Posted on Thursday, January 14th, 2016 by Peter Sciretta
J.J. Abrams and Disney (smartly) pitched Star Wars: The Force Awakens as a throwback to the original trilogy (the movies that most fans of the franchise loved) and a lot of the behind-the-scenes footage focused on the return to practical effects. But anyone who has seen the movie knows The Force Awakens also has its share of CG visual effects. And this morning, Force Awakens was nominated for Best Visual Effects for this year’s Academy Awards.
What might surprise you is that The Force Awakens actually has more visual effects shots than Star Wars: the Phantom Menace. Not only that, while The Phantom Menace had more miniature work than all of the original trilogy films combined, The Force Awakens features not one miniature. But unlike Phantom Menace, a lot of the CG work is invisible. Learn more after the jump.
The fact of the matter is: bad CG in movies is bad not because its the effects were created using computers, but because the effects just weren’t executed well. You shouldn’t notice great visual effects, be it practical effects or CG. A lot of the computer generated and modified work in The Force Awakens goes by completely unnoticed. For example, did you know there is a scene in The Force Awakens that has Kylo Ren with a completely computer generated helmet? You probably had no idea. I know which scene it is and I still can’t tell the helmet was added in post.
When the film does it best, Force Awakens employs a blend of practical effects augmented, extended or replaced by CG vfx. Earlier this week, I got the chance to talk with some of the people behind the visual and practical effects of The Force Awakens to gain some insight into the process. Read my conversation with Patrick Tubach, ILM Visual Effects Supervisor, and Roger Guyett, Visual Effects Supervisor and Second Unit Director.
Peter: So Supreme Leader Snoke… He’s this huge holographic projection.
Peter: So on his side of it, is he looking at a six inch holographic projection of Kylo Ren and…
Roger: (Laughs.) Ah, that’s a good question.
Peter: ‘Cause he’s looking down, right?
Patrick: That’s too yeah.
Peter: Okay, now seriously, J.J. Abrams sold this movie as kind of being like a return to practical effects and, I mean, I know that that is an aspect of it, but it seems like there’s a lot of visual effects.
Roger: I noticed, yeah.
Peter: I think some people might see this marketing and think that there isn’t, because a lot of it is kind of invisible. So how many visual effects shots are in this film?
Roger: Okay, so there’s 2100 odd visual effects shots in the movie. And obviously it’s a massive undertaking. But I think what we’re trying to do is just do this kind of slight of hand where it’s, you know, how you go about doing it, you know, that’s interesting on a technical level, but the most interesting thing is that you wanna make a great movie. And for people to believe that all these things are truly happening. And the foundation of some of that clearly is if you can actually shoot some of it in camera and then build from that or maybe you shoot all of it in camera. But for sure, you know, go to these places, go to the locations and have that tangible quality of being at that place, whether it’s in the desert or the woods of Puzzlewood [PH] and all these things. But yes, part of our job is to do this massive visual effects movie but make it look as though somehow or another it wasn’t that, that wasn’t the, you know, there was some other level of reality to it all. But you were, that all of these events were somehow unfolding.
Patrick: And I think the dictate was you might as well try to get everything in camera if you can, because it’s only gonna help you in the end. And if in the end it’s something that isn’t successful, we can deal with those. But the fact that you —
Roger: We’re not trying to ignore modern technology.
Patrick: No, the fact that you’ve done it means that you have a ground truth that you’re all aware of from J.J. down the line. We’re all aware of what something should look like so we kind of work from there.
Peter: Yeah. You say 2100 shots… The Phantom Menace had 1900 shots. I think that would surprise people that there’s more visual effects.
Roger: And it’s like one of those things where people are going, it’s not a, you should just watch the movie and enjoy it, but it is a tremendous amount of work. It might be more work to actually make it feel like it’s less effects shots than The Phantom Menace. You know what I mean? That’s the trick. And that’s really what I was really interested about the movie was the 12 year old in me was telling me I would love to make it feel like everyone was going on this journey in the movie. And it was more real. It was more, you know, you really believed that all these things were happening. And that there was a more subjective experience to it. And that you were taking this level of reality out to places that you hadn’t experienced in Star Wars movies before. And not just that notion, but also we don’t want to make a retro movie. We wanna make something with its own kind of forward kind of perspective to it. And at the same time, you know, you want the movie, you know, of course you want the movie to be exciting and have its own level of innovation.
After the jump, continue reading my conversation behind the VFX supervisors on The Force Awakens and learn exactly what effects you believed were practical but were actually CG.