The Making of Star Wars: Visions: The Duel: Part 1: A Novel Look Combining Kurosawa and Star Wars

That the characters and script of Star Wars Episode 4: A New Hope (1977, hereinafter, “Episode 4”) were inspired by director Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958) is common knowledge among movie fans. Now, The Duel attempts to honor both Kurosawa and George Lucas, along with it its own concentrated dash of humor, in an approximately 13-minute CG animated feature. We spoke to some of the core staff about the behind-the-scenes. This is the first part of a two-part article.

Related Article: The Making of Star Wars Visions: The Duel: Part 2: Playing Hard and Paying Respect to Kurosawa and Star Wars (I'm sorry that Part 2 is in Japanese only)

• This is a re-edited version of the article Star Wars Visions: The Duel – Playing Hard and Paying Respect to Kurosawa and Star Wars, first published in CGWORLD + digital video vol. 279 (Nov. 2021).


    Intersecting Worlds: Kurosawa’s Films of the 1950s~60s and Episode 4

    “Isn’t this wild? I’ve got us a Star Wars pitch!”

    It was near the end of 2019 when The Duel executive director Junpei Mizusaki approached manga creator and illustrator Takashi Okazaki to collaborate.

    Okazaki elaborates, “I always had the production in mind from that point on. But, just thinking, ‘I’m getting to make something Star Wars!’, my mind would go blank and I didn’t even know where to start drawing. I asked my wife, ‘I suppose it would look something like this?’ and drew a picture of a droid wearing a ronin’s hat. That helped me get back into the swing of things, and my pen just kept going from there.” Okazaki, a Star Wars fan as assessed by himself and others, came up with numerous sketches for the Ronin character, R5-D56, and the fallen troopers as well as the parasol saber, the troop transporter, and Tono’s Teahouse. “I was blessed that Mizusaki-san and the director (Takanobu) Mizuno-san got really excited by nearly all of my suggestions. It’s like we were thinking, ‘this is our chance to play with Star Wars!’ It was a very fun mood.” (Okazaki)


    The full production was officially confirmed in April 2020, for which around 60 artists would produce a total of 257 shots under the direction of Mizuno and animation supervisor Yuki Nakajima. The period from layout to completion was around 10 months. “While watching the finished product, I thought, ‘did we go too far?’ We intentionally tried to replicate the VHS versions of Kurosawa’s films, before digital remasters. I was surprised how far we could take it.” (Okazaki)

    While particular in their efforts to replicate the feeling of Kurosawa’s films from the 50s and 60s – the grittiness, the compositions, the use of wind in scenes, etc., the team was also particular about recreating the “Star Wars-ness” of Episode 4. There are even homages to Episode 1: The Phantom Menace (1999, hereinafter “Episode 1”), among others. We reveal more below.

    Kamikaze Douga

    From left: Takashi Okazaki (character designer), Takanobu Mizuno (director, Kamikaze Douga), Yuki Nakajima (animation supervisor, Kamikaze Douga)

    Recreating the DIY Spirit of Episode 4

    Upon receiving a proposal from Lucasfilm, Okazaki and the Kamikaze Douga team submitted two pitches for Star Wars-themed short animated features, and of those The Duel was selected. As part of this process, Okazaki scoured online auctions for various old Star Wars toys, figures, and books. “I already had quite a lot of this stuff, so I was hesitant to add even more. But then I thought, ‘I’m going to need this if I’m really going to be making something Star Wars,’ and added them to my collection.” (Okazaki)

    During the making of Episode 4, special effects were created using miniatures for vehicles like the Millennium Falcon, with surface details made from pieces of other existing plastic models. Japanese model brands such as Tamiya, Hasegawa, and Bandai were popular in the US at that time, and many of these were used in the production of Episode 4. “In our project, we tried to incorporate the designs of old Star Wars toys from makers like Old Kenner or Takara (now Takara Tomy). We wanted to recreate the DIY spirit of Episode 4; creating something new by reimagining those old toys.” (Okazaki)

    A unique and innovative aesthetic was pieced together by further mixing in elements of designs for costumes, props, and sets from films such as Seven Samurai (1954) and Yojimbo (1961). While The Duel is predominantly shown in monochrome, certain items such as lightsabers and electrical lights retain color; reminiscent of the pink chimney smoke scene in High and Low (1963).

    Character Design

    Okazaki at his desk, designing the fallen troopers.
    Pre-final designs of the fallen troopers.
    In foreground is Takara’s “diecast R2-D2” (released 1978). The Duel incorporates this Takara-exclusive back-mounted missile pod gimmick. In rear is Panasonic’s “Sparky”. “Always something new!” (Okazaki)
    Notebook page from 2020, showing the Ronin and R5-D56.
    Concept art. Moisture evaporators, flags, bamboo spears, etc., mixed to create a fun, eclectic look.
    Character lineup.

    Lightsaber Design

    The Boss’ parasol saber design.
    Ronin lightsaber design.

    Storyboard and Animatics

    Mizuno joined the project in spring 2020, when character designs and script were nearly complete. “We knew there would be lightsaber action, so first I reached out to Nakajima-san to have him handle the action parts.” (Mizuno)

    After that, designer Daisuke Sajiki and Nakajima split the storyboard work between them, from which a rough story reel and animatic were finally made.

    Above: A section of the storyboard. Below: The section of the story reel made from that storyboard. The proprietor (screen right) of “Tono’s Teahouse”, where the Ronin is seen relaxing, was based on the cantina owner Gonji (Eijiro Tono) from Yojimbo. The rope curtain at the teahouse’s entrance is also reminiscent of the entrance to the cantina in Yojimbo.
    Above: A section of the storyboard. Below: The section of the story reel made from that storyboard. A Tusken Raider, one of the town’s five hired guards, opens fire on the troopers with his rifle. “We wanted to make this a striking reveal; it was Sajiki-san’s suggestion to have him open fire from up on the watchtower like that.” (Mizuno) Once again, we harken back to Yojimbo, and Sanjuro Kuwabatake (Toshiro Mifune) climbing the watchtower.
    Above: A section of the storyboard. Below: The section of the story reel made from that storyboard. The Boss and the Ronin face off, waterfall between them. An homage to Episode 1, and the battle between Darth Maul and Qui-Gon Jinn. The sound of the Boss’ lightsaber coming into contact with the water is also taken from the Episode 1 audio.

    Creating the Fallen Troopers and Crowd Troopers

    After character design for the project got underway in earnest, the first thing that Okazaki drew were the fallen troopers. “I started from what I wanted to draw the most. The models for the six fallen troopers were the bandits from Seven Samurai. They were a rag-tag bunch and were all wearing different gear, and in the middle was one bandit who was wearing only the lower part of a cuirass and leg coverings. Making crowds that still felt bespoke and not mass-produced like that was one of Kurosawa’s strengths. We wanted to incorporate that quality into our work as well.” (Okazaki)

    For example, for fallen trooper A’s gear, his helmet is a storm trooper’s, his goggles from a clone trooper, his cuirass from a snow trooper – it’s all just cobbled together. “I loved that trooper in particular,” Mizuno said. “Of course, since this is not mass-produced it takes more time for both modeling and animation, but that’s where the fun is. Creating these guys, moving them around. We wanted to bring that feeling into the foreground.” (Mizuno) Six troopers were not enough to take over the whole village, however, and so a workflow was proposed for additional crowd troopers to fill out some of the scenes.

    Designs for fallen trooper A (above) and D (below). Designs for six variations (A~F) with a wide variation of equipment were created. All are wearing loincloths on their lower bodies.
    3D models of trooper A (above) and D (below). Average specs across the six variations are as follows: polygon count: 12,253, no. of bones: 192, no. of textures: 17, texture size: 1K~4K.
    Crowd trooper 3D models were assembled from three head modules, six upper body modules, and one lower body module. The upper body variants were reused from the main fallen troopers (A~F).
    The finished shot of the troopers taking over the village. The main six fallen troopers (A~F) were placed where they would stand out, with the crowd troopers filling in other spaces. As The Duel is primarily in monochrome, extra time was not spent on creating additional color variations. The non-mass-produced feeling therefore needed to be created by swapping model variants of the armor, weapons in their hands, etc.

    Tusken Raider Design and Direction

    The five hired guards who desperately fight back to protect the villagers from the troopers were also based on well-known Star Wars characters, including a Tusken Raider, a Gran, and a Dug. As a Star Wars fan, Okazaki was very particular about these, and Kamikaze Douga did their best to bring these characters to life. “Mizusaki-san always said that if we can make a video that Okazaki-san likes, then the rest of the world’s Star Wars fans will surely love it, too. There are Easter eggs in many shots, so I do hope everyone enjoys it.” (Mizuno)

    The Tusken Raider design, a particular favorite of Okazaki’s. The rifle barrel is metallic, but the stock is bamboo. Keeping practicality in mind, his gaffi stick is telescopic.
    Finished shot. Showcasing the rifle and gaffi stick from Okazaki’s designs. In the scene where he snipes from the watchtower, he wears a Ghillie suit. After coming down from the tower, the move where he deflects the spear thrust towards his throat is also inspired by the scene in Episode 4. “I thought the gestures the Tuskens made when they ran back to their banthas were really cute. I had to get them to include that.” (Okazaki)
    Finished shot. The Tusken attacks with his gaffi stick, also an homage to Episode 4. Faithfully recreated, down to the left-hand grip being correctly reversed.
    Finished shot. Where would a Tusken be without his trusty bantha? Only visible in one shot (screen left). It patiently awaits its master’s return in its parking spot under the watchtower, as villagers flee.

    The Biggest Challenge: Recreating the Kurosawa-like Analog Feeling

    Mizuno was very particular about retaining Okazaki’s hand-drawn touch and an analog film look in the final product. LightWave and After Effects were used to develop The Duel’s unique look. “How to get that Kurosawa-like analog feeling – that was our biggest challenge. Ever since we made The Last Piece (2009) we have been continuing to research how to incorporate the warmth of hand-drawn art into CG, all while keeping the man-hours down. When we made SOUND & FURY’s music video Remember To Breathe (2019) that was another step along this path, and the look in The Duel is another evolution of this.” (Mizuno).

    Creating the Ronin’s 3D Model

    The Ronin character’s 3D model (above) and rig (below). Specs are as follows: polygon count: 11,113, no. of bones: 483, no. of textures: 21 (12 color, 9 buffer [for shadows, lines, highlights, etc.]), texture size 1K~4K. As the Ronin has a lot of moving parts (flowing robes, hair, etc.) the rig has more than twice as many bones as the fallen troopers. The Duel did not utilize any physics simulation, with all such moving pieces being hand-keyed by animators. Textured plane polygons were used for the hair, set so that the surface of the planes was always facing toward the camera. “We wanted to recreate the feeling of flowing movement of the hair in Okazaki-san’s designs, so we employed an old method for this.” (Mizuno)

    Developing a Unique Look Using Hand-Drawn Hatching Elements

    Hand-drawn touches were added directly on top of the rendered images. In addition to the Ronin, this approach was also considered for the look of the river flow.
    Hand-drawn hatching image.
    By rotating the hand-drawn hatching layer in After Effects, it could be synced to the Ronin’s animation to create a cross-hatching effect.
    3D model with color maps only.
    The previously mentioned cross-hatching element is applied to the edge areas, and an ink-like blending effect is added.
    Cross-hatching element also applied to shadow areas (above). This still feels very “CG”, but by heightening contrast (below) it can be made to look like an effect drawn with a pen.
    Some shadows are created by lights, while others are painted into the textures. Adding random blurring to the latter of these further adds to the hand-drawn feeling.
    Finished look.

    Film Grain Effects

    Film grain effects were added in compositing. A shot near the start of the piece, with the Ronin looking down at the village from the top of the hill: before adding grain (above) and the finished shot after this effect has been added (below). “Depending on the shot, there were times when it would just look like it was raining if we added too much, so the compositors had to adjust it shot-by-shot. We told them, a little less grain than Seven Samurai, but a little more than Yojimbo.” (Mizuno)

    Related Article: The Making of Star Wars Visions: The Duel: Part 2: Playing Hard and Paying Respect to Kurosawa and Star Wars (I'm sorry that Part 2 is in Japanese only)


    月刊『CGWORLD +digitalvideo』vol.279(2021年11月号)



    TEXT_Miyuki Ogata (CGWORLD)
    PHOTO_Mitsuru Hirota
    TRANSLATION_Joseph Tarlton (Polygon Pictures)


    Star Wars: Visions

    Seven Japanese anime studios bring their unique talent and perspective to “Star Wars: Visions”—a collection of animated short films that will stream exclusively on Disney+. The anime studios are Kamikaze Douga, Geno Studio (Twin Engine), Studio Colorido (Twin Engine), TRIGGER, Kinema Citrus, Science Saru, and Production I.G. Each studio will use their signature animation and storytelling styles to realize their own visions of the galaxy far, far away. As a first formal venture into anime, each “Star Wars: Visions” short bears a unique Japanese sensibility, which in many ways aligns with the tone and spirit of Star Wars storytelling. From the beginning, stories told in the Star Wars galaxy have counted Japanese mythology and the films of Akira Kurosawa among their many influences, and these new visions will further explore that cultural heritage through the unique animation style and perspective of each anime studio.

    Rated: TV-PG
    Release Date: September 22, 2021






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