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Star Wars: Hunt for the Holocron

on Mon, 02/16/2015 - 00:00

According to the mythology of Star Wars, a holocron is an organic crystal-lattice device that has been used for thousands of years by Jedi and Sith alike to store vast amounts of sensitive data, while the knowledge contained within these devices is often lucrative and deeply coveted by both sides of the Force. The long-lost holocron of Kanek Suhnra, meanwhile, is considered to be of extraordinary value and significance. When the item is inadvertently unearthed on the planet Elian, it is a race against time between Jedi Knight E’Din Kyle and the Dark Lord Dregr Jarrat—as well as each other—to recover the legendary artifact. Brothers Bando and Sahn Jinkuru of Elian eventually become entangled in the ensuing battle, and soon find themselves risking their own lives for the sake of the Jedi cause in the process.

Star Wars: Hunt for the Holocron did not originate within the fertile mind of George Lucas, however, but is instead a Pittsburgh-made fan film from first time director Martin Spitznagel that made its debut at the Hollywood Theater on April 20, 2013. A labor of love and homage to the original series of blockbuster films, Spitznagel spent over ten years crafting the script, filming the scenes and editing the footage into a thirty-minute finished product. A steady stream of rewrites and reshoots—as well as a computer hardware failure in 2007 that erased countless hours of effort—almost ended the project prematurely, but Spitznagel persevered nonetheless. “I think, despite its flaws, the film has an essential earnestness about it,” he says upon reflection. “You can see how much we cared and how much work we put into it. It’s a handmade B-movie love letter to that place of childlike wonder that Star Wars transports us to, and I’m very proud of my friends and I for finishing it.”

Martin Spitznagel’s personal “hunt for the holocron” began in 1999 with the release of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. A sixteen-year-old high school student at the time, he was soon caught up in the resulting hype and anticipation for the first new Star Wars film in over fifteen years. “One day, while getting my daily dose of Episode I news on, I stumbled onto their fledgling theater section and found a small lightsaber effects test,” Spitznagel remembers. “It was only eight seconds long and featured two guys fighting with lightsabers to ‘Duel of the Fates.’ The creator, Clay Kronke, wasn’t employed in Hollywood. He didn’t have a million-dollar budget or a team of effects artists. He was just a guy who was whacking his buddy with a stick and then using the comically underpowered computer in his basement to turn it into Star Wars. I was enthralled.”

Spitznagel soon found himself regularly visiting and becoming acquainted with other fledging filmmakers crafting their own homages to Star Wars. “The new and thrilling idea of creating Hollywood-style effects on a home computer was a novelty in 1999, and the community of fan-filmmakers was in its infancy,” he says. “I plugged into that community and got inspired by this group of young people who, powered by nothing other than their interest and passion for Star Wars, were creating some really exciting films—Bounty Trail, Knightquest, The Dark Redemption, A Question of Faith. I penned a couple of different scripts for a project, most involving way too many lightsabers, and even tried to film one of them, but it wasn’t until I graduated from film school in 2001 that I had the wherewithal to take on a story as big as Hunt for the Holocron.”

The initial step in the process was writing a script that was both entertaining as well as capable of being filmed using only friends, family and limited financial resources. “One of the distinct advantages of scripting a fan film is that a lot of the world building is done for you,” Martin Spitznagel explains. “I didn’t have to explain what a Jedi was or what hyperspace is—George Lucas had done all that for me. What was left to me was to build a complimentary mythology. After a couple of failed attempts at screenplays, I finally decided to write about what I knew. I’ve got a younger brother, Mark, and our relationship at the time was changing. When I left for college we were in direct competition, fighting as often as we were friends. When I got back from college, when I’d actually been out in the world a little bit, I came to see the world as something we had to take on together. That’s, I suppose, where the idea of writing the story through the lens of two brothers came from”

Once the premise for the narrative had been decided, Spitznagel went through multiple drafts of the script before being ready to begin production in June 2003. “We filmed on and off through the summer, learning as we went, and when it was all said and done and we watched everything we’d filmed thus far, I realized that the script didn’t have the kind of emotional heft I was hoping for,” he confides. “Distraught, I decided to scrap everything we’d filmed that summer and rewrite the film. We didn’t film again until December, but when we did, it was with a much better idea of the characters and the kind of story we wanted to tell.” Although principal photography may have been completed, however, Hunt for the Holocron was far from finished. “Every aspect of post-production was more challenging than I could have possibly anticipated. The biggest question hanging over the whole project, though, was, ‘How am I going to do the space battles?’”

While the number of battle scenes was considerably reduced from the initial script, they still represented a major obstacle to overcome. While working on Hunt for the Holocron, Martin Spitznagel met a Houston-based artist named Daniel Harp. In 2012, Harp suggested using models instead of CGI for the space battles, similar to the method utilized by George Lucas for the original Star Wars Trilogy. “We shot the space scenes in Hunt for the Holocron exactly the way ILM had in the 70s and 80s, moving a camera past a physical model against a green screen,” Spitznagel says. “The only difference, of course, is that ILM had robotic motion-control cameras on a soundstage in California. We had a camera on a homemade dolly pushed by a broom handle in a driveway in Texas. As limited as we were, I think the use of physical models is one of the things that sets Hunt for the Holocron apart from other fan films. We didn’t just make a Star Wars film, we made it like they did back in the day. I’m very proud of that.”

Hunt for the Holocron premiered at the Hollywood Theater in April 2013 and has also been available for screening on YouTube, racking up over 20,000 views and numerous comments praising both the story itself as well as the dialogue. “I’m pretty sure it’s a sign of madness to watch a Star Wars film and go, ‘I can do that,’” Martin Spitznagel admits. “The big-screen incarnations are incredibly complex and difficult films that took thousands of people and millions of dollars to make. And yet there is this simplicity, this purity about Star Wars that invites you tell your own stories. I think fan films are a natural extension of the way we played as kids, and the ultimate fan filmmaker right now is J.J. Abrams, who has said on multiple occasions that he got into filmmaking because of Star Wars. There is just something about these stories that makes you want to be a part of them.”

It is likewise one of the major reasons for the continuing appeal of Star Wars. “I think I use Star Wars the same way the Greeks used their myths,” Spitznagel continues. “It’s one of the languages I use to talk about why things are the way they are—good and evil, hope and friendship, light and darkness. I’ve found in Star Wars a meaningful collection of symbols that I can use to help make sense of the world, and I’ve been lucky to find like-minded souls who share this ‘religion.’ George Lucas said that Star Wars doesn’t have enough answers to be a religion, but I think that’s part of why it’s so successful. There’s room in there for each person to find his own answers.”

For Martin Spitznagel, the search for those answers included a ten-year journey that took him from Pittsburgh to Houston to the fictional planet of Elian. In the end, his small vision of the Star Wars Universe became reality in the form of Hunt for the Holocron—making that journey worth every minute in the process.

Anthony Letizia

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