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Balancing Act: ILM Blends VFX Innovation with Franchise Consistency in ‘The Last Jedi’

Led by production VFX supervisor Ben Morris, visual effects powerhouse Industrial Light & Magic confidently seeks to honor the innovative spirit of the series without losing its heart.

‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ © 2017 Lucasfilm.

If the original Star Wars was a hint from 1977 of the future of storytelling and movie making, then it would be hard to come up with a better milestone for evaluating those revolutions than Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

Written and directed by Rian Johnson, The Last Jedi -- Episode VIII in the overall saga -- sees the return of the series original hero, Luke Skywalker, reprised by actor Mark Hamill, in a movie that deliberately challenges audiences’ expectations for the beloved saga on every level.

The second film in the sequel trilogy scatters its heroes far and wide, with Rey (Daisy Ridley) trying to convince Luke to return to help his sister, Leia (the late Carrie Fisher), save the Resistance from annihilation at the hands of the deadly First Order. Along the way, heroes such as John Boyega’s Finn, Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose Tico and Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron, are pitted against the villainous Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Supreme Leader Snoke, a sublime digital creation based on Andy Serkis’ motion-capture performance.

Ben Morris

Ben Morris is the production VFX supervisor on The Last Jedi, taking over from Roger Guyett on The Force Awakens. Morris’ path to The Last Jedi began shortly the Walt Disney Company began planning to exploit the Star Wars franchise it acquired from creator George Lucas along with Lucasfilm in 2012 for the princely sum of $4.06 billion. New Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy and ILM chief creative officer John Knoll approached Morris about setting up an ILM studio in London to help handle the bandwidth needed for Disney’s ambitious plan to release new Star Wars movies on an annual basis.

“That was one of those phone calls I knew I couldn’t say no to, but I kind of played it tricky and said, ‘Yeah, I need to think about this,’” Morris recalls.

The task was demanding, with the J.J. Abrams-directed Star Wars: The Force Awakens quickly going into production, followed by Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. “On The Force Awakens, we didn’t have the opportunity to do lots of planning,” says Morris, who worked closely on the project with Abrams and Guyett. “We shot from the hip a little there.”

By The Last Jedi, ILM caught up to the demand. Rian Johnson signed on to write, direct and start shooting the movie before The Force Awakens was released in December 2015, giving ILM more time to prepare -- a process Morris says was aided by Johnson’s highly organized approach to moviemaking.

“He was incredibly methodical and he rarely changed his thoughts or his opinion,” Morris notes. “We knew what we were doing, and how we were going to do it, and had some time to discuss it. We knew there were some big challenges in here. But with the pooled firepower all of our studios globally, we knew we could hit the goals.”

And those goals were significant: Morris says there were about 1,850 straight VFX shots, with 300 or 400 more shots that involved production fixes or makeup help, putting the final total well over 2,000 shots. Those shots ranged from simple to incredibly complex, as illustrated by the vastly different techniques used to create Supreme Leader Snoke and Yoda.

For Yoda, voiced as always by Frank Oz, a puppet was used for the first time since 1999’s Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace. “He was entirely a puppet -- we just did a little bit of Force glow around him and some cleanup and slight assistance every now and then when a blink wouldn’t work or something,” says Morris. “I love a good puppet. When a puppet works, it’s beautiful.”

Snoke, however, needed a completely new approach. “Rian didn’t particularly sit comfortably with the look of Snoke that we made in The Force Awakens,” says Morris. “It works perfectly for that film, but he knew he needed to have the actors interacting with him on The Last Jedi.”

Scaled down from a massive hologram to a height of seven feet, Snoke was again based on a motion-capture performance from Andy Serkis and his Imaginarium studio. Johnson wanted a “sort of soapy, waxy, highly scattered, ghoulish look for him,” Morris says, complete with misshapen skull and oversize eyes.

“The complete rebuild we did of the character and the performance that Andy provides this time around have come together in what I’m very proud of as a piece of digital human acting that I think has raised the bar,” Morris says. “He’s not a fantasy character; he comes across as a deeply menacing human of great powers.”

Morris says one of the things he kept coming back to in his discussions with Johnson was the idea that digital effects no longer have to look like CG elements. “We can make our digital effects look like anything: they can look like a practical model, a practical puppet or they can look like the most photorealistic thing with subtle performance that we can achieve,” he says. “It’s now a subjective decision, what our work looks like.”

One of the more striking effects sequences in The Last Jedi occurs with Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo, played by Laura Dern, uses the Resistance’s failing final cruiser to slice through the First Order’s armada at light speed. Morris says the scene looks the way it was written, but that his original thought was it called for massive destruction and wild, vibrant colors.

“Rian said, ‘Let’s play this as total silence,’” says Morris. “We were trying to think, what would show the incredible energy of an object moving at infinite speed tearing through another object?”

It was atomic research photography in cloud chambers with particle physics that provided the answer, with the way things shatter, scatter and create strange shapes, Morris says. Then they took all color out, inspired by the pure intensity created by the light of a burning ribbon of magnesium.

ILM’s Vancouver studio handled the sequence, and Morris says he’s seen the movie with audiences that reacted very positively to the effect. “It’s a unique look in this film that we’ve never seen before,” he says.

Another striking effect is in the climactic sequence of the movie on the planet Crait, which is covered in a thin layer of white salt that is easily dusted aside by vehicles and characters to reveal blood-red soil. The Resistance uses a small fleet of speeders that skim the surface, throwing off waves of red soil behind them on a sea of white.

“That red is it’s there for a reason,” says Morris. “Rian wanted the final confrontation to happen on a sort of tableau of red blood.... He always wanted that sequence to end like a piece of opera. He said it’s gotta be Wagnerian, so the red was perfect for that sort of scene.”

Morris says Johnson always had the idea the speeders would kick up rooster tails of red soil, but figuring out how vibrant to make the colors was a huge challenge. “We could turn that supersaturated and we could have gone for a full caramelized candy red, but we would have probably lost the reality of the sequence,” he says. “It was actually reining back. He was always trying to keep the photographic look of it.”

Which comes back to an issue that the makers of Star Wars have to face in every area of the film: following the original film’s example of pushing the envelope for effects and storytelling versus being consistent enough with what’s gone before to keep each chapter feeling like part of the whole saga. 

“It’s a very subtle thing,” says Morris. “We’ve all grown up with an understanding of the visual language that defined Star Wars and we don’t want it to look like Star Trek, we don’t want it to look like the Marvel films, so it’s got to maintain that very subtle thing that is Star Wars. It’s very hard to get right. Some of our artists get it and others don’t. So we always have to reference the past films to educate people.”

On the other hand, ILM’s brain trust includes VFX legend Dennis Muren, who worked on the original Star Wars movie and wants each film in the series to push the envelope.

“So when a director like Rian comes on board and throws new ideas at us, even that sort of red crystals against whites on the Crait salt flats, they’re exciting,” says Morris. “And I think we need to keep pushing these films further forward.”

Thomas J. McLean's picture

Tom McLean has been writing for years about animation from a secret base in Los Angeles.