WASHINGTON—Why would anyone max out credit cards, take a second mortgage and spend three years making a movie that can never earn a cent?
For the creators of "Star Wars Revelations," it was the love of "Star Wars" and the chance to make an independent film. After Shane Felux borrowed his wife's lightsaber, shot himself wielding it in his back yard using his computer's webcam and made the blade glow using a fancy computer-graphics program, he and his wife knew they couldn't stop.
Fan films, as amateur projects such as theirs are called, are the rage among devoted movie and comics buffs, brought within reach by affordable cameras, computer graphics and editing technologies. Low cost is important, because fan films are all labors of love since the original material belongs to the copyright owners. The entire "Star Wars" universe, for example, belongs to creator George Lucas and Lucasfilm.
How popular are fan films? The "Star Wars" genre alone could produce a hundred entries at this year's Official Star Wars Fan Film Awards in Indianapolis. It's part of a four-day mega-fan Star Wars convention April 21-24 called Celebration III that's expected to lure some 16,000 enthusiasts.
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Felux, 33, a computer programmer, and his wife, Dawn Cowings, 35, plan to attend. Cowings and her friend Sarah Yaworsky, 38, both from Washington's Virginia suburbs, wrote the script, which Felux directed.
Their 40-minute "Star Wars Revelations," one of the most ambitious fan films, will be released free over the Internet on April 18, a month before the premiere of Lucasfilm's "Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith" on May 19.
Their film had to beat the sixth Lucas movie's release date, Yaworsky said, because its plot is based on earlier "Star Wars" movies. "We knew that whatever we did was probably going to get contradicted" by "Episode III," she said.
"Revelations," which is set in the years after "Episode III," deals with the struggle of a surviving Jedi warrior to find a weapon to defeat the overwhelming power of the evil Empire.
Setbacks, including finances, faulty camera settings and not being able to get locations, quashed last summer's original release date. "But early on," said Cowings, a stay-at-home mom, "we learned that even if you can't get something you want desperately, something better will come up. ... You have to keep at it, and it will fall in your lap."
"We worked on it every single day for three years ... ," she said of the film. "I don't know what we'll do when the movie's done."
Everyone involved was a volunteer. Frank Hernandez and his wife, Gina, who plays the lead character, Taryn Anwar, are part-time actors from Jackson, N.J. They committed themselves so totally to the project that they kept the same hairstyles and weight for three years.
The film's director of photography, Jack Foley, is a professional maker of documentaries. British musician Chris Bouchard contributed the original score.
The 501st Legion _the "Star Wars" equivalent of Civil War re-enactors—provided white-plastic-clad Stormtroopers for the Empire's Imperial Forces. In the end, more than 200 people participated. If he'd dropped the project, Felux said, "They'd probably hunt me down and stone me."
Cowings, who holds a radio, television and film degree from Iowa State University, met her husband, a native Texan and graduate of Southwest Texas State, in an online Prodigy chat room. They live in northern Virginia with their two sons, Ian, 3, and Brennan, 11 months.
While she and Felux won't reveal the cost of "Revelations," Cowings swears that she'll never finance another film. This one was paid for through family loans, credit cards and contributions of loose change, $20 bills and an occasional $50 bill. At one point, she and Felux created an online donation site using Paypal, the electronic payment company.
Another method was barter. In return for the use of a crane to shoot quarry scenes, for example, Felux's company, Panic Struck Productions, put together a professional-quality Web site for the company that owned the crane. Doing a film with a "Star Wars" theme "was an enormous lure" to winning permission to film, Yaworsky said. It helped, she added, that "Shane's not afraid to ask nine times and get turned down."
"Revelations" is heavy on special effects, relying on graphics packages that evolved over the three years. Felux used artists from the United States, Canada, Australia, Sweden, Lithuania and the United Kingdom, including Ian Hubert, 16, a Seattle high school student. Many participated to showcase their talents for potential employers.
From the beginning, "it wasn't quite going to be a backyard production," Cowings said. "But this is beyond what we thought we could do."
For Yaworsky, a financial analyst for the defense contractor CACI, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience: "When am I going to get the chance to see words that I've written acting out? If I turn down this experience, I will kick myself for the rest of my life."
Foley summed it up: "We're all fans. We're here because it's fun to make a `Star Wars' movie. Just for the love of it, just for the fun of it."
TO LEARN MORE:
"Star Wars Revelations" will be released for free download April 18 on the Panic Struck Productions Web site. A movie trailer and an MP3 sample of Bouchard's soundtrack is on the Web site, at www.panicstruckpro.com
Celebration III conference: http://starwarscelebration.com
AtomFilms, "Star Wars" fan films:
TheForce.Net, a site for "Star Wars" fans: www.theforce.net