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Producer put the polish on 'Star Wars' trilogy's action

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Without Rick McCallum, we may never have learned how Anakin Skywalker, with the potential to be the greatest of all Jedi Knights, instead chose to become Darth Vader, the near-perfection of evil.

A week before the premiere of writer-director George Lucas' Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith, McCallum, the producer of the Star Wars prequel trilogy, remembers with pleasure the crack creative team he'd assembled.

"On the first Star Wars movie, George had the worst crew in England," says McCallum over the phone from London. In his view, that's what made Lucas swear off directing.

So when McCallum jumped from the BBC to Lucasfilm in 1990 and began to produce TV's The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, he embarked on enlisting talents who would stay loyal to Lucas.

He succeeded. "We never had more fun than we did on that TV show." That series' key talents, including cinematographer David Tattersall, production designer Gavin Bocquet, and costume designer Trisha Biggar, graduated from the Indy show to the prequel trilogy.

The final movie, which opens Thursday, is a marvel of economy: In just 53 days, Lucas, with McCallum's aid, made Revenge of the Sith for $2 million less than The Phantom Menace.

Part of that efficiency came from McCallum's growing power to translate Lucas' cryptic notes into reality. "George would be the first to admit," McCallum says, that Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman, as Anakin and his princess-bride, Padme, must pull off their love scenes "without any help from his dialogue."

A typical Lucas script page might read: "Exterior Space Battle: All hell breaks loose."

"When you say to George, 'OK, and how long will this scene be,' he'll say, '25 minutes.' "

So like the 3-D animators at Pixar, McCallum and Lucas' technical team developed increasingly sophisticated "animatics" to craft whole movies in rough form using realistic computer imagery, then budget time and space (and money) for the real film.

Central to their production strategy is an audio-visual "digital pipeline" that runs from pre-production through postproduction. Thanks to animatics and all-digital filmmaking, and McCallum's insistence that actors stay on tap long after principal shooting, Lucas can revamp and enrich his material visually, from the script stage through the final editing. The system plays to Lucas' strengths: his graphic sense and his "non-linear" sensibility.

"George can spend 5 to 6 months putting a scene together -- not writing it, but organically building it from the visuals. And at that point we're spending [only] $5,000 or $6,000 a week."

'High-tech organic'

When CNN covered the eruption of Mt. Etna in 2003, recalls McCallum, "I was about to call George and he called me to ask if I'd seen the footage." Ron Fricke, who shot and directed Baraka (1992), jumped on a plane and within a day was grabbing images for Lucas "that became the basis for all the explosions on the lava planet. We cast what was written aside, then started building sequences around what Fricke shot."

McCallum argues that his idea of "the high-tech organic" opens up communication among collaborators and friends and makes Lucasfilm productions more like European productions. That extends to Lucas' partnership with the director of his Indiana Jones movies -- his pal and only rival as a popular artist, Steven Spielberg.

During the summer of 2003, Lucas demonstrated the new animatics software to the filmmaker, who had just had his own project fall through. Spielberg, juiced, pitched in on some shots, coming up with 10 or 15 each weekend, for five weekends. Spielberg "helped George through a couple of black holes. George gets stuck sometimes; he never asks for help, but you can feel it when he needs it. With Steven he got encouragement from a directing peer and a good friend."

Will Lucasfilm continue to generate enough work to sustain McCallum and company now that Star Wars is complete? And is this really the end of Star Wars?

After all, while promoting the first Star Wars trilogy, Lucas said he had ideas both for a prequel trilogy -- the one that ends with Revenge of the Sith -- and a sequel trilogy. But McCallum says no secret notebooks contain plans for Episodes VII, VIII, and IX. "That trilogy is part of Star Wars mythology."

After 'Star Wars'

On the other hand, says McCallum, between the two existing trilogies "there are 20 years to explore." Clone Wars, a successful animated "micro-series" of short adventures for the Cartoon Network, spanning the years of Jedi battles between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, helped spark Lucas to think of doing "a live action Star Wars series with lots of animated characters. But it's so-oooooo early, really, we haven't discussed anything of any relevance yet."

There's also a tentative plan to roll out all six Star Wars films in digital 3-D -- but only "if there is a sufficient amount of digital theaters in 2006 or 2007" (meaning roughly 1,000 to 3,000 digital screens).

Perhaps now's the time for Lucas to do "the small artistic films" he's always talked about, says McCallum.

Does that mean experiments like those of his San Francisco Bay Area idol, Jordan Belson, best known for his 1961 abstraction, Allures? Or merely films that no one expects to come from Lucas?

"Both. I know that for 17 or 18 years, before I met him, he's wanted to do a film called Red Tails, about African-American pilots in World War II -- the Tuskegee Airmen. And I know he still wants to do it as a normal big movie, as a producer or executive producer, even though HBO did something on them."

But Lucas also wants do "films that may even be too weird for release -- the kind so weird you just want your friends to see them."

McCallum doesn't worry about the financial loss such films might entail. He thinks of the resonant lines that daredevil publisher Charles Foster Kane delivers to a stuffed-shirt bank manager in Citizen Kane: "You're right. I did lose a million dollars last year. I expect to lose a million dollars this year. I expect to lose a million dollars next year. You know, Mr. Thatcher, at the rate of a million dollars a year, I'll have to close this place in ... 60 years."

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