The latest Star Wars game, Force Unleashed II, is out this week and to find out more we visited LucasArts and Industrial Light and Magic at the Letterman Digital Arts Center. Here's what we discovered about the home of Star Wars...As our minibus pulls up to the LucasArts entrance area, there is a strange but not entirely unexpected welcoming party. Darth Vader and six stormtroopers are lined up along the road, standing to attention in the blinding Californian sunshine. Yesterday San Francisco saw its hottest day since records began, and today the temperature remains in the high nineties. Of course, press trips like this are rare, and the staff at LucasArts like to pull out all the stops. But these poor bastards must think they're back on Tatooine.
We're here to tour the Letterman Digital Arts Center, a sprawl of modern office buildings constructed in 1999 to house LucasArts and legendary special effects company, Industrial Light and Magic (ILM). LDAC takes up 860,000 square feet of office space (and 17 acres of parkland) on Frisco's historic Presidio site, once a major Spanish stronghold and then a US Army base for 150 years. And like the previous residents, the Lucas organisation has left its own distinctive mark on the landscape; by the main entrance there is an ostentatious fountain with a life-size statue of Yoda at its head.
This is where all the in-house Star Wars games are developed; currently that means Force Unleashed II, a Jedi brawler set between the two cinematic trilogies. It's also where ILM produces its cutting edge special effects: the likes of Avatar, Star Trek and Iron Man II have all recently passed through here.
The company's far-reaching influence over the last 35 years of cinematic design is abundantly obvious in this vast complex. Everywhere we walk, there are models from the era before digital computer effects took over. We pass ET, the slimer from Ghostbusters, a large spacecraft from Deep Impact; in the reception area there's Han Solo frozen in carbonite (beside a fan-made life-sized model of Jar Jar in carbonite – Lucas liked it so much he wanted it hung here) all intricately detailed and lovingly preserved. On one wall you'll even find the front door to ILM's original office, emblazoned with, 'The Kerner Company, Optical Research Lab', the pseudonym the department once went under in order not to draw attention to its building. "They wanted to keep it because every big director they worked with in those early days touched that door handle," explains LucasArts PR manager Barbara Gamlen as we wander by.
Throughout the complex, the walls are lined with painted concept art. We pass a particularly massive canvases depicting an airport scene from Diehard 2, and there are early sketches of Darth Vader, the At-Ats and the Star Wars droids. Every turned corner, every expanse of vertical space, offers an arcane treat for fans of blockbusting cinema, right down to the ancient Howard Anderson optical printer used to composite many of the effects shots in Star Wars. Lucas also owns the world's largest collection of classic movie posters and dozens of his favourites are hung around this building, as well as on the walls at Skywalker Ranch. Apparently, he'll regularly request that they're moved around, slipping post-it notes on the works to be transferred.
The close unification of LucasArts and ILM in these buildings is symbolic of the convergence we're now seeing between games and movies. Developers on both sides of the divide now employ the same tools, the same staff, and they're exploring the same technological horizons, using bleeding edge motion capture to record human movement, and experimenting with 3D visuals. At LDAC that sort of cross-pollination is rife. "We can walk the corridors and have conversations with the folks creating the Clone Wars TV series, with writers, artists, directors and animators that are carrying the Star Wars legacy forward," says global VP of publishing, Mary Bihr. "And we can talk to people from Industrial Light and Magic, who not only work on Star Wars and Indiana Jones, they touch other properties – right now they're working on films like Rango and Transformers III. We're all housed here in this one facility."
One of our first ports of call is the ILM shooting stage, a darkened warehouse-like space lined with computers and esoteric film-making equipment. "Basically the entire room is a live virtual space," explains digital supervisor Mike Sanders. "We can do blue screen, green screen, HD, you name it. It's equipped for state-of-the-art virtual cinematography, so there's a 40-camera motion capture system in here – if we have actors in mo-cap suits we can record whatever they're doing."
This system is used in almost every movie that ILM works on now. The background characters and hero actions in Iron Man, Transformers and Pirates of the Caribbean were captured here. "We also provide a lot of digital doubles of actors for the stunt work," says Sanders. "We'll either do full CG replacements or we'll do a head or face replacement. We have a technology called Clone Cam, which allows us to rebuild the actor's head in immensely high resolution. It's a photographic technique like a scan, but laser scans take too long, and there are a lot of inaccuracies if the actor moves their head. We invented this technique about six years ago because we were doing Lemony Snickett and we needed a digital baby. You don't want to put babies in front of a laser…"
This same technology, the motion capture cameras and the Clone Cam, have also been used in LucasArts' latest games, including Force Unleashed 2. The pipeline is slightly different, and the data has to be scaled down (it can take all night to render a single frame of a movie CG sequence – a video game needs to render 30 frames a second), but it's the same teams and equipment serving both sectors.
And vitally, this isn't just movies leading the way with video games benefiting from a trickle down effect: game technology is ahead in certain areas. "When we've been able to share our real-time shaders and real-time lighting advances with ILM, they've been blown away," says LucasArts art director Matt Omernick. "In fact, they have wanted to adopt it into many of the projects that they're working on. For a lighting artist, there's a huge advantage in being able to get a scene perfectly right, iterate on it 100 times in one day and then send it off as a render. Movies have got to the point where you can do almost anything, and while games still have a lot of problems to solve, what we're good at is doing things very quickly, and iterating very quickly, and that inevitably gets you to a higher quality. That will feed back in to both industries."
It's also a gaming event that helped Sanders and his team to develop ILM's latest technique – real-time movie-making using motion capture systems...
Go there tomorrow and read part two. Amazing article.