All about that ILM Jar Jar test which proved the character should be all-digital.
Whatever you think of Jar Jar Binks – the fully computer-generated Gungan played by Ahmed Best and crafted by ILM for The Phantom Menace – he was a game-changer in visual effects. It was, essentially, the first main actor-driven/motion-captured CG character in a feature film, one brought to life by Best performing on set with the other actors and via separate mocap sessions.
But at one point, Jar Jar was very nearly realized instead as Best wearing a prosthetic suit on set on top of which ILM would render a digital head. To test the merits of this possible approach, a side-by-side test was commissioned. One side had Best performing in the suit, with ILM then tracking on its CG head, while the other side involved a completely CG version of the character.
The test was featured in ‘The Beginning’, a documentary (which you can watch in full below) on the making of The Phantom Menace that was produced for the film’s DVD release. In it, you see director George Lucas’ direct reaction to the side-by-side. Now, visual effects supervisor John Knoll and animation supervisor Rob Coleman re-visit the test for befores & afters to explain their thoughts on why it was done and what the final outcome ended up being.
Test or no test?
“I’ll admit I was opposed to the idea of having a physical suit with a digital head, at the beginning,” puts forward Knoll. “There was this idea that it would be somewhat cheaper to build a practical suit and just do head replacement on it. I was arguing, it’s not going be cheaper, because what you’re going to have to do is the camera matchmove and also matchimate the figure well enough to stick a head on it without seeing any kind of slipping of the motion.”
‘I was arguing, it’s not going be cheaper.’
Knoll goes further, recalling why he was initially against the practical suit and CG head idea: “We’d also have the task of exactly matching the set lighting, whereas if we did the whole figure in CG, we’ve got some forgiveness to move lights around a little bit. And then we’d have to paint out Ahmed’s head where Jar Jar’s head doesn’t cover him up exactly, so there’d be more plate reconstruction to do. And then there’s all the roto that would be required for the split lines, where the two go together.”
Still, the test was something that moved ahead, partly, says Coleman, because this was very early days in the world of fully photoreal CG characters in film. “I think, initially, there was not a great deal of confidence that we, ILM, back then were going to be able to do a full digital character – an acting character,” the animation supervisor shares. “George had been attracted to Ahmed as a performer because of what he’d done in ‘Stomp’, just his whole physicality. They wanted Ahmed on set, interacting with the actors, and that to make him the exotic Gungan that he became.”
A practical suit was built for Best to wear and use for the test. Ultimately this was something Knoll considered would be useful in any case during production. “I figured, ‘Hey, I’m not opposed to having the suit around.’ It’s going to be good reference, and there may indeed be shots, insert shots, a hand picking up this object, or chest down shots, where maybe we can get away with using the practical suit. If that saves us five shots, it may be worth building the suit. So I wasn’t opposed to building the suit.”
The test was filmed in a bluescreen-filled Coruscant set around a month or two before principal photography began. Best feigned a surprised look and action for the short shot. “Then, just as I expected it was going to be,” says Knoll, “it turned out that the all-CG version involved fewer man hours to get to good looking results.”
A good head on those shoulders
The reason why the all-CG version involved fewer hours’ work was for pretty much exactly the reasons Knoll suspected. Coleman says his team, which started with the head replacement shot, struggled to “to get that head attached to Best’s body to feel believable, and find a good blend point. It just looked odd. It looked really, really odd.”
‘Some poor soul had to matchmove the real footage of Ahmed moving around in 3D space.’
It was the matchmoving back then in the late 90s that proved to be one of the most challenging tasks just for that test. Says Coleman: “Some poor soul had to matchmove the real footage of Ahmed moving around in 3D space. I remember the challenge was the line up of the neck never felt right to me, it was wrong, and it was too far in the depth or it was too close in the depth, or it wasn’t rotating in exactly the same way. It always felt to me like it was disembodied from Ahmed, who was just naturally flowing around in the scene.”
Knoll also suggests that these problems arose partly because “there were things about Jar Jar’s design, his idealized design, that made it impossible for it to be a guy in a suit. Things like the proportions of his shoulders, and the distance between shoulder and elbow, and elbow and wrist. On a human being, they’re matched. In fact, they’re that way for evolutionary reasons. If those two don’t match, then your hand can’t actually reach your shoulder, for instance. But the original design of Jar Jar had the upper arm be shorter than the forearm, and things like that actually added a kind of a charm to the design. And when suddenly it was exactly human proportions, I felt like it lost a lot of the appeal and charm of the character.”
Going full CG
On the other hand, the fully CG version of Jar Jar for the test was not only faster to produce, but also more in keeping with the spirit of the character. ILM had him performing essentially the same action as Best had carried out on set. “It was not exactly roto-mating,” notes Coleman, “but certainly following frame by frame what Ahmed had done. It was a much better performance because it wasn’t coupled together. It was its own thing. It was a whole character, but very much modelled exactly after what Ahmed had done in that shot.”
“So, when I looked at the side-by-side, I was very worried about the head replacement route,” continues Coleman, “because it took a long, long time, much longer to match the next to the real body than it did for Lou Dellarosa, the animator on the test, to animate the full body. Lou had the freedom to pose the character as a whole. He could match the pose that Ahmed was doing just by looking, and stepping through the video. Ultimately, that was one of my pitches to George after that test, was that, remarkably, the full body actually took less time to get to a more believable state than the trying to attach the neck on to the real body.”
Jar Jar is born – and starts a new kind of discussion about CG actors
Of course, the rest is history and Jar Jar would be realized by ILM as a digital character for The Phantom Menace based off the on-set and motion captured performance of Best. The project was an enormous one for the VFX studio and one of the first in a long line of memorable CG characters created at ILM and other studios that began as on-set and mocap’d actors.
At befores & afters, we’re diving more into the creation of Jar Jar Binks with an upcoming in-depth interview with both Ahmed Best and Rob Coleman, who outline how the character came to be, the ensuing Jar Jar controversy and, 20 years later, how they feel about their roles in that pivotal time in visual effects. Stay tuned!
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