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Did the prequels have boring visuals?

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In thinking this day of Ralph McQuarrie's death about his profound effect on the original look of Star Wars, I wonder how much the lack of his kind of vision hurt the prequels.

Even where the prequels had - in the abstract - grand, fanciful, or elegant visuals they strike me as boring. I think of the senate chamber, Padme's wardrobe, the otherwise beautiful Italian scenes of Naboo, the Coruscant sports bar, various creatures and robots.

I think some elements were not taken advantage of but on the whole, the visuals strike me as boring. Agree/disagree?

The blue elephant in the room.

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Didn't take long for this thread to pop up.

The prequels are sterile. They may be more impressive on a technical level, but many of the scenes are simply overstuffed/noisy or they stick out too much as being CGI.

There are some great vistas like the volcanic Mustafar or the stormy Kamino, but it's the smaller environments that stick with me in the movies. The lonely swamp on Dagobah is a great example of this. When I watch the movie I don't think, "Oh, that's a soundstage in Leavesden." It feels real because it IS real. I love the realism of the matte paintings in the background.

That said, the imagined scope of the prequels is indeed larger. I won't hate on the use of CGI because it serves a great purpose in realizing ambitious visuals in movies. But it's the overuse and over-reliance that makes each environment less memorable.

In ROTS there's some planet with all kinds of dumb looking, large, colorful plants and flowers. It's a short scene, but it just looks so awful and cartoony given that we're trying to actually feel sad at that moment for the Jedi being killed.

“Grow up. These are my Disney's movies, not yours.”

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Yeah, I pretty much agree.  Even though there are "grand" visuals as you said, there's not much that really stands out and is memorable to me.  I feel like the design of most objects are ok, but nothing special.  Droids, ships, weapons, environments, etc are just "meh."  There's nothing really iconic (to me, anyway).

I find myself watching the PT webisodes every now and then because I'm curious as to what the process was going into these movies, and where things went wrong (I know, strange thing to waste my time on considering I don't enjoy the PT at all, but...).  I'm probably reading way too much into this, but I find this quote from design director Dough Chiang re: the design of Star Wars to be telling:

When I saw Star Wars, I was really blown away but I was actually kinda like, hmm, there are certain things that I didn't like about it.  But the great thing was I went home and I kinda drew, you know, my version of the X-Wing.

My view as a diehard OT fan is, what's NOT to like about the design of Star Wars?  Especially the X-Wing!  I'm not saying you have to like everything about the design- but it seems to me you'd want someone who loved damn near everything, to try to stay consistent with the OT.

Of course innovation and thinking for yourself is very important; you don't just want someone to copy existing designs and have everything look derivative, but you do want some consistency of design.  But I don't think I'm explaining myself very well.  I guess what I'm trying to say is, based on that quote, it sounds like Chiang didn't quite like the OT design very much; no wonder WE don't like what ended up in the PT.  If that makes any sense.

The quote starts about a minute into the video:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gx7YSByPI8I

Anyone remember different camera angles from ROTJ?

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It's funny that if you watch the behind the scenes content on the prequels, you see so many people working hard to come up with all sorts of designs - aliens, droids, scenery, vehicles, etc. George says, "Make me a hundred aliens." They make the alien designs. Then George picks one or two and puts them into the script, which he finishes a week later without any revision. ;)

The work of those individuals is mostly quite great. For example, look at the architectural design for Naboo. It's beautiful, but we don't see too much of it in detail (if I remember correctly). But it's the implementation of all the pieces into a larger whole that falls apart.

I will say the battle droids looked incredibly stupid, like they had the head and snout of an Afghan Hound.

 

“Grow up. These are my Disney's movies, not yours.”

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^True dat!  And screw doug chang!  The x-wing is the coolest fighter in sci-fi IMO!  I love the SFX on camino, its the best part of the PT for me.  I think the arena scene is just horrid, especially the shots of nute gunray, dooku and their cronies in their arena box.  And I cant stand the jedi vs battle droid cgi mayhem.  Cant see myself watching that crap ever again.

And I concur about the silly design of the battle droids. They look like something a preschooler would design.  Hardly menacing and overly boring.  Get a sack Luca$!

"There's no cluster of midiclorians that controls my destiny!" -Han Solo, from a future revision of ANH

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I've been pondering this topic in relation to rewriting the prequels but thinking about McQuarrie's contributions does make it more vivid.

I agree with a lot of what you say. In the OT, there was so much focus and effort put into each prop and model and to make them believable on screen. They had to constantly work against the limitations they faced and used the simplicity to their advantage (eg opening of ROTS vs opening or closing battles of ANH).

Still, I can't help but feel that some important visuals were severely lacking in and of themselves. The senate chamber strikes me as one of the most boring executions of a galactic senate chamber possible. I liked the feel of Kamino (rainy scenes are awesome), but artistically never went more than puddle-deep, before letting us into another sterile environment. On Hoth, snow provided more intrigue. We knew there would a volcano planet but what we saw on screen didn't strike me as a very interesting rendition. I thought the Jedi Council chamber was weak. The visuals in the AOTC fireplace romance scene are boring - and it was not for a lack of trying nor intrusive CGI (only intrusive dialogue). It was quite a stylized scene in terms of lighting, costume and the room. But ultimately, even that simple and intimate setting didn't have any real character to my eye.

The blue elephant in the room.

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Mrebo said:

I agree with a lot of what you say. In the OT, there was so much focus and effort put into each prop and model and to make them believable on screen.

You mean like the wolf man mask and the ice cream maker? I love the OT too dude but don't oversell it.

All I really want is each film as it was originally seen and heard in theaters; no fixes, corrections, "improvements" or modifications necessary.

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To me, the prequels had some pretty evocative designs/preproduction work too:

 

     

 

  

Granted, some of that was not used as-is, but I don't think there was a lack of interesting design. Though I do see a difference in how McQuarrie's work, along with  the rest of the artists on the OT, creates a sense of "world" in me that some of the prequel art does not.  This might be due to the use of traditional media and generally sketchier aesthetics (there are some nice prequel pieces like that too).  I'm not sure. McQuarrie's world definitely feels more lived-in, but I also like the nouveau/deco/early 20th century feel that shows up in the prequel designs, especially in TPM.

I do think that the OT, though it was created and viewed as a spectacle when it was made, struck a nice balance between good filmmaking and showing off the designs. I think the PT got progressively more showy, and it can just seem garish.

Not only did they seem to construct shots specifically to show off the design work (in very in-your-face ways, I mean), there were so many designs that it was hard to keep track of things. I never felt the OT was impoverished in its numbers of new ship/character designs per movie.  It became a bit overwhelming in the prequels.

"Star Wars films are basically silent movies. And they're designed as silent movies, therefore the music carries a -- has a very large role in carrying the story, more than it would in a normal movie."  -GL

"NOO! NOOOOOO!!" - Darth Vader

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It's interesting that Peter Jackson noted that the conceptual designs of movies no longer seem as cool as they used to (probably most especially in the case of Ralph McQuarrie).  Why is this, did Jackson say?  Is it because people are less imaginative than they used to be or because it's all been done before?  Not really - although those might play a role in it.

The main reason is because nowadays, anything you can imagine can be on screen.  When you look at McQuarrie's designs for the OT, there are tons of little details which you know couldn't be achieved because of time and budget concerns - such as the saddled pterodactyls on Bespin or the giant Ewok eater beasts on Endor. 

But for the PT, Lucas could go, "I want a giant underwater monster for Naboo."  And they could go, "Sure.  How about three?"  "Great!"

I think that this somehow played into the sometimes lame nature of the PT visuals.  (Although I agree that Kamino was pretty cool, and I also thought Mustafar was good, although McQuarrie originally contributed to that aesthetic, too.)  I think that the focus on prioritizing and the agonizing over details probably aided the OT.

Also, I think that the digital artwork nowadays - with its algorithm-generated color transitions and synthetic flares and sheens - simply doesn't resonate as deeply with viewers' subconsciousness as a hand-painted matte.

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there are so many things going on, the screen is so dense

i can't focus on any one element and i simply don't care anymore!

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OzoneSherrif said:

there are so many things going on, the screen is so dense

“Grow up. These are my Disney's movies, not yours.”

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I don't consider the PT's weakness to be its visuals. While they can be tacky at times, overall I think they're pretty awesome.  Unfortunately, the story, acting, script, characters, plot, pacing, etc. are so bad that it manages to drag everything down with it, including the uninspired application of said visuals.

"Close the blast doors!"
Puggo’s website | Rescuing Star Wars

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thecolorsblend said:

Mrebo said:

I agree with a lot of what you say. In the OT, there was so much focus and effort put into each prop and model and to make them believable on screen.

You mean like the wolf man mask and the ice cream maker? I love the OT too dude but don't oversell it.

Yes. I mean every last detail. Every background element. Every button. /sarcasm

I understand how my statement could be taken that way, but in the context of agreeing with georgec's discussion of CGI, what I meant was that if the scene was dominated by a Star Destroyer chasing a small ship thousands of meters, which were really just models traveling not that far, a lot of care had to be taken to make it a believable and compelling scene to begin the movie. Adding a hundred more elements would not have been worth the effort.

And the camera really lingered on those models (and it worked brilliantly!) something we don't see or enjoy in the PT where there is enormous temptation to add a million elements diving and spinning, little droids attaching for no real reason. That was what I meant to suggest with examples in the parenthetical in my post following the sentence in question. The aesthetic focus of the PT seemed to be more about movement and action than creating powerful visuals to move the story forward.

I didn't mean the OT had better visuals because a guy was carrying an ice cream maker vs a whiffle ball scoop on little Ani's bedroom wall or wolfman vs Gragra.

The blue elephant in the room.

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What Puggo said is how I feel. The visuals are obviously technically superior, but without proper accompanying emotional elements they don't leave lasting impressions.

What Mrebo is saying explains the crowded, noisy nature of the PT. You don't focus on a Star Destroyer and gaze in awe of that image like in the OT. Rather, in the PT it's like your eyes are scrambling and trying to take in all the information on the screen.

When I look at PT environments and visuals, I think about how hard people worked to bring these various intricate details to life.

When I look at OT environments and visuals, I'm thinking about the story/scene/characters. The imagery becomes connected to those feelings.

McQuarrie brought the OT environments to life with his designs, whereas Lucas used the amazing work of various artists to formulate 2.5 hour toy advertisements.

“Grow up. These are my Disney's movies, not yours.”

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Many good points. And ultimately blame lies with he who chose which visuals to use. It's not that the battle droids (pictured below) do not have artistic merit or would not make for a cool sci-fi painting.

I am curious, how would you have envisioned the galactic senate?

"DIE, Jedi dogs. Oh... what did I say?"

The blue elephant in the room.

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The visuals have too much going on all the time that you get numb from it and then it isn't special anymore, just boring. That's my take. Less is more.

And in the time of greatest despair, there shall come a savior, and he shall be known as the Son of the Suns.

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American Hominid said:

To me, the prequels had some pretty evocative designs/preproduction work too:

 [....]

  

Granted, some of that was not used as-is, but I don't think there was a lack of interesting design. Though I do see a difference in how McQuarrie's work, along with  the rest of the artists on the OT, creates a sense of "world" in me that some of the prequel art does not.  This might be due to the use of traditional media and generally sketchier aesthetics (there are some nice prequel pieces like that too).  I'm not sure. McQuarrie's world definitely feels more lived-in, but I also like the nouveau/deco/early 20th century feel that shows up in the prequel designs, especially in TPM.

I do think that the OT, though it was created and viewed as a spectacle when it was made, struck a nice balance between good filmmaking and showing off the designs. I think the PT got progressively more showy, and it can just seem garish.

Not only did they seem to construct shots specifically to show off the design work (in very in-your-face ways, I mean), there were so many designs that it was hard to keep track of things. I never felt the OT was impoverished in its numbers of new ship/character designs per movie.  It became a bit overwhelming in the prequels.

I think one major distinction between the PT and OT art can be viewed by contrasting the Alderaan design - and bear in mind that the above Alderaan design is among the more detailed and grand designs used for AOTC or ROTS (by far, in my opinion).  It's clearly more of an impressionist design, whereas Ralph McQuarrie's were much more tactile and definitive - and yet every bit as grand (in my opinion).

 

I highly recommend the book, The Illustrated Star Wars Universe. which features I think almost all of McQuarrie's great paintings (woven together in a faux travelogue of the galaxy by Kevin J. Anderson).

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georgec said:

I will say the battle droids looked incredibly stupid, like they had the head and snout of an Afghan Hound.

 

 

The battle droids looked like vacuum cleaners!

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hitfan said:

georgec said:

I will say the battle droids looked incredibly stupid, like they had the head and snout of an Afghan Hound.

 

 

The battle droids looked like vacuum cleaners!

Maybe if that vacuum cleaner was designed by Jacob Epstein :

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t6Dp2OfIT_M

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The battle droids were designed to look like the Neimodian concept.  When they moved to the man-in-mask implementation, the connection between the two suffered.

Gunray concept:

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I'm more prone to believe it was the other way around.

The earliest battledroid designs look more like Ralph's Cylons with a bit of a Stormtrooper on the side.

The earliest examples of the Battledroids as we know know them were 14ft giants and are clearly inspired by Epstein's sculpture.

Lucas didn't want to scale the corridors up to that size or want the actors dwarfed by the scale of the robots.

He also didn't want the robots to be too good at what they were doing so he scaled them down to be spindly human sized creations.

I think it was then that he thought the Neimodians in their vanity made their droids in their own likeness, with boney, flaccid bodies because they had machines do everything for them.

Then he changed their design again to look more like the Duros from the cantina scene and later retconned the design to be the Geonosians (presumably the Federation purchased their droids from them thus returning to the idea that they were made in the image of their creators).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t6Dp2OfIT_M

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bingowings wrote: I'm more prone to believe it was the other way around.

That's confirmed in the Art of TPM book, pg.42

The Neimodians were designed after the look of the battle droids had been finalized.  On the assumption that the Neimodians had created the droids in their own image,

 

On the Jacob Epstein 'Rock Drill': http://blog.tate.org.uk/?p=6186

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Hoth-Nudist said:

 And I cant stand the jedi vs battle droid cgi mayhem.  Cant see myself watching that crap ever again.

And I concur about the silly design of the battle droids. They look like something a preschooler would design.  Hardly menacing and overly boring.  Get a sack Luca$!

 but but but...lucas said it was supposed to be that way!! the battle droids were intentionally lame!! he told spielberg this!!

a cynic would say that lucas simply was too lazy to choreograph an action sequence and only cared about the quantity of cgi (not quality).  thats how the battledroids were contrived.

good thing we're not cynics ;P

anyways - so when we talk about the visuals, are we talking about strictly what we saw on the final screen or also the concepts, paintings and model work?  if its the former, i wouldn't say boring just not engrossing or cozy.  The jedi temple had cool drawings and it looks like it was based on the Duomo in Florence - but many shots in the films look so sterile.  Utapau looked cool on paper, but it did not work for me at all in ROTS.    Polii massa maternity ward also sucked as did many of the order 66 planets.  Kayshyyk, OTOH, was great all the way through (too bad we saw so little of it). 

I've said on other threads that AOTC for me is the most photogenic of the movies (at least on DVD - in theatres, the protype digital camera and projection caused problems).  I liked the fireplace scene (speaking strictly of the visual, mind you) because it was cozy and had actual lighting and color creativity - it was the polar opposite of the over-the-top picnic scene.  The Art of AOTC book is the only PT merchandise I own.  there is one thing in particular thats kinda neat that no one else seems to have noticed.    But even that movie has stuff i dind't like - the cloning facility with the babies looked lame.  there was an abandoned concept drawing I saw that looked better than what was in the movie.  I already mentioned that horrible shot of obi-wan, mace and yoda walking and talking.  and enough has been said about the bone-headed decision to cgi all the clone-troopers.

We all like the 'used universe' of the OT and you dont see it a whole lot in the PT. That could be one reason.  But Cloud city looks like something out of the PT and it always looked cool. 

just feel the lighting, framing, editing and camera work for scenes that were predominantly cgi left a lot to be desired.  sometimes it was cool - the scene in TPM with darth maul and sidious on the coruscant balcony at night.  but it was few and far between.  the ROTS opening space battle certainly wasn't inactive but it was just a bunch of spacehsips and lasers and explosions occupying every square inch of the screen. 

ROTJ coulda looked better too, especially on endor and death star scenes that were not in the throne room.  For years I could not describe it but someone said it looked flat and like a TV production - and i think thats perfect.  Compare dagobah in ROTJ to ESB.  For awhile I thought there wasn't much that could be done - endor looks like earth, no getting around it.  and most movies in the mid 80s (worst movie decade ever) also looked like ROTJ. 

sadly, as the third part of red letter medias ROTS review showed, lucas simply is not a 'visual' filmmaker as much as he insists he is.

click here if lack of OOT got you down

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Part of the reason the prequels never felt like Star Wars to me was because they lacked McQuarrie and Joe Johnston's genius.

I expected at least we would see some of the old designs show up at some point.  That we'd get to see X-Wings, the Landspeeder, etc. when they were shiny and new, before they got old and all dinged up in the OT.

But no.