Joel Aron: Creating the Effects of Clone Wars
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Joel Aron: Creating the Effects of Clone Wars
Tonight’s episode of Clone Wars, “Brain Invaders”, closes the multi-part Geonosian arc that has introduced viewers to several stunning special effects created for the show, the most memorable probably being the flame throwers used to take out the Geonosian warriors in “Landing at Point Rain.” CG/FX/Lighting Supervisor Joel Aron, who spent nearly two decades creating visual effects for feature films at ILM, currently helms the effects team for Lucasfilm Animation, generating the flame thrower, dust storm, lava, speeder bike rooster tail, and other effects spotted in recent episodes.
We asked Aron a few questions about how these effects were crafted for the series, and what viewers can expect to see in future episodes of Clone Wars.
How did you first get involved with the Clone Wars series?
I was first involved with Clone Wars after finishing production at ILM on the Nightmare Before Christmas 3D conversion. Afterwards, there was not a lot of work to do, and it was brought to the attention of ILM that it would be great to send someone with Maya [a 3D graphics and modeling software application] experience over to Singapore to work with the effects team over there, which was just three people at the time. Of course I jumped at the opportunity to go to Asia for eight weeks having never been, and helped raise the bar a little bit on the look of the effects. When I got back, I returned to ILM and went to work on Indiana Jones IV — but I realized, I missed The Clone Wars. It stuck to me. So ILM let me leave temporarily to work on The Clone Wars to see how I would work out as an effects lead. I came over to Big Rock Ranch and started to look under the hood of the show and work on the effects. It was at that point that I started working on an episode — “Trespass”, in season one — which was all in snow on Orto Plutonia. That’s when I realized I was having so much fun that I decided this is what I wanted to do.
How would you say your work on The Clone Wars differs from the productions you worked on for ILM?
Anyone who works at ILM knows it’s a place of perfection. Before I worked on The Clone Wars, I had been at ILM for close to 17 years working on feature films, so I’m used to running that treadmill for a long time on a single shot. At ILM you may work for five months on a single shot, where on The Clone Wars you may work five days. So I had to think differently. During the summer of 2008, when [supervising director] Dave Filoni kept coming in to see what I was doing and telling me “too photo-real, way too photo-real,” I realized I not only needed to make the effects look more stylized like the show, but I also needed to develop them in a way that they could be easily dropped into a production — they needed to have a specialized look and be easy to use.
You’ve created very stylized effects for the show, be it snowfall, dust storms, streams of flame, etc. Can you describe how you crafted some of these effects?
“Trespass” was a pivotal episode for the series in that it was one of the first in which the environment played a role on the show — it was actually a character. For “Trespass”, we would need a very snowy environment. Snow is kind of an easy gag — you just have a little bit of turbulence, a little bit of wind — but instead of using regular particles, I came up with a technique that I used way back on the movie Deep Impact. To develop the look of the comet rock and tail for that movie, I did something that was kind of out of the ordinary — I really didn’t want to have to deal with controlling particles, and I didn’t want to have to set up a huge rig and explain to people how to make the comet work, so I used a new technique. I like painting, so I figured I’d paint what the comet should look like first.
So I painted, like a painting in Photoshop, with streaky lines and beautiful wispy ethereal formations of color, resembling what would happen if you squirt milk into water. I painted that look, and then I took sections of my painting and put them on ribbons or patches. I then lined the rock itself with all these ribbons and patches to look like the huge corona of the comet. With some trickery using the shader, I was able to make that texture kind of wiggle and move — and that was the comet.
I hadn’t done that in years, because it’s like kind of cheating, but when I started to get into the stylized snow and the look for “Trespass,” I went ahead and just painted textures. I painted a whole bunch of small little textures with my stylized way of drawing to kind of make it look like art. A real quick kind of gouache, goopy paint look, which is kind of the look of the show.
The next thing, which was my biggest departure away from ILM, was the rooster tails underneath the speeder bikes that ripped across the snow. I did exactly what I did before which was to draw what I wanted it to look like first, in this case an almost anime-like sawtooth pattern coming up out of the ground underneath the speeder bike. I modeled each sawtooth piece of geometry really quick and dirty, just as a test. I’d model the sawtooth shape — I did about ten of them — and then added a few chunked-up looking spheres which emit a bunch of particles. I then told the particles to distort the sawtooth geometry, so that when it’s born, it’s very flat but quickly rises up in height, so it looks like a sawtooth growing up out of the ground. When it goes away, it actually starts losing its height and stretching in length. So what you get is this anime-style rooster tail. And what’s funny is that test is what’s in the show.
It’s the exact method I used for the flame thrower in “Landing at Point Rain.” And for the lava in “Children of the Force”, I just did the same thing — I painted three different textures on cards, so when the lava is closest to the shore where it’s darkest, I use my darker card; when it’s closer to an area where you might see some hot lava breaching and turning yellow-orange, I use my yellow-orange card; and I would just instance those cards to particles. Each particle would slowly rotate each card, and so what you get is this flowing look of lava.
What effects challenges are you currently facing going into the show’s third season of production?
One of the biggest things that we’re tackling, and you’ll see it toward the end of season two, is fire. Fire has always been a challenge. I could have gone the photo-real path but no one’s going to like it. So instead we went with this technique of using cloth. I had this idea because in one of the episodes, there’s a meeting in a location that’s based off of a Ralph McQuarrie painting — Filoni’s been dying to put it in an episode. If you look at that painting, there are these blue flames that are decorative. My thought was that if they are decorative blue flame, what if they behaved like blue silk scarves under water? They’d just have this ethereal blowing slow quality. So one of the cloth guys at our Singapore studio used cloth for fire and sculpted it, so that’s what we have for fire now. We can make it a campfire, we can make it a bonfire, and the beauty of this is that now we can hand that off as a renderable cache that doesn’t require an effects artist to spend a week trying to make a campfire look good. He can just drop it in and render it.
The fire was a huge challenge, because it’s always been the monkey on my back, and we got it. What’s great is that we tried something completely different and didn’t follow the manual. I always like to say the best skiing is when you’re off the trail.
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