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Contender – Visual Effects, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story


Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

When plans were put in place to make a standalone movie in the Star Wars universe but separated from the originally planned nine-film saga, Lucasfilm executives knew that they needed the services of the best in the visual effects industry to merge the new worlds of the film with the familiar tropes Star Wars fans have come to know for 40 years. Enter the key trio of John Knoll, visual effects supervisor, Hal Hickel, animation supervisor, and Neil Corbould, special effects supervisor.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Directed by Gareth Edwards, Rogue One imagines the events leading up to the first moments of the initial 1977 film Star Wars, dictating that everything from starships to planetary environments to art direction had to ring true for fans while still maintaining the distinct qualities of a new project. As Knoll explained, this meant working in tandem with Hickel on computer-generated animation and Corbould on floor effects, created on set. “I don’t feel particularly proprietary,” Knoll said of choosing one type of effect over another to recreate beloved visual icons now four decades in the past. “Use the smart tool for the job. I’ve had great relationships with physical effects supervisors—we work well hand-in-hand.  There’s always this – the farther away from camera the better off you are with visual effects. The easiest thing for an art department to build [is] foreground. Sets become more expensive to do as you go farther back.”

Working on location in the United Kingdom, Iceland, Jordan, and Maldives, and on stages at Pinewood Studios outside of London, England, Corbould explained that huge proportions of Rogue One’s major set pieces were done practically, on camera, during principal photography. “Gareth wanted to see as much practical stuff as possible,” Corbould explained. “’Put as much into the shot as you can with the battle scenes.’ It gave me the freedom to play.”

The finished Tarkin effect.
The finished Tarkin effect.

Ditto for Hickel, who supervised animation in all facets. “From an animation standpoint on this particular show, we were doing huge four-legged walkers and [the robot character K-2SO] – they could not be actors in suits,” Hickel explained. Instead, Rogue One utilized Neal Scanlan‘s creature shop in England to create practical creature effects. “In the case of the character named Bor Gullet,” Hickel added, “ILM partnered with Neal Scanlan’s creature group in the UK. Bor Gullet’s body was an animatronic created by Scanlan’s crew, which was then augmented with CG tentacles, and given the ability to move by my animators. For K2, we captured Alan Tudyk‘s performance on set, using our proprietary iMocap system.”

For spacecraft on Rogue One, Corbould was responsible for all ship movement and actuation. “[For] the interior of the U-wing [ship], we built a gimbal that held a 16-ton chassis,” he detailed. “They had a huge LED screen around the outside. John’s team built animated elements for lighting.”

Guy Henry as Tarkin in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
Guy Henry as Tarkin in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Knoll added to Corbould’s notes on the U-wing ships with regards to creating meaningful lighting for space battle sequences. “We surrounded the spaceship sets with these giant LED screens and provided animation of what the environment would be around the ships,” Knoll said. “It’s an offshoot of what we have been doing for computer graphics: image-baxsed lighting. This is transferring that — and generating images.”

Surely, as visual effects supervisor, one of Knoll’s enormous tasks was projecting the mood of the 1977 film throughout Rogue One. “It felt like 1977 more than it was,” Knoll stated of the new film, “to match your memory what these things were. We would go back and look at costumes, sets, and miniatures.  What we tried to carry forward is how you remember them rather than how they were. I remember it being better; let’s do it the way we remember it. Side-by-side comparisons, you’ll see that there are differences. Trying to reproduce your memory.”

In bringing back characters from the Star Wars original saga, Hickel noted that myriad methods were used to match elements from 1977.  “We got to use almost every technique,” he said. “We had actors who reprised their roles; we recast an actor in makeup – death sentence. [We incorporated] actual footage from the 1977 film. George [Lucas] has been pretty good about preserving pieces. We had all-original dailies and all-original negative.”

In one battle sequence preparation, Rogue One miraculously introduces the Gold Leader pilot and Red Leader pilot from the 1977 film. To the trained eye, those pieces were exact recreations from a similar sequence in the 1977 film where pilots are preparing to attack the Death Star. For Knoll, those moments were an exhilarating challenge as they were pulled from actual 1977 footage. “The negative was a bit grainy,” he said, “[and] somewhat underexposed. All the shadows were completely black – no detail. That didn’t match the detail of everything else in the film. We found one of our other bits of footage of Red Leader that wasn’t under-exposed. We cut and ‘Frankenstein-ed’ together a more natural shadow look—we motioned that in to repair his image. The rest of the cockpit was CG-ed and rotoscoped.”

LR-RogueOne1With respect to another of Rogue One’s magical reincarnations, Knoll divulged the process of resurrecting the character from 1977’s Star Wars, Grand Moff Tarkin, originally played by the late Peter Cushing. “The choice to do it was like including a historic figure in a film,” Knoll described. “We don’t know what they look like, or everybody very clearly remembers their image; we approached it in a similar fashion. [You] try to cast an actor that has some physical resemblance—whether it’s makeup or the actor trying to change their attitude to more clearly resemble the character they are trying to portray. We decided that rather than make [actor] Guy Henry look more like the character with makeup, we decided on computer graphics.”

For Hickel, recreating Tarkin encompassed two overall goals: realism and likeness. “With Tarkin, we wanted to nail both, but realism had to come first,” said Hickel. “Folks are not as deeply involved in Star Wars who don’t have a super familiarity with Tarkin; that character didn’t tip off that there was something different.”

In recreating Tarkin, who appears in several of Rogue One’s key scenes, Hickel conveyed that precision was in order in adding the computer-generated animation to Henry’s performance. “The motion of Tarkin’s face,” Hickel pointed to as an element of paramount importance. “Guy wasn’t attempting to do a physical mimicry of Peter Cushing. ‘Motion likeness’ – modifying the facial motion capture so that it looked more like the way Peter Cushing moves. It can start to look not natural if you didn’t tweak it at all—balancing those things to make it feel like Peter Cushing. The architecture of Tarkin’s face – an older man with various wrinkles – gave us more to grab onto.”

Finally, at the very end of Rogue One, Princess Leia surprises us in her exact appearance from the very first time we see her in 1977’s Star Wars, another task which fell to Hickel. British-based Norwegian actress Ingvild Deila was cast as Leia, after which a similar process to that of recreating Tarkin added computer-graphics animation to Deila’s face to give her an identical visage to that of the recently departed Carrie Fisher in the 1977 classic. “It had to feel like her,” said Hickel of the Leia cameo which was tightly guarded right until Rogue One’s release date. “Carrie’s face at that age [Fisher was turning 20 during filming in 1976] made Leia extra difficult—it showed up more. We had to get it perfect.”

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