Dane. Designer.

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The Making of A New Hope's CGI Effects

To see the making of these effects ‘in action’ is truly remarkable. Particularly remarkable is how the 3D ‘modeller’ is controlled, by dials. Pulling together various sources, most prominently from Droidmaker, here’s what I could find on Larry Cuba’s CGI effects for Star Wars.

In 1975, Larry Cuba, a computer graphics artist working out of the Electronic Visualization Laboratory (EVL) (at the time known as the Circle Graphics Habitat) at the University of Illinois at Chicago, bid on the CGI effects needed for the first Star Wars film.

Visiting a still under construction Industrial Light and Magic in Van Nuys, LA, he showed the CG art film Arabesque to George Lucas, after which he got the job.

Doing the effects pushed the university computers so hard that they would crash continuously, and he constantly had to re-adjust the air conditioning in the already freezing offices.

After days of sleeping less than three hours each night, Cuba gave up. He turned off all the air conditioners and finally went to sleep. “When I woke up I realized the computer had run throughout the night, said Cuba. “I guess it was too cold.”

There was no local processing for the 35mm film Cuba needed for delivering the effects, so all his film was shipped to a lab in Los Angeles.

“That meant that ILM saw the effects before I did. If there was a glitch in the program, they got very confused. I’d get these calls, ‘Why is part of the trench upside down?’ On my screen I couldn’t see it the way they could. It was a very slow process.”

In the end, his final frames were combined with a few hand-drawn touches from ILM—the little triangular ship dropping the bomb on the vent, some flashing arrows. It was the first time 3-D computer graphics were presented in a major motion picture.

- Michael Rubin, Droidmaker: George Lucas and the Digital Revolution, Triad Publishing Company, 2006, p. 72.

That book by the way, is a fantastic read.

PS: The other displays, like the targeting displays in the Falcon and the X-Wings, were all hand-animated.