Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Skywalker Digital Summit 2002

April 20th, 2002.
It started innocently enough. I was asked to show the real time previz tool to some people up at Skywalker Ranch. There was no mention of the context nor were there mention of the attendees list - just "a few directors" is what i was told. In this case ignorance was a good thing because if i had found out WHO was going to be in attendence I probably would've felt a lot more pressure than I already did.

I assumed George Lucas was going to be there and since I knew of his cinematic tastes, I wanted to create a demo around a movie that he knew well. The point being that I wanted to show how the way we were doing previz at the time - by putting the controls in the hands of people who knew 3D but not necessarily film makers - that we were removing "the story teller" from the creative loop. I'm a firm believer in technology but not in the way that most people think. I'm a "creative elitist" and believe technology will lead to great art ONLY in the hands of those who know how to use it.

So to prepare, I spent a few days scrutinizing scenes from Kurosawa's masterpeice "Seven Samurai" and with the help of an ILM colleague (Izzy Acar) recreated the village scene in 3D complete with surrounding hills and forests, buildings, animated horses and people. Coming on the heels of my previz project (a mod for Epic's Unreal engine) for Spielberg's movie A.I., I enlisted 2 ILM software engineers Ryan Kautzman and Peter Ward to redevelop the PREVIZ TOOL. This time I chose to use the freely distributed XSI viewer as our platform. The UI also went thru more refinement - it became more professional, something that an editor or director would immediately feel comfortable in. In fact this became the design mantra as i was developing this app - it had to be something that a non-3d artist can pickup and learn immediately.

On the night before the event, Izzy and I went up to the Ranch to set up the demo and it was also the 1st time that Izzy got his hands on the previz tool. Being a live action director himself, he took to it immediately and after about half an hour, produced 5 different versions of the "seige" scene from Seven Samurai on the PREVIZ TOOL. Each was based on the same exact master animation but differed in the way he used the camera to tell the story. Cinematically, these 5 versions covered the gamut from what Izzy called "classic" to "dogma style", from "handheld" to an over-the-top contemporary hollywood style full of boom-ups and tracking shots favored by a certain big time director (who was also in attendance;)
On Apr. 20th, I triple and quadruple checked my laptop and drove up to the ranch. I parked my car on the lot to the left of the main house and walked up to the front door as I've done many times before.
I opened the door.

During my tenure at ILM, I have been lucky enough to have worked fairly closely with some of the biggest names in cinema. I've always remained professional in my dealings with them. However, when i walked though those doors, I felt like I had walked into some cinephile's dream world, where EVERY MAJOR HOLLYWOOD DIRECTOR was casually chatting and talking with each other. They ran the gamut from established legends to young up-and-comers. There were no entourage nor publicists in sight, which presumably was what George had intended.


I overheard someone say that if something happened during that event, that Hollywood would never recover - they weren't exagerating: Lucas, Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola, Lasseter, Catmull, Oliver Stone, Michael Mann - the list went on and on.
George's intention was to gather all of these directors together at his "office" to talk about the future of High Definition Digital Cinema. The afternoon consisted of presentations by various directors, showing off beautiful digitally produced works-in-progress, as well as a few people from ILM like myself who showed off technologies. In between presentations there was "lively" debate by directors on both sides of the digital fence. It all added up to the impression that for that day, the people gathered there were just like all the other film-makers in film schools all over the world - passionate artists with a point of view about how best to tell the stories that they wanted to tell.

To maintain my professionism, I've struggled with wether I should share this story or not - i've waited 10 years! In the end I came to the conclusion that I needed to share this peice of history with the world because there were not many witnesses. Whatever side of the fence you sit on in the digital cinema debate, you cannot deny the fact that George Lucas has been instrumental in pushing the boundaries of film making. The world has become numb to the incredible visual spectacles that Hollywood churns out, while the technologies themselves have become commodified to the point where once you need PHD's and mainframes to make compelling realistic visual effects - now all you need are a few cheap PCs, about $500 worth of software, a few talented friends and AN IDEA!

Of course, George Lucas's Digital Summit of 2002 was not the only catalyst for the digital film-making revolution. It has been fueled in no small part by the incredible pace of technological innovation and commodification. However, considering the "Hollywood Braintrust" that George Lucas had gathered there on that day, its safe to say that the event helped establish the ENDLESS POSSIBILITIES of digital film-making in the highest echelons of Hollywood.

I have no doubt that we're living downstream from that spring afternoon in the foothills of Marin county.

Wilson Tang

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  1. Very nice Wilson. And your right it is a good thing you did not know the scope of this monumental meeting. And I love that you are a Bulldozer...lol.

  2. WOW!! Thank you for sharing your story Wilson. Beautifully written and well told. What an incredible story.

    1. Thanks for reading! Yeah i've been meaning to share that experience - it was such an honor to be part of it but let me tell you, ive NEVER been more nervous in all my life! (and i'm usually pretty non-chalant about things like this)

  3. Wilson, I really enjoyed this story. What a momentous event. And I recognized your reference to the previs for AI you did with Epic's Unreal Engine. I was in Production Engineering at the time and I put that box together for you.