Seven minutes was all it took. From an emotionally impactful story featuring a young Jedi learning her powers to an incredible action sequence involving Sandtroopers, only seven minutes were needed to blow the Star Wars community away. But that was no official entry into the series. That was all from a fan film called
Return of the Jedi
, the film tells the story of
, a young adult who is leaving her adolescence behind, and her father is still desperately trying to maintain it. They are thrust into the middle of the Galactic Civil War, and come face to face with a Rebel pilot…and also need to fight their way out of an encounter with Imperial forces.
While it may be a small story in the grand scheme of the Star Wars universe, the impact it has on its three leads is quite incredible.
came to me when I was doing a Lego commercial, and the early version of that script had our main characters flying two X-Wings around their living room,” said director Joe Sill (BFA/Film Production ’13). “This kind of prompted me to remember my childhood love for Star Wars. I think the (
) movies are those influential films I draw a lot of my filmmaking taste from.”
While he continued to do other commercial projects, he really wanted to do something more narrative. He wrote up a treatment that broke down a story of a nomadic father and daughter traveling a familiar desert landscape. After getting encouragement from his team, he decided to write the full script and forged ahead.
The film only took two days to shoot, with one on location in the desert sand dunes near the Arizona and Mexico border, and the other day in front of a green screen in LA. As expected, it was shooting in the sand dunes that gave the production some of their biggest challenges.
“It is similar to filming in deep snow,” said producer Westin Ray (BFA/Television Writing and Production ’15). “Every step you take is a struggle, and the dunes are so massive that it can take 20-minutes to walk up and down a large dune.”
The team had 2 ATV Polaris Rangers that they used to transport their camera equipment, gear, props, 3 actors, 17 crew members, 6 Sandtroopers, and 2 wranglers, non-stop back and forth from the set to base camp.
“Joe and I had made several scouting trips to the location before shooting and got a chance to experience different weather conditions,” said Ray. “This was crucial, because like all worst case scenarios, within the first 40-minutes of shooting, a giant wind storm swept across the dunes. It was impossible to see, but fortunately I had brought 30 pairs of clear safety googles as backup—and they were a lifesaver! Sand still got into everything, and I think I speak for most of the crew when I say we were still finding sand in our ears 3 weeks later.”
Despite the conditions, the crew banded together to make the best of it, and really enjoyed the experience.
“On the shoot day, we drove out into the dunes from our hotel at 5:30AM, just as the sun was rising over the dunes,” recalls Sill. “And at just that moment, head of production, Nick Erickson (BFA/Film Production ’10) had blasted that triumphant John Williams theme through the van’s speakers. People started singing along and there were tons of laughs and smiles. That was a pretty magical moment.”
The Sandtroopers in the film are members of Imperial Sands Garrison, and the crew remembers them as fantastic to work with. They carpooled out to the desert location and suited up in their hand-fabricated armor.
“The only problem is that once they get geared up in their rigid Sandtrooper suits, it’s impossible for them to sit down,” said Ray. “They were stuck standing in-between takes and stunt falling on crash pads required the assistance of their wranglers. One of my favorite memories was when Trevor Stevens (BFA/Film Production ’15) and I were up on a dune trying to keep them entertained with Star Wars jokes. We ran out in about 7-minutes, but it was a valiant effort.”
Though they picture locked at the end of November, doing the CGI took a bit of time. Sill and his friend Luc Delamare did all of the visual effects for the film.
“There are also a million tutorials and articles on the web breaking down how to recreate aspects from the Star Wars World that proved helpful,” said Sill. “However, if you’re aiming to maintain a high quality production level, there is no real ‘easy’ way to get there. It’s only through persistence and hard work. Ask Joe Weber (BFA/Film Production ’16), our production designer who built an X-Wing cockpit from scratch in only a week and half.”
The music also help set the tone, and was done by Austin Ray (BFA/Television Writing and Production ’15), Westin’s sister. You can find it on
“During post-production, the film’s soundtrack was constantly wafting through our apartment, making my breakfast routine extremely epic,” said Ray.
What is pretty amazing overall is how close the Dodge College ties to the film are. According to Ray, about 95% of the crew had some sort of Chapman connection.
“Joe and I met at Dodge four years ago,” said Ray. “Basically, we’ve been fans of each other’s work, but this is the first time we’ve actually collaborated on a project together. Working in sync with Joe during pre-production was a blast; he visualizes incredibly well, and we’re on the same page aesthetics-wise which streamlines the communication process.”
The two rallied Dodge alumni from different years, including (in addition to those mentioned above), Kristian Hayden (BFA/Film Production ’14), Matt Blake (BFA/Film Production ’14), Daniel Burke (BFA/Film Production ’15), Jackie Zhou (BFA/Film Production ’15), Jordan Kleinman (BA/Public Relations and Advertising ’15), Nico Aguilar (BFA/Film Production ’16), and Brodin Plett (BFA/Film Production ’16)
The response to
has been pretty fantastic by the fan community, and it was selected as Vimeo Staff Pick & Short of the Week immediately. Within one week of its release, it had 425,000 views on Vimeo alone.
“The community has been incredibly supportive of sharing our film on the internet and creating a buzz among Star Wars fans,” said Sill.
And of course, I had to ask them what their favorite entry into the film franchise was.
The Empire Strikes Back
, always,” said Sill.
“This is the embarrassing part of the interview where I admit that I have seen some, but not all of the Star Wars films,” Ray said. “However, through the process and the release of The Force Awakens during Post, I have honestly fallen in love with the Star Wars universe. If anyone has a Star Wars DVD box set that they wouldn’t mind lending me, just holler.”