Star Wars sequels will mix practical and digital special effects – but that won’t be enough to save them

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In the week following Star Wars Celebration Europe II in Germany, the thing I’ve heard the most chatter about wasn’t that the upcoming animated series Star Wars Rebels is going to be visually influenced by Ralph McQuarrie’s original conceptual designs. Nor was it that legendary composer John Williams has committed to scoring the big-screen sequels. It was a remark from Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy that Episode VII, VIII and IX would include a mix of practical and computer-generated special effects, as opposed to the much-vaunted and all-digital prequel trilogy. This comment has fueled hopes of a return to the “glory days” of the original Star Wars trilogy.

That’s total, un-compacted Death Star garbage.

The signature CGI special effects of the prequel trilogy were far from perfect (remember the proto-Internet’s outrage at how “fake” the Phantom Menace docking bay explosions were?), but they weren’t the problem. The problem was that in addition to digitally inserting characters, vehicles and locations, Lucas thought he could shout “action” and then ignore the actors on set, confident he could “direct” them to perfection after the fact using all manner of tricks possible behind a computer screen.

However, he failed to realize, somehow, after a lifetime in showbiz, that actors need directors to do more than hire them. Sure, stellar professionals the likes of Alec Guinness, Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor and Ian McDiarmid had been around the block more than a few times, and could therefore feel their way through their parts in the absence of an interested director. But the less experienced prequel performers — Jake Lloyd (mercilessly derided into early retirement as “Mannequin Skywalker”), Hayden Christiansen and even the by-then-outstanding Natalie Portman, could have worked better magic in the hands of another helmer. The key element of the success of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi was Lucas’ decision to walk away from the director’s chair, and the fresh approaches that ensued. That’s why these follow-ups are so breathlessly anticipated by disenchanted fans.

George Lucas doesn’t write for actors, and he doesn’t direct actors. He writes and directs special effects, which is perfectly sensible when you consider that he practically built the industry and raised it up from almost nothing. To expect more is folly.

For a new generation of Star Wars adventures to succeed, Kennedy is right — all the tools in the toolbox must play their proper role. Anything less would be a continued affront to the cinematic adventures that inspired Lucas to create the Galaxy Far, Far Away in the first place. Williams behind the podium with his baton, a talented corps of model makers and digital artists, excellent actors both familiar and new — and Lucas guiding his overall story as today’s most talented filmmakers breathe new life into his timeless creation. All the greatest forces in the universe are aligning to get it right this time.

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