May 16, 2005

Life led `Star Wars’ supervisor into visual effects

A long time ago, in a suburb far, far away, John Knoll walked into a movie theater to see “Star Wars” and emerged a teenager transformed.

Source: Mercury News
Written By Dawn C. Chmielewski

The 15-year-old wasn’t alone in drawing inspiration from George Lucas’ 1977 space fantasy, with its groundbreaking visual effects and swashbuckling action. But he’s among the precious few who, a year later, followed his muse to the source — talking his way into a tour of Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic special-effects house, then located in Los Angeles.

“That was really a life-changing experience, because, you know, no matter how much you read about it, to actually come and see a bunch of guys come into work and they build space ships, they blow ‘em up and they get a paycheck. It made it very real to me,” said Knoll. “I could sort of picture myself doing that.”

Call it luck, ambition or just tidy cinematic foreshadowing, but Knoll not only landed a job in the movie industry, he fulfilled his boyhood dream of working for Lucas.

He’s the visual-effects supervisor for one of the most anticipated movies of the year, “Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith,” which opens in theaters Thursday. He and co-supervisor Roger Guyett oversaw every explosive space battle, every light saber duel and every alien creature populating the film’s 11 worlds.

Knoll even makes a brief on-screen appearance as a fire ship pilot.

“Revenge of the Sith” won’t be remembered for any single breakthrough visual effects. Rather, the final installment in the Star Wars saga, which traces Jedi Knight Anakin Skywalker’s turn to “the Dark Side,” is memorable for the sheer volume of computer-generated characters, backgrounds and space vessels. It has more than 2,200 digitally enhanced shots — surpassing any previous Star Wars movie or any other film, including the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

It’s the kind of ambitious undertaking Knoll has been preparing for since he was a kid, building models and making clay-animation movies in the basement of the family’s suburban Michigan home.

To Knoll, it was a hobby. But his older brother, Thomas, saw an intellectual curiosity and determination that suggested a career.

Thomas’ favorite story of John, the budding illusion-maker, involves an early attempt at filming explosions with an 8mm camera. John was scouting locations but couldn’t find the proper setting for blowing up a scale-model home because the background objects would dwarf it and shatter the illusion.

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