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How ILM’s John Knoll Brought ‘Star Wars’ Full Circle With ‘Rogue One’

The chief creative officer and senior VFX supervisor of Industrial Light & Magic discussed how he created and managed the first "Star Wars" standalone.

“Rogue One”

For John Knoll, ILM’s Oscar-winning VFX supervisor (“Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest”) and chief creative officer, the making of “Rogue One” — the first “Star Wars” standalone film, which he created — offered more freedom than usual.

“The standalone films don’t necessarily have to match the style book as the saga films,” Knoll told IndieWire prior to the release. “You’re a little freer to do genre and style experiments. So the tone was more of a war film and the cinematography [by Greig Fraser] had a little more of a verite style to it.”

READ MORE: ‘Rogue One’ Director Gareth Edwards Reveals How the Film’s Original Ending Was Much Different

Back in 2003, when Knoll first pitched the idea of rebels stealing the plans for the Death Star (inspired by the crawl at the beginning of “A New Hope”), the timing was premature. George Lucas was developing a live-action “Star Wars” series but the pitch didn’t fit their direction.

When the series didn’t fly, Knoll forgot about it until Disney bought Lucasfilm and Kathleen Kennedy became president. Knoll was encouraged by former colleague Kim Libreri (now CTO of Epic Games) to pitch again and Kennedy embraced it as the first standalone.

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) was always the heroine and stemmed from Knoll’s desire to have a smart and resourceful female role model for his three daughters.

“Rogue One”

“Rogue One” was executed by Gareth Edwards (“Godzilla”) as a gritty war movie. During the film’s prep, Knoll (who co-developed Photoshop with his brother, Tom) recommended inserting “Star Wars” characters into archival World War II and Vietnam photos.

Knoll also suggested that Edwards use ILM’s iPhone virtual camera for ease of use and to complement his hand-held live-action footage. (“Rogue One” was shot with the Arri 65 with Ultra Panavision 70 lenses for the widest possible aspect ratio but deliberately shallow depth of field.)

“Gareth has this documentary style and there were some space battles where he could do his own hand-held shots with the virtual camera,” Knoll said. “Typically, those are storyboarded and prevised and there’s a more deliberate composition and shot design style than you get in the live-action process. And I didn’t want there to be a stylistic break where the live-action has one look and the space battle has this other look.”

He added, “So we had Gareth shoot a lot of that pre-animated, where’d we go onto the motion-capture stage and find the compositions that were pleasing to him and we’d record them. And the hope was that the aesthetic would be shared across the whole film.”

In terms of “Rogue One’s” 1,600 VFX, the workload, like “The Force Awakens,” was divided between ILM studios in San Francisco, London, Vancouver and Singapore. There was also plenty of practical pyrotechnics from special effects supervisor Neil Corbould. “I don’t have any particular loyalties to one technique or another. I’m just trying to use the best for the job,” Knoll said.

“Rogue One”


However, the model work was all CG. And to that end, Knoll recommended a digital model-making library to provide “A New Hope” vibe for the iconic ships and vehicles and crucial Death Star (made from scratch and meticulously recreated using Modo, the 3D modeling software).

“One of the things that I thought was important from the original film was how the models were made — the famous use of model kit pieces for mechanical detail,” added Knoll. “And I thought we should do our own version of that here because if we didn’t, it was going to happen in an uncontrolled fashion.”

“What we did was confront it head on by buying several of the original model kits on eBay, and we digitally built versions of about 300,” he continued. “And we had a ‘Star Wars’-themed parts library that when the modelers were building something, they were pulling bits and pieces from that library and detailing it to model. Our new models fit very well. And it was worth this investment because there are other ‘Star Wars’ films coming down the line.”

It was also decided early on to make the new 7-foot K-2SO droid computer-generated, but with a light mo-cap footprint for actor Alan Tudyk (who wore stilts on set) and with rotating eyes for greater expression. “Apart from him being in the motion-capture suit, they could ignore the visual effects like when you shoot any other part of the movie,” Knoll said. “And having Alan there to look into the actors’ eyes and have them play off each other, that’s why he’s so good in the movie.” Plus the fact that Tudyk improvised most of his best lines.

READ MORE: Are the Special Effects in ‘Rogue One’ Unethical? — IndieWire Critics Survey

In terms of digitally resurrecting Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin and Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia, Knoll was only at liberty to say: “There’s some new software and a bunch of new technology development to enable that, some just following up on what had been done on ‘Warcraft’ [including more sophisticated eyes and a higher fidelity facial lip and lip sync pipeline].”

Echoing Darth Vader, “The circle is now complete.”

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