Almost a Jedi
How I became a part of George Lucas' last Star Wars project.
I have swung a lightsaber. Not a toy lightsaber, but a real, ILM created lightsaber. And I did it to protect R2-D2 from a battle droid laser blast. No, this isn't some man-child fantasy I created with a pile of toys on my floor (this time) - this really happened. And this is how.
In 2006 I was working at ILM on Pirates of the Caribbean 3. At that same time, The Colbert Report (which was a popular TV show, if anyone doesn't know) was doing a segment called "Better Know A District," where Steven would go to different districts in America and give a little comedic info, interview representatives, etc. One night his district turned out to be Marin County, Ca. and he did a bit about the home of Lucasfilm and danced around in front of a green screen while looking off camera saying "George Lucas is going to add visual effects, right?" Then he has a make believe conversation with Jar Jar. It was silly, and was the talk of the internal ILM message boards the next day (There were a lot of Colbert fans there) But really, that was that.
Almost immediately a tech savvy Colbert fan used this footage and did a green screen pull, and composited Colbert into a scene with a CG Rancor. Colbert aired this fan-edit and THE COLBERT GREEN SCREEN CHALLENGE was born! Colbert issued a challenge to his audience to use the green screen footage and make a video of their own, a winner being chosen on his show.
The ILM boards heated up again.
A few of us - maybe 7 at most - decided that we should create an entry. This was totally unofficial at first. An all volunteer crew getting together to create something fun. The footage of Colbert only needed one Matchmove (my job at the time as a layout artist) so I volunteered to do that shot. We brainstormed ideas as artists Todd and Tom (last names withheld for privacy) took over as volunteer show leads.
One of the early decisions - obviously - was that our entry had to be the best. We couldn't be ILM and have some team of art school kids creating a superior product. The lightsaber effects would have to be "real" lightsaber effects, the same as they used in the movies. The assets would have to be the real assets, not recreated ones (plus there wasn't time for that). Then we got the news, apparently George Lucas was a big fan of Colbert, had seen the show, and heard about our little secret team.
And he wanted in.
What George wants, George gets. Suddenly we weren't a volunteer crew anymore. We were given "show status" which meant we could bill hours to the production (It still needed to be secret and we couldn't neglect our official show responsibilities) and here comes the cool part - George insisted on writing the bit. This became significant later on after the Disney acquisition when it became the last live-action Star Wars project George was directly involved in. And, aside from Executive Producing the Clone Wars series, his last Star Wars project, period.
Here is where I became really involved. My one matchmove shot was no big deal. I think I did it over a lunch break one day and it was a first-pass final. Fine. However George's script extended parts of the project where Colbert footage wasn't available. The project being a secret, and me already "in on it," Todd and Tom asked me if I wouldn't mind standing in for some shots as a way to get extra "Colbert" footage. I would love to say they chose me for my charisma and acting ability - but the truth was that I was the only man on the crew that had both a black suit, and a full head of hair. From the back, my hair and Colbert's is pretty identical. So I took my hair and suit down to the green screen stage at ILM and we shot pickup shots over a lunch break.
This is where my part really ended. It wasn't until the final product was wrapped that I got to see my role in the piece. I got to swing a lightsaber. I was in a shot with R2-D2. My leg kicked a battle droid (They used just my leg composited into the shot to make it fit a motion Colbert already did). And finally, I had a long conversation with Jar-Jar Binks (voiced by original actor Ahmed Best!)
My torso deflecting a laser blast with my lightsaber - and R2
Me (and my hair) chatting with Jar Jar
Hey... thats MY leg!
The final version that aired had a whole skit built around George having his entry up against the other finalist. It's really quite a good segment.
The full video (5 minutes long) of the entire sketch can be seen here on Comedy Central's website!
So that is how I got to save R2-D2 from assured destruction with my lightsaber, just moments before having a political conversation with Jar-Jar binks. I know that doesn't *quite* make me a full-fledged Jedi knight.... but it's close enough!