Jedi Tricks Still Im­press

VFX master Roger Guyett shares some of the high­lights of his team’s work on Star Wars: Episode IX — The Rise of Sky­walker.

Animation Magazine - - CONTENTS - By Trevor Hogg

VFX master Roger Guyett shares some of the high­lights of his team’s work on Star Wars: Episode IX — The Rise of Sky­walker.

When the ninth and fi­nal chap­ter of the core Star Wars saga The Rise of Sky­walker ar­rived on the big screen this De­cem­ber, fans were ex­pect­ing to see state-of-the-art vis­ual ef­fects cre­ated by the vi­sion­ary crafts­peo­ple at ILM, and they weren’t dis­ap­pointed.

The film, which made over $820 mil­lion world­wide dur­ing its first two weeks in the­aters, marked the re­union of di­rec­tor J.J. Abrams and VFX su­per­vi­sor Roger Guyett, who col­lab­o­rated on 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awak­ens as well as the two most re­cent Star Trek fea­tures (2009, 2013).

The bulk of the film’s 1,900 vis­ual ef­fects shots were han­dled by the team at In­dus­trial Light & Magic, with ad­di­tional sup­port pro­vided by 32TEN Stu­dios, Base FX, Ex­cep­tional Minds, Hy­bride Tech­nolo­gies, Im­por­tant Look­ing Pi­rates and Stereo D, with pre­viz work from The Third Floor.

“Philo­soph­i­cally, what we were try­ing to do with The Force Awak­ens was to make the worlds we took the au­di­ence to as real and im­mer­sive as pos­si­ble by us­ing any tech­nol­ogy that we could,” notes five-time Os­car-nom­i­nee Guyett. “What was grat­i­fy­ing to me was that peo­ple didn’t re­al­ize how much dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy was used to cre­ate those worlds.”

Four years later, the CG en­vi­ron­ment toolset has been greatly im­proved, as seen in the film’s speeder chase dur­ing which a Stormtroop­er gets cat­a­pulted into the air. “For a chase se­quence like that, your hero ac­tors are shot against green­screen or blue­screen and you’re try­ing to cre­ate the back­ground be­hind them. In truth, it’s not a sim­ple thing to do, es­pe­cially with some­one like J.J. who likes to move the cam­era. We spent an enor­mous amount of time scan­ning and pho­tograph­ing the desert, and were able to cherry-pick the best ver­sion of that world with­out mak­ing it look too con­trived.”

A sig­na­ture lightsaber duel be­tween Rey (Daisy Ri­d­ley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) takes place on top of the de­stroyed Death Star II in the mid­dle of a tur­bu­lent ocean.“The idea of do­ing that two or three years ago would have sent a shiver down my spine as well as given me heart pal­pi­ta­tions!” laughs Guyett. “It’s a com­pletely rewrit­ten wa­ter-solver tool, and the level of de­tail that you get in those mo­ments is more real­is­tic.”

The film’s prac­ti­cal wa­ter ef­fects were pro­duced by spe­cial ef­fects su­per­vi­sor Dominic Tuohy (Solo: A Star Wars Story). “Dominic went through 100,000 gal­lons of wa­ter a day cre­at­ing splashes and spray. The prob­lem is that some­times they’re phys­i­cally not the right kind of splashes and sprays, be­cause he’s fir­ing wa­ter which has a slightly dif­fer­ent feel­ing than wa­ter com­ing off of a wave. But it does cre­ate this tu­mul­tuous en­vi­ron­ment for the ac­tors to re­act to — and they get soak­ing wet. This was Novem­ber in Eng­land, and it was un­be­liev­ably cold. We built a lim­ited set that was about 60 feet long off the top of the pier and had all of these wind ma­chines, wa­ter can­nons and spray de­vices.”

Res­ur­rect­ing the Past

Var­i­ous call­backs to the pre­vi­ous Star Wars movies have been in­cor­po­rated into the im­agery such as shots of the Death Star II from Re­turn of the Jedi (1983). “We went up to Sky­walker Ranch, which has an ar­chive of Star Wars mod­els and var­i­ous ref­er­ences of the stuff that they built for the orig­i­nal movies,” recalls Guyett.“We pho­tographed a lot of stuff, stud­ied them and had a look at the way that they con­structed some of those minia­tures. This was true for The Rise of Sky­walker in gen

eral. We used some old matte paint­ings that [orig­i­nal tril­ogy con­cept artist] Ralph McQuar­rie had done of the plan­ets. We pho­tographed those de­signs and put them in as tex­tures on back­ground plan­ets.”

Also res­ur­rected was Em­peror Sheev Pal­pa­tine (Ian McDiarmid) — last seen be­ing flung to his death by Darth Vader in Re­turn of the Jedi — who is com­mand­ing the Fi­nal Or­der from the Sith planet of Ex­o­gol. “I love those mono­lithic graphic worlds,” says the VFX su­per­vi­sor. “The light­ning com­ing out of the cracks in the planet en­abled us to light in a dra­matic way. We built mock-ups in the art depart­ment when we were talk­ing about Ex­o­gol, but es­sen­tially, it’s a dig­i­tal world.”

Pal­pa­tine lives un­der­neath a mono­lithic struc­ture in a Sith Sanc­tu­ary sur­rounded by mas­sive stat­ues. “Neal Scan­lan

[Rogue One] was the crea­ture su­per­vi­sor on the show and he used some of the orig­i­nal pros­thetic makeup tech­niques on Ian McDiarmid,” says Guyett.“We also did a lot of CG work on Ian to en­hance his eyes and face, as well as messed up his hands. There was a lot of col­lab­o­ra­tion in our ap­proach to him as a char­ac­ter.”

Ac­cord­ing to Guyett, there are more prac­ti­cal crea­tures in The Rise of Sky­walker than in any of the pre­vi­ous Star Wars movies. “Babu Frik is a rod-pup­peteered, tiny char­ac­ter with an an­i­ma­tronic head,” he ex­plains. “What that gives you is a look which is ap­pro­pri­ate for

Star Wars. We had a big fes­ti­val scene in the desert where Neal built 700 Aki-Aki pros­thetic masks for the ac­tors to wear, from hero an­i­ma­tronic heads to back­ground type of stuff.

Klaud had an an­i­ma­tronic head and was op­er­ated from in­side by some­one. Maz Kanata is the most ad­vanced real-time an­i­ma­tronic pup­pet we have used.”

When CG Heals

A crit­i­cal story point is the heal­ing ca­pa­bil­ity of the Force.“When Rey stabs Kylo Ren with her lightsaber and then heals that wound, we’re do­ing some com­pli­cated CG work to go from some­thing gnarly to back to his skin again,” ex­plains Guyett. “The trick with those wounds is to al­ways give them some kind of di­men­sion so you’re see­ing that the sur­face is ac­tu­ally chang­ing form, which makes it look a lot less like a dis­solve.”

The film also builds on the prac­ti­cal lightsaber tech­nol­ogy de­vel­oped for The Force Awak­ens. “The tech­nol­ogy is es­sen­tially the same on this one but there have been a num­ber of im­prove­ments to the light­ing,” says Guyett. “One of the is­sues that you have on film is the un­der­stand­ing of color tem­per­a­ture is more crit­i­cal than with dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy.”

Com­pli­cat­ing mat­ters was the un­ex­pected death of Car­rie Fisher be­fore the com­ple­tion of The Last Jedi (2017), as Princess Leia Or­gana was to have a piv­otal role in The Rise of Sky­walker. A hy­brid ap­proach was adopted for the fi­nal cin­e­matic ap­pear­ance of Fisher, as op­posed to the con­tro­ver­sial dig­i­tal re­cre­ation of Peter Cush­ing as Grand Moff Tarkin in Rogue One (2016). “Ob­vi­ously, we wanted to have the in­tegrity of the char­ac­ter be­ing played by Car­rie Fisher,” ex­plains Guyett. “J.J. was sen­si­tive to any idea of it be­ing a dig­i­tal rep­re­sen­ta­tion of her. We cre­ated her per­for­mance out of un­used footage. It was done in an in­ter­est­ing way, by tak­ing Car­rie’s fa­cial per­for­mance and cre­at­ing a dig­i­tal ver­sion of her blend­ing out of the live-ac­tion el­e­ment of her face. In other words, we were dig­i­tally fix­ing the is­sue that no one is look­ing at, which is her dress. I’m hop­ing that peo­ple just watch the movie and be­lieve that she’s re­ally there. That’s the idea, ul­ti­mately. It was a com­pli­cated thing to do.”

An­other in­ter­est­ing devel­op­ment: the tra­di­tional tech­nique of plac­ing green­screen or blue­screen out­side of the Mil­len­nium Fal­con’s cock­pit and flash­ing lights to sim­u­late space travel has been re­placed with LED screens and pre-ren­dered con­tent. “The light­ing is so much more dy­namic, be­cause you can play­back some com­pli­cated stuff that looks more ex­cit­ing and en­er­getic,” re­marks Guyett. “You see that in the light­speed skip­ping scene where they are jump­ing be­tween dif­fer­ent en­vi­ron­ments. For the ex­te­rior shots, we tried wher­ever pos­si­ble to have a real piece of the Mil­len­nium Fal­con, such as the ramp, and ex­tended it dig­i­tally.”

His­tor­i­cally, the Star Wars fran­chise has show­cased a wide range of pi­o­neer­ing vis­ual ef­fects shots and tech­niques. “We did throw in a cou­ple of nods to the orig­i­nal tech­nol­ogy, like a forced per­spec­tive minia­ture,” says Guyett. “For ex­am­ple, when we blew our planet up, it was a prac­ti­cal ex­plo­sion. The wa­ter se­quence is an in­cred­i­ble im­prove­ment of wa­ter tech­nol­ogy. To see it used in this way, as a char­ac­ter, was fab­u­lous. Hav­ing to deal with 16,000 galaxy ships in the end bat­tle was a key tech­ni­cal chal­lenge. How­ever, in terms of mak­ing our work in­vis­i­ble in places, like the desert or the fes­ti­val, I am hop­ing that peo­ple don’t re­al­ize the fact that they’re dig­i­tal.” ◆

‘Philo­soph­i­cally, what we were try­ing to do was to make the worlds we took the au­di­ence to as real and im­mer­sive as pos­si­ble by us­ing any tech­nol­ogy that we could.’ — VFX su­per­vi­sor Roger Guyett

Dis­ney’s Star Wars: The Rise of Sky­walker is cur­rently play­ing in the­aters world­wide.

An Im­mer­sive World: VFX su­per­vi­sor Roger Guyett, who is nom­i­nated for an Os­car this year, over­saw some 1,900 shots for the fi­nal film in the lat­est Star Wars tril­ogy, many of which served to pull the au­di­ence in an im­mer­sive uni­verse far, far away.

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