Monday, July 12, 2010

FILMMAKING: What George Lucas Did to Me - Part 1

I was only 13. How could I have known? I thought I was just going to the movies to see a new, exciting film that looked real cool in the commercials on TV, especially that gold robot. Little was I to know that a man named George Lucas was about to shape my life, and I would never be the same again.

Watching this movie was NOTHING like watching any movie I had seen before. It had the feel of a real place instead of a sterile movie environment like other space movies where everything was new and shiny. There were rusting and damaged spacecraft, broken down robots, dirt was in all the usual places of things that have been around, and only the bad guys were wearing real, proper space uniforms. This was a place I could believe in......and I did.

With the new motion control that was created to make the spaceships fly their movement was nothing like I had seen before. There was no indications of strings because, as I found out later, there were none. Chewbacca's mouth looked like it was part of a real face because it jutt out from it but it moved as if it were controlled by the actor inside the costume, and had everything a mouth should have instead of what you usually see on a mask. I knew I was in new territory.

After seeing Star Wars 5 times I had to know how everything was done. I quickly learned about Starlog magazine. It had a much different look and feel back then than it does now. There were great interviews with the people who made the movie, like Special Effects artist Dave Johnson, John Dykstra creating Motion Control camera equipment, Rick Baker who made a lot of the masks and costumes for the characters in the cantina scene, Kenny Baker who was inside R2-D2, Anthony Daniels, and more. There were great behind the scenes pictures too. These are images of my actual magazines from back in the day, which I still have, along with others I bought off of a friend. Click to see the images actual size.

I also learned about a new company, Industrial Light and Magic, that Lucas created in order to develop much of the technology used to be able to shoot Star Wars.

That was it. Something inside me "snapped" and this was what I wanted to do. I wanted to make movies.

For the next several years I read all issues of Starlog (I STILL have them), read Cinemagic magazine, a magazine for home filmmakers with our Super-8mm film cameras. There was neat information on how to do some special effects, camera direction, filmmaking pointers, and blurbs about other people's projects.

At 16 I met another Stars Wars nut, Terry. He and I hit it off immediately. The next thing we knew we were attending a Star Wars convention in Cleveland, Ohio, in costumes which we made ourselves, and we even did leather work to make the belts and blaster holsters. After the convention we started on our own space epic. This was after The Emprire Strikes Back had come out.

On top of a ping-pong table that laid on top of a pool table, we set up "shop." We were creating our own model spacehips by "kitbashing," where you use parts from a number of models (cars, ships, tanks, jets) to create a new piece of equipment, in this case spaceships. We also created a large "mothership" out of pine and balsa woods. Terry was building a balsa wood city. It met an unfortunate demise when he took it home to work on it and the rabbit that his girlfriend gave him for Easter ATE it! To my knowledge, this was the first city consumed by a bunny. Below is an instamatic picture of the wooden mothership under construction and also a drawing of a set to include painted backgrounds and molded hills.

I did pyrotechnic experiments with black powder. I put a small pile on a piece of wet carboard that had a small hole in it. I then covered the black powder with baking powder (baking soda is not white enough) and then lit a match and stuck the flame up through the hole in the wet cardboard. The black powder flashed and put up a tiny mushroom cloud. How cool! The baking powder was burnt as if hit by a laser strike. Yeah, we were on our way.

Sometimes we worked on the project after getting off from my dishwashing job and Terry's pizza making job at 2:00 AM. We would work in the basement of my parent's house until he had to go home to get ready for church in the morning.

We even shot an "experimental reel" of special effects. We built balsa wood buildings, scored the sides so that they would splinter, and then blew them up. First we blew one up with a firecracker. When we watched it on screen, the building was there, then it wasn't. No "high speed" cameras for us. We also tried putting a small pile of black powder on top of the firecracker, covering part of the fuse so that it would light first. We figured we would get a fireball and THEN the explosion. The timing did not work that way. The black powder flashed, the building lifted up and then settled back down, then the firecracker made it disappear again.

Oddly enough, this is a missing reel of film. Neither Terry or I can find it anywhere, even back then. We suspect Industrial Light and Magic felt we were getting too close and they stole it.

Wanting to make movies but not wanting to go to college, or moving from Ohio to California, meant I would not be making movies, or working for George, anytime soon. What I did do, though, was to continue to research filmmaking from then until now. I read books of all kinds, watched and studied many movies, and when DVD's came out I watched the making of the films and watched the films with the commentary with insight from the movie's Director, SFX technician, sound men, and others involved in the making of the film. The internet has also proven to be an invaluable source of info.

In the 1990's I started making my own replicas of the props from the Star Wars movies, mostly the same way George's were made. This is where I will begin Part 2, which will also include my involvement in writing screenplays, getting them copyrighted, and starting my filming career.

- Steve Olander

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  1. That's really cool that he inspired you the way he did - that's one thing I love about movies - how they can completely change someones life!

    I want to see the video of all this and the picture of you and your friend in your Star Wars costumes! LOL!!!

  2. I had a picture of us in costume. I have no idea if I still do. He might, I don't know. I do have a pic of me in my Qui Gon Jinn costume, played by Liam Neison. I made it after "The Phantom Menace" came out, and I machined my own lightsabre for it.

    My life seems to have revolved around Star Wars in some aspect. The Matrix was the first movie to impact me in a similar way, though not to the same extent. It was something I could point to in explaining things about Zen that I have experienced, and are unable to be vocalized in a manner of comprehension. That's another subject though.

    In the end, this is all George's fault. LOL.

  3. Amazingly - I had that same Starlog magazine - sadly I ripped off the cover and pages of all the other magazines I had with any picture of Star Wars and put them on the wall of my room - the experience of that movie opening day - was not like anything I have seen since - lines of people in Tulsa Oklahoma were blocks long. Blocks. And the absolute shock of what was happening on screen - was something that I can't even begin to tell people today about - it was something that had never been seen before - ever. Nor imagined. That has never happened again in my movie experience - I think the only shift like that would be in the future when 3D becomes a 4D experience and we can reach and look around a movie in a theater - that's what the experience would be like. What an experience I am so glad to have been a participate in/with. Can't wait for your part 2.