Movies & TV

How VFX brought Leia back, gave us Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker’s best battle

With Star Wars: Episode IV — The Rise of Skywalker, Lucasfilm brought the Star Wars sequel trilogy that began with 2015’s Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens and continued with 2017’s Star Wars: Episode VIII — The Last Jedi to an epic conclusion.

Under the direction of J.J. Abrams, who returned behind the camera for the finale after directing The Force AwakensThe Rise of Skywalker blends the kind of spectacle we’ve come to expect from Star Wars movies with plenty of moments that tugged on the heartstrings — including a series of scenes featuring original Star Wars actress Carrie Fisher as Leia that were created from footage filmed before her death in December 2016. This and other elements contributed to The Rise of Skywalker being one of 10 films the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is considering for a nomination in the “Best Visual Effects” category at this year’s Academy Awards ceremony.

Every year, five films are nominated for an Academy Award in the “Visual Effects” category. In our Oscar Effects series we take a closer look at what made these films stand out through interviews with the visual effects artists responsible for each film’s movie magic. This year’s nominees include Avengers: Endgame, The Irishman, The Lion King, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, and 1917.
star wars the rise of skywalker visual effects interview leia vfx babu frik feature

Digital Trends spoke to the team responsible for the visual effects in The Rise of Skywalker, including Roger Guyett (overall visual effects supervisor), Neal Scanlan (creature effects supervisor), Patrick Tubach (Industrial Light & Magic visual effects supervisor), and Dominic Tuohy (special effects supervisor), to learn how some of the film’s most memorable scenes were created.

J.J. Abrams, Oscar isaac and Neal Scanlon with Klaud on the set of STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER.
J.J. Abrams, Oscar isaac and Neal Scanlon with Klaud on the set of STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER.

Digital Trends: It feels like every Star Wars film has a certain set of creatures, characters, or sequences that really set it apart and the visual effects team is particularly proud of. What were some of the standout elements of this film from your side of the camera?

Roger Guyett: The most obvious one is Leia. Bringing Leia back was a huge challenge. And then there was the water scene with Rey and Kylo fighting on the pier. That really tested the digital technology. It’s really all about what I call the invisible work, re-creating environments in a way that’s photorealistic so — hopefully — you don’t know that some of the stuff we’re doing isn’t real. For example, the speeder chase or Rey taking down the TIE fighter, we built all that digitally.

The end of the movie was also a colossal challenge. It’s 17,000 ships battling over Exogal and everything that goes along with that. And we had some really complicated animatronics for Maz Kanata. At the end of the day, though, this is a movie where you want the visual effects to be a supporting and obviously spectacular element of the story, but you’re trying to make the audience believe that everything is happening around them for real. That’s part of the DNA of Star Wars and part of the fun of it is trying to bring this practical approach to everything. That makes it a very collaborative experience with everyone here and very, very satisfying.

Let’s talk about bringing Leia back in the film. The scenes she’s in feel very specific to The Rise of Skywalker, despite coming from outtakes and unused footage. How did you create those scenes?

Guyett: When we talked about how we could approach bringing Leia into the movie, one approach would obviously be, “Hey, let’s just do a digital version of her.” Technology is at a point where you can do that, but if we took that approach, the performance wouldn’t have been authored by Carrie Fisher. J.J. was very adamant that we use performances from Carrie, which meant we were limited to the outtakes from The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi and we had to use those performances. So once we were restricting ourselves to certain lines of dialogue, J.J. committed to trying to write the script around the lines that were available to him from outtakes of Carrie.

That was the first step, and then … there was a lot of nuance involved in how you stage those scenes. How do you make them feel fresh? We had to make it feel as though Carrie’s scenes were very unique to our movie, so basically what you’re seeing on the screen is a live-action facial element of Carrie taken from previous outtakes, blended into a digital version of her that has a new hairstyle, a new costume, and all of the stuff she would have in a new movie.

There was a tremendous amount of planning involved in trying to make that work, from staging the scenes through everything else that goes along with it.

You mentioned the water scene, with Rey and Kylo battling in that ocean environment. Visual effects artists often tell me that fire and water are two of the hardest elements to create and manipulate in realistic ways. What were the challenges in that sequence?

Patrick Tubach: The water scene was one of the things that, when you read that in the script the first time, you know it’s going to be one of the most intense scenes you’re going to have to do. We had to make a lot of decisions upfront about making sure we had the level of technology we needed to make it happen. We’ve worked on a lot of water shows in the past at ILM, but the sheer volume of it was tough in this one. There was nowhere to hide. You could see out to the open ocean in multiple directions, and you had crashing waves on every surface around the shot because the formation of the wreckage was so complicated.

Star Wars The Rise of Skywalker lightsaber battle

So going into it, we had to do a lot of preplanning. We had to get the software to the point that the artists would be able to actually direct some of that water. Once we had a base layer of water surface, we also had to have things like the foam on top of the water, the white water crests at the top of the waves, and the splashes as it hit the piers — all that stuff. It all needed a certain level of finesse, and you can run simulations, but then the artists need to be able to manipulate it, too. So, that’s where a lot of the software came in: Making sure the water was something the artist could control.

Dominic Tuohy: What also works really well is that the actors — the artists — are getting wet. There’s water being pumped around them and it helps increase the energy you need at that point. The cooperation between that and the digital effects really works.

Guyett: If you want it to look like they’re really fighting in water, there’s nothing like throwing a lot of water at them.

Tuohy: Cold water, too!

Guyett: Right. They don’t have to act the part. There really was a lot of water around. Philosophically, that’s what we tried to do throughout the movie: To create that moment for the actors and try and make it as tangible as possible.

Star Wars The Rise of Skywalker lightsaber water battle

One of the hallmarks of the Star Wars saga are the special effects and the blend of digital effects, special effects, and practical effects in each film. How did all of that balance out in this film? 

Tuohy: On a project like this, the rule of thumb is that we try to do as much as we can practically. After that point, Roger and Pat put a little fairy dust on it and make it all blend together seamlessly. That was something J.J. really embraced. In the water example, he wanted the artists to feel like they’re cold. He wanted the energy that gives their performance.

The [sequence with the] black sand is another example. We embedded six containers in the sand in Jordan, all linked together, and each container had a special rig in there which allowed the actor to sink through the black sand. There was real, actual material they went through.

When you get these effects, and get the combination of being in a real location with a real sun, with a real backdrop, it suddenly becomes believable. It isn’t something that’s contrived and on a stage. It’s actually been shot for real, on location.

Guyett: That’s what we constantly tried to do: Support the actors. Whether it’s what Neil did with Maz that lets J.J. photograph Maz acting with the other actors in those scenes, or any of the other moments, those ideas get you more grounded and hopefully create a more of an emotional kind of experience.

Creature effects are another hallmark of Star Wars films. Along with Maz, one of the big standouts in this film was Babu Frik. What were some of the big hurdles for creature effects in The Rise of Skywalker?

Neil Scanlan: Well, we made around 538 or 558 creatures practically. The Aki-Aki village was a big chunk of that, obviously, and it involved dressing a lot of people out in Jordan. Basically, it was the Jordanian army.

We were dressing 500 people, choreographing them, feeding them, keeping them cool, and having them perform individually with all the different types of suits and things we had to make. So that was a challenge on a grandiose scale.

But on a much smaller scale, Maz was a very, very sophisticated element — probably the most sophisticated animatronic that we’ve made at ILM. And then you’ve got little Babu Frik, too. Babu is a 9-inch, rod-operated puppet. There’s a complicated little animatronic head that’s performed live with the dialogue … by the actress vocalizing Babu dialogue. At one point, you’re in a situation where everybody’s there. C-3PO’s there, the cast is there, and little Babu is there, too. And everybody is acting out the scene as if it was a real moment with these characters.

Babu Frik

That’s the sort of thing that, to me, is very special about Star Wars. It’s the little moments I call pieces of theater. They are a chance for the audience to relax and sit back and enjoy something in a way that feels simple and similar to something we feel as children when we watch theater shows. In truth, though, they’re very sophisticated, complicated scenes to create. Without the digital effects and without the ability to remove the puppeteers and enhance where necessary, we wouldn’t be able to create these pieces of theater. So it’s a fabulous blend.

Disney’s Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is currently in theaters, and is one of the films contending for a nomination in the Best Visual Effects category at this year’s Academy Awards.

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