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.

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