Readers of my blog will remember reading about “The Empire Strikes Quack” in May of 2009… Let’s set the Wayback Machine to the Winter of 1986.
I was in the second semester of my stint at USC, hanging around the film school a lot… on my third application to major in Cinema/Television Production… I had taken a film editing class that was offered to non majors taught by Academy Award winning editor Thomas Stanford. I took the class because I had an interest in editing and working with film, and I knew that my enrollment in the class would give me access to the equipment in the Post Production building.
At that time, the Marcia Lucas Post Production facility consisted of about 15 editing rooms and one “bullpen”… the bullpen was a large room at a corner of the building filled with individual moviola editing machines, and where they put up giant “write on/wipe off” boards for the students to put graffiti. (The old cinema buildings were known for the walls covered in graffiti from years of students passing through.) It is rumored that when George Lucas came into the new bullpen and saw the wipe off boards, he told the dean “You should just let them write on the walls…” The wipe off boards are still there. The moviolas are not.
The other rooms of the building had video editing equipment. Two or three 3/4″ U-Matic video editing setups… and about 15 Panasonic VHS Editing setups. These machines were professional setups, as much as VHS could be… and they had a high tech control console with fancy shuttle wheels and LED timecode displays.
I realized I just had to learn how to work these things. After doing my assignments for class with rolls of 16mm film, (and adding a sync mag soundtrack to a couple of the assignments that were officially supposed to be done silent) I used my allotted time in post production to sign out a VHS room and play. My buddy Chuck Michael, whom I met on line for a tour bus of LA on our second day of being in Los Angeles, was working on his early production classes, doing super 8 movies in the Production Track’s first production class: 290. I had been helping him with some of his movies… building a little set for a claymation epic about aliens stealing a jukebox for their spaceship, and starring in one of them as a beleaguered film student tortured by an annoying dripping faucet. He was interested in learning the editing setup as well, so we decided to pool our Post Production time and learn the machines together.
Chuck had a neat setup in his apartment at USC. He was the first person I knew who had a Laserdisc player. I was astonished by the great quality of the video on it, and I’d often get to watch movies that Chuck hosted. He had a great collection of titles… and we’d go now and then down to Tower Records Video annex on Sunset Blvd. where he would occasionally add to his collection. One day, we found out that “Return of the Jedi” was being released on home video, and would soon be out on Laserdisc… Chuck was enthused and so was I.. we were both fans of the trilogy, and he already had the first two on Laser… (pan and scan versions only… the lovely “letterboxed” Japanese Laserdiscs were still a few years away). I was able to make some clean dupes (for educational purposes only, folks… don’t pirate) onto VHS, and started using these to play at editing. Chuck also had a collection of Warner Bros. cartoons on VHS that were good for playing around with, and we both practiced cutting on this somewhat innacurate editing system. I say somewhat innacurate because it didn’t use timecode… and wasn’t by any means “frame accurate”… it was on the fly… and you could almost get an accurate cut if you were familiar with the idiosyncrasies of the particular machines you were working with… some machines had a tendency to be a couple frames late, some would make the assembly cut a couple frames early… you just had to know what the limitations were. If you were particularly daring, (as we were) you could actually do a fairly good insert edit by setting the in and out of your destination tape, and the in or out of your source tape, press the pre-roll and hope for the best. Chuck and I got pretty good at this.
We also messed around with separating the video from the sound, using “L” cuts and replacing audio altogether. This was fun, because the decks were using the linear analog tracks on the tape, and not the imbedded “VHS Hi-Fi” signal that was used by a lot of the consumer machines. This meant that you could isolate the tracks… make a cut on the left channel alone, or mix and match between the stereo channels. This allowed for overlapping of audio on audio as well as overlapping audio over video.
It was on one of these occasions where we were overlapping and inserting video that something interesting happened. I had been laying down a warner bros. cartoon, the 1953 “Duck Dodgers in the 24th 1/2 Century” because I enjoyed it, and I remembered that Lucas himself liked it so much that he screened it in front of the ILM first screening of the completed “Star Wars”… and I also was playing with “Ali Baba Bugs” with Bugs and Daffy finding a buried arabian treasure and a magic lamp. I thought it was an appropriate thing to mess around with. I had also put together a re-cut of the opening of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, taking out all the traps from the South American temple. Just wanted to see if I could do it without it being too jumpy… In the cut, Indy and Doc Ock go into the temple, walk to the idol, take it, and leave. When it got around to the section where indy has just escaped the temple and is surrounded by Belloq and the warriors, I had inadvertently left one of the audio tracks off when dubbing, so there was the audio of what was previously on the tape.
When Belloq’s henchman falls over, it was punctuated by a very startling “ehhh… What’s up, Doc?” Followed by Daffy Duck spouting about gold and jewels as indy is forced to hand over the golden idol to Belloq. Chuck and I found it hysterical. And we also realized that there might be something to this. I’d started with a “retrospective” montage of the key scenes from the Star Wars movies cut to the end title music, setting rules for myself… that each shot was to be in chronological order, and that the action in the shots should mostly work with the music… to be cut to it, as if it were choreographed to the flow of the music… it was an interesting experiment to see if I could learn how to edit to sound… This piece was later named “Star Wars: The First Decade” and is available here:
(I was able to get extra credit in the Editing class with this one… I think the other students in the class thought I was some kinda nut.)
I had become extremely familiar with all the footage in the Star Wars movies by this time… (even more than I ALREADY had been) So, I mentioned to Chuck that I thought we should do a full project… a video replacement of the images from the Duck Dodgers cartoon… and put in the Star Wars footage. I figured it would be easier than trying to re-edit the SW movies and replacing their video with Cartoon footage. So we settled on keeping the original 7:30 length cartoon soundtrack intact, and try to hammer together something that would be funny and coherent. We spent the next few weeks (I think it was actually about 35 hours of actual editing time… more or less) putting this thing together. We’d try different sections, see what parts worked better over others, and once we’d decided which characters represented the cartoon ones, it became a task of keeping everything reasonably clear, and maintain a certain continuity of storytelling…
When we were done and reasonably happy with the result, we needed a name for the thing… I can’t remember how many we bandied about… I remember one esoterically bad one I came up with: “Luke, Out the Window!”… yeah, I know… but we finally got hit with it at the USC Cafe’ 84 across the street from the Film School… the title would be “The Empire Strikes Quack”.
We had intended to have it done in time for a gala dinner given by the Cinema Television Alumni Association that year… (or was it later… it’s all a muddle at the moment. lol) But I wanted to give a copy to George Lucas, who was attending… cause I thought he would get a kick out of it. (and, who was I kidding, I wanted to meet him.) But plans fell through, and promised tickets to the event didn’t appear… so, we settled on screening it for a 310 class (that’s the second-tiered production class, where two partners each do a 10 minute film, one on 16mm, one on video, all without sync dialog) a couple members of the class liked it very much, so they agreed to show it at their end of class screening. It brought the house down.
I sent a copy to Ben Burtt, Sound Designer for Lucasfilm, and he sent a great little note on Lucasfilm stationery saying how much he enjoyed it… I had read that Burtt was a big fan of the Warner Bros. sound effects library, and particularly of Treg Brown, who did the sound effects for the cartoons. He said he was amazed at how well everything worked together. I also gave a copy to model builder Bill George at ILM, and he showed it around to the guys up there as they were working on “Star Trek: The Next Generation”… It’s also rumored that Lucas did get to see it, but that’s never been confirmed. I also got a contact from a friend of someone at Amblin’ Entertainment, Steven Spielberg’s company… and with a fully legal release form all signed, I sent one to him… Never got any word whether SS saw it.
During a break, I went back to Chicago and went to work for a small production company doing commercials and industrial videos. I also got to learn how to work a digital video effects system and a chyron machine. (this was still the early years of digital video effects and I was lucky to work for this company who let me learn it and goof around with it) I was able to make some simple titles for “Quack” and “The First Decade” and integrated them into the videos when I returned to school.
About a year later, May of ’87 was approaching… and there was to be a big 10th Anniversary Star Wars convention at the Stouffer’s Concourse Hotel near LAX… and we were determined to give “Quack” an audience.. I gave a copy of the tape to USCinema operations manager Roy Heidegger, who was notorious for having a huge Star Wars Collection in his office… He liked it so much that he agreed to lend us a TV and VCR stand and bring it to the convention where USC had a table. I put a tape together with “Quack” and “The First Decade” on it a few times… I also drew a “One Sheet” for Quack…
I spraymounted it to a little foamcore stand and placed it on top of the VCR as it played. The crowds got so large in the room that the USC Booth was at, Roy asked us to get it out of there, as it was keeping people from visiting the USC table… so we moved out into the hallway.
In the hallway, these two videos played back to back for 2 days… drawing crowds every time… as the hours went by, word of mouth made the crowds bigger and bigger… At one point, Chuck and I were very pleased to see Star Wars Producer Gary Kurtz and Empire Director Irvin Kershner laughing hysterically at one of the showings. It was a proud moment, to be sure.
The triumph was a good one, but it was marred with an “incident”. Near the end of the convention, I realized my original artwork had been “lifted” by some sneaky fan… it was gone. It wasn’t a copy. It was the original. So, bummed, but enthused with the reaction to the video, we packed it up and returned home.
A couple of years later, after working on a couple movies, and honing my illustration skills a bit, I painted a replacement picture, and it still hangs at home today:
In 1988, then-roommate Van Ling was working on doing the Alien Language for the movie “Alien Nation” and was being interviewed by Starlog Magazine. He mentioned to the writer that his roommates had done this funny thing that was shown at the 10th anniversary convention, and the magazine decided to do a story on it… The artwork image was from my black and white xerox of the artwork.
When the Widescreen Lasersiscs came out in the mid 90s, I did an update on Quack using Van Ling’s Avid setup… it was tedious to conform to the original and more difficult to find the clips after all those years… but the result was worth it… and that’s the version that has been on youtube all these years since…
When the Blu-Rays for the SW films were announced, friends kept asking me when I would get around to doing the definitive Hi-Def version of Quack… and I thought… do I really wanna do all that editing again? Well, it got the best of me… and finally I relented. So, after a couple weeks of working at lunchtime on the new Final Cut Pro X… which handles Hi Def files brilliantly, by the way… here is the culmination of this 25 years since we did the original in ’86. Now with brand spankin’ new Star Wars font accurate titles… it’s finally finished. There, of course, are shots in the original cut that aren’t in the Special Editions, most of them work just fine now… a couple of them don’t. I like the original Landspeeder flyover better… and the new establishing matte painting for Ben’s House I think is just too busy looking… so I replaced it with a blown up still from the original. If ever there exists a Hi Def transfer of the original version, Quack will be updated with those shots. But that day may never come, so for now, Enjoy.
One more thing… a post script.
In the late 90s, when I was involved with Icons Authentic Replicas, I got to know Steve Sansweet, famous Star Wars collector and later Lucasfilm Fan Ambassador… One time, I was mentioning to him about my experience screening “Quack” at the 10th anniversary convention… and he said: “You know, I have a piece of artwork from that… ”
I said “Really??… you know it was stolen, right?”
He said, “No… I didn’t… I got it from some guy a few years ago, and I thought it was cute.” I believed him… obviously. He invited me to see his vast collection when he was still living in the hills of Los Angeles, and he brought out my original artwork, still mounted on its foamcore plaque… with only a little water damage on the title. I presented Steve with his own copy of “Quack”, and I insisted that he could keep the artwork, as long as I could take it and scan it, so I could have a copy. He happily agreed… and I have the scan you see above, and he still has the original.
Now, 25 years later, Chuck is a successful Hollywood Supervising Sound Editor, whos latest work can be heard on the amazing “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”. He was our Sound Supervisor on the Robert Wise Director’s Edition of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”… and continues to work on big movies.
Me? I never got to work for Lucas… don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing… but it is as it is. I kinda think that some of the love I had (and have) for the original Star Wars movies remains intact because I haven’t. But I have been working for a year on “Robopocalypse” for Steven Spielberg… and next time I get to talk to him, I’m gonna ask him if he ever saw “The Empire Strikes Quack”…