The Colbert Report Green Screen Challenge

by Manuel Alducin

On October 11, 2006, viewers of the The Colbert Report were suprised by the Star Wars: Episode III inspired show intro and greenscreen entry by viewer George L. I decided to track down the Guerrilla VFX artists in charge of this entry.

The Colbert Report Green Screen Challenge: The Phantom Project

On October 11, 2006, viewers of the The Colbert Report were suprised by the Star Wars: Episode III inspired show intro and greenscreen entry by viewer George L. I decided to track down the Guerrilla VFX artists in charge of this entry. The super-secret project was supervised by lead digital artists Todd Vaziri and Tom Martinek, so I had to grill them, Colbert style.

The Colbert Report Green Screen Challenge
The Colbert Report Green Screen Challenge.

Todd Vaziri: Did you get to watch the show? I mean do you watch the Colbert Report? Do you have it down there? 

Manuel Alducin: I don't watch it every day, but I try to watch it whenever I can.  But I know about the Green Screen Challenge. 

Todd: Yeah.

Manuel: When you told me about it I knew I had to watch it, make sure I wouldn't miss it. 

Todd: Oh yeah, yeah I remember. One of the cool things was that even here we tried to keep it a secret as possible, because it worked out really well that George [Lucas] being on the show; it was a big surprise. We didn't want anybody to be in on it. We actually, here at ILM, nobody else on the project could even see our dailies; they couldn't see our shots. Whenever anybody would ask me, what's the top secret Colbert thing you guys are working on? We would just be all cryptic about it. It was kind of fun. That's just kind of - that's part of the reason why the little show is so much fun. 

It's a very different ILM type project, where we were really pulling out all of our guerrilla tactics, I mean try getting high quality stuff done in a very short about of time. So very rarely do we have that kind of tiny little self-contained projects where we can actually try out all these different things.

George Lucas at the Colbert Report
George Lucas at The Colbert Report.

Tom Martinek: There's very little overhead, not a whole lot of supervision other than our own, me and Todd.

Manuel: So how large was the crew? Was it just the two of you? 

Todd: We had a few artists - I'll eventually send you a crew list. What we had maybe five artists at a time total. And one and a half animators depending on who was available at the time. So it's pretty tiny for us.

Manuel: So how did it actually get started? Did you approach The Colbert Report? Or did they contact you? How did that get started?

Todd: Well, the original episode it was a one day in August I think it was, that one of his bits was - his reoccurring bit is Better know a District where he'll interview a Congressman from various districts around the country and they were interviewing the Marin County representative, Lynn Woolsey, and he always made a little intro before the interviews. He kind of introduces the rest of the district. 

In the bit he's actually in a greenscreen studio driving a car around Marin County. It was pretty funny. He's actually pointing out various Marin County landmarks, like oh there's the Golden Gate Bridge, there's San Quentin Penitentiary, oh there's Skywalker Ranch home of George Lucas and cuts to him on an obviously greenscreen stage with a little toy lightsaber. He's like "oh no, I'm being attacked by a space monster" and then there's all these kind of like 30-40 seconds doing lightsaber moves. It's just him with the toy against the greenscreen. He's looking around, he's doing summersaults, totally out of breath at the end, and he kind of looks off camera and says "Lucas is going to add all the CGI later, right?" Then he actually mimics a conversation with Jar Jar, he says "what's that Jar Jar?" And he's actually just talking to an off-screen guy carrying a stick with eyeballs off-screen. Totally imitating what we'll do on-set sometimes for actors to get good eye line. So you know he actually even mimicked putting his arm around Jar Jar, kind of putting his arm in the air. He's obviously got a great response, with the audience going crazy and everybody got it like instantaneously. So that aired I think it was like a Wednesday night maybe.

Tom: No, it was a Friday is when people started talking about it and then -

Stephen Colbert actin infront the green screen
Stephen Colbert acting infront the green screen.

Todd: The very next day here at our message boards - we have little internal Lucasfilm message boards - there were all these messages popping up "did anybody see Colbert Report last night? Did anybody see? Oh, that was pretty cool". 

Tom: So then ideas started flying around. Everybody was like oh, we should do this, we should do that. Then I volunteered to do - he had mentioned something about an explosion ring that he put into some shots. I actually did those shots so I volunteer to do those shots. That would take me about an hour at lunch time to do. 

By the end of the day I get a phone call from the PR Department and he goes "I need you to take charge of this because now George [Lucas] found out about it and wants to get involved and actually wants to do something".

George Lucas at The Colbert Report

Todd: It really shocked us. I mean we were all just kind of talking around on the message board. LucasArt people had some ideas and Lucasfilm people had some ideas. ILM guys were all just kind of shooting the breeze, you know saying "hey wouldn't it be great if we did this, haha?!?". Then of course when that George [Lucas] phone call came in, I guess he's a fan and he watched the show.

Tom: Somebody called him and we were talking about it, heard them say something and PR guys freaked out and called and said George wants to do something now and we have to do something.

George Lucas at The Colbert Report
Finalist George L. presents his entry in the Green Screen Challenge.

Todd: Then also by the end of that day there were already a couple people did some very quick gaudy greenscreen extractions, putting Colbert with various scenes from Star Wars. In like 24 hours later that meant this was really going to turn into something crazy. I think it was the very next day or maybe two days after that Lucusfilm contacted Comedy Central and let them know that George [Lucas] really wants to do something for this. They had already made the similar discovery at the Colbert Report that hundreds of people are already putting stuff up on YouTube for this little bit. 

And that's when the whole genesis of the Green Screen Challenge came about. They're like okay let's note this and start thinking in the long-term so nobody's rushed.

Tom: Give people time to actually get it done.

Todd: Sometimes it just wasn't done -

Tom: Not as fast as a kid!

Todd: Yeah, we had a little higher standard that we wanted to try and hit and it was something that he [Stephen Colbert] could bilk for weeks at a time and show from time to time various entries on his show, so it's a nice little thing. So Green Screen Challenge, not a contest, but you could win. On his end they had a lot of stuff and in fact we wrote or it was John Stewart's idea right at the very beginning that whatever entry ILM does, it can't win.

George Lucas at The Colbert Report
The entry by George L. gets a nearly perfect score.

Tom: It's not funny if they win. So we all kind of knew that going in.

Todd: They actually wrote and said if George wants to come on the show we could introduce him as just another entrance and have the character be kind of ignorant about the world and you wouldn't even know that it's George Lucas.

Tom: That he was a big Colbert hero.

Todd: Your hero George L. and so that was all set in stone, pretty much laid out from the very beginning, but of course what we were going to do was - what kind of entry we were going to make was a different story. Is this making any sense?

Goerge L. is displeased his entry didn't win
Colbert guest George L. is displeased his entry didn't win, so ...
George Lucas at The Colbert Report
... a lightsaber fight ensues.

Manuel: Yes! So from a volunteer thing it grew into this monster I guess.

Tom: Oh yeah.

Todd: So then the very next week we started to get all those volunteers that had ideas on the message board kind of together and then after two days of meetings we kind of realized that it could be very ILM centric and it would have to be a very small crew, we would have to be very smart and efficient because we couldn't get the leak from our current show. All of us were working on Transformers and Pirates III and Evan Almighty and Harry Potter and -

Tom: And A Nightmare Before Christmas.

Todd: And A Nightmare Before Christmas was still going on. The directive was you guys can do this project, but it cannot interfere with your other work.

Tom: And you can't do it in overtime.

Todd: Yeah, no overtime.

Manuel: Wow!

Tom: And it has to be better than everybody else.

Todd: Oh yeah, it had to be really good. 

Tom: It had to be held up to our standards, but don't take any time or money to do it.

Todd: So Tom and I kind of emerged as the guys who were going to be in charge of the thing, so we kind of put our heads together and came up with -

Tom: Well, you did some quick animatics for the shots, from the sequence from Episode III...

Todd: Yeah, for me we needed to pick a scene that I thought we could just put Stephen into with relative ease, because the Star Wars movies have so many sequences were shot with just actors against the greenscreen.

Tom: So just probably pick a scene that had predominantly Obi-Wan or Anakin against the greenscreen and had a CGI environment and then put Colbert in that environment.

And we threw around lots of ideas, the arena sequence from Episode II. We talked about the Mustafar sequence from Episode III, but a really good candidate at least for me was the hangar sequence, the Federation hangar sequence from Episode III. I did lots of shots in that sequence and I was pretty familiar with it so I knew there would be opportunities, also the droids shooting at Anakin and Obi-Wan.

Stephen Colbert in the Federation cruiser hangar
The intro bumper in the Federation cruiser hangar.

Tom: Lots of opportunities to use his crazy lightsaber where, he could bounce lasers off and look like he was doing something fairly professional.

Todd: Plus the concept of him actually dueling another character just -

Stephen Colbert fighting battle droids
Stephen Colbert destroys some battle droids. The action was mostly taken from Stephen's green screen performance and reused laser blasts and the offical lightsaber tools.