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Star Wars Episode II DVD Media Day

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith practically saved the box office over the summer, or at the very least made the studios breath easier during a less than stellar year that saw a lot of uninspiring TV and film remakes. Raking in about $380 million, its closest competitor was War of the Worlds, at $232 million ... and it'll be playing second fiddle on DVD too. Those figures don't count the other 100 countries the film was released in. Episode III was what Hollywood needed in summer '05: an event, something nearly all of us would go see. We weren't going to say "I'll wait for the DVD" on this one. Sold-out theaters, people dressed like Storm Troopers and Yoda and obscure characters only the crazy people know about. Where do you find a Wedge Antilles costume anyways? Cultists mistaken for homeless people, camped in front of theaters, but also you're typical family of five from suburbia, buying tickets weeks in advance. It was Star Wars, last time at the movies. We hadn't had a movie event like this since ... well, since Best Picture winner Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.

To give the DVD of Episode III the hype it deserves, 20th Century Fox and Lucasfilm hosted a half-day DVD release press junket for Episode III on Oct. 6, inviting less than 100 members of the media to Skywalker Ranch. This wasn't the first time DVDTalk had been invited to Skywalker Ranch, George Lucas' beautiful property nestled in the hills of Marin County, maybe 20 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Site founder Geoff Kleinman was there for a two-day Episode I DVD release expedition in 2001, and even got to ask Lucas himself a question. No Lucas this time. For Episode III, there are a mere three items on the agenda: "Star in a Star Wars Movie Scene," "Revenge of the Sith DVD Home Theater Experience," and "DVD and Battlefront II Presentation, and Q&A with Hayden Christensen, Ian McDiarmid, Rick McCallum, and Animation Supervisor Rob Coleman." "Star in a Star Wars Movie Scene?" This can't rightly be called work.

The events took place in the technical building of the ranch, which has a rustic, yet sparkling new feel to it. There aren't pictures of Star Wars all over the walls, but instead classic movie posters. The reporters are given press badges, with a sticker telling us what time we can see the sound and video demonstration, and press packets, which are filled with Episode III information and make Darth Vader breathing sounds when you open them. The first hopeful question of the day: Can we do one-on-one interviews? I ask someone without a press badge, and I'm told no way. Not even for five minutes? Not a chance. Blast. I grudgingly wait for my screening time.

HOME THEATER EXPERIENCE

Jim Ward, senior vice president of Lucasfilm and president of LucasArts, hosts just three of us for the last THX sound demonstration of the event, so naturally, I grab the center seat. The room is set up with a big screen TV, a complete surround sound speaker set-up, and home-style, plushy theater seating for 15. I was tempted to ask Ward for popcorn.

"We're pretty proud of what we've done for ... this DVD," he tells us. "(Episode II was shot on) digital too, (but) we feel this product is better." So he lets us judge for ourselves. Ward plays for us two scenes: the opening space battle between the clones of the Republic and the droids of the Separatists, and the closing lightsaber battle between Obi-Wan and Anakin, and Yoda and Darth Sidious. Before starting the first scene, he tells us to "watch out for the kitchen sink ... we had everything else in there, so we threw one of those in too."

The three of us are rightly awed by the clear picture, and the four minutes worth of Episode III that we were treated to was just too short. Judging just by the opening and closing scenes, this DVD looked fantastic. Everything - from simple close-ups of Yoda's green head to the chaotic, complicated battles in space - comes through cleanly. As for the sound, I was left with the impression that the center channel was louder and more full than the rear channels, so much so that it drowned out most of what had been shifted behind. When I watch the DVD in a controlled environment, I'll be able to judge whether it's just the room, the set-up, or my own perception.

STAR IN A STAR WARS SCENE

Every frame of Episode III was touched by the special effects team from Industrial Light & Magic, and press members were treated to a unique experience with members of ILM set up in one of the small rooms away from the bustle and hustle.

You walk into the cramped little room, and you're surrounded by wiring, cameras, and a few guys set up at a series of computers. One of the ILM workers throws a brown Jedi robe on me, complete with hood (merchandising, merchandising ... you can buy the robe at any number of stores). He positions me on a pedestal against a black screen, and tells me my scene: I'll be appearing on the halogram stand General Grievous is speaking to when he seeks direction from Darth Sidious. "Now, I'm going to give you a countdown, and then I want you to look right here," he says, pointing away from the cameras. "You can order General Grievous to do anything you want."

The cameras role and I intone, in my most serious voice possible, "General Grievous, I order you to get me an early copy of this DVD, right away." I'm a little disappointed no one says "quiet on the set" beforehand or "cut" when I'm done talking, as long as we're being cheesy. I step down, take off the robe, and give them my email, where they send a copy of the video to me. I don't look nearly as imposing as Darth Sideous, and not nearly as transparent. But with just a minute worth of camerawork and superimposing, the scene looks really clean, and I have a nice clip to send to friends.

The reporter in line after me is much funnier, and spends a good minute telling Grievous why he needs to hit up IKEA to brighten up the room in the movie. I leave laughing, but wondering: Was Grievous listening to me? He did say: "It will be done, my lord."

THE DVD AND VIDEO GAME

We're filed into an actual, full-size theater downstairs, and I manage to grab a seat front row center. When everyone's seated - and we only fill a quarter of the room - Ward heads straight into the bonus DVD features. First up: the deleted scenes, each with introductions from Lucas and McCallum.

The first one we see is a scene chopped from the opening 25 minutes of the film, where Obi-Wan and Anakin confront General Grievous in the halls of his ship, where he's captured Jedi Shaak Ti. The scene is pretty good, with fully completed animatics, and wasn't cut from the movie until late in the process. The best part is Obi-Wan and Anakin communicating via facial touches, much like a third base coach communicates the hit and run sign to the batter in baseball.

Ward skips us forward to a scene that he says "we were all really pushing George to keep in." We won't see Yoda again until The Empire Strikes Back, and the last we see of him in Episode III is in a tiny escape pod, heading to the Dagobah system. This short, short deleted scene shows Yoda arriving on the planet Luke Skywalker will one day visit, and a lot of people will wonder why it was cut. McCallum says he was "heart-broken" when Lucas cut it out, with Lucas saying "we already know where he ends up."

Ward then shows us snippets of the making-of documentary of Episode III, "Within a Minute." This breaks down a 49-second portion of the Mustafar duel between Obi-Wan and Anakin, and interviews and profiles each department that touched that scene. During the Art Department portion, when Lucas goes through the process of choosing concept designs, it's funny to see every one of the artists nod their head in deference to everything he says. It's at about this time that a rather sloppy photographer sitting next to me starts snoring. Everyone around her looks her over like she's nuts: How do you fall asleep during a Star Wars DVD screening? She snores and grunts for a good five minutes, while I just shrug and impart that she's not with me.

Ward brings up the lights for a moment to switch gears and tell us about the video game, which reporters had a chance to play upstairs at four game stations.

The first Battlefront is the best-selling Star Wars game of all time, selling more than 3.5 million units, and the LucasArts people are quite excited about the sequel, where you can play as more than 50 characters, including Jedi, in dozens of new locals, as well as space. "We really think we've broken new ground here," Ward said. He has someone in the back of the room fire up an XBox, and someone starts playing as Anakin on the screen. The character slices and dices his way through good and bad guys alike, and appears to be controlled by a madman. Turns out it's Hayden Christensen in the back of the room, playing his own character.

Lastly, Ward shows us an Easter Egg on the DVD, which has everyone laughing. Let's just say the guys in the animation department had a lot of free time. Ward then fields a few questions, while four chairs are brought on to the stage. Why isn't Episode III on UMD for the PlaySation Portable? Ward says there are too few hardware units out there right now, but leaves the option open should the format prove to be more than another Laserdisc. He points out that Battlefront II will be on the PSP. No, Episode III won't be on VHS, because it just isn't profitable. Ward says there's one promotional deal, with Wal-Mart, where a bonus DVD is thrown in if you buy Episode III there. He adds that a second promotional deal, "tied to a national TV program," is in the works. "At the end of the day, we're pretty agnostic," Ward said of Lucasfilm's stance in the Blu-Ray vs. HD-DVD format war. He says he thinks HD-DVD will win out, but Lucasfilm is sitting on the sidelines, just waiting to see how everything pans out. Ward says that an art box edition to fit Episodes I, II and III isn't far-fetched, and he praises the fan boxes that can be found online. He also tells us to expect a really good video game, which has a preview on the bonus DVD, called Empire at War. "We have, over the past four or five years, put out far too many mediocre Star Wars games," he says. See, I liked the Knights of the Old Republic games, and I can only assume he's talking about the strange Lego Star Wars game that came out. When the reporters are done asking questions, Ward brings up our first interview of the day, Producer Rick McCallum.

INTERVIEWS

Rick McCallum

The reporters seem more interested in "what's next" than the Episode III DVD. Right out of the gate, McCallum is asked about the live-action Star Wars TV series Lucas has announced for 2007, with characters from the movies and events taking place between Episodes III and IV. "It's going to be darker, grittier, much more character driven," McCallum says. He added that they are currently interviewing writers, and looking into locations to shoot at. McCallum is then asked what it would take to get the Star Wars movies redone in 3-D. "It's a two-part problem," he says, pointing to a lack of digital screens in theaters, and the few movies being done digitally. "Once we get to the point of 2,000, 3,000 screens ... we can work on bringing these to 3-D."

Rob Coleman and Frank Oz

Animation Supervisor Rob Coleman and Frank Oz, Yoda himself, were brought up to sit with McCallum. Appropriately, the first questions for Coleman involved the incredible amount of animation work of Episodes I through III. "Now, I do just a half day (of work), and these guys work for a year," Coleman said, referring to the ILM team. "And I get the credit." Oz was asked by someone if he could do Yoda right then and there. Silly question. "Not on a first date," Oz says, saying he doesn't want to belittle the character. He could just as well have said he didn't want to do a song and dance right then and there. Both Coleman and Oz are asked if anything has been lost by making Yoda an all-CG character in Episodes II and III. "What's lost, obviously, is just the physicality of the character," Coleman says. "But at the same time, the gain is your able to do (more)." Coleman said his team's main job was "not to live up our capabilities" and keep the distinct movements Oz gave Yoda when he was a puppet. "They mimicked me to such a degree, that they couldn't live up to their talent," Oz said.

There's no chance digital Yoda will be edited into Episode I Coleman says. "We were not ready to do Yoda (digitally) in Episode I," Coleman said. "The enormous leap to create a new Yoda out of the gate was too much for us." Oz was asked what he learned from playing Yoda. "It was more a process of learning who Yoda was, not what I could learn from him," he said. He joked that he learned from Yoda the way a student learns from a martial arts master, "but that's getting too deep." Coleman said Yoda sat easier with the crew as a digital character in Episode III, because they had made such leaps and bounds in Episode II. "I was really terrified before Episode II came out," he said. "Once we got through that ... with Episode III we knew we could up the ante with Yoda's interaction with the live characters."

A general question was asked of those on stage: For Episode III did they take into account feedback they had received from fans following the previous two movies? Everyone knew the real question behind that one: Did all the hate for Jar-Jar and the Gungen race relate into fewer and fewer scenes with them in the movies? McCallum bravely spoke up. "(Episode I) was designed for kids ... no doubt about it," he said. "We did not have Jar-Jar as much in (the later movies), not due to fan reaction, (but because) he fulfilled his mission in Episode I." Before anyone could ask what that mission was, Oz spoke up: "I love Jar-Jar. As an adult I loved this guy. He cracked me up."

Ian McDiarmid

The Q & A with Emperor Palpatine/Darth Sidious actor Ian McDiarmid began with questions about how he was brought on board to play the same character all these years after Return of the Jedi. The decision was made rather quickly, he said, following a short meeting with Lucas. "I think my relationship with Satan is closer, with this character I hasten to add," McDiarmid said. He says children are "a little tentative" around him now. McDiarmid said "I always answers my telephone" when asked whether he'd be open to being in the 2007 live-action TV series. He also said he didn't know how evil his character would be until he saw the script. "I didn't know about the fighting skills (I would need) either," he said. Originally, during the lightsaber fight between Sidious and Jedi Mace Windu, a stunt double was supposed to do most of McDiarmid's work. "(Lucas) wanted more of me ... he wanted my energy." Though McDiarmid seemed partial to his scenes fighting Yoda. "Fighting Frank, fighting Yoda, was a joy. It showed me the wonders of (CG)." On that gravely, croaking voice of Darth Sidious, McDiarmid said "he looked like an old toad ... and before I knew it (it) came out." For Lucas, McDiarmid had nothing but praise, calling his work "an astute analysis of the politics of power," He said he's looking forward to watching the entire sextet now. "When people do watch this film, chronologically, they'll see things they haven't seen before," McDiarmid said. "It will be strange to watch these DVDs in order."

Hayden Christensen

With Halloween coming up, and the Star Wars DVD out the next day, just how much psychological damage will Hayden Christensen suffer from knowing hundreds and hundreds of little boys out there will be dressed like Darth Vader? Not much. "Now I get two characters that (kids) can dress up as," the 24-year-old actor said. "Kids are still enamored with this hero." In fact, this was the part of a lifetime for him. "I was going to have my own action figure and get to play myself in a video game." He said he didn't "think of my dog that died when I was 8 years old" to get into the character of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader. "It was orgasmic, amazing," Christensen said of playing the part. "I was waiting and waiting to take him to the dark side." In fact, Christensen said it was he who convinced Lucas to wear the actual Vader suit in the movie. "I just said 'I don't know if you can make this happen, but I'd like to wear the suit.'" He said he was filled with "a beastly feeling" when he put on the costume, which felt like "wearing 20 pound weights on your shoulder (while wearing) high heel shoes." Christensen said the most challenging part of this film was the physical preparation. Christensen said his work as Anakin will "always be very dear to his heart. It's impacted my life, 90 percent for the better."

ON THE WAY OUT ...

When you go to these DVD release parties, or industry trade shows, or award events, the food is expected (if anyone knows catering it's movie people; lemon chicken, perfect green beans, no booze), and almost always a goodie bag shows up. Nobody does freebies better than these guys and you get to keep (or give away) everything they give you, even if you hate the movie and they know you're going to pan it. When people send us wine at the newspaper I work at in Napa, we give it to charity. Sweet of us, but painful.

So, walking up the stairs of the theater, watching a few people grab McDiarmid for autographs, the party staff greets us with sharp, black shopping bags with Star Wars in gold letters on the side. Inside: a battery-operated lightsaber, a 224-page, photo- and article-stuffed, hardbound making-of-Episode III book, an "I Heart Darth Vader" T-Shirt, and some Battlefront II game ads. And yes, General Grievous granted my wish: a brand-new, retail copy of Episode III.

Everything goes to charity. Except the DVD.

Chris Tribbey is a daily newspaper editor who covers anime and other DVD news for the DVD Release Report trade publication, Home Media Retailing magazine, and DVDTalk.com. He averages four hours of sleep a night.

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