VFX Supervisors On How They Created Some of the Special Effects in Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Deadline sat down with Oscar nominated VFX supervisors Ben Morris and Mike Mulholland to talk about how they created some of the more iconic scenes from the movie. Whether you liked The Last Jedi or not, you can’t argue that the visual effects of the movie were flawless (with a few tiny exceptions). In this interview Morris and Mulholland discuss how they did the porgs, the vulpteces, the believable CG of Supreme Leader Snoke and the controversial Leia scene in open space.
First the VFX gurus talked about director Rian Johnson and his contribution to the VFX process. This was Johnson’s first project with an extensive use of visual effects and understandably the filmmaker was relying more on the use of practical effects whenever he got a chance.
Ben Morris: Rian wanted to attempt to do as much as he could practically, and that’s not a unique aspiration of directors nowadays. That came from the fact that Rian hadn’t done a very large visual effects film before. He did Looper, but it was a very subtle use of visual effects. He wanted to very definitely make the film feel filmic, even if we were capturing the images on a digital device.
Those were some overarching briefs from Rian, and the other thing that I would say is, he was incredibly consistent. His script was fantastic as a first draft, and it didn’t really change that much. With Rian, less is more. He never wanted us to go big for no reason.
Regarding the porgs, Morris revealed that their use in the movie is a mixture of both animatronic puppets and CG:
Morris: The hope was that we’d be able to use puppets for every piece of action in the film that they’re in. We had some amazing puppets, and they had to build special rigs for almost every gag because the puppets are sometime quite limited in what they can do. When we got back to editorial and the film started coming together, we were tasked with removing some of the puppeteers’ rods, and other work that we were doing on the faces was quite minimal and 2D. Rian, when he finally saw the cut, wanted to expand some of those performances, so we actually built CG porgs, as well. Ultimately in this film, it’s a right mix-up. There are certain shots that are pure puppet, there are others that are pure CG, and then there are ones where you’ve got CG and puppets right next to each other. The great challenge there was, we had reference in every shot, using a real puppet so we could match our CG perfectly to that.
Unlike the porgs, the vulpteces are all CG in the movie. You probably remember that in the behind the scenes video from The Last Jedi we saw a few shots with animatronic versions of the vulpteces, but they never ended up using these in the movie. Here’s why:
Morris: An animatronic puppet was built, which we shot on a number of occasions, but what we suddenly realized is, some of the beautiful and refractive and reflective quality of the crystals that was in the original concept just wasn’t achievable practically. It turns out with the crystal foxes, they’re entirely CG in the film. We didn’t use that animatronic in the end.
Rian Johnson’s initial plan was to bring Snoke to life using prosthetics, but because of the specifics of his face this was practically impossible, and the result was not satisfying. Morris explains:
Morris: Rian got a sculpt done by the creature team, which completely transformed the look of Snoke away from the almost gelatinous zombie look that was in The Force Awakens, and stamped him into the real world. We had that maquette on set, and we also made sure that we had an older actor who we could shoot on every time we had a shot. So we would have Andy Serkis in his performance capture outfit. He’d have a head-mounted camera system on—we actually had four cameras, two stereo pairs watching his face. We were capturing his body movements, and we had two or three witness cameras in addition, so we covered all of that. We also had this reference maquette, and then an older age person and a younger, very tall actor, who wore the incredible golden gown—which, again, is entirely CG in the film.
With all of that reference, Rian went into editorial and started cutting together the sequences. Andy’s got this wonderful resonant voice, and we started to watch the whole thing come together without any CG Snoke in there. It was working beautifully well. As Mike and the team started to put together CG Snoke per the sculpt that had been approved, we suddenly realized that he was a far more imposing character. Andy’s voice gave a sense of a larger chest cavity. His throat carried far more timbre. When you look to the CG model that we were building that matched the sculpt, he just looked too flimsy and frail. We had to put the brakes on and say, “We’re going to have to change this.”
We did a number of broader things—we made him over eight feet tall, rather than seven feet tall. We expanded his chest. We restructured all the anatomy of his throat, and we took some scoliotic curvature out of his spine that was a feature of the original sculpt. We also restructured his jawline, to give him more of an imposing face.
And finally Ben Morris revealed how they managed to execute the scene with Leia in the open space. As with the other VFXs it was a combination of things. This time a mixture of digital double, CG and Carrie Fisher herself:
Morris: There was actually a practical bridge for the main cruiser. We did multilayered effects to get her out, so we had practical special effects, pyro explosions going off. We would shoot all the different layers, so Ackbar and his other generals, they also get blown out of the room.
We worked with Carrie [Fisher] to at least get her to be blown forward in a believable way before she gets sucked out. Then, when she’s outside, it was a combination of digital double Carrie for the wider shots, and then we actually shot her, so we could do the moment where she comes to and the ice starts thawing off her face. We shot that with her. We didn’t hang her on wires. It’s incredibly uncomfortable on wires, so we were able to support her in other ways. It’s a combination of real Carrie and digital doubles when the moves were wide enough, and it made most sense to do it that way.
For the full interview with more details on the VFX from The Last Jedi make sure to visit Deadline.