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Lucasfilm S'pore, a new (Asian) hope

The Sandcrawler building that houses Lucasfilm Singapore is modelled after the desert vehicle seen in the Star Wars movies./Provided to The Star

Publication Date : 27-01-2014

 

The new Lucasfilm headquarters in Singapore is set to be a force to be reckoned with

 

For a building called The Sandcrawler, Star Wars fans may find the lack of Jawas there disturbing.

However, the Force was definitely strong with the new official headquarters of Lucasfilm Singapore. George Lucas himself had come to town to launch the building, together with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy.

In the Star Wars universe, sandcrawlers are the giant, mobile homes used by the Jawas – those hooded little fellows with glowing yellow eyes who sold R2-D2 and C-3PO to the Skywalkers in Episode IV: A New Hope.

The Singaporean version of The Sandcrawler is a shining and hugely impressive building that retains the shape of the vehicle from which it draws its name, and leaves visitors with absolutely no doubt in their minds as to the building’s occupants.

In a lush green park within the building compound, a serene-looking bronze statue of Yoda sits, his lips pursed in a slight smile as if in approval of Lucasfilm’s spanking-new headquarters. Sculpted by Lawrence Noble, it is an exact replica of the Yoda statues that grace Lucasfilm’s headquarters in San Francisco and the Big Rock Ranch building in California’s Marin County.

Inside the seven-storey building, posters, statues and prop replicas from the Star Wars movies and other Lucasfilm works line the corridors. Even the elevators are modelled after the ones in the Death Star (you would half expect Darth Vader himself to appear every time the elevator doors whoosh open).

Designed by Aedas Architecture, The Sandcrawler received a Gold Plus Greenmark certification in Singapore and has won an impressive six architectural awards including the prestigious Chicago Athenaeum International Architecture Award for Best New Global Design.

Besides Lucasfilm Singapore, The Sandcrawler will also house the regional headquarters of The Walt Disney Company (Southeast Asia) and ESPN Asia Pacific.

According to Lucas, the building is a culmination of years of hard work by the Lucasfilm team in Singapore, which was formed in 2005.

“This building signifies the possibilities we saw and realised when we initially launched the Singapore unit,” Lucas said in his speech at the opening ceremony. “It’s the culmination of many years of hard work and dedication, and I’m proud to be here for the opening. The building is everything I hoped it would be and I look forward to the day that I can sit in a theatre and see all of the amazing work that comes from the artists that work here.”

Since its formation in 2005, Lucasfilm Singapore has grown into a digital entertainment powerhouse within the region, making significant contributions to the 2011 Academy Award-winning animated feature film Rango and the Emmy-winning television series Star Wars: The Clone Wars.

In addition, Industrial Light & Magic Singapore has contributed cutting-edge work on a myriad of blockbusters, such as the second, third and fourth instalments of the Pirates Of The Caribbean movies, the Transformers trilogy, Marvel franchises including Iron Man and The Avengers and the new Star Trek films, to name a few.

Return of the franchise

Now, enough about the building. Let’s talk about Star Wars for a while.

A day before the official launch, Kennedy held court at a group interview with regional journalists and gave an intriguing (if vague) idea of what we can expect from the upcoming Episode VII, the proposed spin-off movies, as well as the future of the Expanded Universe as a whole.

“George was very clear about how it works. The canon he created was the Star Wars Saga, and right now Episode VII falls within that canon,” she said. “The spin-off movies, or we might come up with some other way to call them, they exist within that vast universe of storytelling that George created. So there are endless opportunities. And those are standalone movies. There is no attempt to carry characters in and out of the Saga episodes.

“From a creative standpoint, it’s a roadmap that George created that is pretty clear.”

And what about the Expanded Universe, that rich, vast and somewhat messy mass of accumulated stories in comics, novels, videogames and other mediums?

“They all fall within the Star Wars universe ... and those are the ground rules that we will still abide by,” she said.

Before joining Lucasfilm as president in 2012 (after the company was acquired by Disney), Kennedy was a prolific film producer whose credentials include ET, Empire Of The Sun and the Jurassic Park trilogy. She was also the CEO of Amblin Entertainment, a film and television production company she co-founded with acclaimed director Steven Spielberg, and her husband Frank Marshall in 1981.

The transition from being a film producer to running a studio has been easier than she expected. “My career has been focused primarily on making films, which I will continue to do because I also serve as producer on the new Star Wars films we are working on right now,” she said. “But prior to that, I was running Amblin, and I find that many of the things involved with producing movies do align themselves with the skills needed to run companies.

“I felt this is a point in my career where I can take the skills I’ve had over the years producing movies and move that into many opportunities beyond just making motion pictures,” she said.

The Empire takes root

According to Kennedy, the work coming out of Lucasfilm Singapore has been rivalling the work coming out of the company’s more established offices in the United States, Canada and Britain.

“Even though Lucasfilm and ILM have been in existence for almost 40 years, very quickly, the team trained here in Singapore (is) reaching the point where the work coming out of Singapore is rivalling the work that is coming out of San Francisco, Vancouver and eventually the UK,” she said.

Lucasfilm Singapore currently has over 360 employees, but eight years ago when Lucasfilm Singapore was formed, there were only 26 artists, and Malaysian animator Lyon Liew was one of them.

Liew joined the company in November 2005 as a technical director. He started working on the Star Wars: Clone Wars animated series and in April 2009, became the cloth simulation lead on the project.

“My job was to simulate all the clothing in Clone Wars, and make sure everything looked physically right. Yoda was one of the most difficult characters we worked on because when he fights, he jumps all over the place, and cloth simulation is difficult when he is going really fast,” he said, adding that when he started on the job, he was thrown into an episode with Yoda. So basically it was do, or do not for him at the time. There was no try.

After a short stint away from the company in 2010, the Malacca-born Liew rejoined as a creature technical director, and has worked on The Avengers, Transformers: Dark Of The Moon, Pacific Rim, Star Trek Into Darkness, and currently, Transformers: Age Of Extinction.

“What I do (as a creature technical director) is add in skeletal and basic controls (for creatures), and add on anything else that has to do with it, like cloth and hair simulation, as well as muscle simulation,” he said. “We don’t build the creature, but work on what’s around and inside the creature.”

He also works on the creatures’ rigid body dynamics. For example, when a giant robot crashes through a building, his unit does the destruction.

Another Malaysian who is currently in Lucasfilm Singapore is William Gallyot, who joined in July 2010 through the Jedi Masters Training Program (JuMP), and was hired as a full-time texture artist in December 2010. He’s currently working on an unnamed animated feature as a surfacing technical director.

“I work on the shades and textures for characters and environments that you see. First, we get a flat model from the modellers, and ... I make it more physically accurate before it is rendered,” he said. “Skin, for example, should look like skin, and metals have different kinds as well, like rusty and shiny and so on.”

For both Liew and Gallyot, joining Lucasfilm was a dream come true, especially since they both grew up on Star Wars.

“Lucasfilm is like the pioneer of the entire visual effects industry, and you always hope that you would one day get into the company after paying your dues,” said Gallyot. “So getting in here so early – this is my first full-time job – was very exciting.”

“Star Wars pretty much created this industry, so to be able to come and work on Clone Wars, an extension of Star Wars, was really quite special, especially for those of us who grew up here,” said Liew.

So now they are already working for the leader in visual effects, where do they go from here?

“For me, it’s not a question of where I want to go after this, but more about what project I want to be on. In Lucasfilm we get a lot of awesome stuff coming in, and that keeps us motivated,” said Gallyot.

Of course, among those “awesome” things they mentioned are the new Star Wars movies, which the two of them are hoping to get on.

“That’s one of the most exciting to look forward to now. We are so inspired to get on that movie ... most of us started off as Star Wars fans, so it’s like coming full circle for us!” said Liew.

 

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