Babu Frik, the tiny, snarky droidsmith that delights in wiping C-3PO’s memory in “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” has become an instant fan favorite. One wonders how long it will take Disney + to produce his own standalone series. “Babu is our Yoda,” said Neal Scanlan, the creature effects supervisor, who oversaw the nine-inch rod puppet in the spirit of “Star Wars” as a retro, tactile figure.
“Frank Oz and The Muppets were very prevalent back in the old days, and it’s a piece of theater,” added Scanlan, who oversaw more than 500 practical creatures in “Skywalker,” including a fully functional animatronic mask for Maz Kanata (previously CG), driven in real-time by Lupita Nyong’o in a mo-cap suit. That’s because the practical version worked better for the interaction with General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher), which utilized leftover footage from “The Force Awakens,” with everything digitally replaced except for Fisher’s face. (The same methodology was used for a brief flashback sequence with leftover footage of a young Fisher as Princess Leia.)
“More so than ever, ‘Star Wars’ demands that we, as visual effects artists, practical artists, give the audience certain moments that [they can] hold true to their heart. You are delighted in this performance. We didn’t want Babu to be hyper-realistic, we wanted him to stay in that genre and to entertain people, and allow them to relax off the story for just a moment, and engage in this terrifying moment in some ways with C-3PO. And it’s got that ‘Star Wars’ humor about where he’s having fun doing it.”
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The other joy about Babu was that he was not only voiced by the quirky Shirley Henderson (“Harry Potter’s” Moaning Myrtle), but that she also had a hand in operating the puppet alongside the four puppeteers in blue suits holding rods behind it. “She came and rehearsed with us and learned how to use the controls,” said Scanlan. So she’s sitting there, next to J.J., vocalizing and performing Babu’s mouth. It allowed that performance to be spontaneous, to be real in the moment, and totally live. It goes back to the simplicity of Punch and Judy from childhood. But we’re making it more sophisticated in line with the ‘Star Wars’ tradition.”
Meanwhile, on the digital side, a new pipeline was written by Industrial Light & Magic to create more photorealistic environments. “To me, the DNA of ‘Star Wars’ is real locations and real things, and everything is more tangible,” said VFX supervisor Roger Guyett. “But you’re more restrained in your [photographic] approach so that it looks like you’re really there [shooting in Jordan]. But however much something got augmented, if I’m on a Speeder moving through the desert, it has to look authentic in recreating the backgrounds, especially with the way J.J. likes to freely move the camera.”
The new pipeline allowed ILM to scan the desert and rebuild a version of it so that it could be art directed more freely and convincingly. This also meant that lighting and shading could have a more unified look and be shared more easily by multiple departments.
Additionally, ILM rewrote its water solver to improve the physicality of the water and handle the demands of the fight between Daisy Ridley’s Rey and Adam Driver’s Ren during a raging storm beside the ruins of The Death Star. “The approach we took was that water is a character in the movie,” added Guyett. “So during the fight sequence…we did a water blocking pass, which would [provide] J.J. the position of the waves, and he had to buy off on that before we could finish the rest of this highly detailed work.”
The climactic Battle of Exegol required a great deal of animation and simulation work to include more than 1,000 Star Destroyers and 16,000 Galaxy ships locked in combat. The inspiration came from Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk,” in which thousands of galaxy ships come to the rescue of the Rebellion. “J.J. was into this idea that it was lots of little guys against the big guy, the weight of these smaller ships that could take on the Sith fleet,” said Guyett. “Most of the shots were hand-animated in the foreground, but we had a whole system where you could choreograph background action.”
“You didn’t want it to look like some massive military [fleet]…and these were not necessarily normal fighting vessels — these were just everyday ‘Star Wars’ ships,” added VFX supervisor Patrick Tubach. “We had a system in place that allowed us to vary the geometry on the ships, so we came up with a basic design and then we would have modular pieces that we could assign to different parts for cool variations. And we also had a procedural paint system with [a set of] color variations.”
Yet another way of keeping the “Star Wars” tradition alive in the “Skywalker” finale with innovative tech.