What’s a “Star Wars” movie without amazing, eye-popping, totally convincing visual effects? The immensely popular space opera series has always been known for its trailblazing technical achievements in addition to its moving modern mythological storytelling.
As we count down last remaining days before the highly-anticipated latest entry in the ongoing series “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” blasts into theaters, I chatted one-on-one with Ben Morris– the creative director at Lucasfilm‘s visual effects division Industrial Light & Magic, and VFX supervisor for “The Last Jedi”– who told me how his department used digital wizardry to help achieve director Rian Johnson’s unique vision.
Q: For 40 years, Star Wars has been known as a visual effects movie. But George Lucas once famously said, “A special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing.” What is your opinion on the role of visual effects in contemporary filmmaking?
A: I am an absolute true believer [that] if you haven’t got a story, if you haven’t got a compelling script with compelling characters in it, it doesn’t matter how good the visual effects are– it’ll be a stinker. Luckily, with a franchise like Star Wars, and certainly with a director like Rian, who’s also the writer, we’ve got an incredibly compelling story. The first time I read the script, I [couldn’t] put it down. It just washed over me, it was just wonderful. It was such a positive thing, and I knew from that moment we were in good shape.
In terms of how visual effects help the support the filmmaker and writer in visualizing that story, we used to be brought in working alongside practical people just for some very niche stuff. But now, visual effects affect and support the entire filmmaking process. So, [in addition to] full-blown digital characters like Snoke and the Porgs and K-2SO [from “Rogue One”], we also support special effects, where if [for example] an explosion or [pyrotechnic] isn’t [feasible] or safe, we now can simulate and create those sort of effects to augment or even replace, for safety reasons, the practical solution there.
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We help extend sets, so I’ll spend a lot of time with the production designer talking about the limitations of what they can build practically and how we can augment [the sets]. There’s lots of beneficial horse trading that goes on. We even help [the] costume department if there are specific things in a costume that need to be modified. Dare I say it, we even help makeup. Digital makeup is now a significant thing. We change the time of day.
So I would say visual effects is now fully integrated into nearly every department’s contribution to a film, even a stunt. The stunt guys will come to me and say, “We’ve got this amazing routine, but the guy or girl’s got to wear a harness and there’s gonna be these wires. Can you help us?” And we will be able to support that physical stunt by covering up all of those practical things that they have to include. Having said that, on other occasions we will just say, “Do you know what? We can actually do that ourselves.”
I think we’re getting to a point with visual effects where, with the right teams, which we have, you can begin to discuss almost anything. We can make things look as real as the real world, and it very much [comes down to] sitting with a group of filmmakers, discussing what techniques each group can bring to the table, and coming up with very practical collaborations. And nobody’s now worried about going to the CG version of it, because everything is hopefully seamless now. And the great thing is it all just collapses down to the story in the end.
Q: When I spoke with [Lucasfilm creature designer] Neal Scanlan last week, he told me that the departments of practical and digital effects worked better together on “The Last Jedi” than ever before, and that the two technologies were beginning to merge. Can you elaborate on that?
A: I’ve known Neal for many, many years. We both worked at Jim Henson’s Creature Shop twenty years ago, so there’s a personal relationship [there]. I used to make practical puppets with Neal, so that is always helpful to understand the potential of both the mediums. On [“The Last Jedi”], Neal and his team have done an amazing job. They’ve created some character designs that are very Star Wars, they’re very successful.
They’ve already hit some home runs with the Porg characters. That’s pretty fantastic. The way in which the Porgs were created was Neal designed them. He then built beautiful maquettes of them, and then discussed with Rian what the performance requirements were in the script, and tried to tailor specific rigs, whether they’re rod puppets, radio-controlled puppets, hand puppets, to get all the individual shots. There was no one puppet that did all the shots.
There are some very successful practical shots in the film. The hope was all of them [would be practical], but ultimately it’s sitting at around 50/50. We took the opportunity during [production] to work with Neal to get as much detailed reference as we could of his puppets in order that we could make Porgs that could fly, and emote, and do a little bit more dextrous movement. The hope is, and I think we have achieved it, is that you can’t tell the difference between the two.
Rian was very, very concerned that there wouldn’t suddenly be [an obvious] CG Porg shot. We reassured him that that wouldn’t be the case. And I think it’s two levels: there’s the aesthetic– does it look the same? Does it have the same practical look to it? But also the performance range that we can achieve in CG is obviously way beyond what a puppet can achieve. But in Rian’s mind, he was very thoughtful about keeping the bounds of the animated performances of CG characters within a believable range. So we were very mindful of that.