For his first time out with the “Star Wars” universe, Rian Johnson populated “The Last Jedi” with a slew of new and old friends and foes, including several creature standouts: the adorable Porgs, the elegant Vulptices, the majestic Falthiers, the sinister Snoke, and the return of Master Yoda.
“To the extent that I deal with visual effects, since I don’t have the technical know how, it’s on the design side,” Johnson said. “And I like simplicity of design. You don’t ever want the audience using unnecessary brain power figuring out what they’re looking at. So many of our conversations about the design stuff weren’t about making it look cool, they’re always going to make it look cool [at Industrial Light & Magic]. It was about knowing what we’re looking at.”
While scouting the island of Skellig Michael in Ireland for the scenes with Luke (Mark Hamill) and Rey (Daisy Ridley) on Ahch-To), Johnson he was so impressed with the puffins that he wanted to find a “Star Wars” equivalent. The result was the tiny orange, black, and white Porgs. “I worked with Neal Scanlan’s [creature] team, and they came up with a design that had the face of a pug with little chicken feet,” Johnson said.
Scanlan was pleased that Johnson wanted to rely heavily on practical puppets for the Porgs and made an animatronic version. “They are endearing, they are irritating, but something deeper and more loving comes out [in their friendship with Chewie],” said Scanlan, the creature & droid FX supervisor. “However, they are tiny and you just can’t bring a character like that practically without using [CG] performance.”
That’s where ILM came in (both in San Francisco and in London) under the supervision of Ben Morris. At first, the CG Porgs started out in the background until it became necessary to go full-CG when the Porg screams in the Millennium Falcon. “Rian was pretty firm that he didn’t want us to go too elastic or too expressive beyond what a puppet might achieve,” Morris said. “We built exact replicas with our fur system and with subtle fur details on the head. We also had to work out what the teeth looked like in the mouth and the blinking eyes.”
But after matching practicals in every shot, it got to the point where Johnson couldn’t tell the difference between the animatronic and CG Porgs.
The crystal foxes known as Vultpices inhabit the mineral planet Crait. “I need a creature on Crait, the red and white planet,” said Johnson, who referenced Akira Kurosawa’s “Ran” and “Kagemusha” along with Anthony Minghella production of “Madame Butterfly.” “I really like the battle with the red spewing up from the white to convey the violence.”
The director was very specific about the crystalline fur looking like a chandelier, “and when they moved, I wanted them to sound like wind chimes.” This served a specific plot function when they help with a heroic escape.
“We approached it practically with a trained dog with drinking straws on it and we studied the movement,” Scanlan said. They created molds and individual crystal hairs and populated the animatronic fox with it. However, they wound up fully CG in the movie due to anatomy and performance limitations.
“Rian wanted a minimalistic animal quality,” Morris said. “We changed the anatomy slightly. They have Antler-like horns that extend out as ears and jowly side crystals. It’s a fantastical face that takes us away from anatomy that we’re more familiar with.”
The Falthiers are captive racing animals on Canto Bight, the casino planet patterned after Monte Carlo (with toward toward Alfred Hitchcock’s “To Catch a Thief”). “When you see them in motion, they’re like a combination of a horse and over sized cat,” Johnson said. “But they’re really beautiful creations.”
For Scanlan, the challenge was capturing the majesty and power in his sculpt. “And it runs more like a cat in many ways and that gives it a unique quality,” he said. They used his heavy shoulder puppet for several shots, and then they moved into far more intricate action for CG in combo with special effects rigs so the actors could ride on their backs.
Jonathan Olley /Lucasfilm Ltd.
“Scale was the big issue,” Morris said. “In terms of defining our shots we were very careful of the angles and musculature, and the huge ripple through the pectorals under the shoulder blades. They are also quite dexterous and can do tight-angled turns and travel at 40 to 50 miles an hour.”
For the first actual appearance of Supreme Leader Snoke (once again performance-captured by Andy Serkis), Johnson worked with ILM on a complete redesign different from the hologram in “The Force Awakens.” He looked too ghoulish and zombie-like, according to Morris. Scanlan did an early maquette sculpt, and ILM got data capture of Serkis on set with Ridley (Rey) and Andy Driver (Kylo Ren).
“But what we discovered as we started to build the character with Rian was that the initial concept sculpt didn’t translate well into a CG character,” said Morris. “He looked like a frail old man and it didn’t fit with the forceful power of Andy’s voice. So we resculpted the whole thing, and referenced Michael Fassbender and Steven Berkoff, and Ben Kingsley from ‘Sexy Beast.'”
ILM made Snoke’s shoulders broader, straightened his back, and restructured his face. They also raised him from seven to eight-feet-tall. Added Morris: “There was a shot that we rendered and Rian said, ‘There it is!'”
And for the return of Yoda (voiced again by Frank Oz), Scanlan replicated the look of the puppet from “The Empire Strikes Back.” “In terms of visual effects support, we did very minimal stuff,” Morris said. “We put the Force flow on and Rian was very keen to keep it simple. And I asked the obvious question if he wanted him to be transparent, and Rian said he wanted to go for an opaque Yoda.
“We put a very subtle treatment around his edges and actually washed some of the blue glow through the middle of his body as well. We filmed him for three nights on a real difficult set in front of [special effects coordinator] Chris Corbould’s burning tree.”
But if this Yoda looks darker and more weathered, that’s a result of the painted texture and specularity in the puppet, and the way it was shot by cinematographer Steve Yedlin against the light source of the burning fire on set.
For Johnson, though, doing another middle chapter movie was a tricky dance. “The job was to slow down a little and get inside the characters,” he said. “You can’t find an equivalent to ‘Empire.’ It’s about adolescence and navigating those waters and becoming an adult.” With his own standalone trilogy, he now gets more of a blank slate to play with “identity and the powers rising up in yourself.”