At First Glance: How John Knoll Created the Opening Crawl For Star Wars was first published on June 2nd, 1999 as part of a series of behind-the-scenes articles written for the theatrical release of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.
The article features an extensive interview with John Knoll, who recounts at length how he ensured that the opening crawl for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace matched the pre-digital styles used for the original trilogy.
In 2006 the article was deleted from the official Star Wars website. However, I’m pleased to report that we’ve managed to recover At First Glance in its entirety, to be preserved, unedited, in its original form:
In 1977, when audiences throughout North America sat down in darkened theaters to watch Star Wars for the first time, these ten words, in tall blue letters, flashed on the screen as the very first shot of the movie.
There are many different ways to open the front door of a film and invite moviegoers to step inside: introductory words from a narrator, a long shot of a landscape that sets up both the location and the tone of the story that is about to be told, or two characters interacting in a way that reveals their personalities and the relationship that binds them together.
For Star Wars, George Lucas had chosen to make use of printed text: first some titles and then a few concise paragraphs, scrolling upward against a star field. To Lucas it was the best way to draw the audience in and begin to tell his story in medias res, bypassing the standard movie exposition by the use of a medium that, since the advent of the talking picture, usually belongs outside the sphere of cinema.
Lucas’ technique worked very well, drawing the audience right into the action, and he used it again to introduce the two subsequent Star Wars movies, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Each time, the only variable that changed was the text itself – every other detail remained untouched, as if the audience were simply flipping through the pages of a book, reading one chapter after the other, moving forward along one continuous storyline.
This consistency was important to help maintain a sense of continuity throughout the saga – and it still holds true sixteen years after the classic Trilogy came to a conclusion. During post-production on the new chapter of the story, Episode I, Visual Effects Supervisor John Knoll needed to make sure that the traditional roll-up looked exactly like it did in its previous incarnations. Once again, those words would be the first sight caught by moviegoers when Episode I opened on May 19th, 1999, and the overture of chapter 1 would naturally be expected to look no different than the other chapters of the big storybook.
“For the classic Trilogy, a high contrast film of the text was laid out flat on a long lightbox (a transparent table lit from underneath), with a camera set up on rails running parallel to the lightbox. The camera was controlled by a computer to make sure the scrolling speed remained constant: that’s what we call a ‘motion-control camera’. To create the illusion of text disappearing on the horizon, the special effects guys tilted the camera at an angle and ran it down the track. A star field was later optically added to complete the footage.”
This effective procedure was used to create the opening of all three classic movies. Now that digital technology has replaced several of the traditional techniques, Knoll and his team had a lot of flexibility in the preparation of the roll-up for Episode I. But the many variables involved in the classic roll-ups needed to be duplicated exactly before Knoll could start using computers to create the opening of the new Star Wars movie. Even though the technique has absolutely nothing to do with its predecessor, everything seen on screen needed to match what had appeared in the classic Trilogy.
“The problem was that nobody took precise notes when they were shooting those sequences. So it turned out that almost every element had to be matched by eye.”
Knoll started by solving the font enigma.
“We knew that three different fonts had been used, the same trio for all three classic Trilogy movies: one font for ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…’, another font for the title of the movie itself, at the top of the roll-up, and yet another one for the body of the text. But we had to identify those fonts.”
To achieve this, Knoll sent samples of the old roll-ups to the Art Department of Industrial Light & Magic, where resident typography experts started combing their manuals. The culprits were soon identified.
“But that’s just one of the mysteries. The next step was to figure out what type of lens had been used to shoot the sequences.”
Using a different lens would change the aspect of the image.
“Luck smiled at me on this one, I managed to get a hold of Peter Daulton, who had been Assistant Cameraman on Jedi. He believed what I was looking for was a 24 mm lens, and sure enough, my 24 mm computer lens matched the shots from the classic roll-ups.”
The speed at which the text travels from the bottom to the top of the screen also needed to be an absolute match.
“What I did for this one, is watch one of the existing roll-ups, and count the frames between the moment when one line of text breaks the bottom edge of the frame, and the moment the next line does.”
This told Knoll exactly how fast the opening needed to flash by in Episode I. Two more delicate adjustment had to be done “by eye”, the first one being color.
“We laid out several different color samples, and compared them to the old roll-ups, It was only a matter of choosing the one shade that was exactly like what they had used in the classic Trilogy.”
The last variable, the tilt angle, was tracked down using a similar, old-fashioned technique.
“I used a scanned frame from the Star Wars crawl as a background image, and simply tilted the camera until the perspective lines matched,”
Once all the basic elements were found, Knoll and his team still didn’t have it easy. There was more to it than simply inputting the data in a computer. Back-lit text shot with a conventional camera produces a very natural effect, whereas virtual objects that only exist within a computer’s electronic brain behave differently.
“We had to create three-dimensional models of the letters, so that they look as sharp up-close as they do from a distance, and they also disappear on the horizon with the correct 3D perspective.”
With this done, only one finishing touch remained.
“The star field was actually pretty straightforward. We use a synthetic star field generator. I picked one shot from Empire, in which I thought the stars looked particularly good, and we used this as our master guide.”
This ensured that everything would look its best: the distance between two tiny points of light, the relative brightness of the stars, and so on.
“Truly random star fields don’t always look right.”
From that point onward, every time a shot needed a star field – and not only for the opening roll-up – a starry background was generated, based on Knoll’s template.
It is common for effects shots that appear on screen for only a few seconds to require a massive amount of work. But for an effect whose transition to the digital age seems so immediate, the number of steps involved can be surprising.
“No matter how technologically advanced moviemaking instruments have become, they remain tools,” comments Producer Rick McCallum.
“And as tools, they will always need artists to wield them, and their creative visions to lead the way. To us, there is no greater example of such an artist than John Knoll. Whatever the problem we throw at him, he’ll never fail to come up with a solution that not only meets the technical requirements or limitations of the project, but also makes sense within the overall storytelling. Hand the impossible to John, and he’ll crack it.”