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: Revenge of the Jar Jar

Tom: Originally he was going to fight Jar Jar.

Todd: Yeah. 

Tom: And we looked at that and we looked at the amount of time we had left. We decided we didn't have enough time to choreograph this lightsaber fight with Jar Jar and have him interacting, he's rolling around, they would have be front and behind, it would be just too much character animation to try to stick to that episode. That's why these droids it was just sub the droids into these shots and it's the one that worked best for whatever movement he happened to be doing.

Todd: That weekend I did a quick animatic ripped from sequences from Episode III and did a quick extraction of Stephen and put into various shots. I tried to create like a little story and then at the end he would have the conversation with Jar Jar. We knew that was something that nobody else could do. We could resurrect Jar Jar, animate him, get Ahmed Best to do the voice and have him have an actual conversation with Jar Jar culminating with him actually putting his arm around Jar Jar. That was kind of our plan. We pretty much stuck to it and George wrote the entire dialog for Jar Jar.

Todd: We kinda looked for shots - so many shots in Episode III.

Manuel: I was actually amazed how long it was.

Tom: Yeah. I think it was like 22 shots or something.

Todd: We had 22 shots, we had about four more, but it got to a certain point and were eventually omitted from the cut. But in the end, like full on production time was about two and a half weeks that we did those 22 shots. 

So resurrecting Jar Jar was so no trivial task at all.

Tom: Yeah, we ended up - we knew right away we weren't going to do any sim work, that would kill us. So we had to just the bare minimum of animation and bare minimum of shape work on them. That's when we decided we would use Episode I Jar Jar, because he was more simple. Of course our software had changed so much over the years that trying to make him work on our pipeline was extremely difficult.

The old Jar Jar model resurrected
The old Jar Jar model resurrected
The old Episode I Jar Jar model was updated to the new pipeline.

Manuel: Did you look for an animator that worked on him?

Tom: No, what we did was we talked to Rob Coleman. We had meetings with the whole upper staff about this, including Rob Coleman and I think the animator was chosen by him, somebody who was really good and really fast. We have a lot of really good animators in here, but we needed somebody who was going to do all these animations jobs as quickly as possible. 

Todd: I think most of the Jar Jar shots were like second takes finals.

Tom: Yeah. She was really fast. 

Jar Jar talking to Stephen Colbert
Jar Jar talking to Stephen Colbert
Most of the Jar Jar animation had to be finalized in one or two takes.

Todd: It's just amazing. One of the shots was long dialog, uninterrupted you know three or four times long the usual stuff and you know, she just nailed it. It was just amazing that whole show. We couldn't get 15 takes, 15 takes; we pretty much had to nail it on the first try or second try. For animation that's staggering. 

Then like Tom said our tools changed so drastically from 1998, 1999 when that Jar Jar model was built so Michael Koperwas had been working on tools to convert our old model into our new pipeline. He was able to do a lot of work testing on those tools to bring Jar Jar back to life in our new pipeline. So that was a huge technical challenge.

Tom: And none of the shaders worked either. Our shaders have changed over the years and we complied the shaders back then without a whole lot of extra effort. 

We ended up stripping off all the materials and reassigning it a whole new material and again taking the short cut that we skipped out on the subsurface scattering, all this other stuff that we knew it was going to be on TV and it's a low light environment, so it wasn't really going to missed too much. We went to the print a whole lot faster. 

Jar Jar talking to Stephen Colbert
Jar Jar talking to Stephen Colbert
For the Jar Jar model, sim work was skipped, materials and lighting reassigned and simplified, which wouldn't be noticeable at video resolutions.

Todd: Yey video res!

Of course video screwed us up in a lot of other ways. All our tools are pretty much set up for film for 24 frames per second progressive frames so dealing with the Colbert footage really caused us to have a lot of headache and scratching our heads going how are we going to integrate this 29.9 frames per second interlaced frames and video resolution, video aspect ratio, how are we going to integrate that all with our tools here at ILM. Would we run the Episode III stuff at 30 frames per second? Would be down-convert Stephen Colbert to 24? Would we work at 2K resolutions? Work at 1K resolutions or video res? 

In the end we came up with a relatively simple pipeline to make all that work, but boy did that cause us a lot of discussion and I think some of us lost a few brain cells with that one, no doubt. It just became a big old smorgasbord of stuff. On the lightsabers, we had Alan Travis basically perform the lightsaber rotoscoping on Colbert.

I think we asked him to do the whole thing, the whole chorography that Colbert did and it was all official Star Wars lightsaber stuff. We used our lightsaber tools that we used on the movie, so Stephen Colbert got the real official Star Wars treatment. 

Then for the shots where we tried - like I said we tried to limit the shots to trying to bring up the comp - we restored all these shots back from the original archives and opened up the comp page and made sure everything worked because -

Tom: Made sure it was backed up correctly.

Todd: Yeah. That really puts a lot of pressure on the backup and archiving process here. There were only a couple of things - we had everything up and working. We tried to turn off all of the Obi-wan and Anakin layers, hold off the screen on Stephen and put him into the shots.