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The Force Awakens did CG so well, not even the FX artists can spot it all

Every year, five films are nominated for an Academy Award in the “Visual Effects” category. This year, each and every nominee offers its own unique inside look at the amazing tricks filmmakers and their effects teams must 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 artificially intelligent android of Ex Machina, the post-apocalyptic wasteland of Mad Max: Fury Road, the alien world of The Martian, and the brutal bear attack in The Revenant. For the final installment of the series, we go behind the scenes with Star Wars: The Force Awakens to explore how visual effects turned this sci-fi sequel into a bona fide blockbuster.

Much has been made of the use of practical effects in Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens in the lead-up to the film’s record-breaking premiere, but that doesn’t mean director J.J. Abrams’ long-awaited sequel avoided digital effects altogether — quite the contrary, in fact.

The most successful movie of all time in the U.S. and the fast-rising challenger to a host of worldwide records, The Force Awakens relies on a blend of practical effects and computer-generated elements to immerse audiences in the sci-fi saga’s colorful universe. More than 2,100 visual-effects shots were created for the film, with the majority of them produced by Industrial Light & Magic, the studio created by George Lucas for the 1977 movie that launched the franchise.

The primary task presented to the VFX team was one that would prove to be a recurring theme in The Force Awakens, reaching far beyond the visual effects: How to balance the old with the new in the Star Wars universe.

“People clearly wanted some kind of return to the DNA of those first three movies,” explained ILM’s Roger Guyett, the overall visual-effects supervisor on The Force Awakens, in a recent interview with FX Guide. “If you think about the environment those films were shot in, they were clearly shot at a time where it was harder to do visual effects. So invariably they would do things like build sets.”

“We really set out to build as much as we could in-camera and to go to as many locations as we could – and photograph as much in-camera,” he continued. “But you’re still obviously doing a Star Wars movie. It would have been foolish to ignore the contemporary technology that’s available to a modern filmmaker.”

“By having a puppeteer operate the droid meant that he had a personality.”

Abrams and the film’s VFX team found the happy medium between CG and practical elements by going above and beyond in their treatment of the digital effects as extensions of the real, physical sets the actors were performing within during production. Life-size versions of spaceships, desert speeders, and outposts filled with all manner of non-human inhabitants became the foundation of many scenes, with the VFX team then building out those environments with massive, crashed starships in the distance and alien moons on the horizon.

The end result was a world in which it was difficult to tell where the CG effects began and the physical set ended.

Possibly the best example of this aesthetic can be found in BB-8, the spherical droid that — much like its predecessor in the original Star Wars trilogy, R2-D2 — became a regular fixture in the protagonists’ galaxy-spanning adventure.

After appearing in the first trailer for The Force Awakens, BB-8 captured the attention of fans with the unique visual the droid presented: a rolling ball with a head that somehow moves independently of its tumbling, spinning body. Widely believed to be an entirely digital character (and prompting some skeptics to fear the droid would become this film’s Jar-Jar Binks), BB-8 famously dismissed critics and restored fans’ hopes last year when it rolled onto stage during the film’s live, streaming panel at Disney’s Star Wars Celebration event.

With just a few laps around the stage and some beeping, whirring conversation with Abrams and the cast of the film on stage, BB-8 quickly became emblematic of Abrams’ practical-first approach toward the effects in The Force Awakens.

BB-8’s on-screen performance was made possible by both ILM and Oscar-winning creature-effects supervisor Neal Scanlan, whose team created several puppet versions of the droid that could perform alongside the actors. One of the puppets could be moved using a remote control, while the others could be manually moved around or remain static while parts of the robot’s body were moved remotely.

“By having a puppeteer operate the droid meant that he had a personality,” explained Guyett of the importance of retaining a practical element with BB-8. “So by building it and giving it a personality and a character and allowing the actors to react to it in-camera means that they understand what it is you’re talking about and understand BB-8’s performance.”

“This model is one of the most beautiful things you’ve ever seen … there was a lot of talk about how far we detailed it. We went pretty far. It’s a remarkably detailed model, our Falcon.”

While the majority of BB-8’s performance in the film is the product of Scanlan’s puppet, Guyett estimates that at least a third of the shots featuring BB-8 were digitally created using photos and scans of the practical puppet. Exactly which ones were created with CG is a question Guyett says even he has trouble answering, thanks to the level of detail — and collaboration — between Scanlan’s team and ILM.

That approach to BB-8 resonated throughout much of the film’s production — even in scenes that defied the use of practical effects. When it came time to create some of the movie’s wild, mid-air spaceship scenes, the need to ground those fully computer-generated sequences in reality even affected the way the Millennium Falcon zoomed across the surface of the desert planet, Jakku, while evading TIE  fighters.

“A big thing about believability [in computer-generated scenes] is, do you feel like everything in this movie could’ve been shot?” explained ILM visual effects supervisor Patrick Tubach in an interview with Variety. “Even when you’re in full CG sequences, are you feeling like that camera is something that you could’ve mounted on a helicopter? For instance, in the Falcon chase sequence, when the Falcon whips by the camera at the end and then dives into that big engine, we did that scene multiple times, and we figured out we were moving the camera way too fast. So we took it down to a speed that it is actually achievable. You needed to be able to do it.”

The team even went so far as to base their intricately detailed digital models of ships on the physical models used in the first trilogy decades ago. Fortunately, the Lucasfilm archives proved to be a rich resource for ILM, both for referencing the spaceships and other vehicles at play in The Force Awakens, and for gaining some in-depth perspective on one of the franchise’s most famous ships.

In order to bring back the Millennium Falcon, which plays a major role in The Force Awakens, the team painstakingly built a digital version of Han Solo’s iconic ship based on the model used in 1977’s Star Wars.

“This model is one of the most beautiful things you’ve ever seen,” recalled asset build supervisor Dave Fogler. “We scanned it. We photographed it. Our needs were … not only did we need it to look like that, but we get really close to it in the film. We also acknowledged that in a virtual-reality experience, someone might walk up to and look at a bolt on a door. So there was a lot of talk about how far we detailed it. We went pretty far. It’s a remarkably detailed model, our Falcon.”

Sadly, the team’s digital model of the Millenium Falcon isn’t the sort of thing one can put on a shelf, but with Star Wars: The Force Awakens viewed as one of the favorites to take home an Academy Award this year, there’s reason to believe ILM might be adding another Oscar to its collection anyways — as long as The Force is with it.

The 88th Academy Awards ceremony will air Sunday, February 28, at 7pm ET on ABC.

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Rick Marshall
A veteran journalist with more than two decades of experience covering local and national news, arts and entertainment, and…
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