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June 15, 2009

For God’s Sake The Problem With The Star Wars Prequels Was Not Green Screen

— Posted by John Campea

[Rant] Anyone who has read or listened to The Movie Blog for any period of time knows that I am a Star Wars fanatic. Seeing the original with my mother in the movie theater is my earliest childhood memory. My first pet cat I named Luke Skywalker. I played the Star Wars Role Playing Game (and not the crappy D20 version either… I played the TRUE D6 West End Games system. Gotta love the wild die!).

Go ahead… ask me how many rebel ships attacked the first Death Star. Bet you don’t know off the top of your head. It’s 30 bitches! :)

The point is, I love Star Wars. However, as most of you also know, I (like most people on the planet) were deeply disappointed with the prequels and that piece of shit animated movie they’ve put out over the last few years. Now all three prequesl had their moments… and I even liked Revenge of the Sith ok… but come one… this is STAR WARS!!!! The greatest film franchise in the history of cinema! It should have been so much more. So much better. So much less Jar Jar.

But one of the things that really bothers me in the anti-Star Wars wave that’s been going on the last few years (much of which is quite deserved) is the nonsensical way that a lot of people have blindly pointed the finger at the technology as being the problem. I’ve heard so many people lament and whine over the years about how Green Screen ruined the Star Wars franchise. That somehow modern technology take creativity and imagination OUT of the filmmaking process. That computers sapped the imagination out of Star Wars.

This (to put it in technical terms) is absolute bullshit.

This picture below has been making it’s way around the web today, supposedly illustrating the reason why the new Star Wars films were so much weaker than the originals. People have been commenting on the picture about how it symbolizes everything that was wrong with the prequels too… which is ridiculous.

Lucas-Green-Screen.jpg

Is anyone going to look at me with a straight face and tell me that the Pod Race scene in The Phantom Menace (one of the few good scenes in the movie) would have looked better with models instead of CGI? Not a chance. Can you say anything LOOKED better in the original movie than they did in the prequels? No, obviously not.

Oh sure, the nostalgic side of us would have liked to see the old Yoda puppet waddling around, but let’s call a spade a spade. The CGI Yoda looked and moved and “acted” a whole lot better than the puppet did. Don’t get me wrong, the puppet was fine back in the 80′s when that was the best option. But the CGI Yoda moved and breathed, had facial expression and an actual performance. It was, in every way, shape and form a better way to do Yoda.

But here’s the problem… a lot of people seem to confuse WHAT they decided to do with Yoda, with HOW they decided to do it. Using CGI and green screen was by far the superior way to do Yoda… but that’s just the tool. WHAT they decided to do with Yoda (his words, his actions) has nothing to do with the tool. The tool just offers options and the means of carrying out the WHAT.

Yes, there is something beautifully nostalgic about the old models they used to create the Star Wars universe, but they were the tools of the time. The magic of Star Wars wasn’t the tools. It was how they used the tools, the story the tools were used to tell. The imagination didn’t come from the tools, the tools just gave Lucas’ imagination an outlet for making it to the screen.

The tools today have changed, advanced, given filmmakers more options and FREED their imaginations to go beyond previous limitations. But like before, the imagination does not COME from the tools, nor do the tools create or limit the story. They are simply the vehicles used by filmmakers to express their creativity and imagination.

If puppet Yoda said or did something stupid, it wasn’t because he was a puppet. If CGI Yoda said or did something stupid, it wasn’t because he was CGI. He just LOOKED better saying or doing the stupid thing than he would have as a puppet.

It frustrates me a little bit when I hear some of the exact same people who lament the use of green screen and CGI technology in Star Wars then turn around and talk about how much they loved the new Star Trek (special effects done by ILM by the way… Lucas’ company), or talk about how fantastic James Cameron’s new film will be (all using heavy fx technology). How do you think they made Star Trek? Lord of the Rings? Transformers? Spider-Man? X-Men? Harry Potter? Jurassic Park? Etc. etc. etc.

Anyone who watched the very impressive DVD features for the Star Wars prequels know just how much physical visual effects and models were still used for the films. Those arts are still there… but some things call for the use of newer tools.

The bottom line is this: If there are weaknesses and mistakes in the Star Wars prequels (there are tons of them), then the fault does not lay with the tools Lucas decided to use to tell his story. The problem was the story and the story teller himself. The problems with the prequels are legion… but the tools used in the prequels are not one of them.

So let’s not put the blame (even symbolically) at the feat of technology in the film business. Quite the contrary, if you enjoy summer blockbusters or any modern effects heavy film, you should be on your knees and thanking whatever god you worship for the advances George Lucas and his companies have made in the areas of technology for film over the years. Bad effects don’t make good movies, great effects don’t make good movies. Good movies make good movies, the tools just help the process. [/Rant]

Problem-With-Star-Wars.jpg

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  • Pat

    George Lucas said it best: “A special effect is just a tool…”

    The problem with today’s movie-making(and especially George Lucas) is that people design their movies around the special effects in order to impress the audience into seeing the film. Special effects should be there when they’re needed, not looked at as an assumed part of these types of movies.

    The problem with the prequels is that the creative focus was so heavily based on graphics and visual action, Lucas never bothered to employ other techniques to tell his story. The green screen ends up being the star of the movies. The script is so poorly written that it drags the actors’ performances down. This leads to them being overshadowed by the amazing visuals going on around them. While they’re standing still and talking about whatever, I find my eyes are drawn away from them to the highly animated CGI backgrounds in almost every scene. These movies are literally a series of computer animated action scenes punctuated by a few live action dialogues. The story is so incoherent, you could reorganize the scenes at random and it would have the same impact.

  • jojo

    WTF?!!!There were already Blue Screen back when the original trilogy was shot (hey do you know how they could have pulled together thousand of models for Death Star II Battle without blue screen and Computer Motion Control?) (not to mention the holographic Death Star plans were Primitive CGI at the time)!!!!

    What’s the point of this fuck*n rant?!!!By the way, you can make a CGI looked like a model with depths and way more possibilities than all the things your nostalgia is blinding you about…Prelogy s*cks primarily by its poor dramaturgy and dumb acting direction. Nuff’ said

  • sneeson

    I have not read all the above comments so I apologise if this has been covered but the problem is not GREEN-SCREEN. The problem is that instead of using good writing, ingenuity and creativity George Lucas has gotten used to saying “We’ll put some CG in later” thinking that that can replace good writing and acting.

  • tzaylor

    This is an old post but I’m bored. The title should be “the problem with the prequels is not JUST green screen”. The main point of John’s article is that yes the prequels sucked, but not because of green screen. Uh, yes they did suck because of green screen. But they also sucked because of the screenplay, cast, and direction.

    Where I work the prequels are playing on tv’s all day. The CGI is NOT holding up well. Looks more like a cartoon than live action.

    I don’t blame Lucas at all for trying to push the technology envelope for his baby. Too bad it didn’t work out for us fans though.

  • jon humphlett

    People aren’t really saying that GL made inferior stories because he had access to better tools. They’re saying he got distracted by the new, shiny tools and forgot to tell a story. Big difference.

  • http://dan-lee.net Dannyboy

    30 bitches attacked the Death Star?

    Commas are an important tool. Learn to use them.

    • http://veronicathefilmcritic.blogspot.com Veronica

      LOL. Still laughing.

    • Rick

      Fucken LOL!!!!!

  • http://deleted Bill Clay

    You’re missing a key factor about green screen in this discussion, John: it limits what the camera can do, and constricts actor’s performances (witness Terrence Stamp having to act with a stick one day of shooting because Natalie Portman had the day off – can you honestly say greenscreen doesn’t matter in circumstances like that?).

    Part of the charm of the original trilogy is Lucas’s so-called “lived in universe” theory of building the world around his actors by way of scuffed-up sets and dirty, real-world feel technology. Just think of any shot in the first trilogy of the Millennium Falcon, of how the camera would move through the set, how the actors would interact with it, how everything onboard the ship looked like it had been spit out of a space slug: none of that is easy with greenscreen and much of it, particularly how the camera moves, is impossible. This “lived-in universe” was totally absent in the prequels, partly because of it’s “Golden Age” of the Republic setting, but also because of the sets that were built (many were not) each was only partially built and had to be digitally extended in post.

    Greenscreen sets often force the director to compose shots in a more static and straightforward manner to facilitate the digital extension, limit his camera movements, and all but eliminates standard coverage. Moreover, it forces director’s to shoot exclusively to storyboard. Even the editing process is hamstrung by being made to cut with only your digitally enhanced footage (in other words, you can’t swap out a shot at the last minute for a better take, because the better take is a greenscreen).

    Sure, a great director and cast can compensate for these limitations, but the prequels had neither going for them. Maybe it isn’t solely to blame for the prequels (I would pin that on Lucas’s financial security, which put him in a position where he was able to choose not to collaborate with anyone in any phase of the storytelling, which he did so well in the trilogy, when he was forced to over schedule and money concerns) but greenscreen didn’t do much to help.

  • Kimball

    I agree that the biggest problem about the prequels was not the green screen. If Lucas had eliminated Jar-Jar, replaced Hayden Christensen and Samuel L. Jackson with actors that actually have talent, and had someone who can write good dialogue pen the script, I think the prequels would have been 1000% better and none of us would be complaining about how Lucas raped our childhood. Having said that, I have always felt that the overuse of green screen CGI was one of the weaknesses of the films (not the biggest, but definitely a factor). To me, it took away any semblance of reality to the world. And, yes, I understand this is a fantasy story in a galaxy far, far away on alien plants. But look at the original films–they felt real because many of the effects were practical. Now, I’m not saying that Lucas should have only used practical effects and completely avoided CGI. As John said, there are many things you just can’t do without a computer. But when the only real-life objects on the screen are the human characters, you know you’ve crossed the line and strayed way too far into CGI Land. As with many things in life, balance and moderation is the key.

    • http://veronicathefilmcritic.blogspot.com Veronica

      Couldn’t agree more. I actually do think the models looked more real (because they were objects that were photographed) and had more depth than any of the CGI. If CGI is necessary for telling a story then it usually works, but the original Star Wars movies proved that Star Wars doesn’t need that much CGI. I concede that the speed race would not have been possible, but I also disliked that part of the film immensely, so could have done without it.

      Laughing at the “raping our childhood” comment.

  • voloap

    an example of over using CG…

    the clone troopers! how come temuera morrison’s face was always cg in the third one when they couldve just use the actual actor… and i have to agree with some of the other posts, its not about nostalgia, the sets and some of the aliens looked alive in the original… even when you watch it now… the star destroyers, the death star, all of them looked like they were actually there. someone mentioned that he liked the look of th naboo fighter, well john, phantom menace used alot of models compared to the last 2.. and the pod racers, alot of those hots weren’t cg. they actual models! thats why they looked great! (except of course when they would crash, those were cg. but still looked great because it was mixed in with actual models.

  • Joe

    I was looking at the photos more or less as a commentary on the “anti-star wars trend” ie: its the number of fans (or friends?) that Lucas has now compared to then.

    I do agree with you, it was the story that killed it more than the technology, however, just to play devils advocate, if you watch A New Hope, the effects still hold up pretty well after all these years. Put Phantom Menace in your DVD and those groovy CGI affects just don’t look so sharp as they did when the film came out. I don’t think the effects of the prequels stand up to the “test of time” like the originals do.

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