Previs supervisor Brad Alexander and postvis supervisor A.J. Briones take us inside J.J. Abrams’ epic new ‘Star Wars’ adventure.
As one of the most anticipated films in recent memory, Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens was sure to excite audiences with a combination of action, humour and riveting visuals. To assist in the creation of the films extensive and complex visual effects work, overall VFX Supervisor Roger Guyett (Star Trek Into Darkness) recruited HALON to produce the previs and postvis. “Roger is clear on the direction he wants to go in with shots, without making things sound convoluted,” notes HALON previs supervisor Brad Alexander. “We had reviews very often and Roger was always just a phone call away for any questions we had.” Ideas drove the previs phase as filmmaker J.J. Abrams (Super 8) was still developing the story. “Since there was no solid script yet, this was one of the first shows that we went in and just started having fun animating spaceships, trying to find really cool ideas that Roger and J.J. could spin off of,” Alexander continues. “Also, during the early phases, this was one of the first opportunities HALON had to jumpstart operations in London while they were shooting.”
HALON’s initial assignment was defining the action of a signature cinematic moment. “When we started in the early phases, our first goal was to get the spirit and feel down of the desert chase between Rey/Finn and the TIE fighters,” remarks Alexander. “We didn’t have a script but we spent lots of time fleshing out ideas and moments for the sequence that would address the beats that J.J. had in mind. During our last days at Pinewood in London we did a full techvis pass on the two large sequences. Our goal was to communicate camera speed, dimensions and proximity of subjects to camera so that production could visually see the angles and lenses we were shooting from in Maya.”
According to Alexander, “Darren Gilford [production designer] and team had been working a while on some gorgeous artwork before we came aboard. We had a lot of fantastic look reference to start from on the Desert Chase and TIE Fighter Escape sequences. Much of the artwork we started our previs ideas from lived through the entire film and that shows itself well in the final production.” Aiding the previs effort was the fact that no new technology was needed. As Alexander describes, “For previs, a lot of our software was mainly off the shelf. Maya and After Effects were used for individual shots, and Premiere was used for rough edits. We did some motion-capture in our volume at HALON for some sequences using our OptiTrak system along with Arena, then clean-up using MotionBuilder.”
As the previs progressed, so did the degree of visual detail. “Once we started diving into the first previs sequence of the film, we tried to keep things light, with only animation looking good,” explains Alexander. “We had some light shadows going on to try and make things present well at that phase. Once J.J. started liking shots, we would start adding extra polish with more accurate lighting, tighter animation and extra layers in comp adding FX, fog and motion blur.”
Abrams himself determined the virtual camera positions and lenses. As Alexander notes, “He was way cool about letting us try new things though, but our priority always was to give him what he requested first and foremost, then play if we had time afterwards.”
The previs blended into postvis after Alexander finished shooting in London. He notes, “During our early phases we were pretty much only in communication with J.J. and Roger. After getting back from shooting in London, I interacted more with editorial, filling in the blanks and areas of sequences that needed either a ship here or a quick set extension there to make the sequence read better as it was being built.”
As is always the case on complicated VFX driven films, an open line of communication between the previs/postvis team and the director’s production team is critical. “I spent a lot of time with Roger at Bad Robot [the director’s production company], sitting with the editors [Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey] talking through shots in context of their respective sequences,” remarks HALON postvis supervisor A.J. Briones. “We would first go through the cut, then discuss their needs and specific story points we had to hit for each shot. After turning over our work, I'd then check back in with Roger and the editors, and we'd refine the shots until they along with J.J. were happy.”
Various scenes were developed further during postvis. As Briones explains, “We worked on the Castle Battle, the Snoke sequences, the Oscillator Attack, the Lightsaber Battle, the Snowspeeder Chase [not in the film], the BB-8 and Rebel Base Hologram shots, a lot of cockpit shots, SPOILER ALERT Han's death END OF SPOILER, Han and Leia at the Rebel Base, Rey's escape, the Starkiller operation, the Starkiller exploding and Rey's trip to find Luke. We also did a lot of one-offs here and there.”
“In postvis, we had shots where we had to add digital elements, set extensions or composites,” Briones continues. “But we also had a lot of ‘black card’ shots, which were basically shots that we had to create from scratch digitally before turning over to ILM. These were a lot of fun because we really never knew what they were going to ask for and we had to keep on our toes, artistically.” Not all of the required concept art and assets were supplied to HALON. “It was a mixed bag,” notes Briones. This made it useful for ILM downstream as we were using the same assets and working in the same scale. There were a couple of environments we also received from ILM. That said, we created a lot of custom stuff from scratch - mostly environments.”
HALON’s software toolset did not change for their postvis work. “We used Maya 2015 for the brunt of the modelling, texturing and animation, Syntheyes to track the shots and After Effects for compositing,” states Briones. “There were some shots which needed custom motion-capture, and for that we used our in-house motion-capture volume, as well as OptiTrack cameras with Motive software. We used MotionBuilder for motion editing before bringing it into Maya to put in shots.” A considerable bit of effort went into creating the imagery. “We spent a lot of back and forth time with Roger getting the lighting, animation and other details just right. I also spent a lot of time with the editorial staff. A lot of our discussions were about finessing action sequences and shots and getting them to flow better. In postvis, we had the benefit of already having somewhat of a cut to work with, so it was about choosing the best angles and lenses to not only tell the story, but to flow well from shot-to-shot.”
Briones assisted in developing the scenes involving Andy Serkis’ performance as the CG character Snoke. “I worked on all of the Snoke sequences. We did quite a bit of back and forth with Roger on those for sure. We started with a high resolution digital Snoke model and Snoke environment from ILM, which we decimated and rigged for postvis. Then we went into motion-capture, where we did our best to try and temp in motion for the shots. From there, it was a lot of back and forth with Roger to get Snoke's scale right in the context of the plates of General Hux [Domhnall Gleeson] and Kylo Ren [Adam Driver], as well as the lighting in the room.”
While the entire postvis process presented numerous challenges, some scenes were particularly difficult. “The biggest challenges for us in postvis were the shots in the Castle Battle where we were flying X-Wings and TIE fighters in a mixed bag of pure CG shots and shots with in-plate photography,” notes Briones. “We spent a lot of time getting the speed and timing just right. There was just so much going on in the frame and our challenge was to find the right balance. Additionally, some of the black cards we got at the eleventh hour were pretty challenging as well. We would get a card like ‘the Millennium Falcon and TIE fighters fly away as the Starkiller base explodes, turning into a star!’ and then go, ‘Okay, I guess we have some work to do!’”
Ultimately, as made obvious by the film’s tremendous critical and box-office success, the effort paid off. “Personally, the Castle Battle Sequence was one of my favourites because it blends CG with live-action so perfectly. We got to see a lot of that work in the trailers as well, and that's always a thrill,” Briones concludes. “As a kid playing with the Millennium Falcon, TIE fighter and X-Wing toys, I never thought I'd get the chance to fly them on screen. It's a special feeling. I'm proud of the work we did on The Force Awakens, as we spent a lot of time getting the details as polished as we could in the little time allotted for turnaround in the postvis phase.”
For Alexander, the previs work was equally rewarding. “For me, it was gratifying to see the Millennium Falcon do a max climb in the tone of Star Wars in the first teaser trailer with the massive John Williams Star Wars theme playing. J.J. and I worked on that shot together. It was one of the first we started playing with when we started previs. I nearly cried the first time I saw it come to life on TV.” As Alexander observes, “It’s impossible in every article and interview for me not to give thanks and gratitude to all of the artists and talent up the chain that take our work to such amazing final quality. HALON Entertainment spawned as a company from Skywalker Ranch with Dan Gregoire and I during the Star Wars Prequels, so having the opportunity to work on this film not only brought us back full circle, but was very nostalgic in many wonderful ways.”
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer best known for composing in-depth filmmaker and movie profiles for sites such as the CGSociety, 3DTotal, Live for Films and Flickering Myth; he is a big fan of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Batman: The Animated Series, The Hobbit, Studio Ghibli, and Peter Weir.