Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Battle of Scarif biggest moment was barely scripted

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Apr 26, 2017, 12:36 PM EDT (Updated)

Now that Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is available to own, you can watch the Rebel Alliance win their first victory over the evil Empire over and over.

In the Battle of Scarif, the group known collectively as Rogue One stole the plans to the Death Star while the Rebel fleet fought the good fight high above the planet in one of the most exciting space battles in Star Wars history (and, really, in cinema itself). The Battle of Scarif had amazing Easter eggs, thrilling moment after thrilling moment and a climax that included the most spectacular destruction of two Star Destroyers ever.

And almost none of that was directly in the script, EP and VFX Supervisor John Knoll told Syfy Wire during a visit to Industrial Light & Magic in San Francisco.

Because of the busy and tight editing schedule, Knoll told us, "the space battle, which was largely a virtual thing and done in post, was kind of left until the end. Editorial was so busy with it that they finally said, 'You guys need to figure this out, we don't have time!'"

The editorial and writing team gave ILM the moments that the movie would be cutting from space to surface and major story beats ... and that was it at first.

"The first beat is about the fleet arriving and the first wave of X-wings that peel off to go through the shield gate," Knoll said. "Then it's a lot of what needs to happen in each beat, and left a lot of what shots those beats are going to turn into up to us to figure out! In fact, one of the story beats was: 'and then the Rebels take out two Star Destroyers in an interesting way.' (laughs) And then they left that up to us to figure out how we'd do that in a way that was interesting and different."

That's where those Hammerhead Corvette ships came into play, coming form the Old Republic-era games and comics, and brought into canon in Star Wars Rebels.

"Yeah! That was something I came up with, this idea of pushing one Destroyer into another, using a ship as essentially a tugboat. That was really great fun. It was up to us how we clearly and efficiently tell those moments, and at the same time include things that are exciting and satisfying and something you haven't seen before," he said.

That meant not going for the classic Star Wars finish -- a conscious decision in this case.

"Blowing something up by hitting the weak spot and making the reactor blow up has just been done so many times, even outside of Star Wars, that I really didn't want to do that. I love this idea of making it all about the mechanical damage," Knoll said.

ILM's visual effects reel shows how the Battle of Scarif space battle came to life.

Of course, all that doesn't mean director Gareth Edwards wasn't involved. In fact, ILM worked with Edwards on brand-new technology to let him work on the scenes in the space battle the same way he did in the ground action (as you can see in the above video). On the ground, Edwards would take control of the camera, literally holding it and operating it himself "roughly 80 percent of the time." In order to give him that experience high above the sky, ILM constructed a virtual stage full of motion capture cameras and developed an all-new virtual camera.

The secret weapon? A regular, off-the-shelf iPad Mini (running proprietary software, of course). The iPad had (also off-the-shelf) game controllers attached to it and was then affixed with multiple motion capture antennas. Edwards could take the virtual camera and follow the track of X-wings in flight, physically moving through a virtual space in real time and actively directing the shots.

ILM is known to continually innovate, but getting that level of creative control is new -- now that it's paid off this well, we'll probably see more of it in the future.

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