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Larry Cuba's work on Star Wars
The Sequence as in Star Wars
The Rebel Alliance, having finally retrieved R2-D2, plug him into the main computer where the Death Star plans are downloaded. As the schematic image of the Death Star appears on the screen the film dissolves to a later meeting among the rebel fleet as they plan to attack the death star. The Leader outlines the plan of attack:
Ben Burtt, the film's sound designer, was assigned the task of getting word around town that George Lucas needed someone to create a Death Star simulation and track down bids for the work. Computer algorithmic artist Larry Cuba competed against a couple of other burgeoning computer effects teams to propose how he could accomplish the 3D animation. Cuba had made some pioneering films in this field, including his then-most-recent work on John Whitney Sr.'s Arabesque (1975).[a 1] Lucas was impressed by Cuba's association with Whitney, as well as Cuba's first CG film First Fig, to give him the job.
“Computer graphics was advanced enough back then to even show shaded models,” said Electronic Visualization Laboratory (EVL) Director Jason Leigh. “[…] George said, ‘Actually we want to take it a step back’ because the general public wasn't fully aware of what computer graphics was yet, so he wanted a more iconic image of computer graphics as opposed to a polished version of it. So, what you saw in the film was actually three generations back of software that we had already developed." Cuba added, "When George Lucas specified the kind of animation he wanted for the scene, he knew enough about computer animation to ask for a true perspective without the 'hidden' lines removed. He wanted the trench and the Death Star to appear as wire cage figures with all the lines and vertices visible. George thought that this sort of image would suggest 'computer animation' by having a very mechanical look." Lucas recalls it differently on the 2004 Star Wars commentary, saying,
"the computer image on the screen is really one of the first computer images used in a feature film. It was created on a computer. It wasn't traditional animation, that's real computer animation. And that's sort of the level that it was at that point, when I made this movie."
Cuba designed storyboards from the description of the scene in the script as well as photographs given to him by Lucas and associates. “A lot of what Larry did was give them photographs, because a lot of the set pieces weren't actually built yet. They had line drawings or they had photographs of things they were going to do, or they had architectural drawings of what they were going to build,” said Steve Heminover, a former UIC student from the 1970s. “And he sat down with these photographs, and he measured them, and then we put them on a digitizing tablet, and actually traced over the actual photograph, and he had to assume what the third dimension was. Or sometimes we had side shots. But some of these were set pieces that were built, some of them weren't built.”
Cuba worked on the animation in the Circle Graphics Habitat in the University of Illinois, Chicago (UIC). Cuba designed modified a 2D drawing program that used a vector graphics scripting language called GRASS (GRAphics Symbiosis System), written by Tom DeFanti for his 1974 Ph.D. thesis at Ohio State University in 1974, to allow for the input of a third Z-axis for every point entered on the digitizing tablet, creating a 3D representation of the Death Star surface. The system he used incorporated a Vector General computer with CRT monitor, DEC PDP-11 minicomputer (specifically the PDP 1145), along with a standard Mitchell 35mm camera rigged with an animation motor.
Cuba worked night and day for 12 weeks to produce 2 minutes of film, 40 seconds of which appeared in the final film sequence. The computer would make one frame, Cuba would shoot it on film, then repeat the process for roughly 2000 exposures. "I couldn't get the computer to run continuously to make the shot—it kept crashing," he said.
The finished animation was originally intended to be rear-projected onto the screen during the May 1976 shoots of the briefing room, but the reduced production deadlines made that impossible.[a 2]
Traditional hand-animation was added to complete the computer animation. For example, hand-animation was done for the final four seconds of the bomb entering the Death Star exhaust port and exploding as well the little triangular ship dropping the bomb and some of the flashing arrows. This was completed by John Wash at Image West.
One original Death Star set piece that was built for the trench sequence hangs on the wall in the lab at UIC today. “So, in this shot, from the original Star Wars, you can see four copies of our piece of the Death Star, making up the surface of the Death Star, flying across it during the film,” said Andrew Johnson, Associate Professor of Computer Science at UIC and member of the EVL. “At the time when we received it, of course, it really wasn't worth anything because no one knew that George Lucas was going to be that famous, and you know after the special effects were done they left it behind, and they promptly left and they forgot all about it,” said Leigh. “It has been here for over 30 years.”
Another piece of cinematic history that stayed in Chicago is the actual Vector General computer that was used to produce the Death Star animation. For over 25 years, Heminover has kept it housed in his South Side workshop.The disk pack actually holds the Death Star plans from the 1970s. It holds about 2.5 megabytes of data which was a lot for back then. Heminover said a lot of special effects for movies were done on those computers. “We did effects for several movies. Some sciencefiction, some regular, and a lot of the times the movies didn't go anywhere,” he said. “And then the Star Wars script came in and we looked at it, and ‘OK, this could just be another one,’ and Larry Cuba went and did all the work, and all of a sudden bam! We had a blockbuster on our hands.”
And, the lab that was responsible for creating one of the most pivotal Star Wars special effects ever, continues to inspire computer scientists today. “What I did was, you just put a palm, a big touch, a palm on the screen, and then this menu pops up, and I can press and drag, and bring ships into the battle,” said UIC graduate student Arthur Nishimoto. Nishimoto developed a touch screen strategy game called Fleet Commander, using ships and sound effects from one of his favorite sci-fi franchises: Star Wars. He even got an invite to visit Lucasfilm in California.
“We posted a video of it online, and within a week, it was getting upwards of 700,000 hits on YouTube,” said Nishimoto. “And, as a matter of fact, the following day, I had received two separate e-mails from guys: one from Lucasfilm that had seen the video and basically was like, ‘Hey, could we talk?’”
Peter Kirn of Create Digital Motion writes of Cuba's Death Star animation, "[…] to me, these graphics don’t look primitive; they look elemental, much in the same way that you don’t get tired of ancient Egyptian art. (And in the timeline of computer graphics, it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine thousands of years of art history happening in a few decades.)".
Cuba's animation was at once innovative, prophetic, and superbly effective as storytelling. It was the first extensive use of 3D animation to be seen in a major motion picture. It predicted the future of films that would be created completely in the computer, especially so in light of the Star Wars prequels. The sequence also effectively sets up the final climax of the 1977 film so that audience are never disoriented during the frenetic space dogfights.
Sample Size Quantization
Linear PCM: Linear Pulse-Code Modulation; A digital representation of an analog signal. LPCM is a specific type of PCM where quantization levels are linearly uniform.
- Larry Cuba is credited for "Programming Assistance" in the Arabesque's credits.
- Many still refer to the sequence as having the animation being rear projected onto the screen even though this fact is false.
- Masson 2007, p. 402.
- Rubin 2006, p. 67.
- John Whitney Sr. (Director) (1975). Arabesque (Short Film).
- Kirn, Peter. "Larry Cuba, Star Wars' Death Star CG, Arabesque, and the Dawn of Computer Animation". Create Digital Motion. Retrieved 2014-03-20.
- Quraishi, Ash-har (May 23, 2013). "The Star Wars Connection". Chicago Tonight. WTTW. Retrieved 23 March 2014.
- Hutchinson, David. "The Digital Brush: An Interview With Star Wars Animator Larry Cuba". Creative Computing (May-June 1978 ed.). (Reprinted from Starlog, March 1978).
- Lucas, George (Director); Muren, Dennis (Special Effects) (2004). "(Chapter 42)". Star Wars (DVD AUDIO COMMENTARY; DISC 1/2; AUDIO 4/4). Lucasfilm.
- "GRASS (GRAphics Symbiosis System)". Electronic Visualization Lab. Chicago, Illinois: http://www.evl.uic.edu. January 1, 1981. Retrieved 2014-03-24.
- Rubin 2006, p. 72.
- Cuba, Larry. Making of the Computer Graphics for Star Wars: A Videotape by Larry Cuba (VIDEO). Chicago Graphics Circle, University of Illinois.
- Hearn, Marcus (2005). "A Galaxy Far, Far Away (1973–1977)". The Cinema of George Lucas (alk. paper ed.). New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams. pp. 117–118. ISBN 0-8109-4968-7.
- Masson 2007, p. 403.
- Masson 2007, p. 404.
- Dirks, Tim. "Greatest Visual and Special Effects (F/X) - Milestones in Film 1975-1979". AMC Filmsite. American Movie Classics Company LLC. Retrieved 26 March 2014.
The computer image they viewed was the first extensive use of animated 3-D computer animation (or CGI).
- Masson, Terrence (February 1, 2007). CG101: A Comptuer Graphics Industry Reference (Paperback, 2nd ed.). Digital Fauxtography. pp. 402–404. ISBN 978-0977871001.
- Rubin, Michael (2006). "4: The Star Wars". Droidmaker: George Lucas and the digital revolution (1st ed.). Gainesville, Florida: Triad Publishing. pp. 66, 67, 71–72. ISBN 978-0-937404-67-6.