John Knoll Reveals How Many VFX Shots Are In 'Rogue One' & More [Interview]

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.)

Return of the Jedi - Death Star Matte Painting

What's the largest visual effect you did for Rogue One, as far as intricate details are concerned, where you could zoom in to any part of the imagery and it would look real? Jedha seemed like it might be one of them.

Yeah, a lot of the environments have tremendous detail in them. There's a number of shots on Scarif that are similarly very detailed. In the space battle there's a lot of that kind of thing going on. That shield gate model was one of the heavier things in the show. We have some shots of the Death Star that don't seem like they would be that challenging but really were.

There's a shot that I designed to try and illustrate the scale of the Death Star that's sort of framed in close on the equatorial trench as Krennic's ship is leaving. The camera's pulling back and you start with it framed so you can kind of see those docking bays that are in that trench. We know about how big those are, but as the camera continues to pull back, you start to see the curve of the Death Star and how big the dish is. That was in there to try to give you a more visceral sense of how big we're saying this thing is.

There was a huge, both aesthetic and technical, challenge in depicting that much really fine detail and getting the aesthetics of the really large spherical Death Star that we're used to seeing kind of matched into the matte paintings of the equatorial trench of the original film and ground level stuff of when you're flying along and see all those greebly tiles through the trench. Trying to make all those aesthetics together is really pretty tricky, and it's a really heavy model.

There was a brilliance to a lot of the McQuarrie design that is really hard to replicate. He did a matte painting that's sort of a medium scale view of the Death Star equatorial trench that was a view that was too tight to do with the original model. [NOTE: The matte painting pictured above is from Return of the Jedi, but it gives the same impression of the level of detail John Knoll discusses here] It was wider than anything that was depicted anywhere else and he did a whole bunch of greebly panels in there that sort of have an appearance of order and randomness together. That is a really hard thing to match into the aesthetic.

As we started to do these medium views that are halfway between the spherical look and down at the surface level, we had modelers taking a crack at doing that. I would look at it, and it would be a little too arbitrary and random. I kept referring them to this McQuarrie painting where we'd look at it and say, "See how there's this grid pattern here and it's all kind of a regular pattern that breaks into this. And it's not really random. There's a logic to this that's hard to describe and hard to duplicate. It took a whole bunch of iterations to get to something that really worked. And they were probably cursing me every time. It turned out very well in the end and I'm pleased with how it looks.

rogue one tarkin

Why do you think there's such divisiveness with regards to the visual effects that were done for Grand Moff Tarkin? Not necessarily the reasoning behind doing it, or whether it was ethically okay, but I've seen so many different ends of the spectrum from people who had no idea it was a visual effect to others who thinks it looks like a video game cinematic...

I don't doubt that people who don't like the work are seeing something that they object to. But I think there's a lot of hyperbole in there to say that it looks like a video game cut scene, because I will assert that no it doesn't.

I agree wholeheartedly.

Some of my evidence will be that there are a lot of people who had no idea that they were looking at computer graphics, so it can't be that bad. But this is very difficult work. It's one of the hardest things in computer graphics, and I felt like we had good dramatic reasons to do this.

The ethical issues, those are real issues. In the case of Carrie Fisher, we did approach her and had her blessing on it. She was involved in the choices, and we certainly weren't going to do it without it. If she didn't like it, we weren't going to put it in the film. So we got her blessing on that.

And then the estate of Peter Cushing was consulted on this and we got their blessing as well. The reality is that Peter Cushing didn't have a chance to be asked the question and say yes. We do know that from interviews he did in the wake of Star Wars that he was very proud of his involvement in the original film. That generated a lot of interest in his previous back catalog, so it was a great benefit to him. He enjoyed his experience and he said he would have loved to have been in sequels if George [Lucas] hadn't killed off his character. We tried to write a really good role for him. We tried to make something that had he been around to play that role, he would have been happy to play. I thought the palace intrigue aspect of the plot between he and Krennic was a cool bit of internal politics.