Tag Archives: Star Wars The Force Awakens

Epic Nostalgia

Confessions of a repeat Star Wars: The Force Awakens Viewer

So Star Wars: The Force Awakens has just passed $2Billion in sales, making it only the third film to surpass this figure, and even my own daughter is now into double figures in viewing the movie,  so why are people so drawn to watch Star War films over and over again? BBC Writer Helen Macdonald – who’s also seen The Force Awakens six times so far – has just offered her explanation on this subject via the BBC Website.

It was Christmas 1977 and I was seven years old. Dad had got the family tickets to a screening of Star Wars at the Odeon in Leicester Square. I didn’t really know what I was going to see, but I knew it was a big deal. Star Wars mania was then in full swing. I remember light bulbs hanging from winter branches and a steakhouse with a tartan carpet, and the words STAR WARS on hoardings full of masked men and moons and spaceships. Dusk was falling as we queued to get in, and high above us flowed thousands of starlings. Back then they still roosted in central London. I was mesmerised by these sinuous strings of oily smoke moving through the darkening sky. And part of what Star Wars means to me now is still caught up in the memory of those flocks making patterns of astonishing beauty on their way to rest and safety. I loved the film, of course, though all the times I’ve seen it since have overwritten those first memories of it on screen. It was all a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away.

I was never an obsessive fan, but still I found the later George Lucas movies thoroughly dispiriting. I put that down to having grown up, and gave up on Star Wars. But then I went to see The Force Awakens, JJ Abram’s reboot of the series, late last December, and I wept pretty much all the way through it. Proper sobs. And then I saw it again. And again. Every time, I left the cinema full of joy. I saw it sitting next to kids wearing Princess Leia costumes, and men older than me wearing Star Wars t-shirts with frayed collars and Rebel Alliance badges, and it wasn’t until the sixth viewing that I thought, wait. Hang on. Six times. Why do you love this film so much? I kept reading articles explaining that people only liked the film out of a sense of simple nostalgia. There was something of a sneer about how they said it. That dismissiveness, I thought, was interesting.

Of course The Force Awakens is nostalgic. It features original cast members and plot points from the 1977 movie. But it is also utterly true to the aesthetic of those early films. It is a memory of a 1970s dream of the future, set in the distant past. And it’s superbly old-school. Today’s battle-space technologies put pilots in boxes to control distant drones. On screen, X-wing pilots harry Tie fighters in dogfights straight out of the Battle of Britain. Controls in The Force Awakens are buttons and switches, not touchscreens. There are no mobile phones, and none of the panoptic apparatus of the modern surveillance state. While part of its hold over me is indeed down to nostalgia, there is nothing simple about it, and it is far from something to sneer at.

We think of nostalgia, so often, in a negative way – as escapism, a refusal to face up to present realities. But it is not necessarily so. Nostalgia can bring insights and new understandings. Every time I’ve watched The Force Awakens I’ve felt like a child again, wide-eyed and full of wonder. But at the same time, I’ve also been a woman in her 40s, thinking very hard about the difference between me now and me then, the world now and the world then. Nostalgia shows you just how much the world has changed. And this is one of the reasons the film thrills me. It takes a familiar world from my childhood and fills it with things I wish had been there back then.

Look at the diversity of its main protagonists – British actor Daisy Ridley as Rey, the self-reliant desert loner with more power than she knows, who isn’t ever defined by or confined by her gender, British-Nigerian actor John Boyega as Finn, the stormtrooper whose moral defection from the First Order sets everything in motion, and Guatemalan-American actor Oscar Isaac as X-wing pilot Poe Dameron. One of the loveliest things I’ve recently seen on Twitter was a report of two boys under 12 on a bus arguing over who got to play Rey and who had to be the film’s male villain Kylo Ren. Got to. Had to be. The world we live in is different from that of 40 years ago. We can reject the old, tired stories we’ve been told about who we’re supposed to be. And that makes me very glad.

More and more, The Force Awakens seems to me a meditation on how we consume stories and how they shape us. We can identify with its new characters because they too see the events of the first Star Wars films as tales from long ago. I think of the scene where Rey speeds past the vast wreck of an imperial starcruiser buried deep in sand. Her character lives inside a collapsed Imperial AT-AT walker, keeps a homemade doll dressed as a Rebel pilot, has fashioned a mask out of stormtrooper helmet parts. These new characters are as alive to the archaeology of nostalgia as any of us.

But there is something else the nostalgia of this film feeds into which is very modern – internet fandom. Fan-created Force Awakens material is all over the web, and to me, this work – the cartoons, the art, the stories, the internet memes and carefully plotted transformative fan fictions – is as much a part of this film as anything Disney can create. For every Chewbacca pencil case or R2D2 mug there’s a Tumblr gif of Kylo Ren and General Hux sniping at each other or flirting. Fan fiction is a fascinating phenomenon – works, mostly on the internet, that tell new stories about existing characters. Though many feature slow-burn romances or steamy sex scenes, others detail the everyday minutiae of newly-imagined lives. Consumption and creation blur in this rich new ecosystem.

It’s no coincidence, perhaps, that what fan fiction writers do is analogous to what Rey does on her desert planet. Scavenging bits of old technology from crashed ships, she makes her life out of the literal wreckage of stories from the earlier films. Like her, fans salvage things that aren’t quite theirs – pictures, snatches of dialogue, glances, subtexts, repurposing them and making them work in new ways. Slash fiction, for example – stories about romantic attraction between male characters – have been a mainstay of fan fiction since its earliest days.

One internet site alone features thousands of stories about one particular pairing christened Stormpilot, spurred by a scene late in the film where hotshot resistance pilot Poe Dameron gives ex-stormtrooper Finn a smouldering stare before biting his own lip. So popular is this pairing that it’s spilled out from the internet and led to broadsheet articles and frenzied speculation that Disney could make one of the lead characters gay in this continuing series. I hope this happens. Billion-dollar film franchises haven’t given people gay heroes to identify with before. But if it’s too risky for Disney to countenance, those stories are being written anyway. This is about who gets to have a voice, who gets to speak, who gets to be represented. Most fan fiction writers are young, most are women, many identify as queer – voices generally erased from mainstream culture.

Just as people sneer at nostalgia, they sneer at fan fiction. It’s emotionally immature, they say. It’s not well written. It’s soppy. This criticism seems, at heart, to rest on an assumption that the people who write it aren’t the right sort of people to have any claim on these stories. This is criticism as boundary policing. It’s fine to make derivative works if you have sufficient cultural capital. The wonderful Dickensian on BBC One would be fan fiction in any other medium. There’s a depressing tendency to see people investing their energies in the lives of fictional characters as somehow sad. But I’m awed by the sheer creative exuberance of fanwork, the way it incorporates different lives, different viewpoints, different ways of living and loving and being into the constrained narratives of mainstream movies. The starlings that fly through my earliest memories of Star Wars remind me of just what its new fans are doing now – multitudes making beautiful and moving shapes and forms out of our human need to feel part of a community, to find our way home.

Source: A Point of View: Confessions of a repeat Star Wars viewer – BBC News

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The Origins of BB-8

 

J.J. Abrams has been such a passionate advocate of practical effects wherever possible on the film (which I’ll  blog about soon) but BB-8 is the ultimate prime example of the model work and engineering wizardry that’s been championed over and above CG animation this time out, along with the inspirational help from Bob Iger, the CEO of Disney who is credited with discovering a little known company called Sphero who are responsible for the BB8,s character’s unique movement via his own Disney accelerator program last year.

Of all the new characters revealed, alongside with the human components like relative newcomers John Boyega and Daisy Ridley, Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens this one droid has stood out above the rest, ever since we first caught a glimpse of BB-8 in the first trailer, fans like me have been wondering how the production team ever made the droid work on set. Even Star Wars Creature Shop head Neal Scanlon  says “[It] stands almost singularly as a technical achievement that no one has yet matched,”…Holy Cow!!

Yet Bob Iger had another vision about BB-8, he could see the ‘bigger picture’ the potential for this ‘unique’ character to become the Christmas ‘wish list toy’ for every geek kid on the planet, and with the other merchandise surpass the  $4 Billion fee he paid for LucasFilm in revenue sales ‘before’ The Force Awakens has even been released, you can see from the video below, I don’t think he’s going to be far off…lets hope he doesn’t do a Buzz Lightyear and under order.

I mentioned earlier the Star Wars Creature Shop head Neal Scanlon earlier, below is an interview by Dan Brooks who is Lucasfilm’s senior content writer over at starwars.com who speaks with him and the creators of the galaxy’s newest astromech, read his interview below

How do you create a Star Wars droid that’s different from what’s come before, but authentic to a galaxy far, far away? How do you push forward in the spirit of Star Wars innovation, but not push too far? How do you hold on to the magic of Star Wars robotic design, but still make something imaginative? Those were the questions faced by the designers, engineers, and puppeteers working on Star Wars: The Force Awakens. They answered by blending the old with the new, by staring down expectations, and by eagerly jumping into the unknown. They answered with BB-8: the lovable, practical-effect, ball-shaped droid.

Here’s how they did it.

Droid design 101

When it came time to create a new astromech droid for the first film of a new Star Wars trilogy, director J.J. Abrams started as anyone might: he made a sketch on a napkin. It’s a fitting beginning, considering the handmade, warm look and feel of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The sketch was basic — two circles atop one another, with a tiny dot for an eye — but the core concept was there. And it was powerful enough to get the proverbial ball rolling for Lucasfilm concept designer Christian Alzmann. “J.J. wanted something rolling on a sphere, so I tried a lot of different designs developing that idea,” Alzmann says. “He would give direction on the kinds of shapes to use, and that led to a personality for the droid. Of course, the original sketch had very pleasing, round shapes, so you kind of figured it wasn’t going to be a very serious or angry character. Ultimately, BB-8 developed out of a back-and-forth process with J.J. where he gave feedback on each iteration of the design.”

And as for the fans who initially referred to BB-8 as the “soccer ball” droid due to patterns on his body, well, they have a keen eye. “I looked at a lot of soccer balls,” Alzmann says, laughing. “When you’re on a project like that, you start looking at everything spherical for inspiration. I think I ran across a soccer ball, and I was just like, ‘Oh, it’s kind of perfect.’”

With Alzmann solidifying BB-8’s basic design, the decision was made to try to create the droid as a practical effect. At this point, concept designer Jake Lunt Davies of the creature shop developed BB-8 further, working through many variations of the head and body, with very subtle placement of features to really show a personality. The final design — a rotating spherical body with a half-dome head almost hovering above — looks, quite simply, very Star Wars: imaginative, but also functional. And with the goal to make BB-8 a practical effect, he would have to function somehow.

Into the creature shop

Nailing the actual design of BB-8 was only half the trip through the asteroid field. It was now up to the creature shop to finish the ride. “When we originate a design from the start,” says the legendary Neal Scanlan (Babe, Prometheus), and head of the Star Wars: The Force Awakens creature shop, “we can change aspects of the design to make it work as a practical effect. In the case of BB-8, we couldn’t make any concessions as the design already existed as a hemisphere on a ball. So, our challenge was bringing this to the screen.” It’s a greater challenge than one might think — and while BB-8 is a practical prop, that wasn’t always set in stone. Scanlan’s team had to figure out if they could do it and, not inconsequential, convince Abrams it would look good. But at this early phase, they still had to answer the how of it all.

“Outside there in the big open world,” Scanlan says, “the whole ball-bot, as you would call it, concept, is something that universities to individuals have played around with. We looked very closely at what one would consider existing technology and decided that it was not far enough advanced to be able to put that into a droid or into a robot that we could use in the film world. Not yet, anyway…So, the idea of having versions of BB-8, which we knew we could have aspects digitally removed, really then opened up a much greater sphere of possibility.” Joshua Lee, senior animatronics designer on Scanlan’s team, got to work.

“I made a little puppet version,” says Lee, “because there was a lot of talk about how this thing could move and whether it needed extra parts, like an extending neck, to allow for greater movement. I had this feeling that it didn’t need anything else, and so to prove that, I built, in half a day, a little polystyrene puppet with the main movements. All the head movements and the ball rolling around, and handles on the back. I remember as soon as I picked that up, it was just so expressive. You could see that there weren’t any other fancy movements needed, that there’s so much expression and character actually in the shapes and in the way the head sort of arched over the sphere. Neal was working in a different office at the time, in another part of the studio, and I excitedly ran down and showed him this thing. We both thought, that’s it, there’s really something there, and a puppet version would be one way of achieving it on set.”

Before any filming began, however, they’d have to convince Abrams that it would work for his purposes, that it could perform with his actors. Enter Dave Chapman and Brian Herring, the puppeteers literally behind BB-8.

“We had, I guess, two weeks to ourselves on an empty soundstage, just figuring out how this character moved,” Chapman says. “Neal Scanlan came in and advised and directed us. We did camera tests and recorded it for ourselves, and just found every parameter of this character’s movement.” The personality of a droid — and discovering it — is something that audiences usually don’t even think about. But that was Chapman and Herring’s job, and it meant not only figuring out how to manipulate BB-8 the puppet to convey joy, sadness, curiosity, and fear, but defining how BB-8 the character would convey those emotions consistently.

“BB-8 can cock his head over and look away, he can double take, he can look scared, he can look angry,” says Herring. “We managed to find a whole vocabulary of movement for him, if you will. We worked out a whole bunch of stuff. What would he do if you turned him off? What happens to his head if you power him down? Does he go down stairs? Does he go up stairs?”

“We did show and tells [with Abrams],” Scanlan explains. “All credit to the man, he didn’t actually see his version of the puppeteered BB-8 until about a week before we began shooting. He never put pressure on us, he never made us feel bad. I remember the day that we showed it to him, his first initial response really hit home with me, because he looked at [Lucasfilm president] Kathleen Kennedy and said, ‘What a relief.’ And I could see the weight of the world lift off his shoulders. I think that was the point at which, I suppose, the decision was made that we could go practical, and we didn’t have to go digital. I think up until that point, it was sitting in everybody’s mind that unless we were able to deliver something that was actually believable and usable and directorially friendly, the only other option was to go digital. He put his faith and trust in us and, as such, apparently we didn’t disappoint. Then, after we showed it to him, the mood in the room lifted immediately. Everybody started to engage with BB-8 not as a practical effect anymore, but as a little character. They started to view it much more as that, and we sort of built it all from there. The use of BB-8 was built on that first initial impression we left J.J. and Kathy with.”

This model of function would then serve as a springboard for a small army of BB-8s, all with their own specialty, designed by Lee and Matthew Denton, the electronic design and development supervisor. There was the “wiggler,” which was static, but could twist and turn on the spot and was used for close-ups. There were two trike versions, which had stabilizer wheels, allowing them to be driven by remote control without a puppeteer in the shot. There was a version that could be picked up by actors and controlled via remote for specific reactions and movements. There was the “bowling ball” version, which could literally be thrown into a shot and never fall down (like a Weeble toy). Finally, there was the rod-puppet version, which was operated by Chapman and Herring — one controlling the head, adding nuance and attitude, and the other the body — who would then be digitally erased. It was this version that would be key and able to act on set. Lee and Denton did all their engineering without seeing the script, though they were told of certain BB-8-has-to-do-this benchmarks they needed to hit. It all worked out in the end.

“Matt made the brain, Josh built the body,” says Herring, “and, hopefully, Dave and I gave it heart and soul.”

Still, for BB-8’s designers, there was unfinished business.

Making BB-8 real

While Scanlan’s team ruled out a fully functioning, remote-controlled BB-8 for shooting, they never forgot that original goal. Despite having a full workload, they took the initiative to make one that was entirely free-running. No rods, no puppeteers, no anything. The dream.

“It had been sort of burning a hole in me,” says Lee. “I started to design this crazy idea of one that would roam around and that we would show to the fans, as well. So, we really couldn’t do it for filming, but it had to be done.” Lee already had some knowledge of how it would work based on his initial R&D at the beginning of production. It would be a matter of settling on a technique and, more importantly, one that would match the movements and personality of BB-8 as established through puppetry.

“There are several ways of doing a ball robot,” says Lee, “but there was nothing that included an articulated head or anything that could spin on the spot — and that’s one of BB-8’s signature moves. So, I started to design the prototype while Matt adapted his existing software to make control of this new BB-8 possible.”

Well…how did he do it?

“I’m not sure I want to say. Because where’s the fun in that?”

After Lee and Denton finished a gray-ball prototype that actually worked, Scanlan presented it to the higher-ups, securing additional funding. Paint and detailing were then added by the creature shop’s paint-finish designer, Henrik Svensson, to make this new BB-8 film-accurate. It all came together in time for a surprise debut at Star Wars Celebration Anaheim last April, during Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens panel. BB-8 rolled out onstage, dome twisting all around, peering at the audience, beeping and booping in curiosity and circling around R2-D2. It was the first official confirmation that BB-8 was not a CG creation, but rather, a practical effect, and the thousands in attendance went berserk. Denton operated the droid, having done just one rehearsal the day before.

“It was nerve-wracking because all manner of things could have gone wrong, live on stage,” Denton says. Yet it worked, and he heard the crowd’s roars. “It was the best feeling I’ve ever had, I think,” he says. Those in attendance weren’t the only ones impressed with the free-roaming BB-8, however.

“When that thing rolled out at Anaheim,” says Herring, “Dave and I were doing a commercial in South Africa and we were watching the live stream. And out it came, and we were like, ‘They did it. They bloody did it! Look at this thing!’ It just blew us away.”

“I think the red carpet version, at this moment in time, stands almost singularly as a technical achievement that no one has yet matched,” says Scanlan. “We watch, very avidly, the forums and the discussions that people are having on ‘How did they do that?’, and no one’s yet cracked the actual problem.” So, while it’s not used in a film (yet), there has been a giant leap for droidkind.

Looking back…and forward

For everyone involved, the experience of working on Star Wars: The Force Awakens and of creating BB-8 will not be soon forgotten. There were hurdles, there was doubt, there was the joy of pulling it off and the joy of seeing fans embrace him. “I’ve had the time of my life,” says Lee. “This has been the job of my life, really. It couldn’t have been a more interesting and challenging and fun project.”

“Same here,” adds Denton. “I think this is probably the best thing I’ve ever worked on, both in terms of what the film will be, and the creatures and robots we got to work on.”

Soon, the world will get to see the rest of that work. For now, BB-8 has already made an impact, representing the wonder that Star Wars makes possible.

“I hope that he can sit with the really great, memorable Star Wars characters,” says Herring. “You know, you can look at him and R2-D2 and Chewbacca and go, ‘Oh, they’re all from the same place, and they all took part in the same story.’”

“What I think is the excitement for me comes from the fact that the world, at the moment, has only seen two shots of BB-8 in the movie and the Anaheim stuff, which is all great,” says Chapman. “But in the film, there’s so much going on and so much more for them to see. I’m excited for them to see the character’s journey in the movie.”

There’s a lot to look forward to. The head of the creature shop puts it best.

“We can’t wait to see the movie,” says Scanlan. “And if we have to wait any longer, we’ll probably implode. For God’s sake, how long does it take for December to roll around?”

The BB-8 Collectors Cover

Empire’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens Subscribers’ Cover Revealed!!

BB-8 is the perfect subscriber cover for Empire’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens limited edition collectors cover.

Additionally, they are two new on-set stills that offer a glimpse into John Boyega’s Finn character surveying the wastes of Jakku and in full stormtrooper action.

Finn the Jedi?

It seems Disney’s D23 Expo has been a plethora of new Star Wars information, the lucky attendees got their hands on a new promotional/teaser poster for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The poster was created by the renowned ‘Film Poster’ artist Drew Struzan, whose famous style has graced posters for many of the other films in the Star Wars saga as well as the Indiana Jones films. While Struzan created this poster, it is not the primary poster he’ll make for the film.

While it’s great to see this new poster, also gives us a big plot reveal…or is it?. John Boyega’s character, Finn is seen wielding Luke Skywalker’s old blue lightsaber, will he be a Jedi ?—There have been many teases of his connection to this weapon on the Forum’s, but now we get to see a full-fledged pose, and he certainly looks like a force to be reckoned with. Are we seeing the official confirmation that the character will be using the weapon at some point during the film (and maybe even be a Jedi?, or is this an intentional plot leak to throw us off guard, we could be just seeing him in something like the Han Solo ‘esque’ Tauntaun scene?

…More questions