The Long Tale of “Backyard Jedi”

The kids and I have been doing videos about working on our Star Wars movie. I think it’s high time to tell that story.

In April 2013, NJ and I had been dating for about two years. I had effectively moved in, and I had been interacting with the kids for about 18 months, but still hadn’t fully shifted into “parent” mode. It was very much NJ and the kids, and me. We had just brought Leo to live with us a matter of weeks earlier. Our little fstar waramily was still nascent, but things were developing rapidly. So when NJ had to be out for the day for work, it was a fairly significant event. An opportunity to do something fun and work on the relationships that the girls and I were building.

We had just introduced our then five- and six-year olds to Star Wars, so to fill our time while Mama was out, we decided to build some lightsabers. It was a fairly simple project: cardboard tubes, aluminum tape, duct tape, electrical tape, hot glue. We had a blast doing it.

And then there was an idea: Let’s take photos with the lightsabers, and Photoshop in lightsaber blades. It would look awesome, and we could show it off to Mama when she got home. So we grabbed NJ’s pink Sony Cybershot point-and-shoot and took a phenomenal photo.

And then the idea happened: what if we shot a short movie? We came up with a brief concept, taped some rolls of construction paper to the end of Kidlet A’s lightsaber, and shot a bunch of footage. It looked something like this:

The plan was to use Premiere to edit the movie, 3D Studio Max to create enemy droids, and After Effects to add in the lightsabers, track the moving, wobbly handheld camera, and composite the droids into the shots.

First problem: The droids I made didn’t look good, and I’m a terrible animator. I was out of practise with 3DS Max. Years ago, I could sit down and bang out pretty much anything I wanted. But I was out of practise and I ended up with this:

Not only that, but my old copy of After Effects just couldn’t track the crummy 640×480 footage. AE CS3 would only track the camera movement in two dimensions, with very poor fidelity. I couldn’t quite get the droid to look right, and then, I couldn’t get it into the shots even if I it did look halfway decent. The project stalled.

Fast forward a year and change. It was 2014. We got closer, we made paddles, we did other projects. I got more work. NJ changed jobs. I had enough money and professional need to invest in a subscription to Adobe Creative Cloud. And it had 3D camera tracking:

Early on, the tracking was still quite rough, but we have learned plenty since then.

It was rough, but it put things back into motion. We were building puppets one day and it occurred to me that we could do the droids as a simple practical effect and get the movie done. We built a birdlike marionette and… it still didn’t work. The movement was garbage. I’m a terrible puppeteer – at least for marionettes with strings. I can do okay with rod puppets, with stop motion. In 2015 and 2016, here and there, I worked on a better puppet – a rod puppet, this time, recognizing my difficulty with marionettes, and based on some of the designs in the video game Star Wars: The Old Republic.

But things kept rolling. We made crafts, did drawings. We kept growing closer. We made cool Halloween costumes, and then some more. The software continued to develop. Our family continued to grow up. I learned about Mocha, which allowed me to do shots like this:

That fake door got all wobbly when I resized the video for this GIF — it’s actually not that wonky, but you get the idea.

Then Video Copilot released their plugin Saber, which made it much easier to do shots like this:

Here and there, in between other big life-changing stuff like changing jobs and getting engaged, we did other projects. We got married. We moved. Changed schools. Changed everything. We learned. Our projects got even more refined.

My little Rebels.

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We got a cat.

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Recently, we’ve started doing videos as a team. The Love Make Share crew. Exploring new tools and getting back to work on this project, in order to move onto the next. And then the next one after that.

After four years, this Backyard Jedi video project is still a work in progress. But in the meantime, we’ve built a family and a home. We’ve learned an incredible amount. And the kids have become partners in the creative endeavour. The dynamic has changed as the kids have gotten older, and I’m able to guide and enable their ideas instead of having them simply participate in mine.

So this movie, this four-year-old project, this thing that had to wait for my skill and technology both to improve, this thing that had to wait for life to stabilize a little – no, that’s not right. This thing that needed me to get accustomed to the pace of life as a full-time parent with a proper career before it could thrive – it’s the last remnant of that insecure, unsure time when I didn’t know how the girls’ personalities or our relationship were going to develop. It’s a time capsule. And before the next thing, I want us to do it justice.

Because the next couple of things, things that the kids are driving forward as much as I am, are going to be fantastic. And I – we – can’t wait to share it all with you.

Until next time, folks, paddle your own canoe.

– Trevor

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