Star Wars and visual effects have always developed in tandem. The original trilogy is known for its groundbreaking practical effects; the prequel trilogy was made with landmark digital effects. Now, with The Force Awakens, both the practical and the digital have been fused in ground-breaking ways.
The blending of these types of effects not only helped change the story of the movie, but the canon of Star Wars itself. So we talked to Industrial Light and Magic’s Roger Guyett and Patrick Tubach—both visual effects supervisors on The Force Awakens (Guyett was also the second unit director on the film), both nominated for the Best Visual Effects Oscar this year—to find out how Star Wars might have revolutionized special effects for a third time.
“You’re pushing these two notions so far around they actually join back to themselves,” Guyett told io9. “One way around the block, you’re going completely old school. And at the same time, you’re taking contemporary technology and you’re pushing that to a point where it’ll become so seamlessly engaged and blended with what’s really going on in front of a real camera. That was our fundamental at every step. To make it feel like those events were really happening and that it was a completely immersive experience.”
That blending of new and old can be seen everywhere in the movie, but one great example is with BB-8, the franchise’s new droid. Throughout the film, BB-8 is an elaborate mix of practical effects, digital effects or, in most cases, both.
“The best performances we all got out of him was when he was directly being rod-puppeted,” said Guyett. “Because with a remote control, obviously the operator doesn’t have that absolute connection to that creature. There’s a lag. There’s a delay.”
So if the best version of the character meant that a puppeteer had to be physically standing next to a practical, full-size BB-8, that creates some huge challenges in visual effects. There’s a human or two standing in the frame at all times. That person has to be erased, as well as all evidence of their movement.
“We did some incredibly complicated rig paint-outs for the movie,” Guyett said. “Imagine what that puppeteer was doing to the desert in that scene with Rey. Every set of footprints, any of that stuff is a complete and utter pain in the ass to deal with. But the truth is, that’s not where the audience is looking. The audience is looking at BB-8, they’re not looking at the sand. Or I’m hoping they’re not looking at the sand. So obviously it’s an illusion. It’s a magic trick. The audience is looking one way and we’re fixing a problem that hopefully they’re not even cognizant of.”
And while having a practical puppeteer on set was the best version of BB-8, it also created a bit of friction.
“The puppeteer would wanna be as close as he could to BB-8, whereas we’d want him to be as far as away as he could for all sorts of obvious reasons,” Guyett said. “Ultimately, when you watch the movie, our goal is that you just watch it and you’re not even aware of the real versus practical. But all of the personality of BB-8 is consistent. And by having a single or two people generally puppeteering BB-8, it absolutely defines his personality. That’s what we were really striving for and that’s true of everything we did in the movie. We’re just constantly trying to take the ground truth of anything that you photograph and then sort of extrapolate that out into all the work that we did.”
In addition to blending the real and digital, the effects team also helped solve story and editing issues in what Patrick Tubach describes as “a very organic” model of filmmaking.
“The way [director] J.J. [Abrams] works, it’s not him writing on a slip of paper something he needs and then passing it over to us and then we read it and do it,” Tubach said. “It’s much more collaborative. We’re building a sequence together and if we have good ideas he’ll listen to those and if he had an idea at the last minute that causes a change, it’s just something that we’re all about into from the very beginning.”
One example is a transition in the film’s third act where the Resistance X-Wings had to get from space down to the Oscillator on Starkiller Base. In editing, Abrams and his team realized they didn’t have an interesting transition. Enter Guyett, Tubach and their team. Everyone conceived a quick sequence of the pilots talking to each other as they swooped down to the planet. The problem was, there was no footage of this.
“Unfortunately along with that, you wanna have these guys talking to each other so you have the human element. But you don’t necessarily have all of those cockpits,” Tubach said. “So we ended up creating a bunch of visual cockpits. Those are sprinkled throughout the movie, but particularly in that sequence where we had to just bite the bullet and go ‘You know what? We have to completely recreate these cockpits in C.G. and we have to do it in a way that people aren’t gonna be able to detect that.’ And that was a tremendous challenge.”
Moments like that, digital effects blending with the storytelling to further the story, happened throughout The Force Awakens.
“You can make your movie better without fear you don’t have every little piece you need,” Taubach said. “You have enough to be able to say, ‘We can take this forward. We know we can produce a beautiful looking sequence if we just fill in these few gaps that we have with effects.’ And I think that’s where we were able to jump in and sort of help J.J. tell that story.”
And along with all of this is the legacy of Star Wars. It’s unlike anything the world of pop culture and filmmaking has every seen, and the effects team worked knowing their decisions would have a long-lasting effect.
“You are cognizant that you’re creating something that will have a legacy effect on it,” Guyett said. “A tremendous amount of consideration is put into the ramifications of some of these decisions. But they can also change potentially change that process too. An idea that you might have in one movie might influence the arc of a character or the way a particular machine might work or operate”
The best example is Finn and Poe’s escape from the Star Destroyer Finalizer. Story-wise, both of the characters had to leave together, but the traditional Star Wars TIE Fighter only had one seat. History had to be made. They had to make a two-seated TIE Fighter.
“We called it the Special Force TIE Fighter which is a variant on a single seated TIE,” Guyett said. “So with those kinds of things, the story is driving some of the design choices and the design choices then influence things that you might be think are cool.”
Another example is the film’s subsequent action sequence. The idea of the Star Destroyer having a negative space in the middle is something J.J. Abrams came up with very early in the process, according to Guyett, which changed the trajectory of Poe and Finn’s escape. “Having the notion of the Star Destroyer being sandwiched influenced the way that we flew around the ship there,” he said. “They travel through the sandwich.”
And yet even with effects affecting the story more than most movies, Guyette and Tubach stress that with The Force Awakens, everything was about nailing that middle ground. Old school and new school, coming together in a galaxy far, far away.
“There area lot of visual effects work in the movie, but a lot of the times we’re also restraining and designing our work to try and make it feel as though something that you can practically shoot,” Guyett said. “The point is that you’re basing it around something that truly existed. And that fundamentally gives you, I think, more opportunity to succeed.”