“As a young kid growing up in Potomac, Maryland, David Weitzberg was interested in computers and photography, but it was Star Wars that really drew him into the world of special effects. Years later while studying computer science at MIT, Weitzberg traveled across the country to California to start an internship with the company whose work had captivated him. Fast forward, and Weitzberg is now a 19-year veteran of Industrial Light & Magic, living in San Francisco with his wife and three children. StarWars.com sat down with Weitzberg to discuss his start at ILM, his contributions to Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the newest additions to the missions in Star Tours, and most importantly, explosions.
(Note: Weitzberg often refers to films as “shows.” That’s how we talk in the biz!) […]
StarWars.com: So the prequels were announced in ’94, and you started in ’96. Was that kind of a driving force for you for wanting to come back to ILM?
David Weitzberg: Absolutely. When I was an intern, they were shooting the Special Editions at ILM. I still remember seeing the actors in costume walking around and the filming call sheets. There was just something really magical about being here and seeing a Star Wars call sheet. At the time, too, just when I was finishing up school, I could have stayed in school and focused more on graphics research but the prequels were coming and at the time the technology in the industry was moving much faster, and I wanted to get in as soon as I could. I came back here and worked on Episode I — I think it was the second or third movie I worked on when I got back.
StarWars.com: What did you do on the prequel films? What’s one of your favorite scenes that you worked on?
David Weitzberg: Well, I worked on the opening shot of Episode III.
StarWars.com: And you got a VES [Visual Effects Society] nomination for that.
David Weitzberg: I was nominated, and we lost [Laughs], but it was an honor to be nominated. It was a really fun project, we developed the look of the space battle. It was a 2,000-frame long shot or so. John Knoll created the title crawl, and then handed it over to us and we followed the Jedi fighters flying through the battle, with more ships in the background and the planet below, just all kinds of cool stuff.
StarWars.com: What’s the process for doing all that? Where do you even start?
David Weitzberg: You have to break it down into sort of meaningful chunks. What helps is that there are amazing teams here. First the shot may be storyboarded or shown in an animatic, a rough moving version of the shot that establishes the timing, where someone’s already blocked out roughly, “This thing happens here, this thing happens there.” Then it goes through a camera polish in the layout department, where they refine the camera moves and make sure everything is in the right place. Animation makes all the ships and characters move just right, sometimes another group adds physical simulations to the movement, and then it gets handed off to one of the groups I work with. That’s where you add lighting and different effects. For example, as the little ships fly by the giant Star Destroyer, you might get some bounce light so it glows just a little bit on that side. We add details to make it feel like it fits in the scene better. Then there’s all the particle effects and destruction, which is more what I’m specializing in now. Something blows up, there’s a laser fire, dust clouds, water splashes, whatever is needed in the scene. It’s about breaking up the complicated shot into smaller pieces and refining them all along until the whole shot is assembled.
StarWars.com: What was the atmosphere like during the prequels? Was everyone super excited that they got to work on the new Star Wars?
David Weitzberg: It really was exciting, there was definitely a buzz around it. It was a very popular show to be on and everyone was very excited to be a part of it. There is so much in that universe that can be done, so to be able to be a part of it was really something. For example, I worked on the Mustafar landing platform and I loved going out to the stage and seeing big practical models with the thick goop they used for the lava and the under-lighting effects. […]
StarWars.com: What’s your favorite scene that you’ve worked on in a Star Wars film?
David Weitzberg: There’s a lot. [Laughs] I think the opening shot of Episode III really stands out, just because it’s such a long shot and so much happens in it that we really got to do a lot. And it’s a Star Wars space battle! It’s a common thing, but I may or may not have put my head in for one of the pilots. You’ll never see it, but I know it’s there. […]”