How ‘Rogue One’ brought a famous actor back to life, and changed movies forever

Every year, five films are nominated for an Academy Award in the “Visual Effects” category. Each of the projects nominated this year offer a unique, inside look at the amazing tricks filmmakers and their talented effects teams use to pull off the visual spectacles that make for a big-screen blockbuster. In recognition of these five films — and one of our favorite Oscar categories — we’re putting the spotlight on one “Visual Effects” nominee each day leading up to Sunday’s broadcast, and taking a closer look at what made them stand out.

Previously, we looked at the visual effects that recreated a real-world disaster in Deepwater Horizon and crafted the reality-bending sequences in Marvel Studios’ Doctor Strange, as well as the technology that made animals talk in The Jungle Book and the made the stop-motion world of Kubo and the Two Strings come to life. In our final installment of this year’s features, we explore the sci-fi spectacle of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Few sci-fi franchises have delved into the wonders of visual effects as brilliantly as the Star Wars saga.

From the opening scene in 1977’s Star Wars, when Princess Leia’s spacecraft flies into view, to the frantic, explosive chaos over – and on the surface of – the planet Scarif in last year’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, advances in visual effects have played a key role in some of the most memorable moments in Star Wars history.

That artistry has earned the eight-film franchise multiple Academy Award nominations (and one win) for visual-effects achievements over the years, including Rogue One’s nomination for “Best Visual Effects.”

Edwards’ preference for hands-on camera work prompted ILM to create a fully immersive, virtual studio.

As has been the case for all of the Star Wars films, FX studio Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) – the company founded by Star Wars creator George Lucas – was tasked with bringing the sci-fi spectacle of Rogue One to life, and director Gareth Edwards teamed with visual effects legend (and creator of the Rogue One story) John Knoll to make it all happen.

Detailing the story of a ragtag team of rebels on a mission to steal the plans for the Death Star, Rogue One features several memorable sequences – including a sprawling, explosive climax that unfolds on two fronts, with the Rebel fleet attempting to hold its position in space above Scarif as the ground forces stage an assault on the planet’s Imperial base.

Virtual guerrilla

For the space action, Edwards’ gritty style of hands-on camera work prompted ILM to do something the studio had never done before: Create a fully immersive, virtual studio that allowed the film’s director to craft the scenes with stark accuracy by placing himself directly into the action.

In an interview with ComicBook.com, Rogue One animator Hal Hickel described the innovative new process, allowing the visual-effects team to create large-scale animation that Edwards could then maneuver through with a tablet camera and capture the exact perspectives he wanted. This allowed for a more seamless blend between the filmmaker’s preferred, handheld style of camera work and the effects-driven environment necessary for the film’s outer-space sequences.

“I didn’t want the style of the movie to suddenly switch every time we went from live-action to some kind of virtual world,” explained Hickel, adding that this fully immersive environment allowed Edwards to “go into the scene and find angles that (felt) good to him.”

In the thick of it

As for the action on the ground, ILM special effects supervisor Neil Corbould was recruited to channel some of his experience working on gritty war dramas such as Black Hawk Down and Saving Private Ryan.

With Edwards looking to tell a different sort of Star Wars story – one that offered perspective on the tragic cost of the rebellion at the heart of the saga – Corbould found himself engaged in some explosive innovation of his own. Speaking to Collider about the technology used in Rogue One, Corbould described a “high-pressure air cannon explosion” that was developed specifically for the Rebels’ assault on the Imperial base from the beaches of Scarif.

The practical effect was combined with an abundance of digitally created threats small and large (very large, in the case of the Empire’s AT-AT walkers) to make the battle at Scarif one of the most intense, visceral sequences in Star Wars history.

Old friends

Yet, one of the most talked-about elements of visual-effects work in Rogue One didn’t involve a single spacecraft or explosion. According to Knoll, digitally inserting long-deceased actor Peter Cushing’s Star Wars character, Grand Moff Tarkin, and a 1977-era version of Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia were the most challenging elements in Rogue One – but it was a challenge the team brought on themselves.

Technology from just a few years ago still would not have been enough to bring a human character like Tarkin back to the screen.

“At the beginning in my first draft … the very last moment in the movie was with Leia,” remembered Knoll, who initially pitched the idea for Rogue One and served as a co-writer on the script. “And pretty early on in the more detailed story development, Gary [Whitta, his co-writer] asked, ‘How do you feel about Tarkin having a role in the movie?’ and I said, ‘Yeah. Let’s do it, let’s do it,’ knowing that it’s really hard stuff. Digital humans are one of the hardest things in digital graphics, but we were all eager to take on the challenge.”

Generally speaking, the process of bringing a character like Tarkin to life requires a human actor to have his or her face, facial expressions, and various elements of skin texture and other features scanned and digitized with high-tech mapping software that creates a database of information about the way light and movements affect the actor’s face. The actor then performs his or her part while wearing cameras that capture the performance in extreme detail, and this data is then combined with the database to create a digital performance. That digital performance can then be mapped to a digital model of the character, creating a translation of the human actor’s original performance in the digital world.

However, the technology that existed just a few years ago still would not have been enough to bring a human character like Tarkin to life realistically. It took a breakthrough in advanced facial mapping courtesy of the CGI-loaded films Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Warcraft to reach the zenith of Rogue One’s character creation.

As reported by FXGuide, the ILM team working on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles created an entirely new software tool called “SnapSolver” that brings facial mapping to the next level, adding tiny details that better reflect the asymmetrical, less-predictable aspects of facial expressions that traditional mapping software struggles to recreate. This software was a groundbreaking addition to ILM’s already powerful facial performance-capture system. The technology took another step forward in the film Warcraft.

The ILM teams that worked on those two films were then brought together for Rogue One, and their SnapSolver system was put to its greatest test so far in translating a performance by actor Guy Henry into the digitally recreated return of Cushing’s Moff Tarkin. (The process was a bit less complicated for the the digital young Leia, as the late Carrie Fisher was still alive during production of Rogue One.)

Digital humans are one of the hardest things in digital graphics, but we were all eager to take on the challenge.”

The result of their efforts is a series of breathtaking scenes that led many audience members to question whether Cushing had actually died prior to Rogue One. It was also one of the film’s best-kept secrets – along with young Leia – and when it was finally revealed, Edwards did so with just the sort of dramatic flair that such an achievement in storytelling and technology deserves.

“The first time we see him, that was all Gareth,” recalled Knoll. “It starts off where it’s a small figure that’s out of focus in the background, then we get closer and we’re just seeing the back of his head. The hope is that you think, ‘Oh, maybe that’s all they’re gonna show us, the back of his head.’ … But he steps closer to the window and you see his reflection and then … when you’re sure they’re just gonna show the reflection, he turns into the close-up and, ‘Oh my god! There he is!’”

If crafting some of Star Wars’ most spectacular space battles isn’t enough to win Rogue One an Oscar, there’s a distinct possibility that taking one beloved character back in time 40 years, and bringing another back from the dead, might be.

The 89th Academy Awards ceremony will air Sunday, February 26, at 7pm ET on ABC.

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