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The Making of

Chapter 4: Special Effects TV Magic


From the beginning, Lucas wanted Chronicles to have the same style and quality of a feature film, which was impossible considering the accelerated schedules and scaled-down budgets of television production. It was something that had never been done before but the advancements in post production video technologies made the entire enterprise feasible. San Francisco-based Western Images, a computer graphics company whose credits at the time included The Lawnmower Man was commissioned to produce all of the effects for each forty-four-minute weekly episode, working in close collaboration with Lucasfilm.

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Young Indy surrounded
by forty horsemen.

The effects for the Chronicles were the kind of effects viewers would never know are effects while they enhanced storytelling process. These effects varied from adding rain to soak actor Sean Patrick Flanery on his motorcycle to something much more complex, such as digitally composited wildlife to simulate an African savanna. In general, Western faced two types of effects for each episode, those planned in advance, such as matte paintings, and other 'fix-it' effects necessitated by problems encountered during the breakneck pace of shooting. Due to time constraints of television schedules, it was often difficult or impossible for the production team to wait for the perfect sunset, or outfit a military base location with full wartime regalia. In such instances, Western provided the color and texture of the desired sunset, or composite a landing plane to lend wartime verisimilitude.

Similarly, Western provided a full regiment of soldiers out of a mere handful shot on location by digitally arranging and compositing multiple camera passes to effectively 'clone' the same small group and position them side by side. For the pilot episode, there was a very dramatic scene where Young Indy is thrown off his horse and surrounded by forty horsemen from Pancho Villa’s gang. In reality what was shot was twelve horsemen surrounding actor Sean Patrick Flanery. Because of the high cost of renting horses and hiring extras, what Lucasfilm did was duplicate the Mexican bandits so that it looked like there were forty men surrounding Indy instead of the twelve actors that were actually there. There were times that Lucas employed shots from other films such as 1989’s The Old Gringo starring Gregory Peck and Jane Fonda or actual black and white footage from WWI. In the last case Western’s job was to clean the negative, add color and match it with the rest of footage filmed some 70 years later.

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A small group of soldiers turned into a full regiment.

Western also created entire sets by incorporating matte paintings rendered by Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic on a Macintosh system. A scene of the Vienna 1908 episode was set at an authentic and renowned riding school in Vienna, but the production was not allowed to film at the historic site. To circumvent the restriction, a horse was photographed in a ring and the surrounding school was created as a matte painting. Whereas standard matte paintings, rendered by an artist with a paintbrush, had traditionally been too expensive for television production, the digital renderings were both a cost-effective and efficient means of providing background locales, usually taking only two to three days to complete.

In another episode, a shot suggested that Indy was being chased while on board a mountain train. As the chase progresses, the train is seen darting in and out of a series of tunnels. While the train was shot live-action, the tunnels were nonexistent. Western was tasked with creating the needed environment. "We had to take scenes of trains going down the track either away from us or coming toward us," said Western vice president and effects director Jonathan Keeton. "Utilizing those specific shots, we digitally composited tunnel mattes that had been painted previously at ILM. What we got from them was a digital image of a matte painting. Then we took it from there."

Western produced all of its final effects composites using Quantel’s Harry system, completing an episode every one to two weeks. Edgar Burcksen of Lucasfilm, Young Indy's chief editor, had been the first to propose the Harry system as an expedient means for compositing the effects sequences. With approval from Lucas, he had contacted Western early in the development of the series. "Edgar had come to talk to us," Keeton recalled, "and without exactly giving it away, he let us know what he was going to need for the show. We discussed some of the problems we foresaw on the project and how we could solve them. Basically, the Harry is very much like having an entire optical department, an animation department and an editing department, all in a computer. It has the capability of doing chroma keys and luminance keys, and you can also paint directly on frames with a high-end paint system."

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The original left and Western's edit right.

Part of the challenge for Western was creating seamless cuts between the live-action footage, shot on l6mm film, and the effects footage, which is shot with pin-registered 35mm cameras. By pin-registering film in the gate of the camera, a rock-steady image can be shot, eliminating any 'film weave' - the impression of the image moving ever so slightly horizontally or vertically, which may expose the effect. After each episode was shot, all of the film was processed and transferred to videotape in London for further transfer to laserdisc at Lucas’ Skywalker post production facility. The negative was then sent to Western for scanning onto D-1 digital tape. By using Lucasfilm’s Editdroid edit list as a blueprint, only those elements selected for the show were retransferred. Harry was then 'fed' the D-1 tape, and the information was stored on large disc drives. "At that point," explained Western president Mike Cunningham, "the various post production tasks were done disc-to-disc and through video processors inside the Harry."

Once all the effects had been completed, both optical and original footage - l6mm and 35mm - were conformed on videotape, again using the edit list. Dissolves, fades and color correction were executed and the final cut was copied onto the master tape with the completed sound track sent from Skywalker Ranch. The utilization of l6mm film and video compositing techniques reduced the cost per effects shot considerably, without sacrificing quality. "Part of the reason it works," stated chief digital effects artist Jimi Simmons, "is that we go from that magical film thing right to a digital domain. The shot never sees an analog signal until we make a dub to go to broadcast." Through their months of working on the series, the Western Images crew had learned to anticipate Lucas’ likes and dislikes regarding effects. "A lot of people would consider it a disadvantage to have to do effects 'on the fly' this way," said Simmons, "but for me, it's very creative and challenging to have somebody like George Lucas come to me and say, 'Do you think you can do this?' and then be able to pull it off." These cutting-edge digital processes were later used on the production of the Star Wars movies. For many people the Young Indy series served as testing point for the new techniques. "What used to be called 'post production' has become an integral part of the creative process," Keeton observed.

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The original left and Western's edit right.

Once the final cut of each episode was ready it went off in the process of scoring the music. The composers were Laurence Rosenthal and Joel McNeely. They took turns on each episode.

When talked about the whole process Lucas confessed that "I sort of enjoy the fact that I don’t know that much about television. I’m just doing what I want to do. I’m creating this thing that I enjoy and conforming to the sort of standards that belong in television in terms of time and where the commercials go and have those sorts of things. But I’m basically getting to tell the stories that I want to tell, and that’s really what excites me about this. It’s very time-consuming. You’re doing fifteen hours, which is the equivalent of seven movies. Normally I do one or two movies a year. Now I’m doing the equivalent of seven movies a year! It’s really intense, but it’s fun too. I’m having a ball with the whole thing!"

Next: The Three Seasons >>


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