Preparing to Fly Solo
Issue: Volume 34 Issue 5: (May 2011)

Preparing to Fly Solo

Last year, a group of students at the The Digital Animation & Visual Effects (DAVE) School in Florida set out to write, model, render, and produce a “fan short” for the Star Wars Fan Movie Challenge at the annual Star Wars fan gathering, known as Celebration.

Created with NewTek’s LightWave 3D software, the animated short, called “The Solo Adventures,” follows the experiences of Han Solo and his faithful co-pilot, Chewbacca, from the Star Wars saga. The film, which is approximately 5 minutes long, went on to win the Best Animation title and quickly became a fan favorite in this galaxy not so far, far away. Lending navigational guidance to the students was Jeff Sheetz, school director and co-owner. Sharing the co-director title on the project were instructors Jason Bichon and Dan Smith (whom Sheetz dubs the school’s “stereoscopic expert”), though the entire team had a part in the writing.
Students worked collaboratively on the film’s animation and effects during a three-month period at the end of their one year of study.

Here, Sheetz discusses the project and workflow, as well as how he got into the business of making films and training others.

What was the initial audience reaction to “The Solo Adventures”?
Audiences really liked the look and feel of this animated ‘fan’ short. Regarding the art direction for some of the ships, like the Millennium Falcon, we took some liberties, but overall, we tried to stay true to the feeling and action of the first three Star Wars films (Episodes IV, V, VI).

When did you first get into 3D, and what inspired you?
I experienced 3D computer animation way back in the early ’90s, when the first version of [NewTek] LightWave 3D was released. At that time, access to any professional 3D package or system was very hard to obtain and very expensive.

When I moved to Lawrence, Kansas, the TV station I was working at had connections with NewTek. The commercial producer used its VideoToaster, and I got a chance to work with LightWave and started getting experience in 3D. My friend Bruce Brannon was working with LightWave, and we pooled our money to get a VideoToaster 4000, with ambitions of going to Hollywood. At that time, visual effects shops, like Foundation Imagining, were popping up, and the work they were doing on Star Trek just continued to inspire us. I really got my full experience with LightWave when I landed a job doing tech support at NewTek and got to learn about LightWave all day.

What film inspired you?
King Kong in the 1970s, I think it was 1976. I was watching the re-make of King Kong (with Jessica Lange) and saw the special effects mixed with huge props and the life-size Kong hand that picked up Jessica Lange. I realized that one day very soon, these clumsy and non-believable ‘real-world’ special effects would all go digital. That’s what got me interested in filmmaking. Visual effects and monster makers, like Rick Baker and John Dykstra, were pioneering new and innovative ways to depict things out in space. Then, of course, Star Wars came along, and that one film launched the dreams and careers of thousands.

The Star Wars short looks like it came directly from Lucas’s team at ILM. Can you tell us about “The Solo Adventures” project and why you used LightWave 3D software to create it?
Well, first of all, we can do anything we want to do in LightWave and not have to wrestle with the software. LightWave continues to be one of the easiest 3D software packages on the market to work with, even though 3D is not ‘easy.’

We wanted to fashion ‘The Solo Adventures’ close to the animated look of ILM and Lucas Arts’ The Clone Wars, but also add some of our own touches. We were thrilled that we were able to make this short and give it such a professional look with our small student team, and, hopefully, some of our students can go on to work at ILM or any other studio, and put out good work with the skills they learned.

We used LightWave for the same reason that many independent VFX shops and studios that are on tight time and budget schedules use it: It just works. Even today, in many television series (Battlestar Galactica and V, for instance), LightWave is still being used. That’s where it excels. Other 3D software packages work well, for sure, but at The DAVE School, we keep teaching with LightWave.

Since most of us are Star Wars fans, the practical “doing something you love” approach must have been such fun and so educational for your team.  What’s next on your roster?
For “The Solo Adventures,” our goal was to create something fun and something that follows the original Star Wars fan film. Most fan films go dark and look at the inner struggles related to the Jedi. We wanted to get back to the fun and adventure elements, and re-visit the relationship with Han Solo and Chewie. We got everyone together to come up with our own take of what our version of Han, Chewie, and the robot character would be doing. We borrowed a lot of the expressions and personalities from the first three films.

After we designed and scripted the short, we passed the designs on to the students, who got right to work to realize the vision of the art director. In addition, we used the motion-capture stage at Universal Orlando’s Stage 25. (The 11,000-square-foot soundstage contains a large greenscreen in addition to a motion-capture setup.) We also were extremely lucky to get John Armstrong, who amazingly voices Han Solo in the video games (Star Wars: Empire at War  and Star Wars Battlefront: Renegade Squadron). John is able to emulate Harrison Ford to a tee and match the Han Solo voice perfectly. Of course, we had great fun using some of the clichés of the characters, and John’s voice gave everything a familiar and original twist.

After all the animation was done, we had six weeks to cut and edit the film–just in time for the deadline for the Celebration Star Wars submission.

We also made a special edition in stereoscopic 3D. LightWave 3D gave us the option to create a stereoscopic 3D version, which came out incredible and gave us a definite edge. With the popularity of stereoscopic 3D today, we were able to give our students valuable exposure to working on a two-view, interocular 3D stereo environment, thanks to the software.  

Tell us about winning the best short award for “The Solo Adventures,” and the positive impact it has had on you and the team.
It was an all-time high for everyone. I was so proud of the whole team. The stereoscopic 3D version gave us the winning edge, no doubt. We’ll definitely use LightWave again, especially for 3D stereoscopic projects. We’re excited to be working in stereo 3D, and the new anaglyph 3D tools and features in LightWave 10 have us excited.

We currently have three new projects in stereoscopic 3D, which is no longer considered a gimmick; it’s required. Following our most recent graduation, the production company Stereo hired 12 graduates from The DAVE School. And then hired 25. And then 18 more.  

What did you learn most from this project, and what was the biggest revelation from using LightWave 3D?
I guess the top things we learned most were: deadlines, collaboration, asset management, and creative vision.

We learned that by having a group under the direction of an instructor who has production experience, the students learned firsthand why deadlines must be managed closely, and why it’s important we name things the way we do and manage our assets and file structures. We created many 3D assets, and in a massive group project, we had to keep organized.

We wanted to set up a ‘real-world’ environment and help the students get the right attitude of how to work in a group and team. Since we make four movies a year, all these real-world studio production situations are extremely relevant and vital to our students’ success.

Our next big project is called ‘Zombie Apocalypse,’ about a theme park run by zombies. This will be interesting!