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[ Homing Beacon #145 - 2005-09-15 ]
[ The Evolution of Space Battles ]
As the digital future began to unveil itself in the early '90s, John Knoll saw its potential. ILM was constantly innovating, using their high-end systems to produce the CGI effects that wowed audiences in The Abyss, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Jurassic Park. These astounding visuals required a robust processing pipeline to produce, but Knoll saw advantages in creating relatively simple digital effects outside that pipeline.

"I developed a bit of a frustration that we didn't have a particularly good way of doing simple work inexpensively," explains Knoll. "I started becoming an advocate of trying to use inexpensive off-the-shelf commercial systems for doing simple work. Use the complicated stuff for the complicated work, and do the simple stuff with simple tools."

To that end, Knoll produced a convincing proof-of-concept test in 1993 of dog-fighting X-wing fighters and TIE fighters, all done with off-the-shelf desktop tools. "Nothing happened for quite a while, until 1995 when George Lucas decided that he was going to revamp the Star Wars pictures a little bit," recalls Knoll. "I pitched doing the revised space battle using some of these techniques."

The end result was a number of updated space battle shots done entirely on consumer-level computers. It worked so well that similar techniques and tools were used for Episode I. "I spent a lot of time studying the 'style book' of Star Wars -- the way the shots were lit, the way they were composed, how the movement of the ships worked -- because I felt it was very important that the new space battles still feel like Star Wars," says Knoll.

The digital models allowed the color and shapes of the ships to move past the restrained bluescreen-friendly designs of optically printed models, but for Episode I, they weren't all digital. The massive Trade Federation battleships were hulking miniatures to capture the detail required of them. "The big ships I still did as a miniature, because at the time I was really concerned with how heavy this model would be. A model like this could easily become several million CVs [surface control vertices], so I had grave concerns of being able to render something like that."

Now fast forward to Episode III. Not only are the ILM computers able to handle the complex geometry of something as big and detailed as a Trade Federation battleship, but they handle thousands of warships in battle over Coruscant, with detail so fine that the snubfighters and audience can fly right up to them, just a few meters above their hulls.

"I've definitely been a beneficiary of Moore's Law," says Knoll, describing the 1965 prediction that computer power will double every 18 months. "This time, it looked like we were capable of creating big ships all in computer graphics. We have advanced quite a bit in our ability to handle dense hard surface models and have very high resolution textures on them, and to be able to render them efficiently."

Whereas a few years ago, the scale of one ship would have required it to be a miniature, for Episode III the scale of the battle involving big ships meant it was much easier and more cost-effective to do it digitally. "It's a huge fleet," says Knoll. "There are many, many of these ships and you don't want to have to spend a lot of time on stage shooting 16 different model elements to go into shots. It's very expensive to do. Of course, it's a lot cheaper to do in computer graphics."

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