Like many of you, I am a fan of the Star Wars films. When the first film came out in 1977, I was
seven years old. So I literally grew up on Star Wars. And I always thought it would be cool to be
able to be in a Star Wars film. (I still do!)
This brings me to a few weeks ago, when I went surfing some of the better Star Wars fan sites out
there. One of the best, theforce.net had been a major place for news before
the latest movie came out. Since then, I had not been back to the site much. But on this day, I
decided to take a look at some of the fan films they have showcased there. For those not in the
know, fan films are just that, films that Star Wars fan themselves have made, usually in QuickTime
format. Most are amateurish in nature, but most are better than I could do myself. Still, you could
tell these films, while entertaining at times, were far from the production level of the real things. And
I thought that would be the status quo for Star Wars fan films, until I watched Duality for the first
Duality, by CrewOfTwo.com, sets a new standard of what a fan film can be. The acting is first rate,
but more incredibly, the special effects rival that of George Lucas’s own Industrial Light and Magic.
And, not surprisingly, it was ALL done on Macintosh computers.
After watching Duality a number of time, and showing it to not a few other people, I just knew I
had to contact the people responsible for this great film, and do an interview with them for
mymac.com. Happily, Mark Thomas and Dave Macomber, the creators of Duality,
readily agreed to the interview. (Which was conducted via email in mid-March 2001).
Before reading below, I highly recommend watching the film, which you can view here. You can watch the film in
QuickTime format of course. If you are on a low speed internet connection, I recommend viewing
the smaller QuickTime file in 320 and 47Mb in size
and for high speed broadband
connections, the 480 version. If you
simply don’t want to download such big files, and just want a taste of this fantastic six and a half
minute film, you can view either of the trailers, one 4.5Mb
in size or the longer trailer,
Tim: Mark:, Dave, what can I say? I am blown away. Like I said in my preface to this interview, most fan films are shot using low quality equipment on home made sets. How did you pull off such a wonderful masterpiece without a HUGE bankroll?
Mark: We leveraged our computers and, like Charles Foster Kane, tried everything we could think of. A few years ago we discovered a well kept secret: many final shots in the Star Wars Special Edition and The Phantom Menace were accomplished using Macintoshes and Electric Image, so it became clear that the only thing separating us from them was experience. I also think blind optimism and na•vetŽ played a large role.
Dave: I’m of the opinion that the paradigm in Hollywood is going to be changing with respect to that kind of thing very soon. The amateur filmmaker has the ability to create some really high production value for relatively little money now. The biggest expenditure is time. If you’re willing to take the time, you can do just about anything.
Tim: Before getting into all the details of Duality, you also created a smaller movie, titled Duel. In that film, you shot in a desert and the only special effects were the light sabers. Was that your first foray into filmmaking? If so, was it more of a learning experience and what did you walk away from it with?
Mark: Our first movie was a short, stop-motion, Imperial Walkers vs. Snowspeeders movie shot on Super 8 film which we made in Jr. High with the help of college-age film student. I still have a print!
Dave: Duel came about by accident in a way. I own a martial arts school, and was contacted by an aspiring actor who was hoping to score an audition for the role of Anakin Skywalker in Episode II. It was his intention to gain some swordsmanship training from me and add a notation to his resume about it. I suggested to him that we do a demo-reel instead, so that they could SEE that he could use a Ôsaber, rather than just reading about it. Three weeks later, Duel was done, and on the web. Mark and I weren’t very satisfied with Duel from a film making point of view, however, as we’d had such a short period of time to work on it. Duality is the result of that dissatisfaction.
Mark: Duel can best be described as having been rushed. It began life as an attempt to create a sword fighting demo reel for an actor, Josh Waller, who was supposed to have an audition for the part of Anakin Skywalker in Episode II. We had three weeks from concept to completion, which meant that we had to get a camera, choreograph a duel, write a minimal script, create costumes, shoot the movie, edit the movie, and add effects all in those three weeks. Although there are countless flaws in Duel, it still works because it’s focused. Duel showed us that two guys with no experience really could make a movie if they set their mind to it.
Tim: The new film is titled Duality. Who came up with the name, and what is its significance?
Mark: I lobbied hard for that title!
Dave: Mark came up with the title. It refers to a few things: Duality is one of the major themes in Episode I, and it is with us as well, as the Master Sith (Darth Oz) has two apprentices. This is also our second fan-film. It also sounds kind of like Duel…
Mark: Duality was the title of a game, a first-person shooter that Dave and I were eagerly awaiting, but which got cancelled half-way through development. Not only did Duality sound cool as a title, it spelled out our movie’s theme, which literally is “duality” or “two-ness.” This theme manifests itself in our movie in a number of ways, the most obvious being that there are two Sith apprentices, and Darth Oz must choose between them (as is made clear in The Phantom Menace, there can only ever be twoÑa master and an apprentice). The theme of duality is apparent in a number of smaller ways as well. Oz appears only as a huge, frightening hologram to his apprentices, but is really flesh and blood. The halt droid is at first a mindless, robotic sentry, but later reveals itself to be a cynic.
Tim: Many people would kill me if I did not ask, but HOW did you create all those special effects? Let’s start with the beginning of Duality, and the ultra-cool modified tie-fighter type of ship. Who came up with the design, and what programs did you use to create the ship?
Dave: Mark and I made some sketches for the ship early on separately, and they ironically ended up being quite similar. I refined the ship’s design a bit, and handed it back to Mark, who finalized the design. I took that design and did a preliminary model in a 3D program that we later abandoned in favor Electric Image. Once we made the decision to go with EI, Mark did the final modeling chores on the ship.
Mark: We wanted the designs in Duality to be simultaneously futuristic and retro, so there is a lot of art deco on Korriban. We knew the ship should be reminiscent of a T.I.E., but we wanted it to be softer than that, less angular, more streamlinedÑas if its designer was not just an engineer, but an artist. Dave and I each sketched a version of this ship, and then I created an Illustrator schematic using elements from both sketches. The ship was modeled in Electric Image Modeler, and then textured and animated in the Electric Image Animator.
Tim: The fog effect in the canyon below the ship when it is landing is great. How difficult is it to make it look so realistic?
Dave: That was all Mark:’s doing…
Mark: That is my favorite effect in the whole movie because it is so convincing, and was so simple to accomplish. It’s just a still image of synthetic clouds made in Photoshop using Filter > Render > Clouds. This image was placed over the animation of the ship descending, made translucent, and then simply dragged across the animation from the top right corner to the bottom left corner.
Tim: The Halt Droid, which bars Lord Rive’s way at the beginning, is truly a work of art. How long did it take to create it?
Mark: The Halt Droid came together very quickly.
Dave: Again, that was mostly Mark. We passed some ideas back and forth (you can see one of the early designs in the storyboards here.
Mark: It was originally going to be a hand-shaped device that comes out of a hatch in the door and literally halts Rive the way a traffic cop would. Not wanting to deal with the complexities of animating such a thing, we simplified the design to the probe-like droid it is now. The actual model is pretty simple and was modeled in a single evening.
Tim: I noticed a huge similarity to the Halt Droid to the one that stopped C3PO and R2D2 in Return of the Jedi outsides Jabba’s palace. I know from your website that this is on purpose, but the sound/voice of the Droid is uncanny. Who made the sound, and is in the same “language” as the one in Return of the Jedi?
Mark: We stole the voice from Return of the Jedi too!
Dave: That sound, like most of the sounds that appear in Duality, was taken from the Return of the Jedi Laser Disk (we also sampled from Empire Strikes Back and Phantom Menace), and then altered so that it wasn’t EXACTLY the same.
Mark: We just changed around the order of a few words here and there, reversed a few words, and that was it. So the droid is technically speaking pig-Huttese, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense since we’re on the planet Korriban, but an homage is an homage. We were after a specific feel, not total authenticity.
Tim: Unlike your first film, Duel, which was shot on location, Duality is shot exclusively using bluescreen technology, correct?
Dave: Yes. When we filmed Duel, we were subject to the environment Ð we were actually caught in a sandstorm that destroyed the video camera. We resolved early on to do Duality entirely with digitally created environments, partially because we wanted to avoid catastrophes like that, but also because we wanted to take the next step in making sure that the story was as firmly seated in the Star Wars universe as possible. We didn’t want anything to betray its earthly origins…
Mark: Correct. Every shot was filmed against bluescreen. Even the floor was blue.
Tim: Even the floor? Did you create your own bluescreen, or use one in a studio?
Dave: We rented a studio in Santa Barbara, Alamo Studios, and painted the whole cyclorama chroma-key blue.
Mark: Alamo Studios has a 30×30 foot photography cove which curves across two corners and also curves down to the floor. We painted the entire thing chroma-key blue for the shoot, and then painted it back to white after we were done filming. We had nearly 180 degrees of bluescreen.
Tim: How long did the actual filming take?
Dave: Principle photography took place over the course of three days, along with a one-half day pick-up shoot.
Mark: Three 12 hour days, plus a three hour pick-up shoot a few months later.
Tim: In a project like this, what is the first step besides writing the plot?
Mark: Coming up with a game plan.
Dave: Pre-planning played a significant role in making sure that we didn’t blow it when we got on set.
Mark: Before we even had a story, we knew we were going to shoot against bluescreen and render our sets digitally on the Mac. This meant that we had to keep the movie short, use a minimum number of sets, and keep the camera locked down as much as possible. We planned everything in great detail, and then stuck with the plan.
Dave: Each shot was carefully storyboarded beforehand, because we knew that consistency errors would be extremely easy to make while filming with no real set. We glued the storyboards to foam-core boards and brought them to the set, and drew big red “X’s” through them as we went along.
Tim: The special effects are what people notice first when watching Duality. Who specializes in what? Do you tag-team doing the CGI work?
Dave: It is kind of a tag-team affair, with both of us having a specialty. We both were responsible for the modeling (Mark did the ship, the temple exterior, the Halt-droid, and the combat platform, I did the landing platform, the hallway, the elevator tower, the interior walls of the temple, and the remote droids). Mark did most of the 3D animating (I only animated the remote droids) and all of the matte paintings. I was responsible for 2D effects, which included things like the compositing, the lightsabers, the lightning, the smoke effects, cutting Steve in half and so on…
Mark: I did most of the CGI workÑthe matte paintings, the sets, the shots of the ship, and the Halt Droid. Dave did the keying and compositing, the lightsaber glows, and put together the seekers sequence. He also did some modeling. I think that if we had been less focusedÑif we had jumped back and forth doing each other’s work, we would have wasted a lot of time stepping on each other’s toes. By keeping our duties separate we were able to focus on what we were doing, and I think the finished product is stronger for it.
Tim: How long did it take to create all the sets in Duality?
Dave: Time questions are always difficult to answer, because we’ve been maintaining “normal” life while we’ve been working on the project. Consequently, some days had five minutes of work, while others involved hours and hours…
Mark: The modeling was the easiest part. What took so much time was getting everything textured and lighted so that when it came time to rendering plates, it was a simple matter of moving the virtual camera and clicking render.
Tim: What were the principle programs used to create the effects, such as the sets, spacecraft, and light sabers?
Dave: Electric Image was our primary 3D package, and After Effects was our primary 2D package.
Mark: All of the CGI was created with Electric Image. The lightsabers were accomplished using a combination of Commotion (to track motion and create selection paths) and After Effects (where the actual glow was applied).
Tim: As actors, you both did a great job. You both seem very comfortable using light sabers. Was all the swordplay choreographed, or did you just “do it” when filming started? How long did it take to get to the point where you were comfortable filming it?
Mark: The swordplay was choreographed by Dave in the months leading up to the shoot, so by the time I had them in front of the cameras, it was, for me, a simple matter of saying “action” and letting them go at it. (I never actually wield a sword in Duality. I play Darth Oz, so I appear as a hologram through most of the movie and only appear briefly in the flesh, at the end.)
Dave: My cousin, Steven Muraoka, (who played Darth Blight, my opponent in the film), has been a student of mine for about eight years, and is a second-degree black belt. We worked on the choreography over the course of a few months to prepare for the shoot.
Tim: Kevin Jones is listed as Director of Photography. Was he more or less a director, or did you tell him what it was you wanted done, and he followed the script?
Dave: Kevin’s biggest contribution to Duality was the lighting and camera operation (he also owns the studio space we rented). Mark and I co-directed the film (most of it had been directed already in the storyboard phase, and Mark acted as on-set director for most of filming, as I was in front of the camera for much more time than he was).
Mark: I had to make sure that we followed our storyboards as closely as possible in order to ensure a smooth post-production. Kevin kept the cameras running and configured properly, and oversaw the lighting setups.
Tim: All told, how many hours did it take from start to finish to make Duality?
Mark: I can’t even fathom a guess!
Dave: More than I can guess, either!
Mark: Our level of daily activity gradually increased over a year’s time, with the most intense period beginning at the end of September when we shot our live action. We spent four months on post-production, working mostly in the evenings.
Tim: I am curious about the music in the film. It is very much in the genre of Star Wars, and sounds very familiar to me. Just by hearing it, I think “Star Wars.” Is the music original, or did it come from John Williams Star Wars score?
Dave: Again, we used music directly from the original films, edited so that certain music cues would hit important moments in the film.
Mark: That’s a single piece of music from The Phantom Menace soundtrack, edited to fit the action. I’ve always felt that Star Wars wouldn’t have been half the success it was without John Williams’s score backing it up. You can’t do Star Wars without John Williams.
Tim: Sound plays a huge roll in any film, and that is made apparent in Duality. The sound effects, from the Sith Terminator fly-by, the snap-hiss of the light sabers, the little exhausted noise the air-jets make on the Sith Terminator when it lands, the ghost-like voice of the emperor, and others, really make a difference. Who came up with the sounds? Are they all original creations, or taken from one of the movies?
Mark: As with the music, we used actual Star Wars sounds.
Dave: Almost all of the sounds were taken from the films, the primary exceptions being our voices and a few of the grunts that we give when being kicked and such.
Mark: We got some of them off the Internet from people who had gotten them off of Star Wars games, but we also sampled a huge number of sounds from the movies on laserdisc.
Tim: While I am sure George Lucas has been busy this last year filming the next installment to the Star Wars franchise, Episode II, I am curious if he has seen Duality and has commented on it?
Dave: No word yet, but we’d love to know. We do know that it HAS been seen at Skywalker Ranch, though…
Mark: We know that several people who work closely with him have and were apparently impressed. Mission accomplished!
Tim: The Emperors darkside lightning power at the end of the film is even better than those in Return of the Jedi. How difficult was it to not only recreate that effect, but also improve upon it?
Mark: Dave handled the lightning effect, so I’ll let him comment on it.
Dave: The toughest thing about the lightning was match-moving the bolts to Mark’s fingers, which involves key-framing and is very tedious. In addition, there were many layers of lightning to deal with, but much of the process was automated with After Effects plug-ins.
Tim: What Macintosh systems were used to create Duality?
Mark: Most of the work was done using several-years-old G3 and pre-G3 hardware, including a PowerBook and a Power Computing clone. Shortly before we shot our live action, we both upgraded to dual-processor G4 systems.
Dave: Mark and I are both running 500 MHz dual processor G4’s, each with 500 megs of RAM.
Tim: Why choose Macintosh when creating a film like this?
Dave: Is there another choice? Did I miss something? 😉
Mark: We were Mac guys to start with, but a project such as this is hugely complicated, so the last thing you want to do is add to the complexity by using a computer or OS that is, in itself, another puzzle to solve. Macs are a lot simpler than other computers, so they get our of your way and allow you get your work done quicker. I should mention that Electric Image (which was, when we started working on Duality, a Mac-only application) is widely regarded for its rendering quality and speed. Because every shot in Duality is either partly CGI or all CGI, rendering speed and quality were of utmost importance. No other application could have come through for us the way Electric Image did.
Tim: For the next filmmaker who wants to follow your steps in creating a Star Wars fan film, or any other type of film, what suggestions would you give them?
Dave: Think Different. Really. I think that often people don’t grow, because they don’t try to do things that they don’t think they can do. With Duality, Mark: and I intentionally painted ourselves into a corner: we had no idea how we were going to do half of the effects in the film when we shot the footage. There’s nothing like a little pressure to inspire creativity. There were a ton of creative answers that came about (and a lot of learning going on) because we wrote the film without thinking about what we couldn’t do. Duality ended up being a kind of special-effects/film-making college for us, and the film itself is our thesis.
Mark: Our motto was “play it straight, keep it simple.” If I were to give this advice to another filmmaker I would add “stay focused.” Too many filmmakers lose their focus. No matter what happens, stick to your original concept and don’t give up. Do what you set out to do.
Tim: Any plans to follow up on another Duality type film?
Dave: Well, we both have several ideas for projects that we’d like to do, and the subject matter is quite varied. Whatever we decide on (and we have a very likely candidate right now), it will be an original story this time, and not a fan-film.
Mark: No immediate plans. We don’t know what our next project will be, but if it’s something we do by ourselves, it probably won’t be based on Star Wars.
Tim: Did you have any worries that by making such a terrific Star Wars film, you may be calling down the Lucas Legal on you? What sort of copyright woes do you have to worry about with a film like this?
Dave: Lucasfilm has thus far been very gracious about fan-films, more or less saying that they’re fine with them provided that nobody tries to make money directly from the film.
Mark: Lucasfilm is extremely tolerant of fan films. So long as you don’t sell your movie, you’re more or less free to do what you want. Just be sure to give credit where credit is due, and have respect for the source. We used to joke that we wanted Duality to be so good that Lucasfilm banned it!
Dave: This is in stark contrast to many other companies who have gone out and shut down fan-films based on their properties. In all honesty, I think that’s a terrible policy, because you are alienating your core audience Ð I mean, think about it! Who else would go through all that trouble besides a hard-core fan? I think that Lucasfilm’s position is very progressive and very cool.
Tim: Besides making great Star Wars inspired films, what do you both do full-time?
Dave: I have owned and operated a full-time martial arts school (Macomber Karate) for eleven years. I’m also a full-time husband and father.
Mark: I don’t really do anything full-time! I have an Internet-based font company that more or less runs itself, so I have a lot of free time for making movies, painting (I’m a landscape/portrait painter), and drinking coffee. I designed the fonts that will be included with the next version of the Final Draft screenwriting program.
Tim: VintageType has some really nice looking fonts, Mark. Did you create all the fonts there?
Mark: Vintage Type began as a shareware venture called Hot Metal Type on
AOL, long before the Internet got popular. Eventually Vintage Type grew into its own web site with automated commerce and product delivery systems handled by Digital River.
I created nearly all of the fonts. The tape label font family, Carbon 14, was designed by Joe Coniglio, and the Celtic fonts were created by my girlfriend, Susan Townsend.
For the most part, Vintage Type operates in the background and I don’t really have to think about it. The fonts I created for Final Draft were commissioned by them and will only be available in Final Draft’s software products.
Tim: Many thanks for taking the time to answer these questions. Any last parting thoughts?
Mark: Technology is amazing.
Dave: I said it before, and I’ll say it again: Think Different!