How the ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ FX team crafted its skin-crawling villain

Ahead of the 90th Academy Awards on Sunday, our Oscar Effects series puts the spotlight on each of the five movies nominated for “Visual Effects,” looking at the amazing tricks filmmakers and their effects teams used to make each of these films stand out as visual spectacles.

The Star Wars saga has a long history with the Academy Awards’ Visual Effects category, having received nominations for all but one of the nine films in the series (2005’s Episode III – Revenge of the Sith was the lone exception) and taking home three Oscars for each film in the original trilogy. That trend continued with last year’s Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi, which was honored once again for its spectacular visual effects with an Oscar nomination.

Directed by Rian Johnson, The Last Jedi picked up where 2015’s Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens left off, with General Leia Organa and The Resistance on the run from The First Order, the powerful military force that rose from the ashes of the Galactic Empire. Leading the First Order is the mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke, whose role evolved from a hologram in The Force Awakens to a fully interactive — and divisive — presence in The Last Jedi.

Guiding the visual effects team on The Last Jedi were veteran visual effects supervisors Ben Morris and Michael Mulholland, who were tasked with crafting the film’s epic space battles, alien worlds, and maybe most importantly, some of the colorful characters who inhabit the Star Wars universe.

One of the most prominent characters to get the spotlight in The Last Jedi is Snoke, who plays a key role in both the battle at the heart of the film and the relationship between two of its Force-wielding leads: Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Rey (Daisy Ridley). After providing the voice and motion-capture performance for Snoke’s brief — and holographic — appearance in The Force Awakens, actor Andy Serkis was asked to play a more involved role developing the character in The Last Jedi.

“The amazing thing about Andy is that he’s incredibly skilled at doing this and he’s unafraid of the technology.”

“It took almost a year to get to the final look of Snoke,” Morris told BBC Click of the character’s evolution from a hazy figure in The Force Awakens to the fully formed, sinister villain who torments Kylo and Rey — both physically and psychologically — in The Last Jedi.

Of course, having the most accomplished performance-capture actors in the industry involved in the character’s development certainly made things easier.

“The amazing thing about Andy is that he’s incredibly skilled at doing this and he’s unafraid of the technology, so we were able to suit him up in an active motion-capture suit so that we could actually film with infrared cameras from the ceiling of the set,” explained Morris. “That allowed him to walk around and perform unhindered.”

“We also put a helmet on his head with four HD cameras so we could get very clear definition on his face,” he added.

Looming large over Snoke’s development was Johnson’s desire to do as much as possible with practical effects — a hallmark of the franchise dating back to the makeup and creature effects that were so iconic in the original trilogy. In order to supplement Serkis’ performance for the benefit of the cast, creative team, and audience, the visual effects team relied on a mixture of elements to inform the look (and sound) of the digital character that appears on the screen.

In an interview with Deadline, Morris ran through all of the components that, collectively, brought Snoke into The Last Jedi.

“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,” he recalled. “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 [and] we were capturing his body movements, and we had two or three witness cameras in addition, so we covered all of that,” he continued. “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 … is entirely CG in the film.”

…the CG character they had crafted for the screen simply didn’t match the gravitas of Serkis’ performance.

Even after bringing all of these elements together in front of the camera, the initial product fell short — literally, in this case — of Johnson’s vision for the character.

According to Morris, as the visual effects team worked on the digital presentation of Snoke, it eventually became apparent that the CG character they had crafted for the screen simply didn’t match the gravitas of Serkis’ performance.

“Andy’s voice gave a sense of a larger chest cavity,” said Morris. “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.'”

Those changes involved expanding Snoke’s chest to accommodate Serkis’ powerful performance, as well as increasing his height to more than eight feet tall, among other alterations. In doing so, the team strove to make Serkis’ performance the foundation for Snoke rather than simply mashing together the live-action elements and the digital model for the character.

“Doing those modifications tied our Snoke to Andy’s voice, so it was no longer clashing,” Mulholland told Deadline. “The key was to try and capture the essence of the actor and make sure that you’re able to transmit that into the CG character. Our work was to first of all make a CG version of Andy, who didn’t look like Snoke at that point. It was Andy talking, and you move that performance onto Snoke.”

“Once we’d done the technical side of the transfer, the animation team would go in and work to eek out all the subtleties and intonations, and the expressions were even slightly modified so they worked better on our Snoke character,” he added. “It was a painstaking process to go beat by beat and make sure that it was the performance that Rian remembered from set, and that was what Rian held us to.”

Johnson also took things in a new direction for the visual effects team with one of the film’s most memorable scenes, a sequence in which (spoiler alert) a Rebel cruiser engages its light-speed drive directly into a First Order destroyer.

Instead of a loud, chaotic moment filled with fire and exploding debris, the scene is unnervingly quiet and solemn. The tone for that scene was a direct result of Johnson’s vision for the moment — even when the visual effects team initially had something else planned.

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“Rian was always very clear in his description of a hot knife through butter,” Morris recalled in an interview with Collider. “When I read the script, it said, ‘The final Rebel cruiser rips through the Mega Destroyer, tearing the wing in half.’ Initially, I thought it was like hell on earth, with crazy explosions that were huge and epic. Rian turned that on its head and said, ‘You can convey that, but I want the moment to be absolutely serene and beautiful,’ and the concept of the silence happened.”

“Initially, I thought it was like hell on earth, with crazy explosions that were huge and epic.”

“That’s where we realized that we didn’t want to just be tearing up with glowing orange explosions and petrol bombs everywhere,” he continued. “We wanted to come up with something clean and new, that had that delicacy and serenity to it. That’s so impactful.”

In order to maintain that tone and some level of accuracy in the physics of such an explosive moment, the team turned to science.

“On a creative and slightly technical level, it was based on physics photography of cloud chambers and high speed particles colliding with each other,” explained Morris. “We always talked about how this look would happen, where we’d drain all of the color out of the image. I think it shows strength, if you invert your normal concept of what space shots in Star Wars look like, with a white ship on a black background. For that sequence, you turn it on its head and you’ve got a black ship with white space. That was a huge visual effect.”

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“We had always hoped that would resonate, both as a story beat and as a striking visual, and when I heard all of the cries and gasps in the silence, it was just fantastic,” he said. “We realized that it worked.”

The end result of all their efforts was a space battle that ended like no other encounter in Star Wars history, and a character that left quite an impression on audiences with a relatively brief amount of screen time. In both cases, these elements channeled many of the most iconic aspects of the Star Wars films that came before while simultaneously carving out their own niche in the sci-fi saga’s canon.

Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi premiered December 15, 2017. The 90th Academy Awards ceremony kicks off March 4 at 8:00 PM ET on ABC.