Star Wars studio goes from apprentice to master in Singapore

As an 11-year-old boy, Steven Ong dreamt of being a fighter pilot in the Singapore Air Force and emulating the heroic exploits of Tom Cruise's character in the 1986 action flick "Top Gun."

Twenty-four years on, the bald, bespectacled Singaporean still isn't quite Pete "Maverick" Mitchell but he does soar imaginary skies with Robert Downey Jr. as the star dispatches super villains as the Marvel superhero Iron Man.

As lead digital artist of Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) Singapore - part of "Star Wars" movie legend George Lucas' empire - Ong is responsible for inserting special effects into clients' movies like "Iron Man 2".

"This sequence, we actually did quite a lot of the shots," Ong proudly told AFP at his studio, gesturing to a battle scene featuring the hero and his sidekick War Machine fending off enemy droids.

Ong, who studied computer graphics at a Singapore polytechnic, had to move to the United States when he started his career 10 years ago because the special-effects work he craved was not being done by any company at home.

Today, Singapore serves as a production centre for multi million-dollar Hollywood franchises, next-generation video games and animated television series thanks to Lucas, the man behind "Star Wars" and other blockbusters.

Lucasfilm set up a facility in Singapore in 2005 with a staff of almost 40 to produce content for the animated TV series "Star Wars: The Clone Wars".

But like a Jedi warrior, it has grown from apprentice to master in its own right, doing work for non-Lucas productions on top of house titles.

The only Lucasfilm entity outside the US, it now boasts 430 employees, two-thirds of them from Singapore and other Southeast Asian countries, and will move from rented premises to a high-tech building of its own by 2012.

"The initial intention was to develop here only animation, that's why the studio was originally named Lucasfilm Animation Singapore," said general manager Xavier Nicolas.

"But as we went along, things went pretty well and we decided also to start activities around visual effects to support ILM and later even games, so we opened additional production divisions here."

Staff work for four entities: special effects division ILM Singapore, video games developer Lucasarts Singapore, and individual sections for feature films and television animation under Lucasfilm Animation Singapore.

They are currently housed in a studio near Changi Airport which is chock-full of Star Wars memorabilia, including life-size figures of Anakin Skywalker and Yoda at its entrance.

The studio announced last month it will be breaking ground on an eight-storey purpose-built facility occupying 38,000 square metres (409,000 square feet) next year.

The building will house a data centre, a 100-seat theatre and retail outlets, all testaments to Lucasfilm Singapore's success, Nicolas said.

The studio is also looking to hire more than 100 additional employees next year as part of its expansion plans.

Josh Robinson, lead asset artist for the Clone Wars animated series, said the multi-disciplinary nature of its Singapore-based artists, animators and engineers proved to be an advantage over the more specialised talents of US-based teams.

"Here we're able to have a team of artists that do all texturing, all modelling, and all blend shapes for all characters," he said.

Lucas himself is so confident in the Singapore team that he is planning to produce his next feature film entirely in the studio.

Details are top-secret except for the fact that it will be a totally new property instead of being another "Star Wars" derivative.

"What we're trying to do doesn't look like everything that has been done before," general manager Nicolas said.

Aside from Lucas' personal project, the firm is also working with "Pirates of the Caribbean" director Gore Verbinski on "Rango", a fully-animated film about a chameleon forced to live his dreams of being a swashbuckling hero in a bandit-infested cowboy town.

The film will be released in 2011, with "Pirates" lead Johnny Depp voicing the main character.

Ong, the Singaporean digital artist, said he was currently working on "Pirates 4" after wrapping up work on "Rango", while his colleagues were busy with the third installment of the "Transformers" franchise.

Both films are also due for worldwide release next year.

Ong has no regrets about missing out on a fighter career because of his imperfect eyesight.

"I might not even get to blow things up being a pilot," Ong said. "But I get to with my job now!"

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

    Britain's Atlantis

    Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

    David Starkey's assessment
    Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

    'An enormous privilege and adventure'

    Oliver Sacks writing about his life
    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
    Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

    Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

    Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago
    Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

    Orthorexia nervosa

    How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
    Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

    Lady Chatterley’s Lover

    Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

    Set a pest to catch a pest

    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests
    Mexico: A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life

    The dark side of Mexico

    A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life
    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde. Don't tell other victims it was theirs

    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde

    Please don't tell other victims it was theirs
    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935