‘Star Wars’ Visual Effects Supervisor Hal Hickel Goes Deep Into a Lot of Behind-the-Scenes Stories From Lucasfilm and ILM
Our podcast The Resistance Broadcast had the privilege to have a little chat with Academy Award-winner Hal Hickel (Oscar for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest), and once again, they topped themselves. The interview is just a lot of fun, and you should check it out yourself. Here we present some of the highlights. First off, when asked about how the Luke Skywalker cameo at the Mandalorian season 2 finale came to be, he said:
“That particular aspect of the effects of season 2 is probably the thing I can talk about the least… But I will say this. One, it was always important for everyone involved to have Mark involved. So it’s not just like ‘Well, we are recasting and we’ll deep-fake over him.’ Mark had to be involved with crafting the performance and he was. He was there on set when the scene was shot… he was totally involved all the way through. Also, Peyton Reed, who directed the episode, he’d done some previous de-aging work with Michael Douglas in ‘Ant-Man’, so he had work with some folks in the process and everything for that, so that played a part into what we were doing and how we did that work. And it was part of the decision making progress. Richard Bluff, who is the overall visual effects supervisor on ‘The Mandalorian’ and myself, we were both very much involved in giving feedback on the work and presenting it to Jon, and Peyton, and Dave. So those were the primary drivers on the work, Peyton’s experience with ‘Ant-Man’ and Mark had to be involved.”
One of the big things about The Mandalorian that creator Jon Favreau was particularly excited about was the fact that it was bringing back old techniques like using stop motion animation for certain shots or scenes.
“We reached a place, maybe 10 years ago but probably 5, where there was a generation of directors who didn’t make films back in the practical visual effects state but grew up on those films, so that now that they’re grown ups and they are making movies, they kind of want to use a lot of it, you know, animatronics and stuff… like J. J. [Abrams] And a lot of that’s been great. I can… there have been cases, I’m sure, where it’s more about nostalgia than what the right technique is for a film, but I’m not gonna go into that, and I’m not talking about J. J. I’m just talking in general about movies I’ve watched and seen, some stuff where I read an article saying ‘We’re not using any CGI in this movie,’ and then the movie comes out and it as 1200 VFX shots in it that they won’t talk about… That happens, it’s just a thing.”
“The thing with Jon [Favreau] is that, yes, he has nostalgia about different techniques and he’s honest about that when that’s a driver of the decision he’s making. But I think what he’s way more interested in is what is the audience’s reaction and how to use the different effects techniques to get the reaction he wants to get out of the audience. And, you know, a component of that is always nostalgia. […] But he also understand that there are younger people who might think it looks weird and old-fashion looking. So he tries to find the middle path, taking from all the different places and using the right tools for the job for whatever effect we’re trying to do.”
John then asked Hal if the fact that they built Jabba’s palace following the original blueprint means they can now bring it back whenever they want to. He responded:
“I think it depends, and I say this as someone who is not intrically involved in set building, set budgeting, what happens to sets after… It’s largely a world I’m not that familiar with. I would hope that given that they had a title saying, you know, ‘The Book of Boba Fett’ coming 2021, that they did save that set. But I honestly I don’t know.”
The conversation deviated into Guillermo del Toro and his passion for models, motivated by the fact that Hickel worked with him on 2013’s Pacific Rim. After that, he went back to Star Wars, mentioning that the model for the Razor Crest is still somewhere at ILM although… Well, there is not much use for it anymore. He did say that even though they used a lot of practical shots with the model for season 1, season 2 called more for pure digital shots, especially in the first three episodes where the ship was constantly on the verge of complete destruction. Miniature shots did happen, for example, entering and leaving Corvus in Chapter 13: The Jedi.
When asked if he thinks Solo 2 can happen, he said:
“I don’t know, I really don’t. I’m not trying to be cagey or anything. I didn’t work on ‘Solo’ or anything… Well, I did work on ‘Solo’ a little bit. I supervised the train heist, the animation of the train heist. […] But I just like the film. I posted that because I had rewatched it for the first time in quite a while… I’d just finished watching it and I was like, ‘Gosh, I really like that!’ So I just, you know… And the only reason I put the trope at the beginning “I don’t know who needs to hear this…” […] it’s just a twitter-ism.”
“But yeah, I’d just rewatched it and was like ‘God, that was great, I’d love to see this characters keep going.’ I liked Alden Ehrenreich, I thought he was great and I know there were some folks who were like ‘Why did they cast this guy?’ which is fine, it’s all valid, but I happen to like him. I loved L3 as a character, I know she doesn’t make it all the way through, or she’s not one piece… Or actually she is in only one piece, I guess. And I loved Lando… Donald Glover, I loved ‘Atlanta’, he is Childish Gambino… I’m there for it. Unfortunately I don’t have any special insight like ‘Well, your listeners should stay tuned because…’ I have no clue. And partially because ‘Mandalorian’ has completely taken over my life for the last couple of years.”
John Hoey then asked about the krayt dragon from Chapter 9: The Marshal and Hal Hickel actually mentioned that the effects supervisor of the first four episodes of season 2 was Joe Bauer, who was the visual effects supervisor for Game of Thrones, seasons 3 through 8.
One of the best stories he told in the interview was about the time he pissed off George Lucas himself over an idea to improve upon the (at the time) already-released Special Editions. He said:
“I said to Rob Coleman, who was the animation director on the prequels, ‘Rob, you know what? If we are gonna go in there and modify stuff, since George has now put back the Jabba scene in ‘A New Hope,’ we have a way better CG Jabba asset that we’d made for the podrace in ‘Phantom Menace.’ That Jabba is way better than the one we did just a few years earlier for the Special Editions. So Rob went to George and proposed it to him, and George gave him the go ahead. So we did it and even that, now that I look at that… there’s things in there I’d like to improve, or some shots that I personally animated that I feel like they look a little spliney. […]”
“I never liked the gag where Han steps on Jabba’s tail, and he has a big reaction. I don’t know if you remember how it looked in the Special Editions version, but it was a really big reaction. So I actually did an animation test where I had… Han passes behind him… So, you know, the problem is always like Jabba has the big tail right? And in the choreography that they did when they just had an actor playing Jabba, he just passed behind him, so they had to solve that, and what they came up with was to step on his tail. So I came up with a version in which Jabba was sort of turning as well so you can sort of imagine his tail on a curve that Han would miss and go behind him, so it’s the same choreography. And that was so clever, I was like, you know, I made the scene better.”
“So in this test we did this animation test, we gave it to Rob, and Rob showed it to George. And I’m in the back of the theater listening in to hear what the notes are. And George… it was the only time I saw him get mad at somebody. And you know, nobodoy can be mad at Rob, cause Rob is just the nicest guy you’ll ever want to meet. But he was sort of gently mad, he’s like ‘What happened to the tail thing? That was my favorite part of this whole scnee! Rob, I didn’t even want to change this sequence, you talked me into it. And now you are taking out the tail thing. […] But the only change I got away with was that Jabba looks a big grumpy now as Han steps over his tail.”
As an effects supervisor, one perk of Hickel’s job is to have the chance to glance over other people’s shows and the stuff they are working on. However, when The Force Awakens was coming out, he really tried to not do that. Here’s his story:
“I remember when ‘Force Awakens’ was happening, I was like ‘I’m not gonna look at anything, I don’t wanna see anything, I just wanna be a fan.’ Because I wasn’t working on it at all, in any capacity. And then finally, way towards the end, I had a moment of weakness and I went poking around looking in some sequences you access… and the very first thing I saw was the big moment between Ben and Han…”
Well, that is just bad luck. If you want to hear a ton more stories like that, make sure to check out the entire episode of the podcast below,, where Hal Hickel just dives deep into a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff at ILM and Lucasfilm. The podcast is also available on all audio podcast apps.
Miguel Fernández is a Spanish student that has movies as his second passion in life. His favorite movie of all time is The Lord of the Rings, but he is also a huge Star Wars fan. However, fantasy movies are not his only cup of tea, as movies from Scorsese, Fincher, Kubrick or Hitchcock have been an obsession for him since he started to understand the language of filmmaking. He is that guy who will watch a black and white movie, just because it is in black and white.