I talked to the Oscar-nominated visual effects team behind Star Wars: The Force Awakens

How to make 2015 feel like 1977

This morning Star Wars: The Force Awakens earned five Oscar nominations, and none of the categories seem to be as much of a slam dunk as visual effects. From the very beginning The Force Awakens was pitched as a return to the pre-digital days of George Lucas’ original trilogy, when model photography, make-up effects, and elaborate puppeteering rigs created some of the most memorable action sequences and characters in movie history. But in reality, the film was a much more sophisticated mix, taking advantage of practical effects and creatures, to be sure, but often enhancing them with CG imagery — and in cases like the Millennium Falcon chase on Jakku, creating shots entirely digitally, without any photographed elements at all.

According to visual effects supervisor Roger Guyett, approximately 2,100 of the film’s 2,500 shots featured some sort of digital effect, and the fact that The Force Awakens still holds onto the analog aesthetics and character of the original films is seen by the artists themselves as the film’s greatest accomplishment. Earlier this week I sat down with the effects masterminds behind The Force Awakens to find out how they pulled it off.

Wookiees, explosions, and blasters

The practical half of the Star Wars effects equation largely comes down to two individuals: Neal Scanlan, head of the movie’s creature shop, and special effects supervisor Chris Corbould. Scanlan is gregarious and playful, eyes twinkling as he discusses creating characters like Unkar Plutt out of thin air. In contrast, Corbould is more measured and sober, all the more appropriate for a person who makes things blow up for a living (he’s the one that helped Christopher Nolan flip a tanker end-over-end in The Dark Knight). But they both agree on one thing: the importance of looking to the past before they could look forward.

Bryan Bishop: One of the things that people have really responded to is that The Force Awakens looks and feels like the original trilogy. There’s a common aesthetic there that people can sense whether they can articulate it or not. How did you capture it?

Neal Scanlan: That’s the question we had to ask ourselves. If you go back to New Hope, Empire, and Return, there’s a sort of DNA. There’s a world that George created which is so unique and so distinct, and so tangible. You can reach out and touch it. Look at the Tauntaun or something like that — you wouldn’t be surprised if you did see that in a zoo somewhere. It’s not so out there. Even Jabba was never that far out there. It curtails you, and means that you have to find that visual language.

We spent a lot of time doing that, initially. And once we were arrogant enough to believe that we thought like George Lucas could think, then we started to show it to J.J., and we’d begin to get an idea of what he wanted. So we’d show him lots of designs and he would reject 60, 70 percent of them, but quickly you realize, "Okay, I’m beginning to understand how J.J. sees that world, too." So it’s a combination of taking that legacy that George created, but also trying to understand what J.J. wanted from it, and mixing the two together.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens promotional still (DISNEY/LUCASFILM)

To that point, you had to do a lot of droid and creature work here — creating new ones like BB-8 and Unkar Plutt, but also recreating others that were originally made over 30 years ago. Was there anything about those old-school construction techniques that you found you had to emulate?

Scanlan: Again, I’ll use the word arrogant because it’s an easy one to use. Chewbacca was something we thought we could do really well. "Oh yeah, sure, we can do Chewbacca." Boy, were we wrong. [Original Star Wars make-up artist] Stuart Freeborn’s wife knitted Chewbacca’s skin. He had a knitted suit, and into that suit they laced the hair and all of the things that went in it. And then he created this mask, and then Peter Mayhew wore the mask. You’d think after all these years, we can use these different materials, and we can do it this way and that way — and it was a pathetic attempt at trying to emulate it. So we went right the way back and studied every little bit of information we could.

"There was very little information that we could take from the Lucas archives."

There was very little information that we could take from the Lucas archives, because the old suits now are very, very perished. We learned as much as we possibly could from, literally, online sources. It’s like an archeological dig. We recreated Chewbacca exactly the way Stuart created him. It was literally a replica. We knitted the suit, and we added the yak hair and the individual fibers; we sculpted directly onto Peter’s face to get the Chewbacca likeness. Individual hairs were punched in. And it just humbles you. You know a good Chewie suit when you see it, and you know a bad one when you see it, and getting a good one is much harder than I think the world appreciates. And for that — Stuart Freeborn’s unfortunately no longer with us — I put a huge nod toward his brilliance. Just the way that head works, when Peter puts the head on it just lights up. And you go, "Oh my god, that’s Chewbacca, isn’t it?"

Chris, I’m wondering how the same principles played out on your side. This movie is coming after the prequel trilogy where there wasn't just a lack of heavy on-set effects; with all the green screen work there was just a lack of sets in general.

Chris Corbould: Well I think it was really clear from J.J. in the early beginning that it was the original trilogy we were matching to. And obviously part of the original trilogy was that a huge part of it was done practically because there was no other way of doing it. And I think that’s why J.J. wanted to get so much practical [work], so it would keep the feel. But the temptation would have been to go all out and go over the top.

Scanlan: Blow up Abu Dhabi.

Corbould: Exactly, yeah. [Laughs.] But probably the most classic thing we looked at are the blaster hits, where they fire a laser and you get that effect in the wall. I went away with my crew, and we did about 50 different ones. Ones with a lot more sparks, one with different colors, and all that. And I went to J.J. and said, alright, here’s a library. Do any of these make you tick up, do any hit the right note? And I think we looked through them all, and at the end of it we all looked at each other and said, you know what? We should stick with what they did in Episode IV, because everybody knows them, everybody’s familiar with them, and they still look great. They work, so why change it?

Star Wars: The Force Awakens promotional still (DISNEY/LUCASFILM)

And there were other instances where we moved a little bit forward. The whole action sequence out in the desert was a really thrilling thing to do. I love open spaces, and being able to get on those locations. To get Daisy and John involved with all those huge explosions going off is very important to me. It takes time, because you have to test, and test, and introduce the actors to it, and get them confident in it. I’d run through all those explosions four or five times so I was happy with what we were going to do. But when we got to do the shot, I think we had three strafing runs and there were about 16 explosions in each run, and they were big explosions. Dynamite, some had lots of fuel, so they had huge balls of flame. The one classic shot I love is where they’re tracking back with John and Daisy as they’re running toward the spaceship, and the explosions behind them are getting closer, and closer, and closer. It was a lot of fun.

There’s a visceral element to it that does show up on on screen. The moment where the Quad Jumper ship gets blown up; you can see it in both of their reactions.

Corbould: That was a slightly worrying occasion there, because when we did the shot we had a whole bank of dignitaries turn up. So it was just that little bit of extra pressure, with them sitting all around in tents. I felt like I was in an episode of The Voice or something, where we were going to get marked.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens promotional still (DISNEY/LUCASFILM)

X-wings, the Falcon, and next-gen digital

Augmenting the on-set effects was the team at Industrial Light & Magic, led by visual effects supervisors Roger Guyett and Patrick Tubach. Both are longtime industry veterans, with the pair most recently collaborating on J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek Into Darkness, and they ping-pong easily off one another; Guyett leaning back in his chair to expound upon topics at length, with the bearded Tubach jumping in to earnestly drive points home. The focus on old-school techniques has made it a lot less clear just how extensive ILM’s digital work was on Awakens, but when I bring the issue up, they’re delighted.

Patrick Tubach: We do have to do maybe more work explaining what we did, but at the same time that is the point. How can we make people forget about this. Because I have that experience when I watch the old movies. Even as a visual effects professional, sometimes I don’t know [how they did things]. And I like that.

Roger Guyett: And I think Pat and I and everyone involved were like, that’s what we want to do. We want to believe that as a kid, that you would go, "My god, they’re flying X-wings." Or you’re a pilot in that thing. And a lot of the way we tried to tee it up was make you believe, that if you were flying an F-16, you would photograph it in a certain way. You’d have POV shots; you’d have shots of the pilot. You’d have cameras mounted on the wings. All those things just reinforce the notion that it’s happening [for real]. So it’s really just trying to feel out how do you distill that down to an approach that gives you those moments, where your family turn to you and say, "Well, it’s all happening."

Star Wars: The Force Awakens promotional still (DISNEY/LUCASFILM)

Let’s talk about the spaceship battles. Was there any physical model photography there like the original trilogy films, or was it all digital?

Guyett: We imagined that we would be doing more model photography. I mean if you look at the progression of technology, you would say, "Okay, now I can render something digitally like a ship, or a droid, or something, incredibly accurately," and you can. If you look at BB-8 in the movie, some proportion of those shots — probably a quarter of the shots that you see — are digitally done. Now, I dare you to go through the movie and tell me exactly which ones they are. Sometimes you know because just physically it would have been a very difficult thing to have staged. So we realized that a lot of those sort of hard-surface things like the Millennium Falcon, we could render that at a level that would really be very convincing with modern technology, with the kind of lighting systems that you can use now.

Tubach: One thing we always want to be able to do, too, is just iterate on things multiple times, and I think unfortunately building something physically just takes things out of your hands. You only get one or two shots at it. Two if you’re lucky; one most of the time because it’s too expensive to build it twice, so you end up really limiting yourself to being happy with what you got. And we want to be able to give J.J. ultimate freedom to craft the movie that he wants, not the movie that he has to live with. And there’s always examples in films where they use real built sets or miniatures just because that’s what they had, and I think the funny thing is we are building models — we’re just building them in the computer. And to be honest, if you’re going to go build a miniature these days, you’re first going to build a CG version of it, then you’re going to print out those plans and build it. It’s sort of a weird thing now, where instead of taking it to the physical manifestation, we’re just gonna use what we’re very confident in, which is our ability to render something and make it look real, and we’re going to take it down that path. So it’s all becoming the same process, it’s just a question of what tools you’re using and where you’re doing it.

Guyett: And we’re not saying in any way that miniatures don’t have their place in our world, because we’ve shot multiple miniature shoots before. It’s just that the difference is every visual effects movie has its set of problems. It’s this giant jigsaw puzzle. And my mind was changed more than once on this movie. You know, when the Millennium Falcon takes off and it smashes through the gate, when we originally went through it, I thought we’ll do it miniature. Then when you actually start exploring that process, the guys said okay, let’s do a test of that digitally just to see what we need to build to make the miniature. In other words, let’s try to be efficient. The guys did a test in no time at all, and I went, "Oh, jesus, that’s really good. How much work would it be in just making it this?"

Star Wars: The Force Awakens promotional still (DISNEY/LUCASFILM)

So often in these shots, the tiny details are what sells it; the computer being able to replicate how materials react or move. Was there anything on the technology side on this film that allowed you to do some of these things that you couldn’t have done two years ago?

Guyett: The short answer is yes.

Tubach: We had Dan Pearson, who led our simulation effects team, which is like the particle simulations. He and a guy named Rick Hankins worked on this great sim engine for us, which allowed them to just basically throw the kitchen sink at a lot of these simulations. We had the planet collapsing and exploding at the end, and we had the crevasse opening up. And we had so many examples throughout the film; the Falcon crashing through the trees, and the snow coming off the trees, and then hitting the ground. So many instances where we had to have particles interacting, and one thing that has always been a problem is the sheer size of those simulations. And what you have to do when you don’t have a simulation engine that can handle that, is you have to break them up. But in breaking them up you lose realism, because those simulations can’t interact with each other. So it just instantly becomes false. Especially when you have multiple materials. Like when the Falcon digs into the ground, you have chunks of dirt, and you have sand, and you have the gate, and you need all of those things in there or else you’re just not going to buy it.

"You want to be making artistic choices, not technical choices."

Guyett: Pat was talking earlier about how you want to get to a place where you’re making artistic choices and not just technical choices, and we had some new lighting tools which meant we could see what was going to be in the movie quicker. In other words, the lighting was more accurate in terms of its photorealistic quality. But also say, for example, the shot where the Millennium Falcon flies up past camera, and it sort of glides through frame; it was in the early teaser. When you’re working on a shot like that, you want to understand the lighting direction, because you can then understand the geography and the forms and everything. And you also want to understand how the ship is disappearing away from you, so you can understand its scale into the distance.

Now just imagine that was real in front of you in the desert, and I can control the sun somehow. And I’m in a helicopter and I can move around and I can find the point where I love the fact that I can see the perspective drifting off into the distance. Now, we could sit there and interactively move those elements around and go, "That’s what I want. That’s the money frame," where I see the Star Destroyer stretching off, because the way that it’s lighting and it’s great because the ship is slightly backlit as it comes through frame. To us, you’re almost in the real world.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is now playing, but I'm guessing you already knew that.

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