NJ Dad Dazzles Kids with Jedi (and Animation) SkillsBlake Harris 08.18.2015
A little while back, longtime animator Scott Strong found himself working long nights and seeing little of his family. To reconnect with his kids—who are both major Star Wars fans—and show them that, no matter what, Dad will always be there to protect them, he created the following found-footage video to surprise them with during the holidays:
To learn more about what inspired Scott to make this film—and the challenges he faced (aside from Rebel forces, of course)—I sat down with Scott to talk about the process:
Blake: Since you made this video for your kids, why don’t you start off by telling me a little bit about them.
Scott: Sure. So I have two boys: Edward is 13 and William is 8. They’re both big Star Wars fans, and they really love the Clone Wars TV series.
Blake: And are they, like you, artistically-inclined?
Scott: You know, one thing I used to do was have little drawing lessons where I would sit down with them and try to teach them a little about the ins and outs of animation. I’m not sure how into it they were—they probably would have preferred to be watching cartoons than making them—until I drew some Clone Wars characters and their eyes lit up. They thought it was pretty cool to have a dad who could do something like that now and then.
Blake: That’s great. So, in a way, this video was you taking that connection to the next level. How did the idea come about?
Scott: I wanted to make something for my kids, for my family. And I liked the idea of putting something obviously not real into a real environment (especially our tranquil hometown of Verona) and then trying to make it believable. So I spent a few bus rides thinking about what that could be and then stumbled across a website that had downloadable 3-D Star Wars models. That got me really excited about the idea, but I’m not a writer at all; that was a real challenge for me. So I tried to scale it back and go as simple as possible. I’m also not an actor!
Blake: Hey, you held your own.
Scott: That’s nice of you to say, but what made it even harder was trying to “act” while not revealing to my family what I was up to.
Blake: Did your stealth pay off?
Scott: Well, my kids didn’t notice anything strange, but it turns out my wife was watching me the whole time.
Blake: And what did you tell her when she asked what you were doing?
Scott: I told her I was just filming…a falcon out there. She didn’t quite buy it, but she still didn’t know what I was up to.
Blake: That’s really funny. Ha! And after you finished recording the video, how long did it take you to add all the animation?
Scott: About 3 months. The whole thing was an uphill climb. I knew how to animate, of course, but I’d been out of doing 3D for about 20 years. And there had been some significant advances in the interim, so I had to learn how to do all that in the light version of Cinema 4D that comes with After Effects. Another big learning curve for me was integrating that animation with live footage. Though I have to say that the software really helped me out a lot. After Effects has a 3D camera tracker inside of it, so you can give it a piece of footage and it’ll approximate where it believes the camera to be so that you can navigate around it.
Blake: From a technical standpoint, which was the hardest Star Wars creation for you to incorporate?
Scott: Probably the most challenging were the Walkers. Figuring out how to arrange a walk cycle in 3D, how to integrate that with the camera movement and then marrying all of that to the background.
Blake: Any other major hurdles?
Scott: Well, I chose the day that I did because it was a pretty clear one. The sky was very blue and I figured that would make it easy to key out. And it’s interesting because, you know, when they filmed the original Star Wars they would film against a blue screen and then swap out that background later, whereas my goal was to keep the blue background and put a spaceship in there. Anyway, I thought the blue sky would be easy to key out, but it turned out not to really be blue enough. I’d get fuzz from edges of trees and whatnot. So I had to figure out how to get around that, and deal with lighting variances. One thing I should have done differently was to choose a time of day when I wouldn’t have been shooting into the sun.
Blake: New “adventures” around every corner! And so after you solved those issues, and put it all together, how did you reveal it to your family?
Scott: My mother-in-law was visiting from France and we were all gathered around the table eating dinner. I got up for a second, brought over my wife’s laptop and asked my kids—tying keep a straight face—if they’d heard about the imminent galactic invasion.
Blake: And how did they react?
Scott: You’d think this story might end with a big, gigantic hug, but right after it ended my younger son ran around the house, grabbing flashlights, and expecting a lightsaber to come out so he could become a Jedi like his old man. “Dad,” he would say, looking a little sad, “it’s not working.” But even then, running around the house, he was excited about it. And then eventually he comes up to me and goes “that was a special effect, wasn’t it?”
Blake: That’s wonderful. What a nice moment. What a nice gift, really, for your children to receive.
Scott: I was very happy with how it all turned out, but I’ll let you in on a little secret. The official story is that I made it for the kids, but the real story is that I’ve been wanting to make something like this ever since I was a kid…
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