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4 Filmmaking Technologies That The Star Wars Universe Helped Take Mainstream
George Lucas is one of the geniuses of our time. And not only as a filmmaker.
Lucas's companies' technological breakthroughs, particularly those from Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) and Skywalker Sound, have influenced engineers and creatives worldwide, including in industries like aeronautics.
In film production, Lucas's innovations have opened up at least 3 major paradigm shifts that the world of cinema has followed.
When A New Hope premiered in 1977, it changed the film industry's fundamental relationship with visual effects and sound design. And Star Wars continues to do so nearly five decades later. Not bad for a film that no one initially wanted to finance. Here are just some examples of how the Star Wars franchise has helped new technologies go mainstream:
Star Wars Paradigm Shift #1: From Film to Digital Cameras
Digital photography rose in the 1990s, but no major film had been willing to use digital for motion photography. The cameras weren't good enough or reliable enough for the demands of film directors and their audiences
But George Lucas foresaw the benefits of making digital cameras good enough for the film. For 2002's film Attack of the Clones, the Lucasfilm team asked Sony to develop a digital camera that was as good as or better than a standard 35mm film. Sony, along with Panavision, delivered six prototype cameras capable of recording HD images at 24 frames per second.
With this, the team could replay footage instantly and could make quick decisions on set.
Attack of the Clones became the first studio film primarily shot digitally. It was like suddenly being able to do the Kessel Run in fewer parsecs. No wonder digital cameras were in massive demand after that.
Star Wars Paradigm Shift #2: CGI Characters
Did you know Jar Jar Binks was the first fully computer-generated supporting character in a live-action film with motion capture? Before George Lucas' 1999 feature, The Phantom Menace, no one had ever created a fake character with dialogue, character, plot, and a considerable amount of screen time.
This was a significant breakthrough as it allowed for the development of characters with physical features and facial expressions, paving the way for the next generation of movies.
ILM's efforts to create this fantastic character demonstrated something movie studios weren't willing to take a chance on before: CGI could be economical and realistic. The plan was for ILM to construct Jar Jar as a prosthetic costume on set with a digital head added later.
Fortunately, a comparison test examining the benefits of full CGI for the film laid the groundwork for the future of filmmaking.
Not A Paradigm Shift Per Se, But Still Awesome: 3D Holograms
Although George Lucas didn't invent 3D holograms, A New Hope educated viewers about what holograms were and the possibilities they carried. The enduring image of a 3D Princess Leia is iconic to this day. Holograms would become a recurring tool for Star Wars filmmakers, appearing regularly.
3D holograms are seen in many sci-fi movies, such as Iron Man, when Tony Stark interacts with the suit or his office's surroundings, or Back to the Future 2 when Marty McFly encounters a gigantic hologram of a shark promoting Jaws 19. On Blade Runner 2049, for example, we can see holographic versions of famous singers in an abandoned hotel.
ELVIS PRESLEY IN A SCENE FROM BLADE RUNNER 2049
We at SHOWRUNNER Studios recently used a Star Wars-style hologram ourselves in an all-virtual production television pilot, blending practical effects with the latest in-camera virtual effects.
Speaking of which...
Star Wars Paradigm Shift #3: From Greenscreen to LED Virtual Production
We know The Mandalorian is a great show—it remains the most-watched Star Wars streaming series as of this writing. For Star Wars fans, the series meant extending the world of their beloved film franchise. But for the media, the tech behind it established a fresh benchmark. That tech is called virtual production.
Movies can now be filmed anywhere by displaying a live picture with LED panels behind the performers, a departure from the rear-screen projection that has been used in films for decades.
ILM built a massive 75-foot-diameter circular LED soundstage to make the Star Wars series The Mandalorian. This vast space is utilized for motion capture and compositing and provides a full-rounded solution for virtual production; and has since been used to make Kenobi, The Book of Boba Fett, and Andor. The LED walls make the image look realistic, and the camera movements and settings affect the display.
And though virtual production had been an option for tech-forward filmmakers for some time before Star Wars, the making of The Mandalorian became a turning point in the film industry—an obvious example of the power of a new tool and a new way of making television.
We're in the middle of this third paradigm shift right now, and so far, filmmakers are finding that well-planned virtual production saves money and it's better for actors that don't like working in front of green screens.
It's one more example of how the Star Wars universe continues to break paradigms and inspires creators to embrace the future of filmmaking.
Who knows what paradigm Star Wars will shift next? But it's a fair bet that the film world will take cues from it again.