Lev Manovich on Mon, 24 May 1999 15:21:59 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> The Empire Strikes Again: A Review of Stars Wars: Episode 1

The Empire Strikes Again: A Review of
Stars Wars: Episode 1 The Phantom Menace

>From Lev Manovich,
special correspondent,
reporting from San Diego,
The Earth,
The Federation,
May 23, 1999.

You would think that San Rafael, California would be the ideal place to
watch the premiere of new Lucasfilm extravaganza, the first truly
all-digital feature (%95 of all shots in the movie were computer generated
or assembled), two years in pre-production and four years in
post-production -- the movie which displays the NATO unmatched rendering
power and which for sure will get Ars Electronica top prize -- Stars Wars:
Episode 1 The Phantom Menace. 

It is there, at Industrial Light & Magic located in San Rafael that most
of the movie was rendered; and indeed, I can see some traces of Northern
California in the film. The humans wear tasteful all-natural cotton
cloves; the older Jedi Knight looks like a CEO of some hot Internet start
up in the Silicon Valley who writes books about social dangers of
computing on the side; Skywalker's mother features minimal make up and
understated but dignified manner, a Northern California type you see
frequently in San Francisco expensive restaurants. 

However, San Diego is a perfect location to see Stars Wars: Episode 1 as
well, especially now. Let me explain. San Diego has the largest
concentration of Airforce and Navy bases in the U.S. and until recently
was known largely as a military town; it is thus a key place in the
Federation's power grid. When I drive between San Diego and Los Angeles, I
pass a long stretch of the base.  Quite often one can see a few military
helicopters in training, flying back and forth, sometimes quite close to
the highway. The wall surrounding the base features a line in big letters
written by an unknown Navy poet: "No Beach is Out of Reach." 

I am stationed not on the base but in the Art Department of the University
of California, San Diego. When I first got here three years ago I went
into the campus bookstore and asked if they have the best in Star Wars
criticism -- Paul Virilio's "War and Cinema." I was told that that they
had two copies in stock for a year but none was sold so they send it back
to the distributor. The center of the bookstore meanwhile was occupied by
numerous Java and C++ textbooks; it seems there were hundreds of different
ones. The campus itself originally was a military base; a few years ago
one of my colleagues still had his studio in a former military building
which are still found here and there throughout the campus. 

In 1960s University of California, San Diego was one of hotbeds of student
movement. Herbert Marcuse, one of the ideologists of this movement, was
teaching here and Angela Davis (now herself a professor at the University
of California, Santa Cruz) was one of the students.  (When I was a pupil
in the school in Moscow in the early 1970s I once had to draw a big poster
which said "Free Angela Davies!" Later we were all marching under a cloudy
Communist sky, as Star Destroyers were flying above us... this was long,
long ago, in the galaxy far away which later was liberated by the
Federation.) The University of California did not know how to get rid of
Marcuse; so they changed the age of mandatory retirement in the University
system, and Marcuse had to retire. Today very few traces of all this are
left. The students worry about the final exams, not the war in Yugoslavia.
Yes, and they do worry about Star Wars. 

May 1999. All across the USA long lines of young Star Wars fans lined up
to catch the first show of the new (or rather, old, as it takes place
before the original Star Wars trilogy) movie. They camped out before the
movie theatres, sleeping in lawn chairs. Some were dressed up in self-made
costumes of Star Wars characters: Luke Skywalker, Princess Lei and so on.
(See www.starwars.com for details). 

The US newspapers dropped or reduce the stories about the war in
Yugoslavia in order to cover the much anticipated premiere. The attention
of the whole nation was focused on the set of pixels ready to flicker on a
movie screen for a couple of hours. The pixels simulating grass, the sky,
metal and skin, arms and legs, humans and non-humans. The pixels crafted
by thousands of people during six years of movie's production. The pixels
which make up Stars Wars: Episode 1 The Phantom Menace. 

I waited couple of days for the passions to die out and for the lines of
fans to disappear, then walked to the box office and asked if I can buy
the ticket. Surprisingly, it worked. Inside, I bought a Big Coke; found an
empty seat; placed the Coke into the special round opening on the left of
the seat and prepared to be carried away by the Force. 

The Hollywood industry is structured around the collective and corporate
authorship and decisions by committee;  the focus groups and marketing pie
charts rule over the Romantic genius. Therefore it produces films which
are characterized by a bricolage, post-modern, or, to use more
contemporary language, plug-in structure. As noted by Jay David Bolter, in
order to appeal to different market segments a single movie combines a
number of genres and styles. Like Eisenstein's montage of attractions, a
contemporary Hollywood product fires a sequence of unrelated stimuli into
its audience, designed to hit whoever happens to be in the dark. A chase
scene; a 70s reference; a love story sub-plot; a character borrowed from
last year's hit; an early 80s reference; and so on. In short, Hollywood
strategy is blanket bombing, not laser guided missiles. 

Star Wars: Episode 1 is no exception to plug-in architecture of Hollywood
movies, although its segments seem to hold better than in a typical
Hollywood product. Still, it is less a coherent building than a set of
Photoshop filters. Despite the perfect digital composing, the human
characters seem to exist in their world, separate from fully digital sets.
The race on the Tatooine where young Skywalker first shows his stuff forms
a self-contained mini-movie of its own. The computer-generated creatures
add the comic gigs. Lovers of desert landscapes get the sands of Tatooine;
the northerners can enjoy the forest of Naboo; while the dwellers of New
York and Tokyo can enjoy the super density of Coruscant, this ultimate
metropolis which tops whatever Rem Koolhaas can ever imagine. 

What I saw was of course wonderfully crafted. It was truly epic both in
its scale and the attention to detail. Indeed if our civilization has any
equivalent to Medieval cathedrals, it is special effects Hollywood films.
Assembled by thousands of highly skilled craftsmen over the course of
years, each such movie is the ultimate display of collective craftsmanship
we have today. But if Medieval masters left after themselves the material
wonders of stone and glass inspired by religious faith, today our
craftsmen leave just the pixel sets to be projected on movie theatre
screens. A kind of immaterial cathedral made of light, with noise of film
stock mixed in together with human labor during the movie projection. The
religious references are still present, both in the story (for instance,
Skywalker was conceived without a father) and in the virtual sets. 

The virtual sets of Stars Wars: Episode 1 are splendid in their glory
although sometimes quite vulgar. Endless waterfalls are stuck in too many
shots, the particle systems obeying the masters of the Skywalker Ranch. Of
course, w e know that the law of digital aesthetics is "copy and paste"
and that once you rendered a perfect waterfall, you are tempted to use it
over and over. Of course it is the same waterfalls which, scaled down, you
will find in the courtyards of corporate buildings throughout California.
As Fred Turner pointed out to me, in the civilization built on the desert
(i.e., California), display of water signifies power and wealth. This
explains the waterfalls of Star Wars' sets. These sets are ultimate in
corporate campuses planning. You can imagine Coruscant housing some future
Microsoft / Disney / Getty conglomerate or other mega-corporation. 

The overall visual aesthetics of the movie is a comic book painted by
Veronese or Titian. The virtual architecture is rich and self-assured; in
contrast, the cinematography is quite modest, even understated. Indeed, if
you spend many months building a virtual set, and if, given even the
massive computing power of NATO's rendering farm, it is still takes a few
hours to render every single frame, you want to show the result in all its
ray traced glory, without messing it up by shadows or camera moves. 

Thus many shots of the movie look as though they came from some 3D
computer animation textbook or from SIGGRAPH exhibition floor. A shining
ship with a reflection map composed over a live plate of a landscape.
Another live plate with thousands of Battle Droid -- the same 3D object
cloned over and over. And so on. 

Many shots of the movie also reminded me of the kind of animations which
were dreamed about by my undergraduate students a few years ago when I was
teaching 3D computer animation in another University before being send to
San Diego. This was in the days before Alias and Wavefront merged together
and before Softimage was bought by Microsoft. None of the students ever
finished their animations because they did not have enough rendering time.
But George Lucas has enough workstations to render any of his fantasies.
The best force in all of the Federation. So now these boys can go to the
movies to see the ultimate student 3D animation of all times. 

If you take away the humans and the plot, what you are left with, on some
basic level, is pure display of computational resources. In a nutshell,
Stars Wars: Episode 1 is a shameless advertisement for NATO, a showcase
for Western technology. Millions of polygons and millions of particles
making every frame. And every frame dense with detail whose only
motivation seems to be to show off human and computer labor which went
into its making. The armies of modelers, animators, technical directors,
programmers and plain "paint monkeys" (the industry name for the low-level
artists employed by special effects houses) being translated into the
endless rows and columns of vehicles and architectural details filing
every shot. The skies dark from the vehicles crossing them back and forth.
The endless fields of Battle Droids shown from every angle; the endless
flocks of various vehicles flying over Coruscant. 

In all its rendered glory and with all its shots featuring the endless
armies of Droids, the automated solders of the future, Stars Wars: Episode
1 is the ultimate military parade. It reminds me of the parade which took
every year in the Moscow's Red Square when I was growing up, when one
Empire was displaying its force for another on pre-arranged dates.  Today
only one of these Empires is left. And it is now putting on its own
parade, both on the fields of Europe and on the movie screens around the
world. Lets hope that Anakin Skywalker and his friends are on our side. 

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