Casey Pugh had no clue what he was getting himself into. "I was working as a web developer for Vimeo and I was doing a lot of video-based stuff, but I was also thinking about how I could enable filmmakers to create either short films or feature-length films together remotely," he says. "I bounced an idea off my friends but I had no idea it would blow up to this scale—it’s just crazy."
He’s talking, of course, about Star Wars Uncut, the epic, crowdsourced film he masterminded. Pugh parceled out 15-second clips of Star Wars: Episode IV, challenged filmmakers to recreate the scenes in any way they saw fit and stitched the best clips together to make something new out of something old. Several days ago, Pugh posted a two-hour "director’s cut," to YouTube, to near universal delight (and a dip in productivity everywhere).
When he started the project in 2009, Pugh says he was inspired by a number of crowdsourced video projects he came across online. "I thought, ‘How could I do a crowdsourcing project myself but do something that’s a little more powerful than what’s been done before?" he says. The concept for recreating a feature-length film came to him as easily as which film to choose. "It’s partly because I love Star Wars," he says. "Secondly, it’s because I can’t think of a single movie that has a larger fan base—it’s the Michael Jackson of movies."
Once Pugh set into place Vimeo’s API for filmmakers’ uploads and used a line of code a friend drummed up to divide the film into 15-second clips, starwarsuncut.com was welcomed with instant buzz. "The original site was dead simple, and I think that’s what helped get it off the ground because it didn’t take much work to understand what was going on," he says. "The idea itself was set up to be somewhat organically viral."
The rules for participating in Star Wars Uncut were simple: Filmmakers previewed the 473 scenes available, and, if they felt up to the challenge, could choose a maximum of three to recreate. If they didn’t complete a scene within 30 days it would go back to the general pool. "If a user did more than one scene, they weren’t allowed to choose another that was adjacent to their previous one in order to keep the spirit of randomness," Pugh says. Once all the scenes were claimed, Pugh would unlock them again to allow more people to participate. For multiple versions of a scene, a rating system was created for visitors to the site to cast their vote for their favorite. "This method allowed me to equally distribute the people across every scene and not have any bias towards any specific scene," he says.
The final product (edited by Aaron Valdez) is a communal love letter to the original Star Wars that is sometimes endearing but mostly outlandishly entertaining. Pugh even got in on the madness, casting himself as an over-dramatic Luke Skywalker and his friend as a…er…"voluptuous" Princess Leia (1 hr. 15min. in—you can’t miss it). Tallying the number of cute kids, cats, homages to other films and just flat-out random absurdities stitched together in Star Wars Uncut is quintessential fodder for some twisted drinking game. But it’s exactly that level of liberated imagination Pugh was hoping for.
"The amount of creativity that went into every single scene—I mean, it’s easier to count the number of film and animation styles that weren’t used," he says. "I didn’t really care about it being a shot-for-shot remake of the original. I cared more about it being transformative."
Web Designer Whit Anderson was one of the filmmakers who contributed to Pugh’s "transformative" vision. When Anderson heard about Star Wars Uncut, he knew exactly what his contribution to the project would be: stop-motion animation. "I’m just a geek who has too many toys and likes to take pictures of them," he says. "So [my friend and I] immediately got excited and mashed up a couple of clips." Anderson says he felt inspired by the inventiveness of other filmmakers and wishes he would have taken more liberties with his clips…almost. "Unfortunately my humor never carries well on the Internet, so I’m glad I didn’t."
As a die-hard Star Wars fan, Anderson admits he was slightly worried about the final outcome. "With it chaining every 15 seconds, we thought, ‘Are we going to put people into seizures?! But I was really impressed with how smoothly it played."
Even people from George Lucas’ very own production company were impressed. "Lucasfilm actually contacted me three or four months into the project to say they loved what I was doing, and they flew me out to San Francisco," Pugh says. "We talked some more about the project and potentially doing more but all they really did was give me their blessing saying, ‘We’re not going to sue you!’" And the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences was impressed too—Star Wars Uncut earned an Emmy for interactive media in 2010.
Pugh says he’s thought about crowdsourcing other films with cult-like followings such as Back to the Future or Indiana Jones, but tells fans of Star Wars Uncut that he hasn’t forgotten about Episode V—it’s just a matter of timing. "This is going to sound cheesy, but I feel like George Lucas a little bit because now everyone is begging me to do Empire Strikes Back Uncut, and I’m like, ‘Guys, I’m just one dude making this as a fan project.'"
As long as this crowdsourcing endeavor has been, he does say it’s been nothing short of a labor of love. "Looking back at the [original Star Wars] and being able to realize that there’s some not-so-great writing and not-so-great acting, it’s so nostalgic and everyone loves it but they also want to poke fun at it," he says. "It was important for me to bring all those different colors out in Star Wars Uncut."