As 1995 dawdles on, Sandra Bullock finds the WWW to be a veritable death trap, while mutant Kevin Costner gets ’em with his trusty catamaran. Yet what in the name of Yoda is Vader doing on gargantuan billboards?
Ten years after the beginning of the Dark Times, Lucasfilm had long since vacated its shadows to bathe in the beautifully self-orchestrated market of 1995. On the one hand, there was keen and global interest to immerse oneself in every way imaginable in the world of the original saga. On the other, fantastic ramblings of a new set of Star Wars films pervaded the media – young Obi-Wan was then rumoured to be “created” by mapping the face of young Alec Guinness over an unknown actor according to British Sky One teletext – so that fandom and industry pundits alike were eager to be continuously filled in on the progress made over at the Ranch. Lucasfilm would now stalwartly address the needs of the people and the market they constituted.
At the dawn of a new era, it is wise to return to the origins of a phenomenon, both as a reminder of as well as leverage to the excitement that once was and that is to come. So in the summer of 1995, Lucasfilm canvassed the world with ominous words: “The Original – One Last Time – August 29th, 1995”.
For the first time in more than 10 years Star Wars invaded public life in grand style. The bold campaign featured either Darth Vader, Yoda or the menacing Stormtrooper on glossy posters, billboards and advertisements. Understandably enticed beyond all known measures of reason, several grabbed their families, charged their SUVs and raced over to the nearest megaplex, only to be turned away in disappointment. George Lucas had something far less ephemeral than a two-hour ride down memory lane in mind.
In a USA Today interview Lucas quipped that he had always wondered why his friend Steven’s E.T. had shipped vastly more units than his saga, so he figured giving the public a quality product for the ages might do the trick. The Master Jedi consequently invited young and old to bring home all those precious memories, the excitement and the fun in the form of the world’s first THX-certified VHS release. The timing could never have been better as books, games and long worn-off tapes made Lucasfilm’s offer irresistible.
The large-scale video release – which completely replaced any previous, dust-gathering incarnation in stores – was drawn from the same interpositive that had made laserdisc owners exceedingly happy two years before. Star Wars had therefore never looked better at home. Lucas confirmed that this was “the closest it can get to laserdisc”.
After years of references, tangential narratives and sequel storylines, the OT was once again at the very heart of the matter. Especially young generations, who had come in touch with the saga through books, comics and electronic games finally could enjoy Star Wars for themselves and feast on the grandeur of Lucas’s epic.
By all accounts, the 1995 video release completely lifted the Star Wars films from the dingy tombs of motion picture history. Those who had experienced it before felt as though no time had passed at all.
Yet compromise lurks in every nook of life, so in contrast to today’s massive DVD special editions, the 1995 release of the saga was principally a bare-bones presentation. Even the laserdisc re-release had been deprived of the excellent extras of the 1993 Definitive Collection, with merely a new interview featuring George Lucas spread over all three OT episodes. This new piece proved, however, to be far more than the average, run-of-the-mill, misty-eyed reflection on things long gone.
The new, mass-marketed THX-certified video was a great opportunity to reach out to the fans directly. George Lucas virtually sat down in your living room to elaborate on how this was really a new beginning, how technological advances would no longer hold back his visions for the prequel story arc.
Although pod-racers were already taking shape in North California, it certainly was much too early in the game to tease people in this fashion. The world nevertheless got a splendid taste of what to expect of the new Star Wars films by proxy: the distribution of the intriguing interview was well timed to occur around the release of two key ILM productions.
Under the reliable auspices of Ken Ralston and the late Stephen Price, ILM equipped the family adventure Jumanjii , starring Robin Williams – and featuring an up-and-coming Kirsten Dunst, with the latest in creature animation. Revolving around a mysterious board game, the film tells the story of how an entire jungle is let loose on an unassuming town. The digital artists consummately indulged in the challenge of re-creating real-life creatures, spending days studying the animals at Marine World Africa USA and the San Francisco Zoo. Jumanjii’s show-stopping stampede remains to this day a jaw-dropping exercise in rebuilding and animating animals in a computer to employ them in ways previously impossible in film production. The enormous effort vastly outshone Jurassic Park’s dinos in terms of detail and interaction, an achievement feat ILM most happily made for Jumanjii’s director, none other than ILM founding member Joe Johnston.
Yet in the same year, it was first and foremost Universal’s Memorial Day tentpole Casper . Made by NYPD Blue veteran director Brad Silberling, Casper bet its entire fortune on the successful rendering of believable computer generated acting. The ghost of a boy, the titular Casper, and his mean uncles Stretch, Fatso and Stinkie appeared in more than 40 minutes of character animation where they had to interact with actress Christina Ricci and actor Bill Pullman. To put this project, launched less than two years after Jurassic Park, in proper perspective, one must remember that the dinosaurs only roamed the silver screen for a puny 7 minutes. Silberling’s ambitious film thus required effects supervisor Michael Lantieri – a renowned ILM legend and a lead member on the Jurassic Park fx team – not only to create animation for six times the CGI screen time of the dino-epic but take care that the characters would be properly lip-synched, timed to the live action character interplay and tied to the physical sets around them as any normal flesh-and-bones actor would be.
Jumanjii and especially Casper, “ILM’s largest production to date” – according to Lucasfilm’s Adventurer magazine – were major milestones in creature and character animation, the very groundwork George Lucas wanted to build the prequel films on.
The ingenious coincidence of ILM-created marvels and Lucasfilm’s unstoppable thrust to finally concern themselves with a galaxy far, far away again imprinted on people’s minds that regardless of the narrative, the acting or the ticket prices, the next Star Wars would simply be visually jaw-dropping.
Now while the Prequels were undoubtedly at the heart of every single one of George Lucas’ thoughts, the 1995 video re-issue pursued a second, perhaps more crucial goal…
TO BE CONTINUED….