How They Got Practical with VFX for the Oscar-Nominated ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’

How They Got Practical with VFX for the Oscar-Nominated 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'
How They Got Practical with VFX the Oscar-Nominated 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'

In keeping with J.J. Abrams’ mandate for getting practical with Oscar-nominated “The Force Awakens” effects, Neal Scanlan (Oscar winner for “Babe”) helped bring to life the adorable BB-8 droid and the semi-mechanical Luggabeast, while special effects coordinator extraordinaire Chris Corbould (Oscar winner for “Inception”) brought his usual sense of style to the explosive action.

“There were two great things about BB-8. The design is absolutely J.J.’s and he nailed it with his charismatic drawing of a ball with a dome on the head,” explained Scanlan, who came out of retirement to set up the creature shop in London. “But not to take anything away from that, Ralph McQuarrie [the original ‘Star Wars’ concept designer] had done similar ideas of a ball, and the ball is also very current in today’s thinking of droids or helpers of how the future may go. 

“Really, taking BB-8 from there was all about the personality of the face. And it was really interesting how you could move things around. If the eye moved a little to the left or the right, he looked a little too sorrowful, too aggressive. So it was about trying to find that neutral yet endearing look to this technology that sat on top. And the body was very much about translating the motion because parallel patterns didn’t translate so well on a globe, whereas a geometric pattern could move in different ways.” 

In fact, Scanlan admitted that not only was BB-8 originally female but also that her movement was patterned after Marilyn Monroe’s walk (“jello on springs,” as Jack Lemmon described her in “Some Like It Hot”). 

“Getting that swagger, getting that roll was important,” he added. “Then he became male and back to a female. It’s a testimony to the design that you can put whatever gender you want.” So BB-8’s the first transgender drone.

In terms of the beast of burden Luggabeast, which looks like a rhino with metal armor and roams the desert planet Jakku, Abrams was inspired by the puppetry of “The War Horse” theatrical production. “It was based on the same piece of theater,” Scanlan continued. “Essentially two puppeteer performers—one in the front and one in the back—who take the weight of the beast on their shoulders. They have ski poles going down to the feet. And Kiran Shaw, who’s the little character on the top [Teedo], performs the head.
“It’s a very light-weight model made mostly of polystyrene, painted and textured to look like it was heavy metal or an organic cyber cross character. And then in post-production they got rid of the performance legs, which in a sense, joined the circle of illusion.”

But the four-member concept design team wondered what fell under that huge mechanical front structure. All it knew was that there was an inter-dependency between the creature and its armor. “And that maybe the reason it exists, is not the reason it’s presently used for, so we would play with concept ideas and it fueled the imagination of the guys as they sketched away.
“And then we could take it further as we went into three dimensions and have a sense of standing next to something that big. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a huge pipe that ran from here or connecting to the lungs on the side? We went through it as a second generation of design and relate to it as a creature.”

Meanwhile, Corbould, the master of James Bond special effects, embraced the vibe of the first “Star Wars” trilogy. “We looked at blaster hits on the wall and thought about making it more modern and did lots of tests and used about 50 different hits with different colors and different shapes, put them all in front of J.J. and we both said we should stick with the ones from ‘A New Hope.’ They look good, they’re familiar, people know them, why change it?

However, Corbould has a particular way of doing explosions with great compositional flair. For instance, the solar explosion going off as the TIE fighter goes down is a piece of artistry. It just rolled out and had a beautiful follow through.

“I’m very pedantic about explosions,” Corbould admitted. “We test endlessly and I drive my guys absolutely barmy. Then, all of a sudden, after the 15th explosion, you say, ‘That’s it—that’s the one.’ It’s a weird thing: I can’t describe what it’s about in your own mind. And I really like getting the actors in there. We spend a lot of time and Daisy [Ridley] and John [Boyega] hadn’t done much of this so we did lots of tests and showed me running through them. And they were running in and out and could concentrate on their performance rather than worrying about the explosions going off.”

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