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Heart of Dorkness: Star Wars Celebration IV, Day 4

27 May 2007 by Chad 3 Comments

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Yesterday, I got to say Happy Birthday to Star Wars. Today, I get to say it to something more important.

My wife. It’s her birthday.

The fact that she was born exactly one day after A New Hope came out is both good and bad for her. Good, because I will never forget her birthday. Bad, because she will always know why.

Anyway. Happy Birthday, wife-o-mine. And I am sorry you married a geek

But not too sorry.

Today at CIV was panel day for me. I have blown most of my wad on thing I absolutely do not need and now I’m just going to hang out during the days and listen to people talk about Star Wars. Also, being the wife’s birthday, I only stayed for four hours (which most women would probably say is four hours too long) and headed home to hang out with her.

I’m kind of glad I did. Bar-hopper and club-goeers in L.A. have this thing where they don’t go out to clubs on the Sunset Strip on Friday and Saturday nights because that’s when everyone goes out. They call it “amateur night.” That’s what it felt like to me at CIV today. Being the first weekend day of the ‘con, is was fucking packed. Not just packed with rabid Star Wars fans, but with tons of families that thought it might be a fun day out. The exhibitor’s hall was shoulder to shoulder at parts and a bit of my old claustrophobia was kicking in. I’m not too upset it was a short day. I’ll spend all day tomorrow to make up for it.

So what did I see today?

Today, I saw seven living legends.

The first panel I attended was called “VFX Rock Stars”. It featured ILM founders Dennis Muren, Phil Tippett, Ken Ralston, and Richard Edlund. Also Academy Award winner John Knoll, who joined ILM in 1986.

If you don’t know who these guys are, they are amongst the greats in visual effects history. Muren, Tippet, Ralston, and Edlund all cut their teeth on the original Star War in 1977, and their work with models, photo compositing, and motion-control cameras changed the movie industry forever. These are the guys that blew up the Death Star, made the Millennium Falcon the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy, and flew that fucking Star Destroyer right over your young impressionable head.

All of these guys cited one notable influence in their lives and to no surprise, it was the work of Ray Harryhausen. Harryhausen, for those who don’t know, is really the father of modern stop-motion animation, and was a one man effects department for such groundbreaking films as The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonaughts.. As far as how they ended up doing the effects for Star Wars, they all seemed to stumble into it. Model building and filmmaking were hobbies to them, and they never thought they’d get to do it for a living. As Muren explained it, “we were poised and ready for a film like Star Wars, waiting for something like it to come up.” When they were called, they stepped up, even though the project required them to create things on screen that had never been seen before.

John Knoll grew up a fan of the work of ILM and joined up almost a decade after A New Hope. He’s kind of the Jason Newstead of Visual Effects. Knoll is mostly a computer guy, and was one of the chief effects guys on Episode I. Most recently, his work can be seen the Pirates of the Caribbean films. The guy is a visual bad ass.

It was an entertaining discussion but probably only if you’re into Star Wars or visual effects. All of these guys, who are at heart model-makers, seemed to embrace the digital revolution and the dominance of computer generated effects. Although Dennis Muren did discuss that he misses the tactile sense of working with models. He says that when they were shooting effects for the original film, it was a tough job. They dealt with dangerous situations like pyrotechnics and such. He points out that today’s effects artist just points and clicks all day, and that it’s not the physical experience FX work used to be.

The panel was followed by the usual fan Q&A session, which contained the standard awkward questions and standard ass-kissing. I really wish the panel could have lasted all afternoon. An hour wasn’t nearly enough to hear all that these effects gurus had to say. It was a real honor to share a space with these gentlemen.

But the next panel, well that was one I had been waiting for all damn week.

At 12:30, Irvin Kershner took the stage.

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Kershner is one of the greatest heroes of the entire 30 year saga of Star Wars. He was a film teacher at USC, who had a special student named George. Years later, when George hit it big, he called his old teacher and asked a simple question:

“Do you want to direct the Star Wars sequel?

Kersh said no.

He didn’t want to do it. The first film was such a success, he didn’t want to be party to a film that was destined to not be as good. After some back and forth, and some heavy prodding by his agent, Kershner said yes.

He would direct The Empire Strikes Back.

The people that do not think that Empire is the best thing to ever happen to Star Wars are in the minority. And definitely in this room. Mr. Kershner entered to a thunderous standing ovation. He doesn’t do many of these things. Actually, I don’t think he’s ever done any. But he sat down and told us about making The Empire Strikes Back.

I won’t bore you with all the details, but the man is one hell of a storyteller. A lot of the tales he told were in the “Empire of Dreams” documentary or the commentary track for ESB, but when he told them live, they were much more elaborate and detailed.

He talked about the difficulties of filming with Yoda, and how he used to have nightmares that having Luke Skywalker talk to a Muppet wouldn’t work at all. He spoke of the trickery used by him and Lucas to keep ESB’s surprise ending a real surprise. And my favorite story, he talked about the greatest line in movie history:

“I know.”

Most of the story is widely known, about how Kersh wasn’t satisfied with the line in the script (“I love you, too.”), how he kept the crew long past lunch to get it right, and how the final line was actually an improv from Harrison Ford, born out of frustration. What I had never heard him tell before was Lucas’s reaction to the line, and the back and forth battle they had to keep it. Eventually Kershner had to show the film in front of an audience, with his version of the scene, for Lucas to admit that the line played.

I feel like such a kiss ass today, but it’s not like I’m talking about Jake Lloyd or the guy who played Jar-Jar Binks. This is the guy who directed Empire. I just…I don’t have the words for how great it was.

As soon as that was over, I bolted upstairs, for, already in progress, was a discussion with Ben Burtt. Ben Burtt is the man behind pretty much EVERY sound you’ve ever heard in a Star Wars film. He puts the hum in the lightsaber. The whine in the TIE Fighter. And the twang in the blaster bolts. Most famously, he’s the voice of Artoo Detoo.

Burtt was first hired in 1976 by Lucas to create a voice for Chewbacca, and his job just snowballed from there. He is one of the great artists of acoustic sounds, and one of the most important pioneers of motion picture sound design. His panel was a little dry if you’re not into filmmaking. Walkouts are common at these things, but it seemed that everyone in the place with a child under 16 left after fifteen minutes. I don’t know what the kids were doing in an interview about sound design anyway. “Mom, forget the Jedi Academy thing. I want to see Ben Burtt.” Is probably not a sentence that happens often. I enjoyed the hell out of it.

Three panels, seven men that I admire very much. The big weakness of CIV so far has been its guest list. No Hamill. No Warwick Davis. No George. But today was a good day for me and celebrity guests.

Tomorrow, though, I’m ready for the pimpiniest guest of all.

That’s right.

Billy D.

Here’s some more pics.

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2011

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Thoughts and Reflections: Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope

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First Seen by Me: Network television debut. Hosted by Billy Dee Williams from the Mos Eisley Cantina. 1979-1980ish. My living room. Cambridge, OH.

Known Aliases: Star Wars Star Wars, The First One, The one that Changed our Lives

Favorite Image: Hard to pick one, but every single time I see the Millennium Falcon swooping down out of the Sun to save Luke’s tail with a rousing “Yahoo!” I get goose-bumps. Every. Single. Time. Since I was 4.

Runner Up: Luke and Leia swinging across the Death Star chasm.

Favorite Line: “I find your lack of faith disturbing.”

Best Obscure Character: While I love Porkins, I can’t get over the fact that Red Leader’s name was Dave. (If you already knew this, award yourself one nerd cookie.)

Biggest Sins: 1977 Version, none. 1997 Version: Greedo shoots first. 2004 Version: Greedo and Han shoot at the same time.

The O’Williams Factor: It’s got to be the theme for this one. Blows your hair back as those titles come up. The pause between “A Long Time Ago…” and the music cue seems to last an eternity even, today.

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There was this Thing out there, but I hadn’t seen it. By the time I was 4, it was already part of the pop culture, the “Force” part of the lexicon. I had seen commercials for stuff related to it. I had seen toys in the stores. I knew some other kids who had seen it, but I had not.

Then, one night, I don’t remember what year, Star Wars came on television.

The broadcast was hosted by Billy Dee Williams (he of malt liquor fame), so I’m guessing it showed some time after Empire came out. I can’t seem to find any reference online to when the network premiere was, but I think that’s what I saw.

It was a revelation. I sat in front of the television, awe-struck. At first, just the fact that I was watching Star Wars was amazing to me. But then, the movie started. Good or bad, it altered my life. I have no doubt it’s why I live in Los Angeles today, trying to make movies. I have no conscious memory of thinking “Gee, I want to make movies” back then, but I know it was the seed of a very tall and frustrating tree.

I still have images in my head from that night. Of the Cantina sequence, mostly, and of the trash compactor. Luke and Leia swinging across the chasm. When you’re a kid, it’s that kind of stuff that stands out. And, of course, there’s that glorious opening shot, when the Star Destroyer just flies over your head. My first dose of John Williams, mainlined straight into the vein. My parents, Yoda bless ‘em, let me stay up to watch the whole thing. Han Solo flying down out of the sun to save the day still ranks up there as one of the great moments of my childhood.

I didn’t see the original Star Wars, known to us now as Episode IV: A New Hope, in theaters until the release of the Special Editions in 1997. My younger brother and I did have a tape of all three films back in the day. We’d come home from school and press play. Star Wars lead into Empire, which lead into Jedi. If we got to the end, we’d just rewind it and start over. When it was time for dinner, we’d hit stop, then start playing it again the next day from the same spot.

I cannot count how many times I have seen the original film. My guess would have to be several hundred times, but even that seems too modest. It could be close to a thousand. I’m watching it again right now as I type this.

So, I guess, after 30 years, after the Special editions, after puberty, after the prequels, after film school, after being Hollywood’s bitch for eight years, the question is does Star Wars stand up?

I still think it is one of the greatest films of all time.

If you’re reading this, odds are you agree. I could go and bash some of the Special Edition changes, of which I like most and hate a few, but that’s been done. If you look on this site, I’m sure you can find Gnoll bitching about it somewhere. I could get into how the prequels have tarnished the original. Many people believe that, but not me.

What I’ll do is just mention my favorite thing about A New Hope.

My favorite thing about Star Wars is that, the first time you see it, you have no fucking clue what’s happening.

That’s it. That’s my favorite thing. We come in mid-story. There is no attempt to explain a damn thing. We’re dropped down into the middle of a galaxy wide civil war.

With spaceships

and a Dark Knight

and a Wizard

and magic swords

and co-dependant robots

and Peter Cushing

and a Princess

and midgets with glowing red eyes

and some big ass monkey called a Wookiee.

What’s a power converter? What’s a Hyperdrive? What’s a Moff? How does a ‘speeder’ work? What is a Dantooine? What is a droid?

What the hell is going on here? Where are we?

Everything is treated as if we already know what’s going on and if we don’t catch up, then that’s our loss. The story will go on without us.

That’s the genius of George Lucas circa 1977.

And that’s all I have to say. I will love this film until the day I die.

Oh.

One more thing.

Han shot first.

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Tomorrow. CIV Day….fuck. What day? Day Five. Yeah. I’ll write about seeing more stuff and take some more pictures of stuff.

I’ll also put in my two cents on a little film called The Empire Strikes Back.

Here’s a preview:

It fucking rules.

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