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January 02
2018

ISSUE

Winter 2018

CRAFTING NEW EFFECTS FRONTIERS IN THE LAST JEDI

By IAN FAILES

Director Rian Johnson sits with the character Chewbacca (played by Joonas Suotamo) on board the set of the Millennium Falcon. All images copyright © 2017 Lucasfilm Ltd.

Few film releases in 2017 were as anticipated as Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the follow-up to The Force Awakens and the continuation of the stories surrounding the Resistance’smovement against the evil First Order. The movie continues tofollow the plights of the scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley), self-exiledJedi Master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Kylo Ren (AdamDriver), the servant to Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) andson of Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher).

The Last Jedi also sees, of course, the return of Industrial Light & Magic to deliver the film’s significant visual effects, a diverse mix of CG creatures and characters, droids, space battles, land assaults and epic environments. That work was headed by Visual Effects Supervisor Ben Morris who oversaw effects carried out in four of ILM’s studios across the world (London, San Francisco, Vancouver and Singapore) and at other studios contracted to ILM.

Speaking to VFX Voice prior to the film’s release, Morris ran down the mammoth effort in shepherding a complex array of visual effects for The Last Jedi, including, yes, those adorable porgs.

Daisy Ridley as Rey on the Skellig Islands, standing in for Ahch-To, with director Rian Johnson and crew.

PLANNING A JEDI JOURNEY

Morris’s first interaction with the director on The Last Jedi occurred while the visual effects supervisor was still in post production on The Force Awakens. “For me,” says Morris, “it was the opportunity to take the responsibility for the whole film, and it was fantastic to meet with Rian so early on.”

Johnson wrote the script and also produced his own storyboards and others with astoryboard artist. From those, ILM and The Third Floor split up previsualization duties on the film, which continued throughout production. Morris says Johnson had never done previs before and totally embraced the approach.

“It was a new world for him but by the end he was thrilled,” notes Morris. “I think it was one of those things; if as afilmmaker you’ve never been there, you might question why you need [previs], but when you work on a film with so many visual effects and unknowns, it not only helps the director, it actually helps all the other departments as well.

“On most of these big films now,” adds Morris, “we not only seem to be delivering previs for the director and editor but you get every other head of department coming in and saying, ‘Can I see the latest previs? Where are we going with this scene?’ It’s a tool for everyone now.”

The Last Jedi was filmed predominantly at Pinewood Studios where massive set-pieces were built, and at several locations, including Ireland and Croatia. In the age of bluescreen filmmaking (which was certainly still part of the film’s production), location shoots and filming with practical sets were crucial, Morris believes, as were the use of traditional practical effects. Special Effects Supervisor Chris Corbould handled these, while on-set creature effects from Creature Shop Concept Designer/Creature Shop Head Neal Scanlan were also featured heavily during filming.

“I pushed very strongly to try and ground our work in physical locations, going to places, so that you can be on location,” notes Morris. “You just geta better response and performance, and it offers realistic lighting, which is the biggest challenge nowadays.”

Chewbacca and a porg sit at the controls of the Millennium Falcon. This porg is a digital ILM creation, while others in the film were handled as practical creatures by Neal Scanlan.

A PORG’S STORY

The porgs are a classic example of the mix between practical and digital effects in The Last Jedi. Native to the island of Ahch-To where Rey visits Luke, the porgs are flying birds with high levels of curiosity. They were designed by Scanlan and his team and realized for on-set puppeteering in several practical incarnations. ILM then replicated the porgs digitally.

“Rian held us to this very closely,” states Morris. “We were absolutely matching the physical puppets that Neal created. We would sit our CG porg side by side with the practical one and look into the intricate details. Rian was very keen that the audience wouldn’t know which was which.

“Rian also believes in the school of animation that less is always more,” continues Morris. “He would frequently say, ‘No, no, guys, just because you can doesn’t mean you should.’ He was very sensitive to cartoony animation – well, ‘cartoony’ was his phrase for it – but it just meant animation that went beyond the bounds of what he thought was necessary. That was a great guidance and he never changed his opinion on that.”

The dreaded AT-M6 walkers, along with Kylo Ren’s shuttle. ILM referenced the original stop-motion AT-AT walkers from The Empire Strikes Back but infused these new vehicles with a more menacing feel.

“[Director] Rian [Johnson] very much wanted to shoot Andy [Serkis] as Andy. Once he understood that we could take whatever Andy did and make it successfully translate into Snoke, he really didn’t need to see Snoke on the day. That’s something that quite a lot of directors do — once they have that confidence, they can make that abstraction.”

—Ben Morris, Visual Effects Supervisor, ILM

THE RETURN OF SNOKE

Another digital character ILM contributed was Supreme Leader Snoke. In The Force Awakens, Snoke only appeared in hologram form as a 25-foot-high projection. This time the audience gets right up close with Snoke, an early plan from Johnson, who turned to Morris to confirm this would be possible.

“My answer was, ‘Absolutely yes’,” recalls Morris. “I thought it would be thrilling to bring him into the physical world. Snoke has been back in the ‘body shop’ and had a complete re-build for this film.”

Andy Serkis performed the character on set in an active LED motion-capture suit with a head-mounted camera. Interestingly, although ILM’s performance-capture system enables real-time live facial and body-animation playback on set, this was not something that was used for Snoke.

“One reason is that Rian very much wanted to shoot Andy as Andy,” says Morris. “Once he understood that we could take whatever Andy did and make it successfully translate into Snoke, he really didn’t need to see Snoke on the day. That’s something that quite a lot of directors do – once they have that confidence, they can make that abstraction.”

Luke Skywalker receives his lightsaber from Rey. Mark Hamill performed the role with some strategically positioned green tracking markers around his fingers, with ILM delivering the mechanical hand in CG.

ALIEN WORLDS

Star Wars films allow audiences to visit strange alien landscapes, and in The Last Jedi there are several incredible places. One is an alien salt plain on the planet Crait where Resistance ski speeders square off against AT-M6 walkers. The speeders have the effect of revealing red crystal material as they scoot over the salt plain surface.

“It’s a wonderful and exciting scene,” says Morris. “It’s an example of Rian having a very clear idea of what he wanted before even a picture was painted. Red is a visual theme in the film. Rian was very interested in the idea of a pure white salt flat and the concept of a red crystal material being revealed through the action of skating over the top or crashing into it.”

The production traveled to a real-world salt flat and filmed plates, using them as a basis to generate a digital environment in which to place the action. Part of that scene, too, involved animating the AT-M6 walkers, reminiscent of the much-loved stop-motion AT-ATs first seen in The Empire Strikes Back. Here the updated walkers are ‘chunkier’ and ‘meaner’, suggests Morris, who also found approaching the movement for the First Order vehicles surprisingly challenging.

“We did use the original stop-motion as the start and foundation of the animation,” Morris says, “but what you actually find is that your nostalgia gives you a different vision in your head of how incredibly smooth those movements were. While they blew me away as a kid, when you go back and watch them you think, ‘OK, we can use that as the basis and enhance it and give a more massive scale.’”

Resistance ski speeders race across the salt plain surface of the planet Crait.

Resistance bombers engage in battle with the First Order fleet, one of a number of space battles appearing in The Last Jedi.

BB-8 makes a re-appearance during a spaceflight. The popular droid was achieved as both a practical and digital effect.

“The real magic can occur and does occur when you gather 200 people on a main unit to a filming location. You have all the actors there, and you give them as much physical set as you can, as much visual stimulus as you can – pyro, atmospherics, creatures walking around them. And we just know that we can always enhance and augment that digitally if we need to.”

—Ben Morris, Visual Effects Supervisor, ILM

Finn (John Boyega) battles Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie). Phasma’s metallic suit was occasionally augmented by ILM to add in distinctive reflections.

“Steve Yedlin, ASC, the Director of Photography, used a dome shooting environment and an LED light from ARRI called a SkyPanel, which was very controllable. We had layers of silks that gave us a soft ambient look. We could also control laser flashes on iPads. It was like, ‘Green laser! Green laser! Explosion!’ And you could have the light traveling past the cockpit. It really gave us the benefit of having that interactive lighting.”

—Ben Morris, Visual Effects Supervisor, ILM

CLASSIC STAR WARS

The Last Jedi would not be a Star Wars film without a good space battle or two. Johnson tackled these early on in thumbnail sketches that were fleshed out with storyboards and previs. Says Morris: “We went that route simply because with such a huge body of work to complete for this film. [Battle scenes] are the kinds of shots that are entirely virtual – you can actually get ahead of the game. You can start earlier, rather than waiting until live-action elements are available.”

ILM crafted digital ships and many, many digital explosions, sometimes mixed in with practical pyro elements. Cockpit shots were still necessary; they were filmed practically on partial sets with a focus on interactive lighting.

“Steve Yedlin, ASC, the Director of Photography, used a dome shooting environment and an LED light from ARRI called a SkyPanel, which was very controllable,” explains Morris. “We had layers of silks that gave us a soft ambient look. We could also control laser flashes on iPads. It was like, ‘Green laser! Green laser! Explosion!’ You could have the light traveling past the cockpit. It gave us the benefit of having that interactive lighting.”

This approach, says Morris, was just another example of the useful combination between practical and digital in delivering the most exciting imagery possible for The Last Jedi.

“Rian Johnson is a filmmaker who wanted to shoot as practically as he could,” Morris concludes. “The real magic can occur and does occur when you gather 200 people on a main unit to a filming location. You have all the actors there, and you give them as much physical set as you can, as much visual stimulus as you can – pyro, atmospherics, creatures walking around them. And we just know that we can always enhance and augment that digitally if we need to.”


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