SFX

Star Wars Movies Need to be Period Pieces

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The costumes! The weapons! The Hair!

To me when I think of Star Wars I think special effects, Chewbacca, Darth Vader, and sideburns. What? Let me explain.

I finally got around to re-watching The Force Awakens last week. I found it fairly entertaining the first time, but during the second viewing I was a little bored. I am not sure why and it is not a wholesale indictment of the film, my disliking it. There was something off. Perhaps it was the vague whiff of rehash of a New Hope. Or maybe I couldn’t ignore the echoing howls from fans demanding a romance between characters. No offense folks, but I paid to see a Space Opera not a Soap Opera.

However I realized between the first and second watching of The Force Awakens there is a certain amount of aesthetic authenticity missing in this nascent cinema go-around. Yes, The Force Awakens looked sort of like Star Wars IV, V, VI in costumes, but the blasters were a weird mix of cheap plastic feather-light Nerf props and weird 21st century video-game plasma melee weapons. The new Stormtroopers looked like an advance generation of the classic design, so that worked. Same for the new X-Wings and pilot jumpsuits. Then what was off, aesthetically? Everything. Yes, I know The Force Awakens takes place some 30 years after Jedi and only Rogue One and the other spin-offs take place in the same time frame as the “original” trio. Let me explain.

First off, this is not an indictment of lens flare or director choice color pallets; nor a complaint about casting or even the basic plot. My beef is the original Star Wars movies- New Hope, Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi- weren’t movies conjured from a galaxy far, far away. No, they were creations of aesthetics of the 1970s and very early 1980s. This is vitally important to understanding why for some of us, the new films seem a little off and we can’t put our finger on why. Go back and watch the Star Wars prequels. For all their issues, they are films that look kind of like Star Wars but not really. They crib from the design sheet of the original trilogy but lack the production/costume/makeup/hair continuity to them. Stylistically it would make sense to have pushed the aesthetic to the dawn of the space age, say the early 1960s. Instead they look like late 1990s movies.

But back to aesthetics, let me show you.

Via starwarsscreencaps.com

The above image of Luke and Aunt Beru is vintage 1970s. Hair especially. Clothes, like Beru’s wide collar farmer print shirt and denim smock, are products of costume designs of the 1970s. Now, remember, its about aesthetics.

                                                     Via NotShallow.org

Above is a classic denim ad from a department store catalog. Bits and pieces of these everyday clothes could have easily been thrown on working class extras at Mos Eisley or blue milk farmers.

via Starwarsscreencaps.com

Here, in the infamous scene where we see Vader encounter skeptical techno-crats, the style of the Star Wars universe is directly influenced by the aesthetic of the 1970s. Gloss black table, probably plastic, and the single piece chairs are the sleek yet dated decor of four decades ago. They work because they are objects out of time. Also, notice the hair again. By example, here is a 1970s coffee table.

       Via Panomo.com

Very Star Wars like, no?

via Starwarsscreencaps.com

Finally, the Cantina. This is 1970s barroom at its most glorious. Plastic race-track top, padded bumpers and a kit-bashed appearance that made a New Hope so different. It was design in a messy way. It was the original shabby-chic. One part production design, one part budgetary constraints.

So, my point is this…if you want to make a aesthetically authentic, therefore subconsciously pleasing Star Wars film without having to slavishly meet the needs of fandom, production and costume design the movie as if you were making a film in the 1970s or even early 1980s, about a story set in a distant time. Think coarse polyester and rotary phones, think American Hustle or Studio 54; and expunge touchscreens or cellphones from your creativity memory. Future Star Wars movies need to aesthetically echo the time the universe was originally created, not just mirror a design philosophy in perpetuity. A copy of a copy gets dull with each pass.

 

 

VICE: Phil Tippett’s My Life in Monsters

In the pantheon of VFX greats, Phil Tippett is one of the last man standing greats in the industry. I grew up knowing his work intimately and by a briefest glance. His work on all of the Star Wars, RoboCop, Dragon Slayer and beyond inspired my own creativity and imagination. His honesty in the following mini-doc is eye opening and refreshing.

 

Institutional Knowledge Lost: Rick Baker Retires

bakerwerewolfRick Baker is a legend, a key face on the Mount Rushmore of make-up and special FX practioners. Men like Baker, Savini, Bottin, Harryhausen, Edlund and Winston were rock stars to me as a kid. I knew their work by heart, each bringing a new discipline or creative take to the cinema. Recently, Baker announced his retirement from make-up effects work. It is sad news for the movie industry, but not entirely unexpected.

If you are a regular reader, you know I am not a huge fan of digital special effects. I can count on one hand CGI films that I actually like- Jurassic Park I because CGI was innovative- as an example. Now digital effects are cheap, washed out, deny basic laws of physics and end up blurring the line between animation/video game/live action for the worse.

Baker leaves at the twilight of practical FX, even as directors like Miller, Nolan and Blomkamp attempt to keep it alive. Undercut by digital effects, the art of the practical, hands on artistry of Baker and cohorts is being shuffled into the warehouse of movie history.

That is a damn shame.

Yes, even I admit many make-up effects of the “good old days” were not always convincing, but they were always remarkable, striking and look like effort went into creating them. The minute servos, motors, hand milled articulated miniature, tiny air bladders, unique mixtures of resins or rubbers, and the fine work of stop-motion, all had a workman quality to them. They were achievable, with lots of practice, but were never so easy that they should be taken for granted.

When talents like make-up artists and practical effects artists work now, they are almost novelties or boutique projects crowdfunded or paid for out of their own pockets. I would watch a personal short film made by any FX great if it adheres to the old ways of film making. All effects types and disciplines have their place, but to lose a generation of artists to cost cutting or puerile ideas of what “looks good” is a travesty. Watch American Werewolf in London for the ultimate transformation scene. Admire the photographic tricks of the campy, but technical superior, Mighty Joe Young. These were the old ways. Not always the best, but always earnest and beautiful.

Now we live in a digital age where eyes of television and movie viewers, raised on a generation of video games and simple CGI, are used to the physics defying perfectly polished. Atmospheric distortion, motion blur and articulation that adhere to physiology are almost entirely lost in this new special effects world.

Baker and his colleagues operated in the strictly physical world. If it didn’t fit on or around an actor, then they did it miniature or in stop-motion. Arduous and time consuming was the work of Baker. It was artistic and beautiful in craftsmanship.

The film making craft has gotten a little less hands-on and a lot less smart with Baker’s departure from the industry.