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Book Review: 'Creating the Worlds of Star Wars: 365 Days'

Peter Plantec explores with a host of artists why ZBrush 2 is changing the modeling landscape in the VFX world.

John Knoll is a visual effects supervisor at Industrial Light & Magic and one of the creators of Photoshop. He's been nominated three times for an Academy Award for his work. In his new book, Creating the Worlds of Star Wars: 365 Days, he allows us to gaze into the worlds of Star Wars, both in front of and behind-the-scenes.

Like many people, especially boys, who came of age in 1977 or after, Knoll credits Star Wars, which was released when he was 14, as changing his life. "The filmmakers who had made Star Wars were doing things in a new way and I wanted to know how," he said. And that's exactly what he does in his book.

The book starts off with a foreword from visual effects legend Dennis Muren. He talks about how the original Star Wars brought together effects artists from the original stop-motion days with progressive thinkers who worked on 2001: A Space Odyssey and combined them with students fresh out of college willing to try anything. He continues to briefly discuss the advances over the course of all six films and how CG has allowed artists to focus less on the technical and more on the aesthetic. However, he doesn't neglect to mention that knowledge of nature will always "remain the basis for the most fantastic imaginings."

With Muren's foreword setting the tone for the book, Knoll's introduction sets forth the purpose. The tome is an overview of the environments created for all six of the Star Wars films and how and why they were crafted the way that they were. After delving into the how and why he got were he is, Knoll sets up the decision-making process of why supervisors on the various films chose locations over sets, CG over models, etc.

Though each of the 365 sections is brief, Knoll brings an energy and excitement to explaining how and why certain environments were created. For the original trilogy material, Knoll presents the details with the tone of a fan in awe of what his predecessors created. The text, accompanied by wonderful behind-the-scenes shots, explains the way sets like the Jawa's sandcrawler in the first film were built. Knoll also reveals production problems that affected the sets and how the filmmakers adjusted.

Many of the sections answer the question how'd they do that? For trivia hounds, this text will be invaluable. Fans of the film will know, which shots were filmed at completely separate locations and later made to look right next to each other. For the original trilogy, the book shows how a lower budget necessitated some ingenious solutions to make certain effects work.

As a whole, the book is a wonderful way to see how advances were made, and how the filmmakers pushed the boundaries from one film to the next. The discussion of the Special Editions serve as a nice bridge between the saga's two parts. It also serves as a bridge in the tone of the book, shifting Knoll from a fan/historian to an active participant, who is sharing hands on experiences.

For the visual effects community, the portion dealing with the prequels is a fascinating look into the decision-making process of visual effects supervising when it comes to locations and sets. I'd recommend anyone interested in becoming a visual effects supervisor to check out this book just for the education one can glean from Knoll and the whole ILM team's work.

In addition to its facts and trivia value, the book is crammed with amazing imagery. For this only, the tome is a nice addition to any Star Wars fan's collection. But even for the non-fan, the artistry on display is awe-inspiring. From its explanation of the process to the beauty of the images, one truly takes from the book what enormous talent goes into the making of these films.

If the book weren't good enough, the publishers have also included a CD-ROM, which provides QuickTime clips and 360-degree panorama views of the sets. Some of the images on the disk are pretty low-res, but for the most part they are clear and grand looking. The 360-degree navigation allows viewers to focus on details as well as witness the vast extent of the environments whether they are models or real locations.

The book is a quick read, but is still filled with great detail. The pictures alone are worth the cover-price, but Knoll's careful research and first hand experiences along with the CD-ROM make it a bargain for any fan of Star Wars or special and visual effects in general.

Creating the Worlds of Star Wars: 365 Days by John Knoll with J.W. Rinzler; Harry N. Abrams Inc.; New York, October 2005; ISBN: 0-8109-5936-4, hard cover with CD-ROM, $29.95; 744 pages.

Rick DeMott is the managing editor of Animation World Network. Previously, he worked in various production and management positions in the entertainment industry. He is a contributor to the book Animation Art as well as the humor, absurdist and surrealist short story website Unloosen.

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