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The universe continues to expand whether we want it to or not, going off in every direction, solely at the whim of those who follow its light. I'm talking about George Lucas's Star Wars universe, in case you were wondering.

Fan fiction is nothing new. It seems that whenever a new speculative fiction TV show or movie rears its head, and usually an ugly one at that, a hundred and one websites spring up overnight faster than crop circles, detailing the adventures fans have created for their beloved characters.

Star Wars fans are no strangers to this phenomenon. While there are many fan sites that feature fan fiction based in the Star Wars universe, one site in particular, theforce.net, has done them one better: Fan FILMS.

These aren't your backyard-on-the-weekend superhero serials your little brother made all those summers ago with mom and dad's Super-8. No, these productions are polished comic or dramatic efforts: some offer cockeyed views of Star Wars that use humor to make their charm effective, while others take dramatic turns, featuring complex lightsaber battles and costumes. Some even go so far as to include blooper reels.

The Star Wars fan film phenomenon seems to have started about five years ago, with Kevin Rubio's "Troops," a series of satires on the Cops TV series. These films told the story of what really happened to Owen and Beru Lars, and also documented a few other incidents in the history of Star Wars that we thought we knew. "Troops," with its high production values, attention to detail, and smart humor, served as a starting point for other filmmakers. It offered a glimpse of what could be done with one of the most beloved sets of characters ever to hit the silver screen, if the filmmaker was armed with something other than mediocre sets and sophomoric attempts at humor.

Fan Films and Lucasfilm

While George Lucas's production company, Lucasfilm Ltd., has been known to turn the Death Star's destructive powers upon several Internet fan sites, theforce.net has so far avoided this fate. There is no official word from Lucasfilm regarding theforce.net, but the fact that this substantial site has not been axed suggests that even the Empire has a soft spot in its heart. In addition, the films on theforce.net are made for the sheer fun of it, not for any kind of profit. (Bootleggers are identified and ratted out whenever possible.)

Lucasfilm teamed up with AtomFilms in 2000 in an attempt to give fan films their own official site, with the caveat that only parodies and documentaries were to be allowed on the site. This leaves theforce.net as the primary outlet for films that feature stories of previously unknown Jedi and villains, or, in the case of Peter Mether's serialized story "The Dark Redemption," which casts a live action actress in the role of Mara Jade, a character we've met only in comics and novels. While AtomFilms contains some decent enough work, the site has less than a third as many films as theforce.net, and the lack of original dramatic material on AtomFilms means fans won't find the dramatic plot twists and individuality they can find at theforce.net.

There are over forty films on theforce.net. Many of the films are made during filmmakers' spare time, usually on their own equipment and using friends to flesh out the cast and production crew. Budget and experience in filmmaking have little to do with being able to produce quality work. In their place is a passion for the original films that inspired these works, and for the genre itself. Theforce.net contains tutorials to assist aspiring filmmakers on how to shoot opening crawls, bluescreen technique, rotoscoping lightsabers, and much more.

The films' running times can be as short as three minutes for a simple film about a lightsaber duel, entitled, fittingly enough, "Duel," to well over ten minutes for films like "A Question of Faith" or "Brains and Steel," which is a clever nod to both Star Wars and The Princess Bride.

There is a potential technical downside to take into consideration; older computer hardware can mean extended download times as well as unsatisfactory playback performance. This may seem a minor problem on the face of it, but in truth a few of these films aren't very good, and you can't evaluate the quality of a film from the synopsis on the website.

Fan Films and the Star Wars Canon

Fan films don't necessarily alter Lucas's considerable and growing universe. Instead, they tilt the viewer's perspective just enough to accommodate the story the filmmakers wish to relate. Just the same, there have been postings on the message board of theforce.net regarding the continuity of certain stories, and where they fit into this admittedly borrowed universe. These finer points are oftentimes fun little hairs to split amongst friends, but they all too often ignite into flame wars that start with the inflammatory words, "a real fan would know. . . ."

These films are not considered to be canonical, since they're not a product of the creative fires of Lucasfilm. While they may be the source of much discussion and entertainment for a small core audience, they are unauthorized and therefore cannot be considered equivalent to Star Wars novels, which are considered canonical. The novels are usually written by an individual writer, then passed on to a Lucasfilm consultant, who decides whether the subject is suitable for their target audience, while also noting finer points such as which class a starship would be and whether Boba Fett is talking too much. The books have a larger audience than fan films, due to their wider circulation, as films are distributed primarily through underground channels.

Ironically, the films often have more meat to them than many of the novels. One reason for this may be because the films generally avoid bringing back familiar characters such as Luke and Princess Leia for more and more and more (at least in the live-action medium). Fan filmmakers don't fall into this trap because look-alike actors are hard to find, and because the filmmakers would come under heavy criticism from other fans for pulling such a stunt. As a result, many Star Wars fans who have come away from a Star Wars comic or novel scratching their heads, thinking, "Luke would never have done that," don't have that same problem with these films. Slipshod writing is, unfortunately, a consistent phenomenon in the authorized universe, particularly in the comics. While many fan films are also uninspired, there are nonetheless many films that satisfy the viewer.

Truth be told (from a great distance and from deep within a secret bunker, just in case I raise a few of the wrong eyebrows at Lucas Prime), the overall legend and backstories in the Star Wars universe have undergone official revision over time, while all the while Lucas can be seen leaning against a handy X-Wing fighter, claiming that he knew all along where the story was going. Because of the wide variety of games, guides (both authorized and unauthorized), Internet sites, toys, and simple human error, it has become difficult to prove the veracity of a given statement about what a character has said, unless one has a reference point at the ready and is fully prepared to deal with the charges that one's source was discredited years ago.

So the Star Wars universe proves to be elastic, and is more than able to accommodate these stories; after all, some of us simply don't have the time to learn every bit of minutiae from every source under the sun, and most of these films don't require such knowledge. Indeed, they are quite user-friendly, as the backstory to each film is provided on the site by a synopsis.

Technical Challenges

"Budget wasn't really an issue considering we only spent 200 bucks on the film," says Carlos Godinez, co-Director/actor, "A Question of Faith." "We did the best with what we had -- filming was the hard part, getting the four of us awake together, the heat killing us in our costumes, and the local police arresting Jason [Alexander, co-Director/actor] one day during filming."

Films can be captured and edited either on analog or digital equipment. Much of the equipment needed to edit and add post-production effects is already in the hands of aspiring filmmakers, so, for many, initial start-up costs have already been paid. Amateur filmmakers can use their hardware and software again and again, and the now-constant stream of affordable hardware and software helps keep the wheels of imagination and production turning.

The finished product can be as ambitious or as lackadaisical as the filmmakers want, but theforce.net has the final word as to whether the piece will find space on their site. The fans themselves seem to be the strongest force in how professional a piece will look, since no one is going to learn how to rotoscope multiple light sabers or create CGI X-Wings on the fly over a weekend just because it sounds like a cool idea. Even though it doesn't take a degree in cinematography to make a great fan film, a better than average idea and friends who can act give you a tremendous advantage.

Originality seems to be one of the biggest challenges in making a good film. Jedi/Sith battles are a recurring theme in fan films, and while it's cool to see all the trouble some of these dedicated fans go to in order to communicate their vision to the viewing audience, it does get repetitive after about the fifth such film. Again, the story has to save the piece, which is not the easiest thing in the world when most of your effort is dedicated to the fine-tuning of your choreography and rotoscope technique.

Other stories told in these films go in various directions, telling stories such as: the hectic day in the life of the Jawas ("Desert Duel"); a simple moment of mourning for a Rebel pilot ("Sacrifices"); and brothers on opposing sides of the Force ("A Question of Faith"). While the majority of films are short narrative stories, animation and music videos are also making inroads on the site. The videos are parodies worthy of Weird Al Yankovic: "Nookie" becomes "Wookie"; "Rock Me, Amadeus" becomes "Jabba on the Dais" -- you get the idea.

Computer animation is becoming more and more of a presence on the site, a testament to the greater accessibility of the materials required to pull off film-quality animation. One standout work is "The Son of the Suns," which, when completed, will be an entire film rendered exclusively in dynamic CGI. It tells the story of the effects Luke and Anakin Skywalker have had, and will have, on their universe. Humor is pervasive in the short films, sometimes to genuinely clever effect instead of hamfisted attempts at stuff Monty Python did much better a long time ago. For example, "Legacy of the Jedi" is clever, while "The Invisible Enemy" suffers from the well-meaning intentions of its creators.

These films are a labor of love -- some may say obsession. If nothing else, they are a testament to what kind of effect one can have on someone else's universe when one sets his or her mind to it, and how one can create one for oneself, and how easy and how wonderful that can be.

Noteworthy Films

"Troops." Running time: 10:09. Plot: Stormtroopers on patrol on Tatooine, which one of them refers to as "the ass-end of the universe." Bottom line: the one that started it all, incorporating plot twists that happened off-screen in Star Wars. Humor is in the right hands in this parody, which comes delivered in five parts, or as a complete film. Highly recommended.

"Duality." Running time: 6:32. Plot: A Sith apprentice faces his final task in order to achieve the title of Sith: kill another Sith in a lightsaber duel. Bottom line: worth the download time just to watch two Sith beat the hell out of each other with those double-bladed lightsabers. The acting is a bit melodramatic, but the outstanding effects make this one to watch.

"A Question of Faith." Running time: 15:50. Plot: Jedi brothers on opposite sides of the Force. Bottom line: one of the absolute best. The quality of the storyline, which easily stands on its own, is augmented by the stunning series of lightsaber battles that rival anything Lucas himself has released, with a wonderful climax and an acute sense of scope.

 

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Cristopher Hennessey-DeRose is the author of about 100 articles, published in magazines such as Talebones and gothic.net. He writes a regular column for twilightshowcase.com, and his previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive.


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