There have been far more Star Wars movies made with the aid of CGI than without, but the cumulative effect of five decades of rewatching the original trilogy, paired with the power of nostalgia, has created a fondness for hand-made, "practical" effects. And so while ILM Lucasfilm's in-house VFX house, has developed some of the most cutting-edge production technology in the world, they must also consider the old methods of animating space battles, which, perhaps ironically, were on the bleeding edge of production technology when they were developed for A New Hope.
So when it was time to prepare to make Star Wars: The Last Jedi, animation supervisor Stephen Alpin and his crew got a crash course in old-school animation from Dennis Muren, the Oscar-winning VFX supervisor who helped create the indelible images in George Lucas's original trilogy. Alpin spoke to SYFY WIRE about the lessons they learned, as well as other important steps they took to make everything in The Last Jedi seem as realistic as possible — even the porgs.
What did Dennis teach you?
Stephen Alpin: It was a small project, he set himself in San Francisco with a couple of the guys there. And it was burrowing into what is the visual language here? What is it that makes a Star Wars vehicle feel like a Star Wars vehicle, and how do we push forward and not having something feel... the more you use CG it can often lack weight and a certain realism that you pulled out, it's not just the look of the materials, it's the animation, [which] is such a large part of that. And so he took it upon himself to actually do a side-by-side project of his and footage from the original film. Let's recreate this as accurately as we can and see what we learn along the way.
It was a really valuable process. I think some of the guys who were involved tried a number of different things, where you feel like you're matching something pretty accurately and then you realize that something is off. The Millennium Falcon is one of the ships we've used, and it just would feel a bit weightless if you moved it across screen too fast or if it had too much of a bank to it. It all sounds very, very simplistic, but there is so much in there that can be garnered when you actually see it side-by-side with the miniature original footage.
The key is to pull back sometimes, not do everything you technically can do.
There's a lot of stuff we actually learned about what you can do with manipulating the background. You keep the action of the foreground element as simple as you need it to be so it feels physically correct, and then you actually allow the background to rotate or pan or tilt in some way, which gives a completely different feel to the shot.
We actually took a single shot of an X-Wing flying across the frame and then just tried rotating and pushing the star field in the background just to see, okay, what does it feel like the ship's doing now? And we got different reactions each time we tried something there, and we actually ended [up] using a few of the shots to try and get some idea of speed. When you're a single ship and you don't have any point or objects of relation in the scene, you don't have any trees in the background which you're speeding past, which help to emphasize that speed. So really, you're stuck with space and a star field, so what can you do with that to actually help to emphasize speed?
So we did some little tricks there with just pushing the background, just panning it across. it sounds, again, very simple, but that really helped convey speed, especially with some of the bigger ships later on where, in the middle portion of the film where we're following the ship in the big chase.
What minor elements are most essential to making a fight in space look real?
You don't have to be moving things quite so quickly. A lot of that is looking to footage we could find online of real Air Force fighters and jets and how often do they actually bank. You're going at that sort of speed, it's not a simple thing actually to make a sharp turn, you can quickly lose control of your vehicle, so we're trying to think of these things rather than just, “We have a full CG shot, we can do whatever we want.” We were also very aware of what we do with cameras and that was Rian’s mandate from the start: He didn't want anything which pulled viewers out the film instantly by a very obvious CG camera, like let's say a shot that zooms right past the wing of an X-Wing, you know.
Things which you couldn't do with a camera should cause danger to your crew, he said don't do it, let's pretend this is a real set and use your cameras as you would there. There are a few exceptions to that rule in the film, but on the whole we were really treating our cameras as if they were real-world cameras.
Yep, it was all stuff to be considered, put it that way. We’d say, there's no gravity in space, so how do we explain this? And Rian would always have an answer for it. For the bombs it was like, well, they're magnetized. They're getting pulled towards the ship. I was like okay, I’m with that. Or the one I personally use is, we're quite close to the surface of the planet and the ships are so big. They're in a galaxy far, far away. Who knows what sort of gravity they have there and how that works? We really just went from real-world physics, if it's going to fall let's make it look like it's believable in Earth-bound physics and hope that the audience plays along with us.
How about something like the porgs — you had puppets and also CGI porgs, so how do you blend them to make it seamless in one scene?
Very carefully, because they're such incredible characters. We actually had a bunch of our animators in Vancouver, they just went off on their own and did a bunch of animation and character studies for these things, and it was hilarious. It was these little vignettes Rian saw and he loved it all, but there just wasn't a place for them in his film.
The problem with a character that is so much fun to play with is you can go too far too quickly. And there again, it comes down to language of motion, Rian had established something and he found something really entertaining about the way the puppeteers moved the porgs and he really wanted us to stick closely to that, so that was what the mandate was for the animators. Yes, we're going to have them fly a bit believable, but there still needs to be that stilted quality to it, because they're being puppeteered, so don't make it too smooth, don't over-animate, keep it simple.
There was nothing which was specific. But we're always edging our technology along, and I think with Snoke it was skin. We were really pushing the boundaries with how close we got to Snoke and his face and his eyes, the wetness in his mouth, the stickiness we had in there, all the gunk and goo. All that stuff is existing tools, which people push as far as they can and if they can't get what they need then it gets edged on by our pipe development team.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi is out on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital download today.