maz kanata visual effects

One of the unfortunate realities of the digital age is that most “How’d they do that?” moments in films have a single, routine answer: computers. Computer generated effects are amazing and the people who craft them are supremely talented artists who deserve your applause and affection, but let’s be honest…green screens aren’t as inherently romantic as matte paintings and movie fans are all romantics at heart.

That’s why film fandom has been so enraptured with the visual effects of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which blends practical, on-set wizardry with plenty of CGI. And as a new featurette reminds us, there are infinite possibilities in the digital realm. This video, which focuses on the Maz Kanata visual effects, goes a long way to injecting the appropriate amount of wonder into the modern VFX process.

The video, which is hosted by Wired‘s Mike Seymour, begins as a broad overview of The Force Awakens‘ Oscar-nominated visual effects before narrowing its focus to how Lupita Nyong’o was transformed into into a wizened old cantina owner and artifact hoarder. I don’t know about you guys, but I never get tired of those “before and after” shots in VFX videos like this, where you see footage as it was shot on set and then get to see it after the computer geeks get their hands on it. It’s especially fun on a project like this, where the computer generated stuff often acts as invisible set extensions and populates crowds of practical aliens with a few digital companions.

Ultimately, the video is really about the Medusa Performance Capture System, developed by Disney Research in Zurich, and how it works in conjunction with an actor’s performance to create a seemingly impossible character. It’s very cool stuff.

Our own Peter Sciretta recently spoke with ILM Visual Effects Supervisor Patrick Tubach and Visual Effects Supervisor Roger Guyett about their work on the film. Listening to them chat about melding the digital and the practical is educational, enlightening, and just plain entertaining. Here’s Guyett on collaborating with the practical effects teams:

“Probably about a quarter of the shots of BB-8 are digital. And we came up with this plan with [creature shop head] Neal [Scanlan]. And that’s that kind of collaboration thing where you totally understand what the big pragmatic about what you felt we could achieve with a practical puppet. But the at the heart of that approach was if you have a practical puppet and I have an actor, those two beings can interact. I can puppeteer the thing and the actors can see how the behavior of the puppet and we can totally define that puppet’s behavior. Or the droid’s behavior. So to us it was so critical to define that so clearly. Then you have other instances where you’re going, okay, I’m doing a Falcon chase in the desert. The Falcon’s traveling at about 700 miles an hour. I’m gonna create a technology where I can essentially create any version of that desert that I want so I can fly around it and create my own camera moves. And if I can achieve that, then I can essentially put a sequence together like a chase sequence and hopefully people believe that it’s all really there, you know, it’s all photographed. And the trick there I think sometimes is to base it on somewhere that’s real because somehow in your head now you’re making that connection that, oh, that’s a tangible place.”

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is still in theaters, so yes, you still have time to go see it again.

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