nobody ever sits down at a table and says,
“Hey – let’s make a bad movie.”

There are 300 movies made by the studios a year, and there’s another 700 made by independents. And for us, probably in this room, we easily see two or three movies a week. And we love them. And it’s one of the few things in the world where you can go, week after week after week, and be so deeply disappointed and still, every new week, say, “Hey… let’s go to a movie.” And that becomes still another adventure, another hope that the movie is going to be good. And the truth is, nobody ever sits down at a table and says, “Hey – let’s make a bad movie.” No producer, director, writer says, “God, I’ve got a really great idea for a shitty film.” It doesn’t work that way. But something in the process, something about the compromises, the timing, the studio, the phenomenal pressure that artists have to go through, causes something to go really wrong.And often there is this other film there. Not always, but often there is another film. And if somebody can actually have the wherewithal, the tools to be able to actually change that, it doesn’t mean necessarily that you’re going to like it any better or that you’re even going to see it. But it’s no different than a writer being able to re-write and re-write, or a painter who used to paint. You know, when the Impressionists used to paint on a canvas, they didn’t have enough canvas so they’d just paint over and keep on changing. It’s like rehearsing a play. But that’s never been done in film before because of the sheer cost. And one of the great things about doing the Special Editions was we were able to go back and do the original Star Wars: A New Hope exactly the way George wanted it. The way he had written it. Whether people liked it, it didn’t matter, it was his movie and he couldn’t make it when he first made it because there were so many compromises he had to go through. So, philosophically, I have no problem with that I think it’s great. It’s like the Internet. You kind of democratize the process, you have these incredible tools to allow everybody to make a movie. It doesn’t mean the movies are going to get any better. In fact, there’s going to be a lot of shit on the Internet for a long time. But it does allow people who aren’t socially adaptable or don’t have the skill set to be able to enter into the system of Hollywood, who have great ideas but may not have the personality to sell themselves but actually are full of ideas and can tell a story, that allows them to be able to do that.

Jim Ward: Okay, that’s great. Thanks a lot, Rick.

Leave a comment