Posted on Monday, April 3rd, 2017 by Ethan Anderton
A couple weeks ago, /Film had a chance to visit Industrial Light and Magic for a press event ahead of the home video release of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. While there, executive producer and visual effects supervisor John Knoll gave us a keynote presentation showing off the hard work that went into the various visual effects in Rogue One, from the creation and destruction of Jedha to the seamless, impressive use of virtual sets. But we’ll have more on that later this week in honor of the movie’s arrival on Blu-ray and DVD.
Right now, we have an interview with Knoll where he told us how many visual effects shots were in Rogue One (including comparing the number to the rest of the Star Wars library), why recreating concept artist Ralph McQuarrie‘s designs for the Death Star with visual effects was so difficult, and much more about the visual effects of the movie.
How does it feel to come out of Industrial Light and Magic, working on previous Star Wars movies in visual effects, to all of a sudden being the bearer of this story, the one shepherding it and guiding it into existence?
Well, it’s a little surreal. It started off just as almost joking pitches to friends of mine here that got interestingly positive reactions. That led to me doing a mental exercise of if we were going to turn this into a feature, what would the inciting incidents be here? How does the plot fit nicely into the constraints that are posed by the things that we know in Episode IV, from the crawl and some of Vader’s dialogue? What are the things that have to have happened in this film for that to make sense? Who are the characters and what are their agendas through the picture with the conflicts?
I started working through a bunch of that stuff mentally. Then people would ask, “Vic told me you have a Star Wars story that’s really cool.” I would do the pitch and then finally I did this very elaborate one that spanned about 20 minutes, and at the end of that a friend of mine said, “C’mon you have to pitch this to [Kathleen Kennedy]. You have to.” As soon as he said that, I realized he’s right, I kinda to have to, because if I don’t I’m always going to wonder what would have happened if I did. So I thought, I’ll make the appointment and see if Kathy will humor me in listening to this pitch.
The day came, and I had a half hour with Kathy and Kiri [Hart, a story analyst, writer, and development executive at Lucasfilm], took them through the whole idea of who the major characters were, thematically what did I see this as.
Did you have a pitch reel that went with the presentation?
No, it was all just written material. I’d written up kind of a dense prose, six page version of the treatment with the description of the characters. I just took them through that. And at the end of that Kathy said, “All right, thank you.” I said, “Thanks for listening,” got up and left and I didn’t hear anything for a little while. But I thought, at least I did it. I’m not gonna wonder.
About a week after I got an e-mail from Kiri that said, “We’ve been talking about this a lot, and we think we may want to proceed with it.” It was really exciting to get that and it sort of gradually snowballed about what we got here.
Let’s talk about the visual effects, something that you’ve been involved with for awhile. How many visual effects are there in Rogue One, and how does that compare to the other Star Wars movies?
It’s about 1,700. The original A New Hope was about 360. Empire Strikes Back was about 700. Return of the Jedi was about 900 or 950. Episode I was 1,900-something, 1950, I think. Episode II was 2,200. Episode III was 2,400. Episode VII was, I think just under 2,000. So we’re kind of in the middle.
The intent was just like with Episode VII, we’re trying to get as much in camera as we could. Trying to use practical methods where it made sense. But inevitably as you work on something where so many of the things you’re depicting, the environments and the vehicles, these things don’t exist in reality. Just to depict them, even to tell a story in this world at all, there’s a certain level of work you have to do.
Is it more difficult to create something that doesn’t exist and make it feel tangible and authentic as opposed to recreating something that exists in the real world and trying to convince people that it’s real?
They have their own challenges. A very ambitious space fantasy film like this, there’s a lot of work to do, but you have sort of a buy-in from audiences that the mile-long spaceship that you’re doing, they accept that because it’s part of the story. When you work on something that’s a more reality based film – I’ve worked on a couple of Mission: Impossible movies – it’s a very different set of challenges where you’re trying to match into live-action photography. If something gets set present day in the real world, there’s a high level of polish that goes along with that which is its own challenge. They’re just different challenges and I kind of enjoy them both.
(On the next page, learn about the difficult of bringing Ralph McQuarrie’s detailed Death Star matte paintings to life in visual effects and what John Knoll thinks of the divisiveness regarding the visual effects that brought Grand Moff Tarkin back for Rogue One.)