British Science Festival: 40 Years of Star Wars Visual Effects

September 2014 saw Birmingham host this year’s British Science Festival. The festival represents an opportunity for Britain’s scientific minds, its creative educational thinkers and curious publics to enter into a journey of mutual self-discovery. As the longest-standing science festival in the UK (established 1831), the British Science Festival acts as a showcase for the latest scientific research; offering an opportunity for new audiences to immerse themselves in scientific enquiry, it enables members of the general public and local communities to participate in a range of scientific discovery. Local educational institutions, including The University of Birmingham, Aston University and Birmingham City University played a key part in the delivery of a range of workshops and lectures across the week. Download the 2015 programme here.

In our own presentation, 40 Years of Star Wars, we came together as a team of academics and media industry creators to deliver a presentation which examined the development of special effects technology across the last 40 years of Star Wars. Examining the pre-production of the first of the Star Wars films and through to contemporary special effects technology, Keith Osman (Director of Research, Innovation and Enterprise, Birmingham City University) acted as ringmaster for our tag-team relay event.

British Science Festival

British Science Festival Eugenie Von Tunzelmann, Christian Lett, Mat Randall, Kerry Gough

Mat Randall (School of Digital Media Technology) kicked off our delivery with an analysis of some of the visual special effects technologies as developed and used in the run up to the first Star Wars (1977) film. My own presentation went on to examine the development of digital special effects technology and their impact upon the development of Lucas’ Star Wars body across the original six canon films and onto the latest on-going development of Star Wars: Episode VII The Force Awakens. Both Mat and my own presentations are reproduced above.

Having traced the development of visual effects capabilities alongside the creative development opportunities that these effects afforded across the film series itself, Eugenie Von Tunzelmann (Visual Effects Artist, Double Negative) highlighted how Lucas Film and Industrial Light and Magic played a creative role in the transformation of the digital technologies landscape. She demonstrated this impact through her sharing of a Man of Steel digital effects strip-down, as created by Double Negative, which highlights the invisible nature of contemporary visual effects and the role that they play in enabling us to suspend disbelief.

Christian Lett (Visual Effects Supervisor, Bait Studio) then went on to trace the use of digital special effects in independent film production and smaller budget production. As a direct contrast to the huge budgets available to large-scale Hollywood production, Lett evidences the growing need for digital effects within smaller budget production and the range of opportunities offered within independent film production.

With a vastly divergent audience, from the science specialist to the franchise fan, the British Science Festival opened its doors to engaging and simulating debate. The question and answer session at the close of our panel was a lively one and I am pleased to say that it offered the opportunity for a wide range of audience interaction from members of all ages. Perhaps the most interesting question came from the youngest member of our audience, who left us all with a little food for thought. This is where The British Science Festival is at its best, in drawing diverse specialists from under our broad ‘scientific’ spectrum, to challenge, question and debate our passions, to learn something new in the process and to take an active role in crafting future thought. In this we all have something to offer, including the young man at the back in the checked shirt. His Dad, should be very proud!

British Science Festival Blue

The next British Science Festival will be held at Bradford, September 2015. I recommend it to anyone, of any age, who has a thirst for discovery and learning.


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