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John Knoll Talks 'Star Wars' 3-D

ILM's acclaimed VFX supervisor discusses the challenges of converting the Star Wars saga to 3-D.

Knoll thinks close shots often work best for getting the most stereoscopic impact. Images courtesy of Lucasfilm Ltd.

After the recent announcement that the Star Wars saga was going to be converted to 3-D, beginning in chronological order with The Phantom Menace (set for a 2012 theatrical release), I caught up with John Knoll, Industrial Light & Magic's famed visual effects supervisor, who is spearheading the project. He provides a sneak peek of what we might expect in 3-D from the Death Star trench run to the Tatooine Podrace.

Bill Desowitz: So what are your plans for 3-D stereoscopic conversion?

John Knoll: We're mostly going to be working with outside vendors. But the big difference is I'm driving the look of this and going to hold the vendors to very high standards. I've been pretty vocal and my feelings for stereo and stereo conversion. I feel like some of the previous efforts that we've seen were victims of a too rushed production schedule and a too low budget, and maybe not the best aesthetics applied. I feel like the tools can be used to generate good results; otherwise, we wouldn't be doing this. You can't rush it and it's an iterative process, and if you've got a gun to your head and you've got eight weeks to convert a 2,000-shot show, it's not possible to maintain the level of quality control that you need.

BD: And you can only work with what you've got for live action.

JK: Right. I've been very vocal with my opinion that if you're originating new material, if you're in production right now, making something for stereo exhibition, then you should be shooting it in stereo if it's live action, or if it's a computer-animated film you should be rendering it in stereo. But it's a different story if you've got good reasons why you want to convert a library title. So, if you want to explore what stereo can do for you, conversion is the only option. But when stereo's done right, it's not just throwing objects at the camera every few seconds; it's immersive. I think Avatar did a really good of transporting you to an exotic alien place where the stereo is mostly used to give you this powerful sense of presence. And so if you look at the Star Wars world, there are so many interesting, exotic places to go and I think that the immersive nature of stereo exhibition has a lot of appeal. The stuff I've seen to date is pretty cool.

BD: So what is the status of converting Phantom Menace?

JK: We've been thoroughly evaluating the resources out there and giving them the feedback that they need to hear to get the quality where we expect it to be.

A one-third forward, two thirds back volumetric approach will be used instead of converging on subject.

BD: Are you able to name the vendors?

JK: I don't think we're allowed to.

BD: Or how many companies?

JK: I'm not allowed to do that either.

BD: Tell me about your role.

JK: It's mostly being the arbiter of good taste. There's a lot of different ways to play stereo. How deep do you go with it? Where do you play convergence? Do you rack convergence? Do you do floating windows? How stylistic do you go on wide shots? Do you leave them realistic? Or do we need to see stereo even on a wide shot with nothing close to camera where you wouldn't really see much. A lot of those kinds of questions need to be answered and I'm trying to provide the answers that result in good-looking stereo that looks to the largest extent possible that it looks like it was shot in stereo; and not with the weird miniaturization or the cardy look or the warped spaces or the edge artifacts that we've seen in other stereo conversions.

Revenge of the Sith's space battle will offer intriguing 3-D possibilities.

BD: What's your personal stereoscopic philosophy and what have your conversations with George Lucas been like?

JK: George and I talked a little bit about the character of stereo and there's a little bit of a different stylization of what you saw on Avatar and How to Train Your Dragon, for example. One of the things that Jim did throughout Avatar is a relatively fixed rule: for the most part, camera converges on subject. So that makes whoever you're focused on, whoever's speaking, whatever the subject of the shot is converged at the screen plane. And so if that person walks forward in the shot, we actually rack convergence with them so that they stay at the screen. And that worked pretty well for Jim; it's a convention that served him well. That's not the convention that, for example, DreamWorks and Pixar are doing on their stereo projects. What they tend to do is define a good use of volume for a given shot -- a lot of the DreamWorks seems to be about one-third forward, two-thirds back -- and that's fixed for the shot. So even for the character that's walking forward, we don't rack convergence with them. And we're going a little bit more toward that style than Jim's style.

BD: So, what's your plan?

JK: What we're doing that one-third forward, two-thirds back use of depth. We'll be using floating windows to maximize good, usable, depth dynamic range. And then, stylistically, I go fairly realistic with the stereo. I don't like hyper stereo and there are a lot of shots in the Star Wars pictures that are meant to be big vista spectacle. It's a big wide view of a city or a space battle, and there's nothing particularly close to camera. Shooting in stereo, you wouldn't get a lot of depth. So I'm not going to go hyper stereo on that because it has a really ugly artifact, in my view, of that miniaturization. You don't want to see that these ships are really closer than the star field and undermine all the effort that we tried to put in to make those scenes have vast scale. So I'm going to play all the wide shots more realistically and rely on the overall context of the sequence where you're right there with the characters, experiencing this with them. And there are loads and loads of action where we're in tighter and closer, and that's where the stereo shines.

BD: The prequels will certainly offer a different experience with all the CG.

The Empire Strikes Back will definitely have a 3-D force.


Yeah, I would say that, in general, the prequel trilogy are denser than the original trilogy and the most obvious contrast is comparing the space battle at the end of A New Hope with the space battle at the beginning of Revenge of the Sith. There's a lot more going on and definitely a lot more stereo possibilities there. But there's nothing about the original trilogy being older that makes them harder to convert. If anything, they might be a little easier because they're less dense than the prequel trilogy. A lot of the labor-intensive work is if you have an army of 4,000 droids getting them separated from the background, generating the second view and then cleaning up the background where they were. And it's harder to do when you've got hundreds or thousands of characters as opposed to 10 or 15.

BD: Is there a favorite film or moment you're looking forward to converting?

JK: I always liked Empire Strikes Back. It's just packed with great stuff: I love the snowspeeders and the walkers. I love the asteroid scene. I think that people misunderstand what stereo's good at and what it isn't. It's not necessarily about vista; it's most effective when you're in close with your characters and all those scenes with Yoda are closer, intimate scenes. And I actually think those are going to look nice in stereo, and the bigger challenge is what are you going to do with the Return of the Jedi space battle where those shots are relatively wide?

BD: Any plans to do tweaking?

JK: No, there are no plans to revisit shots or do any new work. This is just doing a stereo conversion of what we've got. This is a long process if done right and I have no intention of doing something that damages the brand. I think we're going to set a new precedent for what conversion can look like?

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.

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