The world already loved lightsabers, but then ‘The Phantom Menace’ made them even better

How new ways of shooting, new digital tools and lots and lots of roto resulted in the laser swords of ‘Episode I’.

With the 20th anniversary of The Phantom Menace now upon us, I started thinking about all the grand visual effects achievements in that film. Many people may not realize it was a huge miniature effects show, or that it was really one of the first films with a fully CG lead character in Jar Jar Binks (more on Jar Jar coming soon at befores & afters). Another huge accomplishment was the podrace, which had its own set of technological advancements.

And then there were The Phantom Menace’s lightsabers. No longer the domain of optical effects, the ‘laser swords’ of Episode I instead relied on ILM’s digital tools and artistry. While the studio had explored some lightsaber work in the Star Wars Special Editions, it was Phantom Menace where ILM could truly experiment with a fully synthetic process.

befores & afters spoke to a number of past and present ILM crew members to look back at how lightsabers were achieved in that first of the prequels, and continued to be refined in significant ways for Episodes II and III.

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Lightsabers have come a long way

In the original trilogy, the sabers were the result of on-set reflective materials, hand-drawn roto-animation and optical compositing. Between Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace visual effects had, of course, moved on in leaps and bounds. By the end of the prequels, lightsabers were produced at ILM via the making of specially-designed roto-mattes and then compositing specific treatments.

It was on the first prequel that ILM could adopt so many of the digital innovations it had made, especially during the 1990s. Interestingly, some lightsaber ‘re-dos’ had been tackled in the Special Editions (released in 1997), where the original optically composited sabers in certain scenes were replaced with digitally composited versions. Terrence Masson, a digital effects artist on the special editions of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, recalls re-creating, digitally, lightsaber blades and blaster bolts for those releases.

“I remember vividly analyzing the components of both lightsabers and blaster bolts back then,” he says. “They always contained at least three elements at a minimum. Those three elements were the hot core, the center area which was the main color – red, green or blue – and then the glow around it.”

“We’d then noodle those to death in terms of intensity, fall-off and transparency when the lightsaber was in motion,” describes Masson. “And then there’d frequently be additional elements, like glints of light, or when they’d hit something else, and they would very frequently be hitting something else, and that would create another whitish-yellowish element.”

A new generation, a new set of challenges

This work on the Special Editions informed what would be done on Episode I. “By the time we were actually in production on Phantom Menace,” says John Knoll, one of the visual effects supervisors on the film, “we had a look for the sabers that we were already happy with. But there were definitely some aesthetic issues that had to be figured out.”

Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan Kenobi rehearses a scene with stunt co-ordinator Nick Gillard. Image source: Alamy.

Those aesthetic issues included the fact that, while in the original trilogy the lightsabers generally only appeared against relatively dark backgrounds, The Phantom Menace saw them wielded in all sorts of environments.

“We had crazy scenes, like when Qui-Gon fights Darth Maul in the desert, where it’s all very bright backgrounds,” states Knoll. “It’s this very light colored sand and sky. How do you make those iconic, very saturated coloured, lightsabers look, so that you can tell the red one is red, and the green one is green, when it’s supposed to be a light effect that’s additive?”

“If you just ‘add’, you don’t get any color, because you’re already so close to being white already,” continues Knoll. “So we had to figure out how to make that feel right, where we were holding out enough of the background so that we were actually making the background darker in at least part of the glow area of the lightsaber to get some of the color to read without it feeling like you’re digging a hole in the background.”

Breaking sabers

The actual lightsaber fight scenes in The Phantom Menace were arguably, too, much more intensive than had taken place in the original trilogy. That meant that the saber props went through their own kind of intensive treatment.

Liam Neeson as Qui-Gon Jinn wields his saber during the duel with Darth Maul. Image source: Alamy.

“The lightsabers that the performers had on set for Episode I were aluminium tubes,” explains Knoll. “They were about a half inch in diameter, and they had a florescent covering, just a really bright green and orange for the two colors that we used. And the idea was to try and make them as visible as possible, so that the roto artists had a good target to track.

“The thing is,” says Knoll, “they really whacked them together hard when they were fighting and they actually got bent up during the shots. So between takes, Nick Gillard, the stunt co-ordinator, was working hard to straighten them back out. So they were often a bit bent in the shot, so we didn’t follow them exactly. We tried to follow something that was a little bit straighter.”

On Episodes II and III, the production switched to carbon fiber materials, somewhat like fishing rods. “With these things,” says Knoll, “you could whack them together pretty hard and they were flexible enough that they didn’t break very often.”

Lightsaber workflow

After live-action photography on The Phantom Menace, ILM would receive the plates and roto the ‘sticks’ that were in frame. The rotoscoping department produced roto-mattes, and these went to a compositor who handled the glowing and coloration of the final blades. It was a meticulous task, and with the volume of work required on the film, the lightsabers were generally handled on a shot-by-shot basis.

The Darth Maul duel as filmed on bluescreen. Image source: Alamy.

The rotoscoping work was typically done using Parallax Matador, ILM’s go-to paint and roto tool at the time. These would then be composited in ILM’s proprietary CompTime, a folder-based GUI compositor. Reflecting on the use of these compositing tools for The Phantom Menace, digital compositor Matt Wallin says “there were at least two shapes per saber – one core matte and one cutter glow, but there were often more depending on the shot. Each shape was filled with a color, minus the super-white core, and then multiple layers were added together with varying degrees of blur per layer to get the desired look.”

“The trickiest thing with the sabers as rotoscoped shapes was when they’d move really fast across the screen,” adds Wallin. “Getting the motion blur just right was not always easy. Plus, the tip of the saber was something that was chased for a short time. Was it rounded at the top, or pointed? Sometimes, too, when there were shots of the saber pointed mostly toward camera, so it looked foreshortened, that was also challenging to get the right look.”

The Phantom Menace visual effects supervisor Scott Squires, who oversaw perhaps the most intensive use of lightsabers in the Darth Maul / Qui-Gon Jinn / Obi-Wan Kenobi duel, worked closely with the compositors to find the right look for these sabers.

“We would need to consider things like, what is the balance between the hot core and the glow around the saber?” recalls Squires. “Or if they swing the blade quite a bit, how do you spread that out? Are you doing it realistically, or are you doing it cinematically? Because you want that big glow there, but if it was a quick wipe, then you’d have less of an exposure there across that one arc.”

One issue during that duel sequence was when the characters appeared in front of the bright power tubes – “now you’re dealing with colored lights on top of colored lights and you’re trying to make it stand out, but also look realistic and normal. It was always a challenging process,” notes Squires.

A lightsaber bible

Having introduced the world to scores of digital lightsaber shots in Episode I, ILM decided for Episodes II and III to adopt a similar procedure for crafting articulated roto-mattes and compositing treatments, but then have a single person oversee the rotoscoping side of the work in order to ensure a high level of consistency. That person was Alan Travis, who had worked in film scanning and recording on The Phantom Menace and later moved into digital paint and rotoscoping for other films and for the rest of the prequels.

Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon take on Darth Maul. Image source: Alamy.

“By the time we got to Attack of the Clones, we came up with a bible of how the lightsabers should look and what they do in certain situations,” outlines Travis, who credits ILM rotoscope and paint supervisors Jack Mongovan and Susan Kelly-Andrews, among many other artists, as helping to establish the workflow on The Phantom Menace.

The lightsaber bible was made up of several steps – and still utilized mostly Matador for roto and CompTime for compositing. The process started with what Travis describes as the ‘at rest’ shape. “That began as a roto-matte that was animated throughout the entire range. We would generally try and follow what the actors would be carrying, i.e. a prop lightsaber with a usually green stick that was coming out of the end of it. And when they photographed it you could see the green stick kind of ‘fanning’. So you got kind of a good suggestion of what the lightsaber blades should do, because you could see the motion blur of the green stick and the plate.”

Roto artists followed the shape of the green stick as much as possible, unless there was no stick or if it was bent slightly. “At the same time,” notes Travis, “we would also put our own kind of a artistic touch to it. We tended to always make them a little bit longer depending on the shot. We always wanted to always make the sabers a little more impressive. So we would always pile a little bit of an aesthetic subjectivity into them as we were going through.”

The rotoscoped lightsaber ended up as predominantly an eight point shape, “with three points at the base to give you the ability to control the volume of where it met the prop,” says Travis. “You could move those points around to suggest volume. And then you had five points at the tip and you could use those to make the fanning of the blade as it was swirled.”

How the tip of the lightsaber looked was an important part of its appearance in the films, suggests Travis. “I think the way George Lucas described it was that it wasn’t a point and it wasn’t the end of a popsicle stick, but it was somewhere in between. So we had little subjectivity as far as what that would look like. The lightsaber was always thicker where it met the prop than at the tip. So it had kind of a very, very subtle draw inward as it led towards the tip.”

New challenges, new solutions

Although the general procedure for making lightsabers stayed largely the same during the prequels, there were major improvements in consistency, and some fresh challenges that arose as the films continued. A crazy number of lightsabers were necessary for the Geonosis arena battle in Attack of the Clones, for example, and the team was also faced with a CG character in Yoda wielding a lightsaber himself in that film. The question was, should Yoda have a CG rendered lightsaber or a similar ’matte animated’ lightsaber as the live-action characters would have?

For the Geonosis battle in ‘Attack of the Clones’ featuring scores of lightsaber-wielding Jedi, Alan Travis says each saber “had to be placed in depth and we had to create a lot of hold-out mattes because we wanted the glows to wrap around, so we’d have to extend the saber to its correct length even if most of it was hidden behind someone. Image source: Alamy.

“There was a test that had been done,” recalls Travis, “and at the time I felt like it didn’t really match exactly what we were doing with the human actor lightsabers. So I went out and created a matte-animated lightsaber. I just took footage of Yoda that had been animated doing his little cartwheels and jumps and such and I took and made a matte-animated lightsaber that followed his actions and presented that as an either/or kind of a situation. In the end, we ended up doing matte-animation for all of a Yoda’s lightsabers for Clones.”

“Later for Revenge of the Sith,” says Travis, “we had shots where Obi-Wan is fighting General Grievous and he is spinning the lightsabers like helicopter blades, so there we decided that was best done with a rendered lightsaber. It was actually a mix of both for Grievous; when they were more hero shots, we did matte-animated sabers and when he was really spinning them wildly, we let the render take over for those.”

These lightsaber shots in Episodes II and III still made use of Matador (which “only allowed artists to load 10 frames at a time,” notes Travis) for roto, and CompTime for compositing. ILM has since moved on to using its proprietary Commodore software, as well as some off-the-shelf tools, for roto, and then industry-wide tools such as NUKE for compositing.

The way lightsabers are achieved for the current crop of ‘Star Wars’ films might have to be the subject of another future article here on beforesandafters.com.

Meanwhile, today’s lightsabers in films like The Last Jedi tend to be carried out at ILM with the aid of a 3D matchmove, allowing for more technically correct perspective shifts and depth-of-field effects. Blade effects and extra plasma-like energy also tend to come from additional simulations, including with the use of Houdini.

It might be a far cry from the hand-drawn rotoscoped mattes of the original trilogy, and even from the work done in The Phantom Menace, but there’s still something magic about lightsabers, and they continue to hold a special allure in the Star Wars universe.

Explore more of our in-depth ‘The Phantom Menace’ 20th anniversary coverage during#phantommenaceweek including an upcoming piece on the podrace previs.

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