May 3-D be with you
May 3-D be with you

You've seen all six movies, the re-released versions and the controversially added footage. You've bought the DVD box set, including the recently released Blu-ray bonanza.

What else is there for Star Wars creator George Lucas to do but take us back to that galaxy far, far away in high-tech 3-D. It opens worldwide next Thursday, when Episode I: The Phantom Menace hits cinemas in three eye-popping, ear-shattering dimensions.

"We're doing 3-D versions of all six films, one a year," producer Rick McCallum announced last year. "We start with Episode I and go all the way through six, totally chronological. One a year, if they work. If they don't, then there will be just one episode converted to 3-D."

In other words, Lucas and co are using Episode I - which has been converted to 3-D in post-production - as a crash test dummy to gauge audience interest before proceeding with the subsequent episodes. That means we'll see Jar Jar Binks in 3-D but not necessarily Han, Luke and Leia. It's a huge gamble, with Episode I seen as the weakest of the six films, albeit the most profitable at the box office.

While the move has added fuel to the fire against Lucas' constant tinkering with his Star Wars universe, the conversion to 3-D gives fans at least two things they've never had before.

The first is the chance to see all six films in the correct order, from Episode I to VI, the way Lucas originally intended them to be viewed. The second is the chance for young fans to see Star Wars on the big screen for the first time in their lives. Anyone under 12 has never had that opportunity.

"George (Lucas) really wanted to take the existing movie and make a 3-D version of it," says Dorne Huebler, an associate visual effects supervisor at Industrial Light and Magic.

"He didn't want to make a new movie."

Of course, Star Wars isn't the first 2-D film to jump to 3-D. We had The Lion King 3D last year, while Titanic and Finding Nemo enter that third dimension later this year. But in terms of viewer interest and loyal fan base, nothing can compare to the Star Wars hexalogy, which has banked a staggering $4 billion worldwide (not including DVD sales or merchandise).

Lucas has always intended to make the switch to 3-D but has been waiting for the technology to catch up. "It was incredibly important to me that we have the technology, the resources and the time to do this right," Lucas told the New York Times. "I'm very happy with the results of Episode I."

But the 3-D conversion is easier said than done. It's been 35 years since the original Star Wars movie (Episode IV) and 13 years since Episode I hit cinemas. Huebler says the main difficulty came in file formats between the first and second trilogies being very different.

"Programs were different too. So it was definitely a real challenge. We had to rely on live action shots with little or no supporting data. We made very minimal new assets. We didn't have to invent any procedures/tools, but internally, we had to work very differently. We had to work with huge volumes of material and have data for the right and left eye. It was a huge undertaking."

As such, the painstaking process was a joint effort between LucasFilm, ILM and conversion specialists Prime Focus, the company behind Tron: Legacy, Avatar and Clash of the Titans. They used their View-D system and a team of more than 1000 rotoscope artists in India, LA and London to complete the conversion. LucasFilm and ILM have kept details of manpower and cost typically secret.

"Prime Focus did a wonderful job finessing shots to make them as good as possible," Huebler says. "If you have a close-up on a person, for example, it's important that the bone structure of their face is represented in 3-D. If not, it can look warp-y. It's very important to get it right."

Fans will be happy to know that Lucas has tinkered very little with the films during the 3-D conversion, with only minor tweaks added to make the 3-D truly pop.

"One example is in the pod racing scene when Anakin reaches out for a magnetic wand to grab the gas line that is flying," Huebler explains. "When George saw this, he felt the original photography wasn't representative of 3-D depth. So we created a new element to the tip of the wand so it looks sharper and would come out at you more. It was a minimal change that really enhanced the depth of the scene."

"We were also very careful about not having the film look too dark in 3-D - which is a common complaint with 3-D films."

While Lucas and co have started preliminary 3-D work on Episode II, he'll wait for the box office result of Episode I to give the green light. He also has his hands full with the release of the live action film Red Tails, which LucasFilm produced, and a hotly rumoured live-action Star Wars series made for 3-D televisions. The Star Wars galaxy, it seems, continues to expand.

Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menance 3D opens February 9.

The West Australian

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