Clone Wars: Hollywood's Next Big Thing

Star Wars
Star Wars

A week from today, LucasFilm and Warner Bros. will unleash "Star Wars: The Clone Wars," the latest installment of the Star Wars money-making machine.

And with it comes the spotlight on cool technologies from the likes of Intel , Advanced Micro Devices , nVidia , Autodesk and Adobe Systems, some of the key tech names working behind the scenes with Lucas artists to get this movie made.

In an earlier post, I talked about the sneak peak we got last Sunday of the film itself. A day later, my son and I traveled up to George Lucas' Big Rock Ranch in Nicasio, California where we spent some time with "Clone Wars" director Dave Filoni, the film's producer Catherine Winder, the chief sound engineer Matthew Wood, some animators, riggers and painters who worked on the film, and even a speck of time with George Lucas himself.

More than just a movie that fills in some blanks between episodes two and three of the six part story, "Clone Wars" ushers in a new round of key properties, not just for Lucas, but for Time-Warner , Sony , Nintendo and Microsoft . Why? Because Lucas and his team simultaneously developed video games based on the film while the film itself was being created. Which means gamers will get their hands on the Star Wars: The Force Unleashed in early September, and it'll be available across all the major platforms. In November, to coincide with the premiere of the new Clone Wars weekly television series coming to the Cartoon Network, LucasArts, in partnership with Krome Studios, will release Star Wars Clone Wars: Lightsaber Duels for Nintendo's Wii; and LucasArts will release Star Wars The Clone Wars: Jedi Alliance for the Nintendo DS.

So call this the "force" of new technology and a new era of filmmaking from George Lucas and his team. As far as going for something animated, versus live action, this film was almost an after-thought. The animation created by Lucas' engineers and artists in Singapore was originally designed for the TV show. But when Lucas saw how good it was, he decided virtually on the spot to develop a feature film as well. He employed the talents of director Dave Filoni who told me, "We wanted to present Star Wars in a different way; in a more dynamic way through animation and push the envelope."

Forget cameras and film: this big screen feature was entirely created on small screens, inside computers, by an enormous team of animators. One of those animators, Jon Farmer, told me, "The computer is a tool. I mean it's just like a hammer and chisel for a sculptor, or needle and thread for a seamstress. It's just another tool that we can employ to make entertainment for the masses."

Each of the film's characters is a complex, engineering marvel. Electronically painted and shaded, and then activated, animated, by so-called character riggers. What is a "rigger?" Rigger Eddie Piadra says, "A character rigger is kind of a digital puppet maker."

And don't forget sound. With animation, every sound must also be created. Oscar nominated sound engineer Matthew Wood walked me through the process of creating those sounds. "It's a blast," he tells me, creating sounds that have never been heard before. He doesn't just have access to a vast library of noises in the Lucas archives, but he also carries with him a recording device so he's always at the ready to capture noises that capture his imagination. And talk about sinking himself into his work: Not only can Wood himself be heard in this latest feature as the voice of the battle droids, he's better known as the actor who voices the character General Grievous, too. And that role was picked up for the upcoming television series as well.

"We have so many planets we visit, so many creature and characters and vehicles. And it's all sci-fi too, so it's all in your mind as far as how you want to approach those sounds and create them," he tells me.

For George Lucas, it's as much about storytelling as it is about the technology, and with this new generation of filmmaking, this is no longer just about the empire striking back, it's about the empire striking gold. "Star Wars: The Clone Wars," as well as the games based on it, promises to be another juggernaut for Lucas--and all the companies connected to it.

Questions? Comments?