Rogue One EP explains new lighting that will change the way you see Star Wars

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Lucas Siegel
Apr 4, 2017

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is notable for many things; being the first of the new stand-alone Star Wars movies chief amongst them. But behind the scenes, the team at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) was inventing brand-new technology on a regular basis throughout the filming process.

Some of the tech was used for a more realistic droid, helping bring K-2SO to life with Alan Tudyk. Some was tuned specifically to director Gareth Edwards, allowing him to use his unique hands-on camerawork style even in virtual settings with entirely computer-generated scenes.

But one new tech that may seem a little mundane at first will fundamentally change the way that visual effects will work in future Star Wars films and the other litany of movies that ILM works on in the future. Rogue One executive producer and VFX supervisor John Knoll is no stranger to creating new technology, especially for things like imagery and lighting. He and his brother famously invented Photoshop (yes, that Photoshop) as a side project simply because it didn't exist. Sitting in an office at ILM's headquarters in San Francisco, Knoll told Syfy Wire about the new way of adding realism to virtual sets.

"Something we often struggle with on pictures is the right way to shoot live-action elements that are for an environment that's very complicated from a lighting standpoint," Knoll told us. "An example is a starship flying through an environment that’s constantly changing. So in the space battle, we're flying around in X-Wings that are flying around, in and out of the space dock, curving around and getting the [light] bounce from the planet, having explosions and lasers going off all around. So how do you shoot that on stage?"

Rogue One behind-the-scenes reel shows new lighting techniques in action.

In previous films, everything was approximated. There would be colored lights used to show a laser or an explosion, or bounce cards to try to increase the light on things like the underside of an X-Wing. Knoll called it frankly "unsatisfying, and hard to make look real." But in computer graphics, they've used actual images to light objects and decided to try bringing that to a sound stage in a slightly larger fashion.

"What we did on this show was an experiment with giant LED screens, the same kinds that are used for billboards or jumbo-trons at sporting events, and we circled around the set with those and used those to light the set. That way we can prepare graphics and animations of what this environment is, and those will actually light the characters and ships; so when there's an explosion going off next to that ship, there's an explosion on the LED screen, and it's animated to travel past them. You actually see that lighting change on the actors and reflected on their helmets," Knoll explained.

The effects masters found the new technique "wildly successful" and were happy with how it improved both the lighting and the actors' performances; with crude versions of the settings you'd see in the finished project on screens in every direction, actors saw the actual explosions and laser blasts to react to, instead of a glorified light bulb or flashlight.

These techniques, in conjunction with things like shape-formed partial sets even for virtual scenes and the other new technology described above, bring fans ever closer to the galaxy far, far away for more realistic adventures in the future of the franchise.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is now available on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital HD.