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Back to the Future with 'THX 1138'

Bill Desowitz speaks with ILMs Paul Hill and Henry Preston about the new vfx for the George Lucas directors cut of his seminal THX 1138.

The new ear-tag poster for the George Lucas Directors Cut of THX 1138. All images © Warner Bros. unless otherwise noted.

The Star Wars trilogy isnt the only cherished George Lucas icon to get a new digital look, on DVD. THX 1138, the directors first film from 1971 about an oppressive futuristic underground society obsessed with consumerism, has also received ILMs CG treatment for a new directors cut (Warner Home Video, $26.99) that hit shelves last month. In a VFXWorld exclusive, DVD vfx producer Paul Hill and CG supervisor Henry Preston discussed their summer project, which consisted not only of heavy cleaning (and grain removal from Lowry Digital) but also the creation of new 3D shots to add greater scope and detail to the underground factory and surrounding environs where THX 1138 (Robert Duvall) and his colleagues work and live. They even did a greenscreen session for a locker room shot of a robot cop containing partial CGI, and Preston himself can be seen driving a train for one of the BART extensions.

Bill Desowitz: Lets first talk about the new footage and what it consists of.

Paul Hill: Certainly George went back in and re-edited using some outtakes and other stuff. Because of the Northridge quake, a lot of the original footage was water damaged. Thats why we knew when we went in that we were going to have to do some extensive restoration work. So before I came onto the project, George went through with the editor, picked a bunch of stuff and re-edited it slightly, just to make it more what he wanted. He realized that there were scenes he wanted to expand upon at the time with the budget that he had, everything is claustrophobic. That was still an important part of the film, but he wanted to expand upon how huge that claustrophobia is. You see a lot more BART trains going by underground and things like that.

BD: What about the new shots?

PH: Theres a shot where you walk by a window and see a complex outside where BART pulls in and thousands of people get out. Theres a shot where you see the factory where THX worksit begins where you see this computer-generated factory sequence and then it pulls down and you see all these people standing and working. Those people are actually from some extra 16mm footage that we had. We combined the really old with the really new. Then, for example, when THX and the hologram are getting in their car in the parking garage to drive away at the end, that was filmed at San Francisco Airport. That universe has been expanded with more parking garages and BART trains. We were trying to give the impression that the city was huge with the effects that we put in.

DVD vfx producer Paul Hill (left) and CG supervisor Henry Preston. Photos © Lucasfilm Ltd. All rights reserved. Photos by Sean Casey.

Henry Preston: The main change is the car chase, which has a lot of fully 3D shots. It expands the space and George was trying to figure out how to raise the ceiling on this movie. Another thing. If you look at this movie, it was filmed in every single tunnel in the Bay Area. Not all of them match.

PH: What we did with the color correction is give everything the same look its much less obvious that they are different tunnels.

HP: We added some crowd stuff when theyre escaping from the white void that opened things up quite a bit.

PH: Thats true. It was the `70s and they were having enough trouble finding people who were willing to shave their heads. Taking what we had, we took out the back wall and just filled it with millions of people.

HP: Yeah, we ran our crowd software and actually developed some software called Rent A Crowd for that, where we would take crowd stuff from other movies that we had stashed away. They were walk cycles.

PH: But now they had to be bald and they had to be wearing white.

HP: We didnt run any new MoCap sessions for this, but we always thought we had thousands of walk cycles, so we should grab them and use them and thats what we did. And so George wanted us to be as cost-efficient as possible, so that was one way.

A factory CG extension that expands the claustraphobic world that Lucas first envisioned.

BD: How was some of the other 3D work accomplished?

HP: Well, a lot of it was George would take a plate of a shot that was already in there and shrink it down into a corner of the frame that he wanted it to be and we would extend onto that.

PH: Theres a shot in the original movie where THX walks around the front of a garage. Now thats maybe 20% of the frame and the rest of it is all around and its freeway overpasses and all this stuff thats there now. Theres a shot of the Marin Civic Center. Well, now thats tucked down into the corner and the camera moves to the left and you see this huge cityscape that we had to create. That was our favorite shot, wasnt it Henry?

HP: Oh, yeah, that was a beauty. George wanted these wide lenses on there so we could see more space. So wed have to build these environments and project the original frame onto the new environment, touch it up and blend the 2D with our new 3D environment so we could do a pan across the frame with a wide-angle lens.

BD: What tools did you use?

HP: We used everything that we could. It was kind of a summer project back in 2003. We had people coming in and out, we had people cross training and it wasnt like Star Wars where you had a load of resources and anything at hand. People would come in and say, I want to try and use global illumination on this environment. So we were trying a lot of new things that are standard in our pipeline. We did use a little global illuminationwe ran pretty much in our standard pipeline, though there were a few things we used Maya on. Meaning our 3D tools is ours; and for simulations we would use Maya.

A vertical 3D extension.

BD: What was an instance of global illumination?

HP: There was one environment in one of the train stations that was originally a BART station; what we would have to do is once again take a plate and project it onto a new environment that we would render with global illumination. I think we tried to do that with mental ray through Softimage.

BD: Talk about the issue of grain, since this looks so much more pristine.

HP: Yeah, but when you take that grain out, things show up that you didnt know were there.

PH: We added loads of grain and then it was removed procedurally. We decided to add grain to match the original grain the best we could. It was kind of interesting knowing that we were matching this grain closely so that we could remove it procedurally and have it match. Its funny, how a fully CG environment tends to come out very contrasty and it was hard to get that low contrast `70s look right out of the box. You have to work at it, especially in 2D, not only texturally but in color space.

HP: When we were restoring it, we had to scan it all in and it was all over the place

PH: Some of it is dailies outtakes, 16mm footage, some it was original negative

HP: Its funny, while we were working the target would move too. Theyd be doing color corrections at the same time we would be working on it, so sometimes we would send a shot to our colorist, and they would change it and send it back.

PH: When you talk about the effects having that `70s look, we did have the advantage in that we never had to go anywhere new. Everything we did was an expansionsure we were doing cityscapes and thinks like that but we didnt have to add anything totally new, except for that scorpion.

A cleaner, more detailed shot of THX (Robert Duvall) at work.

BD: What is that?

PH: Its some insect-looking creature

BD: Another place to insert Jabba the Hutt?

HP: We joked about rejected Star Wars creatures ending up in the movie underground.

PH: I also feel with this film that you dont really notice the effects. The only reason you know there are effects is because you know he couldnt possibly have done them back then. But it really fits in with the scope.

HP: I also think the shots that were added of THX working in that lab [are so much more helpful] youve got the fuel cell things that we added that were pretty much all CG. To me, when I watch the new film, I think, Oh, thats whats going on in there. Because it was pretty hard to figure out what his job was at first. And the jeopardy that happens when things blow up and alarms go off. That all plays so much clearer to me with the way the narrative works. I feel that this is one restoration that really helps the story.

PH: Even during that mind lock sequence his eyes roll up into his head now, which they didnt do before. Its really obvious that somethings going on, but you dont know what exactly.

BD: Talk about the challenge of working with such a white environment and white costumes.

PH: The artists went blind

HP: Well, it was a pretty heavy-duty dirt removal project. Summers are kind of slow for us around here, so people would come off of some really heavy-duty summer feature, just sitting there flicking dirt for weeks.

ILM utilized new Rent A Crowd software for synthetic crowd shots.

BD: And George mustve been very helpful in terms of remembering things, such as the main titles were the wrong color.

PH: Yeah, there are things that he remembers when he shot ithe was never happy with that, he was never happy with this. So we fixed it.

HP: You know we had to build [a 3D model of] that THX car The Lola and George remembered what kind of car it was and we found a classic car place and took some photos. We didnt scan it, we just built it. But that was kind of useful. What kind of car is this? George certainly knew. And he remembered locations and he even remembered what lenses he used on certain shots, which was helpful doing some match moves without any information.

PH: One of the interesting things is that the crew changed constantly on this project. Really only Henry, my production coordinator and I were the only three on the show from start to finish. There were probably 150 people who touched the movie for two days

HP: For half an hour

PH: With me, you got someone who was positively anal retentive about the dirt removal. Even though we started out as a DVD project, I knew eventually the boss would want to see it in theaters.

The original Robo-Cop  color corrected by ILM and grain reduced by Lowry Digital.

HP: We always knew there would be a theatrical release, even though it wasnt planned.

BD: How many new digital vfx shots are there total?

PH: I think 72 from usIll tell you my favorite cleanup story. All the footage thats on the monitors, was done by videotaping a film loop. Well, the film loop had dirt embedded in it, so its not just the dirt thats in the movie but in the print as well. So its supposed to be live and a video thing, we took that dirt out. So like that whole sequence when THX is being tortured by those two guys during the demo, when you see him on the monitor, you would see dirt spots. So we went in and thats why the monitor stuff is way clearer than before.

HP: The movie is so processed its unbelievable. Its processed like Sky Captain with all the cleaning, massaging and degraining.

Bill Desowitz is editor of VFXWorld.

Bill Desowitz's picture

Bill Desowitz, former editor of VFXWorld, is currently the Crafts Editor of IndieWire.