Coinciding with the film's DVD & Blu-ray release, the veteran Industrial Light & Magic VFX supervisors discuss the importance of lighting and practical in-camera shooting on Disney and J.J. Abrams' epic space adventure.
No film in recent history hit theatres with greater fan and industry anticipation, and expectations, than Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Both a critical success and box office juggernaut, the film, directed by J.J. Abrams, struck just the right chord with audiences, bringing together familiar faces and visual “style” with a fresh narrative that introduced dynamic new conflicts, villains and heroes.
Key to the film’s success was the stellar, award winning visual effects work, led by overall VFX supervisor Roger Guyett and VFX supervisor Patrick Tubach, two ILM veterans who also worked together with Abrams on 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness. With numerous industry awards between them, including best visual effects Oscar nominations on both Abrams films, VES Award nominations for both and a win for Force Awakens, and BAFTA nominations for both with a win for Force Awakens, the pair have a storied history of helping directors bring their ambitious, VFX-heavy ideas to the screen.
In support of Force Awaken’s DVD, digital HD and Blu-ray release, AWN talked to the pair about their work on the film, with particular focus on how decisions are made regarding the use of practical in-camera on-set shoots versus full digital shots, and why even small scale on-set filming is so important to the overall look of a film.
Dan Sarto: There’s not a more universally heralded franchise than Star Wars. Force Awakens is the first of the “new” Star Wars movies to hit theatres after the Disney purchase. There's a hundred thousand decisions you guys are involved in making. In many ways you’re the visual hub of the production. You’ve got environments, you’ve got creatures, you’ve got ships, you’ve got explosions, all sorts of visuals that you’re integrating in support of the story. How do you start the decision making with regards to what ultimately becomes this movie?
Roger Guyett: You're talking about doing something which is incredibly familiar but at the same time you're trying to make it incredibly new and exciting. How does that work? You know? You're basing the new film in this franchise that's incredibly familiar and has enough cues that people can feel good about the world you're delving back into. Yet you don't want it to be totally weirdly retro where people feel, "What are we doing? Watching the same movie again?" No, we want to make it cool and interesting and give it its own energy. That the fun of it.
Obviously it's an incredibly complicated process. It’s this huge puzzle that you're trying to put together. You're trying to get teams of people together that might be very specific in that they might be character animators…you're trying to make sure you understand where you're headed with all of this. It's sort of like this massive battle plan where you've got to understand you need a certain amount of environment people, a certain amount of models, assets, you need a design team to create these new ships and other new ideas. There might be a flashback moment in the movie where you might be exploring how do you put flashbacks together.
And all these decisions are based on many conversations. But what I'm most interested in, what my job really is, and it sounds ludicrous really, it to take what J.J. [J.J. Abrams, the film’s director] is talking about and somehow translate that into something we can achieve practically. Because at the end of the day, in some reality, it’s my responsibility to turn it into a bunch of shots.
Of course we have a tremendous amount of help and collaboration. A lot of it comes from reading the script and talking to J.J. about his very specific notions of what a particular moment in the movie should be. What it is that's important to him to see at that moment. What is it? What characteristic? Some of that can be a very specific idea about a shot he might be describing to you, or the environment. "I want it to feel big,” or, “I want her to feel very lonely in the frame," or whatever might be at hand.
But sometimes, it can be more vague than that. “It's a massive weapon…it's a hacked planet.” And you just start exploring. Obviously a lot of this is happening in parallel. And in the early part of the process, as J.J was developing the script with Larry Kasdan [one of the film’s writers] and Michael Arndt [another of the film’s writers], we had an art department -- Rick Carter [one of the film’s production designer], Darren Gilford [another production designer on the film] and the ILM art guys -- really throwing ideas around. "Okay, so it's a Starkiller Base.” You say to yourself, “Okay, what does a Starkiller Base look like? And how does that work?" You start sketching out ideas. It starts spreading out, but ultimately, you have to turn it into more discreet things that you can actually understand and solve…
Pat Tubach: …Actionable items you can do something with…
RG: Actionable items. And part of that, in simple terms, is like, "Okay, we need a new Star Destroyer." And then you start to iterate.
PT: Yeah. And that's inspirational too, as a process for J.J. as well. As you start to show him things, he gets new ideas that get incorporated into the thinking…
RG: It’s a very iterative process in every aspect. It might be describing a sequence, like the Falcon [the Millennium Falcon] chase through the desert, where he describes every shot in detail, and we then come up with a couple of ideas that we're throwing back at him. He looks at the whole thing and may say, "It's too long…It's too short…It should be more exciting." You know, it's just iterating.
PT: And the great thing about working with J.J. too, is that he's extremely knowledgeable about what digital effects can do and how they should be used. He approaches things with an eye towards the correct way of using our skills. At ILM, we're in the great position of not having to say "No" very often to anything. But what we do is help the director understand the resource commitment something might require and what that means to the production overall. Or, how can something be presented to make it more successful, something J.J. has an eye for already that we can help refine down to, "Okay, here's what we're actually going to do."
RG: We've worked together a lot -- we've done a lot of stuff together. There's a certain degree of trust between us. We can have pretty open conversations. I'm not just talking about me and J.J. I'm talking about half the production team on this show. We'd all worked together before…we could actually reference things we'd done together. We could actually talk to the DP and say, "Hey, do you remember when we did that? That worked really well when we just built that thing…on that planet." We could go back to Mission: Impossible III, you know, where we'd done a lot of this stuff. So that's an enormous pool of work to draw from in terms of communicating your ideas. That creates a shorthand that he trusts. But, J.J is the ultimate decision maker in all of this process. He understands a lot of the technology and the ideas you're trying to communicate.
We have these moments with him where he's very specific about things like, "I want the droid to be practical up to a point." And I understand that there are certain shots you can't do with BB-8. But by shooting that droid practical, I can now direct that droid as a character. Live actors and a set...they have a tangible understanding where they are, and that helps the actors and it helps us, even if that set is pretty small. J.J. totally gets it, he totally understands.
In our relationship, I've said to him, "If you want to have something look real, weirdly enough, if you actually do it for real, it will actually look incredibly real." Now where on that line are we going? Where can we go in terms of creating that? If you're in a Star Destroyer hanger, can we just build a little piece of a wall? Does that work? Well, yeah, because if you shoot it like this and…it's a very complicated and interesting process.
DS: So what are the key factors you consider when deciding what you can shoot practically and what must be done fully or mostly digital? It seemed there were a considerable number of practical sets in the film.
RG: And that's what we wanted. We knew there was going to be enormous gap, Okay? Because there's a certain point where the practical work, you know…we can't get an X-wing to fly apparently, and we can't get the Millennium Falcon to take off and then crash into the ground. Okay. But you can ground those scenes in some reality...you can do that process hopefully on a path that sets up those moments in the film to be more and more believable.
Those moments come from me and Neil [Scanlon, CFX and SMUFX creative supervisor] and Chris [Corbould, SFX supervisor] and Pat and J.J. in a room just sitting around, literally going through the work and saying, "You know, that would work really well…and if we just shot a plate, and have a, you know…” and Neil might be saying, "Okay, I know we can achieve the first part with the real practical BB-8, but there's a certain point in there where I know a puppeteer is not going to be able make that thing work.” That’s where we say, “Don't worry about that, we'll go digital, then we'll go real puppet, then we'll go digital…"
But the other part of the answer to your question is that we have to show some restraint, and imagine if that thing was really happening, how you would go about photographing it. If I could fly an X-wing, how would I photograph it? What are the kind of shots I could do? Well, I could mount a camera to the cockpit, I could do a POV shot. But if I mount the camera on the side, the chances are it's not going to look right. This starts getting into the language of filmmaking.
DS: So do those filmmaking decisions come down to budget, logistics, schedule? Are you just looking for what you think will give you the best “look?”
RG: Of course money comes in to at a certain point. But I'm going to say one thing to you and that is, “light.”
DS: Hah! When you and I talked about your work on Cowboys & Aliens, you spoke at length about how much you focused on capturing real lighting on camera. I never realized how important that was.
RG: If you can do that, to me, that's the very foundation of a great shot. When that image is burnt into the emulsion of that frame of film, that's what you have! It's like somebody building a concrete foundation to your house and you say, "Oh, well I was kind of thinking it would be, you know, a four story building that has a view of the lake," and they’re saying, "Yeah, but we’re actually building a cottage..." You know?
PT: I've had the experience where you start to talk about building something, and the conversation naturally goes to, "Well, but it's not going to work all the way, right? You're not going to be able to achieve a 100% practical set. If I can only achieve 80% of what I need in camera, then let's not do it at all." And that really hurts you. Because if you're not willing to put in the eighty percent then you lose a tremendous amount of the realism, all the things that Roger is talking about regarding real lighting reference.
If you can at least get something, if you can at least shoot something, then you've got a lot of what you need. And that's what Roger's willing to do, what J.J.'s willing to do, what everyone on the crew is willing to do, putting in the effort to try and achieve that 100%. If you don't quite get there, that’s Okay, we can fill in that little gap [digitally]. We can always fill in that little gap. But if you've got nothing, then we're starting from ground zero. And on this film, there was the willingness to go out and shoot something, even if it wasn’t quite going to be 100%. But sometimes it is -- that's the thing. Sometimes it is 100% and it looks amazing.
RG: Imagine in the Falcon chase. We had the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon on a motion base that Chris Corbould built. And for whatever reason, the Gods decided that it would suddenly be sunny in England, and we could move that motion base around with Daisy [Ridley, the actress playing lead character Rey] flying the Millennium Falcon. And the light, the shadows of that cockpit, the bars, are dancing all over her. And, so, you're jumping between shots, from The Emirates and London, of her on a motion base steering the Millennium Falcon. But the fact that you're shooting it in sunlight, a lot of people would say, "No, we should do this inside. We’ll just put a light on her." But it's not real sun, you know? And you and I, we can all see that in the image. We can see the difference. And those kinds of details I think make a huge difference.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.