Completing the Circle

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ILM uses modern technology to bring Lucasfilm’s signature space fantasy back to where it started from in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

No movie in the past 50 years has pushed visual effects forward further and more spectacularly than  George Lucas’ original 1977 space epic Star Wars.

Now, on the cusp of the 40th anniversary of the original movie — now known more fully as Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope and having spawned six additional episodes — the original is being revisited in spirit and in body in the prequel Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which opened Dec. 16.

Directed by Gareth Edwards, Rogue One tells the story of a group of ragtag rebels tasked with stealing the plans to the original Death Star, making it a movie that leads directly into the opening moments of Star Wars and requiring it to emulate and in some ways recreate visuals concocted with now-archaic effects technology.

The crew at Industrial Light and Magic, which was founded to create the effects for Star Wars, was more than eager to tackle the project, says Nigel Sumner, visual effects supervisor on the movie. “This movie, for all of us, is tied so closely into the original, Episode IV, that it’s unique,” he says. “It has this nostalgic undercurrent that’s hard to escape from, so to work on that and to draw back all those emotions of seeing the original movie, I think it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

But there challenges in trying to tie into movie made  40 years ago with a completely different set of tools.

“Because of how closely it ties into Episode IV, you want to capture everything we remember — or think we remember —  about it, but using modern techniques and contemporary techniques which the modern audience now expects,” says Sumner. The key to doing that, he says, came from ILM chief creative officer (and originator of the Rogue One story idea) John Knoll, who said early on in the project: It’s not how it was; it’s how you remember it. “Everyone’s going to remember it slightly differently, but it’s the emotional impact that a lot of us remember, it’s how it made you feel. We wanted to capture that essence in this movie.”

A VFX Nostalgia Trip

The need to recreate the feeling of the original movie lead to a side project at ILM headed up by VFX icon Dennis Muren that explored the esthetics of the visual effects in the original Star Wars trilogy to find what people like about them and could be emulated and what techniques should be left behind, says Hal Hickel, animation supervisor on the movie.

Shots would be taken from the original trilogy and two new versions that added digital elements were done —  one that tree to exactly match the original shot, defects and all; and one that tried to feel like the old shot but taking a more modern approach.

“That was very instructive,” says Hickel. “That stuff really helped us with a  lot of stuff on his film in terms of achieving a look that feels really physical and kind of with a nod toward the original trilogy effects but is also taking full advantage of everything we’ve learned since then and the tool set we have nowadays.”

In revisiting such classic starships as the Imperial Star Destroyer and Death Star, Sumner says the crew on Rogue One had access to the surviving original models, which are kept at Skywalker Ranch, and photographed them extensively to figure out how they were built. One trick used on the original movie was a technique called “kit bashing,” in which small bits were taken from various plastic model kits and used to add detail to new models.

While only digital models were used in the final film, ILM did adapt this technique to creating CG ships thanks to the efforts of Russell Paul, who tracked down some of the original model kits that were bashed up and scanned them into the computer to create CG equivalents.

“It allowed us to carry forth that design language and that construction language that we used in the original movie,” says Sumner.

Planet Hopping

As with most Star Wars movies, the story moves from planet to planet, with each one presenting a different environment. Sumner says there were four distinct environments in Rogue One, that were split up between the various ILM facilities around the world.

Scarif, where the final beach battle takes place, was a particularly tough environment to make work as it had to incorporate footage shot at locations as different as The Maldives and England and make it look like the same place.

Interior locations required varying levels of set extension. Sumner says the movie got a lot of production value out of creating partial sets with little detail for scenes that required only a few shots, therefore making building a full set prohibitively expensive. “What that allowed us to do is a complete digital replace of the environment, but it gave the (director of photography) and Gareth the broad shape and form of those environments so they could light to them and frame to them.”

Elevating K-2SO 

The animation star of Rogue One is K-2SO, a reprogrammed Imperial droid loyal to the rebels, who was created from an on-set motion-capture performance from actor Alan Tudyk interpreted through animation by Hickel’s team at ILM.

“We’d been doing something since the second Pirates (of the Caribbean), over ten years ago now, where if you have a character who’s human size that is going to be CG and it makes sense for it to be authored by an actor, by motion capture, then we try to do that as much as possible on set rather than on a motion capture stage,” says Hickel. “We want that performer to have the same experience as the other actors on the film and to be in their eyeliner and talk sort of have that magic that happens between actors.”

K-2SO, however, is not exactly human size, standing about seven feet tall. Hickel says Neal Scanlon from ILM’s creature group created some special stilts to raise Tudyk to the appropriate level. “They’re a little like painters stilts, except that, if you’ve ever watched panthers move around in painters stilts, they don’t have a very natural gait and part of the reason for that is the ankles don’t operate like ankles,” says Hickel.  “These had these really cool motorized ankles that knew when the foot had been lifted off the ground and would slightly lift the toe, amongst other things.”

Tudyk came to ILM prior to shooting for a week of learning the technology and refining his performance using the stilts. “He could see himself (as K-2SO) on big monitors, sort of like looking at yourself in a mirror,” says Hickel. “He could figure out, posture wise and movement wise, what looked good on K2.”

ILM would extract the motion capture data from Tudyk’s on-set performance and apply it to the digital version of the droid. “Then there was quite a bit of work done on our side by our animators,” says Hickel. “Not because there was any desire to change Alan’s performance, but really to preserve his performance, because it’s not like a one-to-one, just push a button and the data looks good on K2. There were all kinds of adjustments that needed to be made to really capture what all of Alan’s decisions were and his choices and so forth.”

One of the challenges in fully conveying Tudyk’s performance as how to convey his humor when — as with most droids in the Star Wars movies — K-2SO’s face is not articulated and can’t raise an eyebrow or frown. Hickel says they experimented with a number of ideas to change that, but ended up dialing back to the Star Wars style and making his eyes able to rotate. “They can have little movements and eye direction, he says. “If he said something that’s slightly awkward, being able to put a little eye dart in there, a little glance to the side was often really helpful.”

Walker This Way

The Imperial Walkers are among the most iconic vehicles in the Star Wars saga, making it a big responsibility to get them exactly right for Rogue One. The walkers in Rogue One are actually cargo walkers, or AT-ACTs, instead of the full-on armored AT-ATs seen in 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back and 1983’s Return of the Jedi, a decision that made to help with some story points.

“We can’t shoot them with lasers, because we’ve established (in Empire) that their armor is too strong for the lasers,” says Sumner. That lead to the idea that these were earlier versions of the walker that would be more susceptible to conventional blasters and ion cannons, allowing the Rebels to destroy a few of them without repeating the cable-trip technique of Empire.

Hickel says he took it upon himself to study all the footage from Empire and Jedi featuring the walkers and copied them very faithfully to create a walk cycle for the AT-ACTs and figuring out how to make them work digitally. “We ended up slowing ours down very slightly from the Empire ones because ours are just a little bit longer legged and it helped sell the scale,” he says.

One of the most popular shots — it was prominently featured in trailers for Rogue One — sees a missile fly and strike a walker on the side of the head. The head is forced sideways by the impact of the explosion, but then turns back to where it was before, undaunted by the attack.

Hickel says that shot was inspired by the action movie convention of a character delivering a strong punch to much bigger character, who turns his head, but then rights himself, completely unfazed. “It was really just about getting the timing right,” says Hickel. “It’s not a comedy moment but it has similar moments to comic timing.”

Once More Unto the Breach

Animation played a major role in the climactic space battle for the film, developing new ways for Edwards to direct and plan out shots. The Third Floor provided conventional previs for the movie, but the work on the battle transitioned over to ILM when it became more expedient for that group to handle the work. In addition to time constraints, ILM was able to accommodate Edward’s exploratory shooting style in a unique way.

“He likes to shoot things in an almost handheld very documentary way and he’s usually operating the camera himself or one of the cameras,” says Hickel. “He’s in there with the camera, hunting for the best angles and the first few takes are about figuring that out.”

ILM would animate long story beats into 30 or 40 second scenes staged in a virtual 3D space that Edwards could move through and explore using a tablet as a window. “He can sit there and he can study it over and over again, playing it from different angles,” says Hickel. “We did that with a number of sequences and it was a really great process to give him a chance to find shots in a way he’s accustomed to and it gave the work a really kind of fresh feel and a feeling that integrated well with the way the rest of the movie had been shot.”

The space battle in Rogue One also one-ups the most complex space battles in the series to date, says Sumner, citing one sequence in which hundreds of TIE fighters pour out of the shield gate station.

Sharp-eyed fans caught cockpit shot of actors that seemed to be outtakes or leftovers from Episode IV. Sumner says there were four such shots, found in the archives by Edwards and Knoll, and Sumner’s crew worked to make them work as quick cuts in Rogue One. “From a technical aspect, this is 40 year old footage, it’s very different,” says Sumner.

These shots needed work to make them fit in with the rest of the movie, which was shot with modern digital technology. There also were changes made between how the cockpit sets were built back then — mostly making them large enough to accommodate the cameras of that era — and the modern versions, requiring the view of the back of the fighters out the cockpit windows be completely replaced with a digital version.

Hickel was, at the time of the interview, unable to talk about animating digital versions of the late Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin and Carrie Fisher as the young Princess Leia.

“I think they want to preserve the magic … but it was a big part of the work and a difficult part of the work,” says Hickel.

Staying On Target

Much has been written online about the additional shooting for the movie and how extensively the movie’s story changed given the number of shots seen in trailers that are not in the final movie. Sumner  downplays the situation as unusual, even as the visual-effects crew did have to adjust when story changes increased the number of effects shots needed.

“The additional photography was always part of the plan, or at least some of the additional photography,” says Sumner, who says the finished movie has about 1,700 visual effects shots. “Because of the lead time we had on this project, we were able to put in place assets that were very stable, and a pipeline that was very secure and able to support this volume of work. So when the turnover happened, we were able to hit the ground running.”

Rogue One was released to huge opening weekend at the box office and overall positive reviews from critics and raves from more than a few fans.

Hickel says it can be hard to evaluate the effects work in a movie that you’ve just finished working on for so long, but so far he’s happy with Rogue One.

“There are very few shots in this that make me wince,” he says. “That’s rare. I’m really, really happy with the look.”