After a month of theatrical release Star Wars: The Force Awakens is crawling its way to racking up over two billion dollars at the box office worldwide, making it the second highest grossing film of all time. The movie is unquestionably a success, both commercially and critically as fans old and new seemed quite pleased with the new characters and the many returning favorites. One of the primary reasons for the movie’s success was the fact that new director JJ Abrams insisted on using many of the same practical effects from the original trilogy, and liberally peppered it with callbacks and easter eggs from the first film, Star Wars: A New Hope.
The sequel to the original iconic trilogy of science fiction movies, and the less warmly regarded trilogy of prequels from the late nineties and early aughts, was full of so many easter eggs that even a giant anthropomorphic rabbit would have trouble carrying a basket full of them. One of the many easter eggs, and quite a crowd-pleaser, was the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it callback to one of the more memorable gags from the first movie. In A New Hope, while Han Solo updates Obi-Wan Kenobi on their timetable as they rush to bring secret plans for the Death Star hidden in R2D2 to the Rebellion, the perky droid and the imposing wookie Chewbacca play a game of holographic chess called Dejarik, a fictional game that obsessive fans have given an entire backstory and even names for the creature characters. The chess pieces were a motley collection of weird and funny creatures that were created for the film using classic stop motion animation techniques.
Here is the original scene from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope:
In The Force Awakens, new character Finn leans on a familiar table in the Millennium Falcon and unintentionally activates a game of Dejarik. The new holochess scene picks up right where it left off almost forty years ago, and as it turns out it was even created by the original animators using the same stop motion techniques used on the original production. Recreating a stop motion scene from forty years ago turned out to be quite an undertaking, and it required the use of several modern technologies including 3D printing, 3D scanning and 3D photogrammetry to accomplish. While the original bit of animation took a little over a week to complete, thanks to the need to find and recreate the original models, as well as special effects legends Phil Tippett and Jon Berg’s packed schedules, the new scene took Tippett Studio a full year to produce.
With Abrams’ commitment to using as many practical special effects as possible, and trying to recreate the retro-future feel of the original films, he approached Tippett with the idea of recreating the holochess gag. He wanted the game to match the original, even down to the look and feel of the stop motion process used to animate the game. In order to recreate the past, the first step was to see if they could locate the original puppets from the 1977 production. Thankfully Lucasfilm has a pretty massive prop archive and the Tippett staff was able to find four of the original figures that had been mounted on a game board as a gift to Lucas after production wrapped. Two of the figures had been purchased by Peter Jackson at an auction, and the Weta facility was happy to provide highly detailed 3D scans of them. Sadly the remaining two pieces were nowhere to be found, having been purchased by non-disclosed buyers years earlier.
In the 1970s most props, much less stop motion puppets made from foam and Sculpey clay, weren’t really built to last very long, so unfortunately the team at Tippett had a lot of work ahead of them. The four figures found in the Lucasfilm archive were turned into highly detailed 3D models using 3D photogrammetry, a process of taking photographs of a single object from multiple angles and using a computer program to combine them into a single 3D object. The remaining two figures that were unaccounted for needed to be reconstructed digitally using original production photos. All of the newly created digital assets were then brought into Zbrush where they were repaired and had any lost or damaged details recreated.
Once the digital versions of the recreated chess pieces were complete they were sent off for approval by Abrams and the rest of The Force Awakens production team. After being given the go-ahead by production, the maquettes were then 3D printed in resin by San Francisco-based 3D printing company Moddler. The team, including head puppet fabricator Frank Ippolito and armaturist Brett Foxwell, took the 3D printed statues and went about fabricating the recreations of the original puppets. First the resin statues were turned into a mold, and once the new articulated armatures that would allowed the puppets to move were carefully placed inside of the molds they were filled with a soft and flexible silicone material. After all eight of the game pieces were cast in silicone they were painted to match the original figures and sent off to be filmed.
The process of producing stop motion animation is extremely time consuming, and even a five second animation like this took several days of filming. Tippett Studio animators Chuck Duke and Tom Gibbons meticulously moved each figure slightly and needed to keep track of what figured needed to move in what direction. Ultimately they would need 24 individual movements for each second of usable footage. And while the time spent animating the puppets is the same, new technology that allows them to quickly check the positioning of the figures with the background sped up the process a bit and the results speak for themselves.
Here is some video of the process of recreating the holochess animations from Tippett Studio:
3D printing and 3D technology clearly played a huge role in the production of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, with it being used to create the special effects, costumes, props and even sets. At this point 3D technology is just another one of the many tools that Hollywood uses to create its magic, and in the case of The Force Awakens it was used to recreate the magic from a different age of filmmaking. You can learn more about all of the amazing technology that Tippett Studio uses on their website, and you can learn more about his epic stop motion film Mad God here. Tell us your thoughts on the use of 3D technology in this new Star Wars film in the 3D Printed Star Wars Chess Pieces forum over at 3DPB.com.