Industrial Light & Magic has always been at its best with "Star Wars," and the VFX powerhouse that George Lucas launched 40 years ago certainly upped its game for the return of the signature franchise, and is also the Oscar frontrunner.
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Maintaining the look and feel of the first trilogy with only the most sensible modifications was important to J.J. Abrams and the filmmakers because we are returning to the same universe and not that much has really changed in 30 years, as "history repeats itself" on so many levels. That is why cinematographer Dan Mindel shot on film, and why production design (Rick Carter and Darren Gilford), costume design (Michael Kaplan), and VFX (Roger Guyett) worked jointly from the inside out to convey an organic sense of continuity in keeping with the legendary iconography.
"We all felt very strongly about capturing the spirit of the earlier movies, and I think one of the essential elements of that clearly was the use of locations [Rub’ al Khali desert, Arabian Peninsula; Krafla and Lake Mývatn, Iceland; Isle of Skye, Scotland; and Skellig Michael, County Kerry, Ireland] and sets," said Guyett, ILM’s VFX supervisor, who previously worked with Abrams on the two "Star Trek" movies, and with Lucas on the "Revenge of the Sith" prequel before that.
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"But at the same time, it’s a big visual effects movie and you’re trying to create places that don’t exist, and the scale and a lot of the elements involved required [CGI]. So what I was aiming at was to make all of those experiences as realistic as possible. We didn’t want to necessarily make a retro movie where we were recreating [the first trilogy]. We wanted something fresh and exciting, that immersive experience you might have if you were really flying the Millennium Falcon or if you were really in the hangar of a Star Destroyer."
Obviously the tech has advanced considerably in the way that you can light surfaces or create organic elements such as water, fire and smoke, and ILM improved its simulation pipeline for greater efficiency and photorealism, as witnessed by the massive solar-powered destruction of a planet that eclipses the old Death Star. At the same time, the studio created a new version of the facial capture translation software for the mo-cap performances of Lupita Nyong’o (Maz Kanata) and Andy Serkis (Supreme Leader Snoke). ILM also made significant use of its four studios in San Francisco (the hub), Vancouver, London and Singapore in the creation of 1,300 out of a total 2,100 VFX shots.
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"Once we started doing some tests, we all realized that the way to go was a combination of the charm from the late ’70s and the best that technology offers us today," Guyett added. He called it "a forward motion" and said they emphasized restraint so that we don’t notice what’s CG and what’s practical. Even the bug-eyed Kanata and the disfigured Snoke looked at home in this updated universe, and while Nyong’o is a mo-cap newbie, it helped rehearsing her performance so she could observe the translation process and understand how her performance impacted the animation. She also gained immeasurable confidence in observing the master Serkis at work.
"The more we looked at the work that had been done in the past, you realize the simplicity in the way that you’re constructing some of the shots and we worked very hard to make people less aware of some of those moments," Guyett recalled.
Occasionally, ILM embraced some retro ideas recommended by Carter and Gilford as long as they weren’t too contrived, such as a corridor shot when they used 2D forced perspective backing instead of set extension. But Guyett said that lighting remains the foundation of what they do and that by building even limited sets, you had interaction of the light and shadowing, and the actors had something to respond to, which was not the case with the prequels.
"Also, if you can build a model of the Millennium Falcon and capture the lighting in an efficient way and put that asset in an environment on location, you get a more photorealistic result.
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"What [these new tech improvements] meant for us was if you’re trying to do an explosion or something breaking apart, or you see the new X-Wings traveling across water, all of these have more accurate individual simulations but also greater interactions. And an explosion in the desert is quite a complicated thing to do.
"The way we rendered our images was also new and the one thing we were able to do is share all of the models and the rest of the assets between departments. Each of the shots is so complicated that you have multiple disciplines working on them and this sharing is more artistic as well as efficient."
Overall, the process of selecting the best technique for a given moment was invigorating. "By going to actual locations, observing them and then recording them as accurately as we could, gave us a better understanding of that environment," Guyett observed. "You see things that would never occur to you to recreate in the computer. It’s a very different thing than just digitally mocking it up from the get-go."
In other words, what’s old is new again and the foundation has been set for this hybrid philosophy as they continue the "Star Wars" saga.