Get a couple of Hollywood's finest old-school model makers in a room, hand them a mic and soak up their astonishing behind-the-scenes stories about inventing special effects on shoestring budgets, way before CGI was a thing. This is what happened a while back at a Maker Faire panel discussion when Fon Davis joined Don Bies and Charlie Bailey who all worked at George Lucas’ company, ILM, on films like Star Wars, Indiana Jones and dozens of others.
Here are some of the highlights of what they had to say…
On Making a Mos Espa Arena Crowd from 400,000 Cotton Buds
Bies: One of the cool things, whenever we're working together, is people thinking outside the box, and trying to come up with practical solutions. And in the early days, certainly, it was 'let's see if we can beat the CG guys at their own game.' Michael Lynch, one of the model makers – he was always really good at looking at things this way – he was looking at the crowds. And when you see a crowd in a stadium you're really just seeing shapes and colours, you're not really seeing people or individual faces.
So he came up with the idea... of using q-tips, cotton swabs, coloured, in the stands of the Mos Espa arena. So there were something like 450,000 q-tips painted multiple colours, and he even researched it to find out how many reds versus yellows and blues and greens that should be in there. And it was a process of just days of painting. Everyone took turns at one point sticking them into the stands. And by blowing a fan underneath, they kind of twinkled, like people moving around. Ultimately they did put some CG people on top of it, but I always thought it would be funny if they cut to a close-up of the stands and you saw a cotton swab sitting in the stands next to the aliens.
On Making a Potato be an Asteroid and a Gym Shoe Be a Spaceship
Bailey: I think the-all time iconic story for special effects came from Ken Rolston when we were working on The Empire Strikes Back. There's a big asteroid belt scene, and Ken was our director of photography. And he put an Idaho potato in the asteroid belt. And we've seen it hundreds of times and could never spot it on the screen. And then on Return of the Jedi, the final battle scene has about 100 spaceships or something flying around. One of those ships is Ken's gym shoe. And once again, I've seen it dozens of times and I can never pick out his shoe. But it's in there in the battle scene.
On Making the Star Destroyer from Soup Ladles and Clip-On Lights
Bailey: My first job at ILM was to build the rocket engines for the big white Star Destroyer. I went off to the hardware store to see what I could find so I wouldn't have to make something, and I found some little aluminium clip-on work lights, took the reflectors off, put projector bulbs in them, decorated them a little bit and stuck them on the Star Destroyer. If you look closely you can see there's a little aluminium reflector in there. A couple years later I used the same concept on E.T.'s little spaceship. All the little domes around the ship are soup ladles of different sizes. Stainless steel soup ladles. It's always fun to look at all these little details and see how we cheated.
On the Explosive Potential of Dried Pasta
Davis: One of my favourites is for creating debris when you're blowing up a model. You need a lot of stuff that's going to fly out of the model, and I actually learned this when I was working with these guys at ILM. You can actually take pasta, because pasta comes in these great shapes and a lot of different varieties. You stick it in a blender, grind it up, and paint it with different colours. And you just fill your model with pasta, and that's what you're actually seeing flying out at you in a lot of these different visual effects shots.
Read more stories shared during the event in this tested.com article by Wesley Fenlon.