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Star Wars Week: Episode 5

And here’s the final Episode of EphBlog’s Star Wars Week as pop culture stops in anticipation of the release of Episode VII. But who are we kidding? If you’re interested in these posts, you’re probably at the theater right now!

Steven Miller isn’t the only Star Wars fan lurking around the Williams Science Quad. Perhaps not surprisingly, game developer and computer graphics designer Morgan McGuire is one as well. According to a tipster, McGuire regularly cites to Star Wars films in class, “likes” Star Wars media online, and even uses examples in his coursework. Thus, students in McGuire’s CSCI 374, Computational Graphics, learned about how George Lucas drew upon World War II dogfight footage as the baseline from which outer-space fighter scenes were scripted and created.

And back in his student days, McGuire wrote about the computer graphics techniques employed in Episode II, based on a graphics conference presentation:

One of the highlights of Star Wars Episode II was the “Yoda fight” where the 800 year old little green Jedi trades in his cane for a light saber and takes on the villainous Count Dooku. A team from ILM: Dawn Yamada, Rob Coleman, Geoff Campbell, Zoran Kacic-Alesic, Sebastian Marino, and James Tooley, presented a behind-the-scenes look at the techniques used to animate and render the Yoda fight. When George Lucas revealed the script to the team just two days before shooting began, they were horrified. At the time, the team was still reviled by Star Wars fans for bringing the unpopular animated character Jar Jar Binks to life in Star Wars Episode I. Now they were expected to take Yoda, the sagacious fan favorite, and turn him into what George Lucas himself described as a combination of “an evil little frog jumping around… the Tasmanian devil… and something we’ve never seen before.” The scene obviously required a computer generated model because no puppet could perform such a sword fight. Their challenge was to somehow make the completely CG Yoda as loveable as the puppet while having his spry fighting style still seem reasonable.

They began by creating a super-realistic animated model of Yoda based on footage from Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back. This model is so detailed that its eyes dilate when it blinks and it models physical ear-wiggling and face squishing properties of the original Yoda model. Interestingly, puppeteer Frank Oz disliked the foam-rubber character of the original model and wanted the animators to use a more natural skin model, but Lucas insisted on matching the original, endearing flaws and all. To develop a fighting style for master swordsman Yoda, the animators watched Hong Kong martial arts movies both old and new. Clips from these movies were incorporated directly into the animatics—early moving storyboards of test renders and footage from other movies used to preview how a scene will look. The SIGGRAPH audience had the rare treat of seeing these animatics, which will never be released to the public. The Yoda fight animatic was a sci-fi fan’s ultimate dream: the ILM team took Michelle Yeoh’s Yu Shu Lien character from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and inserted her into the Yoda fight scene in place of the Jedi. In the animatic, a scaled down Michelle Yeoh crossed swords and battled Count Dooku using the exact moves and motions that Yoda does in the final movie.

Also earning shout-outs before Star Wars week wraps up:

Biology lecturer Derek Dean (favorite soundtrack: The Empire Strikes Back)

History Professor Karen Merrill, in whose tenure the Savvy Spender’s Guide to Williams was published, featuring wisdom from Yoda himself.

And then there’s Fred Wiseman ’51, the great documentary filmmaker. As the Boston Globe described him a few years ago:

Frederick Wiseman looks rather like Yoda. He’s a small man whose ears stick out and whose face narrows as it descends from a vast forehead. His skin is wrinkled and his eyes, like Yoda’s, have seen it all.

His dwindling hair can flare, in the tradition of Einstein and David Ben-Gurion. His clothes are an afterthought — a red shirt under a blue sweater, rumpled gray khakis, and comfortable slip-ons. The man has other priorities.

Is that true? You be the judge:

Photo by Suzanna Kreiter, in the Boston Globe

Photo by Suzanna Kreiter, in the Boston Globe