It's not every day that the film that inspired you as a kid ends up becoming your day job and the source of your second Academy Award nomination. But that's Visual Effects Supervisor Ben Morris' story.
A 25-year veteran of the industry, first in practical effects and now working in CGI visual effects, Morris remembers seeing the original Star Wars when he was seven years old. "I walked out of the cinema with my parents and said, 'That's what I want to do.' I didn't know how to get there, but I just knew that's exactly what I wanted to do.'"
Morris stayed on a singular path to climb up the VFX ladder from CG artist to sequence supervisor to CG supervisor and then visual effects supervisor. Along the way, he won an Academy Award with his team for Best Achievement in Visual Effects for The Golden Compass in 2007. After contributing to Gravity in 2013, he moved to Industrial Light and Magic, which put him on the radar to work on the new Star Wars trilogy.
With Star Wars: The Last Jedi available now as a digital download and available on Blu-ray and 4K on March 27, we talked with Morris about getting to work on his dream project, the skills needed to bring a contemporary Star Wars movie to life and his favorite sequences in The Last Jedi (for which he was co-nominated for his second Best Achievement in Visual Effects Academy Award).
Going back to your childhood post seeing Star Wars, were there any other VFX films of the time that also impacted you as deeply?
BEN MORRIS: It was kind of an amazing period when Star Wars launched visual effects. There'd been [Kubrick's] 2001 and that was amazing, but Star Wars added something new. Because of it, I spent my entire career wanting to be in visual effects. I went through animatronics. I used to work with (creature and special make-up effects creative supervisor) Neil Scanlan 25 years ago at the Jim Henson Creature Shop so we've known each other for years.
What was it like to be such a fan and then offered a major role on Star Wars: The Force Awakens?
Yeah, to be offered the chance when [co-chair of Lucasfilm] Kathy (Kennedy) and [ILM COO] John Knoll phoned me and said "Do you want to set up ILM in London and work on the new Star Wars films?" I was kinda like "Wow." It was one of those questions I didn't really have to think about. And it's super cool, because there's a bunch of late middle-aged men and women making these films and we all stand there sometimes and pinch ourselves and go "Gosh, do you realize what we're doing?"
What have your 'out of body' moments been working on these two films?
I remember the first night we finished shooting in Abu Dhabi on The Force Awakens and it was the shot of the alien dragging something across the depot town with the sun going down behind us. We all just sat there and thought "Here we are, we're in the middle of the Arabian desert filming Star Wars." There were similar things on The Last Jedi as well. I got to sit and watch Frank Oz performing Yoda, freezing cold in the middle of a back lot in England. I was just like, "I can't believe this is happening." So, it's a thrill, it's an honor and it's a privilege to be involved.
How did your The Force Awakens work lead you to the VFX Supervisor role on Star Wars: The Last Jedi?
I was very lucky on The Force Awakens to work with Roger Guyett, who was the overall VFX supervisor. He knows JJ Abrams very well. I actually shot on main units for most of the film with JJ so I got to know him. And I actually didn't fully finish the post-production work on The Force Awakens because I got the offer to work with Rian Johnson on The Last Jedi.
Do you feel like your previous work was all preparation for the demands of The Last Jedi?
Yeah, I would say for me certainly it's the biggest film I've ever had the overview of. We had all four ILM studios (London, Vancouver, San Francisco and Singapore) around the world working on it. We had ten additional [VFX company] collaborators who were external to the company. It's a really fun problem to have but it is a huge problem. You've got three time zones, eight hours apart. The Last Jedi was the first film that the visual effects were hubbed out of London, so that's the first time that's ever happened in Star Wars history.
But the great news for me is we've got incredible crews and everyone wants to absolutely give their best, and with a writer director like Rian, who's so absolutely on the ball and knew what he wanted, it was all about consistency. And the great thing with Rian is that we'd always agree if something wasn't good enough or didn't feel quite right, we'd go back to the drawing board and we'd try again. He was incredibly consistent about what he wanted which for us is a pleasure. There are other occasions where people don't know what they want and you spin in circles for a long time.
What sequences required the most intense preparation?
I would say the interesting thing is that they're certain sequences that need a lot of prep before you film them, and then there are other sequences that you can kinda roll into and you just shoot and see what comes out. With the Fathiers, I would say there was a huge amount of prep and I'm sure it'll become apparent that the sequence was a lot longer in the original cut. We did a lot more work for the Fathiers sequence. It got reduced but I think it'll ultimately be shown at some point, or at least it will be a deleted scene.
Also the Space Battle, we were doing a few things there that were kinda fun and interesting that we needed to preplan. And then I would say there were other things, like we redesigned and rebuilt Snoke. Then we had to work out how to get Andy (Serkis) into the real world and down with the human actors rather than as a big hologram, and that was a pretty cool thing. And then ultimately things like the Mega Destroyer and the huge battle at the end, we pre-vised all of that. But so much of that became digital mixed with live action effects that it almost became something that we designed. We designed it before but we also then took what we shot to the edit, and you sometimes discover things you'd never dream of and you change directions slightly.
Any sequences you ended up adjusting for the better?
Well, one thing I was very keen on is that I always wanted to base some of the early shots of the scenes in real photography so we went to Bolivia and we went up and we shot in the Altiplano, twelve and a half thousand feet on the salt flats. Then in terms of how it developed we went round on a number of occasions. Rian also wanted the pristine white of Crait to be slowly degraded and eroded and sort of scratched away, gauged away and reveal this sort of blood smear that ultimately is where Luke and Kylo confront each other. We went through a number of looks on that, and then we also had different levels of fall-out after the explosions happened and the canons fired, and also after Luke's been shot at. We wanted to have different amounts of snow falling back on the ground and almost healing the big red wound that had been created.
For the crystal foxes, we had some very strong early concepts, we then tried some character stuff with the animatronics team and Neal. We shot a bit on that but then ultimately I went back with Rian to the original concepts, and said "I don't think we've quite got the alien-ness that was so beautiful about that design." So ultimately we built all of those in CG in the end. And I think those processes you have to go through. We hoped that all the Porgs would be practical but ultimately about 50% of them are CG. It's just that you see what a puppet can do, or you see what a practical effects explosion can be, and then you decide later whether you need to enhance it.
I mean, there was some classic moments we knew would get people going, like as the camera dollies along the Jedi tree and reveals Yoda. We kinda knew that people would hit the roof on that, so that was pretty cool. I would say the Space Battle was thrilling. I think Snoke's very cool, but when he's killed everyone's kinda like "What the hell?" And then certainly at the premiere, when Kylo and Rey start fighting the Praetorians this huge cheer went up. They stand back-to-back and they do the slow-mo bit and the whole roof blew off.
And then I would say the opposite was equally exciting, like when Holdo (Laura Dern) gives the Rebels their chance to escape by sacrificing herself, the audience was like "oh my God!" The silence was great. I spoke to one of sound designers from Sky Sound who worked on that and he was at the premiere and he said that – and it was always Rian's idea I should add to have no sound there and it was an incredibly brave thing to do — but the sound guy said, "It's incredible that the audience provided the sound in that period," because there were people whispering or people cheering, so it was just this amazing sort of ambient noise in the theater. I think all of those are cool and then people love the moment with Luke and Kylo at the end as well.
Are you definitely attached to Episode IX to complete the trilogy and work on all three?
That would just be greedy, wouldn't it? (Laughs) Roger Guyett is very definitely in the driving seat of the overall visual effects on that. He's just finished Ready Player One. I'm very careful. They're so fun to make these films. I'd love to be involved but I also want to give a lot of people the chances to work on them as well.