Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker drops earlier than expected on Disney+, ‘May 4th be with you’.
It is 20 years since the release of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace and 42 years since the original Star Wars New Hope EpIV. The Rise of Skywalker ends the 9 film series following Rey, Finn, and Poe Dameron as they lead the Resistance’s final stand against Kylo Ren and the First Order, and the return of the galactic emperor, Palpatine. Directed by J. J. Abrams with visual effects, of course, by the company that started it all, Industrial Light and Magic (ILM).
The film was shot 2.39:1 on 35mm film and mastered at 4K so that this last film would fit visually with the Star Wars films that started the whole multi-generational saga. The film grossed over $1.074 billion worldwide, becoming the seventh-highest-grossing film of 2019 and the Visual Effects team of Roger Guyett, Neal Scanlan, Patrick Tubach and Dominic Tuohy were nominated for the Oscar in the 92nd Academy Awards. Guyett was previously nominated for an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects for the 2015 Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The nomination for The Rise of Skywalker, his 6th nomination in total. Guyett co-supervised at ILM with Patrick Tubach, who has been at ILM since 1999, and who himself has been nominated for multiple VFX Oscars in the past.
Within a few days of JJ. Abrams stepping into the role of Director on the film, Abrams called Guyett, “And of course, I was extremely excited,” Guyett recalls. “It was extremely exciting and a great prospect. I really enjoyed working on The Force Awakens. They are such a good group of people, so I had absolutely no hesitation in making the decision to get involved.”
Tubach points out that the team knew given the scope and size of the film’s effects, that all five of ILM studio locations would be working on the film, “knowing that this movie is so big and that JJ likes to be very creative in the end process of the edit, we set about trying to make our assets and our environments as shareable across all our sites as possible”. This meant that from a technical perspective the project was a lot more agnostic than they had ever been in the past, especially in terms of rendering. “What that meant was that we were allowing ourselves the ability to render things how it best-made sense, whether we decided to render in Clarisse, or RenderMan or Arnold, in the cases of London,” he explains. ILM was keen to really make sure that they were creating assets and environments in a way that allowed them to be moved around the company. “And it really paid off.”
In terms of how the various studios worked, Tubach and Guyett supervised teams around the world, each having a major sequence, but also freely moving shots from studio to studio. For example, the large water ocean fight sequence was based out of Singapore. London, did the majority of the desert sequence. San Francisco really took the bulk of the Palpatine end shots and the undercroft of the monolith environment. But thanks to the way the assets and rendering was set up, the new Sydney office which started only months before the film was due to be delivered, was able to swing into the process and help Singapore, with “the end of that water sequence, and shots of Kylo up on the high point of the structure, and the Vista shots” Tubach explains.
One of the film’s unforeseen and sad challenges was closing out the story of Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia. Given her untimely passing, the filmmakers needed to decide how to include her on screen. Abrams asked if there was any way to use footage of Carrie Fisher, to enable Leia to be played by the actress Carrie Fisher and a digital interpretation of Carrie Fisher. The team knew that there was footage from the previous film that had not been used, and perhaps outtakes from other films. “We were incredibly sensitive to the whole issue,” Guyett explained. Thus the decision was made to not use a digital double and to solve the story with already filmed shots. “Taking that approach, this movie was way more complicated than I believed it would be, just much harder, – but in the end, I think the result is absolutely worth it,” said Guyett.
The team started by assembling all the clips of Carrie Fisher and building a library of shots that could be used and all the dialogue she had spoken, so the script could be built around those lines. Knowing that they could adjust perhaps a word or two. Guyett commented that they started by looking at “what actual lines did she say in the scenes … and how could we use them. JJ was so on board with this process, …and we changed like two words or something, but it’s so trivial in the grand scheme of things”. The process involved the team drafting a new scene and then ILM reviewing all the different takes or versions of the shots that had been used as a reference to figure out whether or not they could even use the shots, or if the lighting needed adjusting and what would be required to make the footage work in the new context. For most scenes, this meant creating a new digital Leia around the live-action face of Carrie Fisher. “So we sort of inverted the problem, we created a digital human around her face. And what I loved about that, was you are changing and solving a part of the shot where I don’t think many people are really looking,” comments Guyett.
Above is a look at replacing Carrie Fisher and it includes a brief interview with her daughter Billie Lourd.
In some sequences Leia’s hair and body were digital, thus allowing the lighting and plot points to be consistent, but the acting choices and delivery were still Carrie Fisher’s. Guyett explains, “if you look at her in this movie she has hairstyles that she has never had in any previous version, and nor is her wardrobe or her jewelry the same.” For Guyett, there were two VFX approaches to sell the illusion. The first, as discussed was her wardrobe. ILM has been able to produce photo-real digital clothing for a long time. The second was to have Leia interact with other characters. “In the film, you’ll see she’s handing the Light Sabre to Ray. She’s hugging someone, …and in all of these ways she is integrated into the scene, hopefully in a way that makes it believable”. This work required painstaking planning and careful execution, right down to matching the camera moves and lenses so the angle of Fisher’s (already filmed) face was correctly aligned to the viewing angle of the new camera used on the set of the new film.
For the flashback sequence of Leia in Jedi training, there was actually remarkably little in the way of outtakes or unused scenes to pick from. “There really isn’t much because George (Lucas), was essentially making a kind of low budget movie incredibly quickly,” Guyett points out. “We just didn’t have the same level of coverage that you would find on a more contemporary film. But yes, even the flashback sequence adopted the same approach.”
Neil Scanlan and the practical special effects team of the creature department played a huge role in Rise of Skywalker. The Oscar-winning filmmaker has worked on all of the live-action Star Wars movies since Disney purchased Lucasfilm in 2012, starting with The Force Awakens. There is no doubt that fans respond very strongly to the iconic drones, makeup effects, puppets, and animatronics of the Star Wars films. Guyett commented that he thought that Scanlan’s team “created more creatures or characters on this show than any other Star Wars film before. And you know, that’s part of the fun of the franchise, seeing all these aliens and creatures in the worlds that the audience visits and obviously it is an important traditional part of the Star Wars films”. Scanlan and Guyett worked very well together and extremely closely on the various characters in the film and Scanlan himself recently pointed out, “it has been said that we always try to do everything practically in a Star Wars film, and that’s not completely true. But I think that there is some sense that we look at it and think, how much can we achieve in the real world, and at what point do we need CG to step in and take this somewhere which is expected by the audience?”
While Palpatine was primarily practical, ILM did complex digital takeovers and environmental effects. For example, all of the shots of Palpatine’s hands are completely digital. The ILM team contributed some digital makeup to Palpatine to help blend certain aspects of the makeup and some key effects such as the regeneration sequence.
The undercroft of the monolith environment where the action takes place is a great example of ILM not only accessing the previous films for inspiration and reference but also “material from the expanded universe”, says Tubach. The massive ancient Gothic statues and much of the architecture references both Lucasfilm Game design assets and other designs from the non-feature film Star Wars expanded universe. The First Order’s assembly space was also designed to remind the viewer of ancient Roman coliseums, building on the theme of Empire and the Emperor Palpatine.
Rey and Kylo
One of the most dramatic scenes in The Rise of Skywalker was the lightsabre battle at the fallen Deathstar while huge storm waves crashed around Rey and Kylo. Unlike the original films, the actors in the last few Star Wars films have been able to fight with ‘real’ Lightsabres. The onset props when shooting lightsabre fights have been evolving. Starting with The Force Awakens, the actors have been given props that have LED lighting in them, and that allows the actor to actually clash rather than just mime their encounter. For this latest film, the actual technology had evolved further. The onset props are now both more robust and lighter. There are now different versions of the Lightsabres for different moments in the film, each with controllable light output. Contact lighting generated by the actual LED lightsabres swinging around is invaluable for selling the effect but in the darker environments for example, when Rey is in the tunnels with the snake-type creature, the team needed to be careful to not overdo the practical lighting. “Having the light source is invaluable for the guys doing the shots, it makes a great difference when you put the actual finished visual effects” explains Guyett.” But sometimes you’re riding the dimmer on the lightsabre a little bit, making sure that it is not too weak or too strong. It is great to actually see what was going on in real-time, that’s part of the wonderful quality of it.”
The water environment itself was a major undertaking for ILM. It was headed up by ILM’s VFX Sup. Nigel Sumner in the Singapore office. Early on, Sumner’s team was doing tests on Ocean waves crashing as the water in this sequence is so important to the staging and drama. Guyett comments that he thinks the water simulations “are absolutely fabulous in terms of the level of detail. All those guys in Singapore just did an absolutely fantastic job with our new water solver and toolset that ILM was building. The team was pushing the new technology both in terms of the new water solver, and the ability to direct and control the ocean waves. “That work gave us the ability to do so many more things with so much more detail than we had been able to do before”. Most of the fight was shot on a relatively small blue screen stage, with some digital double work for the wider shots of the action. “We really wanted a way of choreographing the water…the audience is concentrating on the fight between the two of them, and then the background really becomes the foreground as you have these amazing waves”, Guyett comments. There was practical water being thrown at the cast onset, but “sometimes we couldn’t get the splashes and the sprays close enough to the actors. Sometimes they would really soak them, but most of what you’re seeing is digital water with some practical help.” Guyett commended the actors, who he says never complained, and “actually, it was pretty miserable for them!”
Another challenging fight happened just prior to this sequence when Rey fights herself. The key shot in this sequence is when Rey is seen both as her character and the dark side version of herself. As it is not a particularly long sequence, Guyett did not want to use motion control, instead, he relied on actress Daisy Ridley, whose acting skills he had really grown to admire. “Daisy did a great job. She’s such a trouper, and she understands the importance of timing and the technical aspects, she was just incredibly helpful,” he recalls. So without any motion control or special grip gear for the dolly, “we rehearsed her playing both sides of herself, playing the good and bad versions of herself. And when we felt confident that she could match her own movements, we just shot it. Of course with modern technology on set, we recorded both sides and did a quick comp of it to see if we were kind of in the zone, but that is essentially all it took.”
“The droids are just such an integral part of Star Wars. And they do bring so much humanity to it,” says Guyett. In the film, the various droids were both practical on set and digitally added. The practical droids provided both final elements and an extremely valuable reference for VFX. Additionally, when the droids were driven onset there would often be cables or even operators to remove from the shot. On the face of it, rig removal is not considered a major visual effect, but Guyett reserves special praise for the team that does this work. It is one thing to remove cables from a locked-off shot, but it is much more difficult to remove animatronic engineers, their shadows, footprints in the sand and to do so with participating media or atmosphere in a shot. “What’s interesting about that problem is quite often you’re solving a problem, which can actually be pretty non-trivial, but at the same time, you’re solving it in a part of the frame that people aren’t always looking at. That’s one of the slight of hands in visual effects that I learned from Dennis Muren probably more than 20 years ago.”
The Speeder chase sequence was a very digitally heavy sequence, but plates and some shots were filmed in Jordan. Tubach was part of the extensive ILM team that was onset in Jordan, including Malcolm Humphreys from the London office and Steve Hardy and Andy Proctor from the San Francisco office. “We were the second unit and backup environments team, a lot of people went with us on that shoot”. In Jordan, there was both first and second unit shooting. ILM had a visual effects unit gathering plate material and textures for the extensive digital environments. “A lot of that was recreated digitally from all of the material that we shot. But also from other locations that we knew would help us fill out the sequence and fill in gaps in between those key areas,” Tubach explains. The team shot stills, clips and drone footage which was all combined into a seamless digital environment that was a creative nod to the Pod race John Knoll had supervised on Episode 1, almost exactly 20 years earlier.
The first unit was shooting the actors on motion bases in the desert, so the speeder sequence required a lot of Previz which needed to be fairly well locked off and approved as the motion bases needed to be programmed. “But that didn’t stop us from changing things. A lot of things are best decided on the day, and when we needed to, we changed things up. But that’s the way JJ likes to work. He doesn’t like previz to lock him down into anything because he wants to be creative and he wants to see the situation and access it at the time of shooting” explains Tubach.
Ships and Environments
The end galaxy fleet arrival was both complex and great fun for the ILM team. The director wanted “every ship ever” recalls Tubach. “It was pretty exciting looking back through everything that we’ve touched upon and sort of saying, ‘okay, what do we need to do to get these assets ready to use?’ We had to come up with a fairly extensive list as we needed hundreds of ships, actually, there was one particular shot, the very first shot, where there’s about 16,000 ships on-screen.”
While the ships are from every possible Star Wars film, show or game, only assets from the most recent films could be directly used, beyond the files from 20 or 30 years ago would never load and even if they could their material properties and level of detail would not match the current renderers. “But the really tough part about spaceships is really the design and I think that is where we benefited, we could look at those older ships and we could at least have a starting point for the design,” says Tubach. Of course, the older ships were not enough and ILM’s modelers built many new ships, but often these were a variation on an existing design. “We also took a lot of those older designs and said, imagine that you have a ship that’s from the same species that’s flying them. We do need new ships that look considerably different, but we had a great time pulling things apart and rebuilding them in the same sort of vein.” This was not only a design decision but in terms of the plot, it reinforced the idea of individuality vs. conformity. Thus all the First Order ships looked the same. “Their fleet was all the same and ridiculously mathematically replicated. So this fleet had to be the exact opposite. It may seem like an obvious thing, but I love it when art direction totally underscores the plot,” Tubach reflects.” It also had this Dunkirk moment, these are just normal people, regular civilians coming to the aid of our heroes. So it was a fun challenge” comments Guyett.
The San Francisco and Vancouver teams worked together on the end complex battle sequence, with detailed dogfighting and featured animation done on only about 20 hero ships in the fleet. “We had our crowd team who built some really extensive and fantastic crowd tools for the other ships. We were able to pick some behaviors for ships and choose the numbers and types of ships involved. Thus we were able to fill out those scenes and make it look like thousands of ships in the background were involved, while only a few hero ships needed to be hand-animated,” comments Tubach. This section of the film was all output in RenderMan, while below the monoliths environment was mainly rendered using Clarisse.
A love letter to the tech at the birth of ILM
For all the brilliance of digital effects at ILM, Guyett took great delight in honoring the history of practical effects both inside ILM and that which was born in the original Star Wars films. For example, “when the planet blows up, we did that with a miniature as a real nod to the original planet blowing up in Star Wars,” he says. “I really wanted to do that. We didn’t have to, but I got a lot of the guys back and we figured out a way of doing a pretty sophisticated planet explosion that was a lot of fun”. Guyett also oversaw miniatures which were very much the heart and soul of the VFX in the original films. For example in The Rise of Skywalker, there is a Sandcrawler that the team built and filmed in the desert in Jordan. “We did a forced perspective miniature of that Sandcrawler at the end of the movie. Those sorts of effects are so simple in many respects, but you have to work very hard to make them work, but when they do work, they’re so satisfying” he proudly explains. The production shot the model that was only a couple of feet long and “we use local children, local Jordanian children, as the Jawas. There was some real fun in trying to recreate some of these shots using technology or approaches the original crew would have used”. When the original Star Wars was made the notion of a company called ILM was not even yet thought of, but for the current effects crew of The Rise of SkyWalker ” there was a tremendous amount of fun and love in redoing these processes and respect for the work that those guys did on the original movie” Guyett concludes.