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The Magic Behind the Magic of 'Star Wars: Episode IX’

Production VFX supervisor Roger Guyett talks creating Princess Leia, the benefits of practical shooting, and bringing the saga to a close.

In a 20-plus-year career as a visual effects supervisor, Roger Guyett has been involved with some of the most popular and visually sophisticated movies of recent times, including multiple films in the Harry Potter, Mission Impossible, Pirates of the Caribbean, Star Trek, and Star Wars franchises. Along the way, he has been nominated for eight BAFTA awards (winning in 1999 and 2016), seven VES Awards (winning in 2005 and 2016), and six Oscars. In recognition of his work on the last of the nine original Star Wars saga franchise films, Disney and Lucasfilm’s Star Wars: Episode IX - The Rise of Skywalker, Guyett has received more than a half dozen nominations, and will contend once again for the Academy Award for Outstanding Visual Effects on February 9th.

With the 92nd Annual Academy Awards just three days away, and images finally “OKd” this morning via Disney, we can share our recent talk with Guyett about his work on the concluding Star Wars chapter and the ways in which it both built on and surpassed its predecessors.

AWN: Before we get into the nuts and bolts, I just wanted to ask: You've been nominated for an Oscar before, but I imagine that it's always a thrill, something that never gets old?

Roger Guyett: Yeah, you're absolutely right. It's all thrilling, but especially the fact that the nomination comes from your peers and the fact of the work getting recognized like that. No, it's fantastic, absolutely fantastic.

AWN: Your approach as an overall VFX supervisor, a second-unit director… a filmmaker, is a little different than other folks I’ve talked to. Regarding both Star Wars: Episode VII and Episode IX, as expansive as these movies are, there’s an intimacy in them that’s based on the characters, and it feels very real. That drove the film for me as much as anything else.

Guyett: That's great. I mean, J.J. Abrams is a very story-driven guy, and by story I also mean the emotional journey of the characters, so it’s really great that that resonates with you. IX was a really complicated movie to make, in the sense that you're trying to bring all these different stories and journeys and people to an end in a succinct and gratifying way. And it’s a funny thing to say about a movie that's two hours and 20 minutes long, but I think it’s pretty economical. I think J.J. tried to make sure that every moment is story-driven, however spectacular it is. Even the action beats are associated with the success or challenge that a character is facing. And I think the acting is also really great – Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, and Daisy Ridley did a really great job with their roles.

AWN: Absolutely. Let's talk a little bit about the decisions with regards to what to shoot practically and what to do with CG. And with regards to the practical shooting, how you lit it, and how that set the stage for how the lighting would be handled in the CG.

Guyett: J.J. still remembers a conversation that he and I had on Mission Impossible 3, which was me trying to implore him to build even a partial [set] for something that we were working on. And it was just based on the idea that you end up with a more realistic result if you can somehow ground what you're trying to achieve [in CG], or at least have some kind of framework to build from, however crazy it seems that you would actually attempt to shoot some of these shots. And because we've done so much work together, he’s come to see the benefit of this approach and has wholeheartedly embraced it. It's just this idea that if the cameraman is actually framing up on something, then it gives it this more realistic, more tangible, more film-driven kind of result.

As far as lighting goes, [cinematographer] Dan Mindel and I have worked on quite a few movies together and we’ve built this great relationship. One of the great things about working with somebody over a long period of time is that you both remember decisions that you've made, whether or not they've been successful, so that the next time you try something similar, you have this huge body of work to draw from. Also, he's always had this notion that it's not just about what you're shooting at the moment, it's about the image that you're creating as a larger piece of the story. In other words, you might be shooting one element, but you must always keep in mind what you want the big image to look like.

In Episode IX, we built more puppets and animatronics that we had before, and I wholeheartedly embrace that. I think one thing about Star Wars is it's the kind of movie where you want to have moments where people can enjoy the puppets – in the bar or whatever – characters that someone like [creature effects supervisor] Neil Scanlan is so good at creating. And we were very ambitious about that. But we also clearly did a lot of digital work too, and I think the quality is a testament to the talent of the guys involved. I mean, there were so many shots where you're going from a real BB-8 to a digital BB-8, back to a real BB-8. Same thing with the horses. We wanted to be able to photograph people riding animals, so we did a very Star Wars-ian thing of dressing some horses up in these hair suits. But in some scenes, it would go from a real horse to a digital horse, and sometimes I look at the shots afterward and think, "Which parts of this are digital and which parts are real?"

AWN: Were there any special challenges on Episode IX?

Guyett: One of the really big challenges, which was taken on by [visual effects supervisor] Nigel Sumner and his team at ILM Singapore, was the water. Rick Hankins, who did visual effects in Episode VII, had written a new water solver that was more accurate in depicting the way the water physically moved. And I think that really worked well. I think the water surface is just amazing, and the splashes, and everything. And of course, as I’ve mentioned, we also wanted actual live footage to work with. I have to say, it was November and it was freezing cold, and it was tough for Adam Driver and his stand-in David [Connon], but they really were there in that moment, fighting on that pier. But Nigel and his team did a fantastic job with the water, and then [special effects supervisor] Dominic Tuohy did a lot of stuff, like creating some water that would splash across them, which really generated the ambience of what that moment might be like. Of course, we ended up replacing a lot of the practical elements, but it certainly made the actors feel like they were really there.

AWN: I imagine Princess Leia was another big challenge. How early on did you know that she was going to be in the film as much as she was?

Guyett: I would say pretty early on. When J.J. took over the movie and started writing the script, we spoke a couple of times. And in one conversation he said, "Now, if I want to include Princess Leia, how should we do that?" We talked about it a few times. He was very confident that we could create a digital realistic-looking Leia, but the performance wouldn't have been authored by Carrie Fisher, and he thought that was a real problem. He felt that it would affect the integrity of the film. So instead we went through all the outtakes from VII and even VIII, and we this huge database of all the lines that she had spoken that hadn't been used. And then [co-screenwriter] Chris Terrio and J.J. used some of those lines in the script. Then we looked at those scenes and decided which ones worked best narratively and emotionally.

There was a tremendous amount of preplanning, which was an incredibly time-consuming thing to do, but we just had to do it. So J.J. would describe the scenes as he was writing them, and we would look at the footage and use storyboards to see how we might stage these moments. Because obviously, you have multiple things going on. The lighting and the other elements must be correct. And you have to really feel that she's being integrated into the scene. In other words, you can't just keep cutting to a single shot of her. You must feel like she is there in that moment. And so, we were very keen on using shots where she was moving, or the camera was moving, or we were panning to her, or doing something a little bit more complicated. The end result is really great when, for example, she says something like, “Never underestimate a droid” and she walks past Daisy.

We had to use motion control a lot of the time. The actors obviously had to completely buy into it. We had a laptop, where we'd have a version of the scene, so the actors could understand what they were working with. And we'd have Carrie's original line readings. We also had a stand-in, who would learn the scenes. But the thing that really made it more complicated, but made the end result so much more satisfying, was giving her a new wardrobe, new jewelry, new hair. It was sleight of hand, in a sense, that we used her faced from previous footage, but everything else was created digitally. Instead of just cutting her out from VII and using her in her costume, we could cut her face out, and then blend her into a digital version of herself that moved in the same way.

AWN: I didn't realize that's how it was done. Her face is the face from the outtakes, you used a stand-in to shoot, and you created a new digital character around the face?

Guyett: And the stand-in was helpful for the staging of the moment. In other words, we got somebody who was the same size as Carrie and had similar features, so that when we started lining the shot up, you had something to look at and check yourself. And of course, we were using video playback and stuff like that to check our alignments and so on. But most of the time, we were using a clean plate without her, to put Carrie in.

Now, the interesting thing is that with J.J. you want to move the camera. And as soon as you move the camera, then obviously you have to match the perspective of the face that you’re using. So, the camera is moving, and sometimes Carrie is moving. So now you really must use motion control to guarantee that the camera is moving in the same way. I did wonder whether we could rehearse somebody enough so that we could use a real person and put Carrie's head on her. But the problem is there are just too many variables. We did try it, just to see how far off it would be. But it really had to be motion control, which of course directors really don't like because it’s so slow to use, especially by J.J.'s standard. So, when we were inside, we were fine. We could change the lighting around; Dan would match the lighting. But when we were outside, we had to wait for the sun. We had to make sure that the sun was hitting her face at the right angle. So, it was a big deal, you know?

AWN: These films are so huge. There are a million spaceships and a massive third act battle. I kind of assume that these days spaceships and space battles are the peanut butter sandwich of the visual effects business, but it still must take a massive effort.

Guyett: I think what J.J. wanted was this sort of Dunkirk moment, with all the little ships turning up to defeat the bad guys. And yes, of course, much of the technology for doing this kind of thing exists. But the fact that we needed 16,000 ships, or something like that, really created a tremendous issue for us in terms of model building – but also in terms of a strategy for how to create that fleet. The guys wrote some programs that basically took the galaxy ships we had and made variations around those, so that we could create 16,000 different ships.

Then, in the background, according to Paul Kavanagh, the animation supervisor, there was something like a thousand star destroyers. I mean, it was just a huge model-building and animation effort to make all that work. If you have thousands of ships in dogfights, yes, we could animate the hero action in the foreground, but they were also writing scripts to generate the background action, which by itself was a huge task. There were just so many huge simulations of those ships breaking apart – just that one shot with the main star destroyer hitting the planet was months and months of work. We used all the offices of ILM – Vancouver, Singapore, London, San Francisco, the new Australian office – on this film.

You look at the Star Wars franchise, and you go, "Yeah, sure." We'd sort of been there before, but they are massive productions. And of course, the post schedule was really squeezed because of the late start of the shoot. And so there we were, a couple of months in, and suddenly we needed to be finishing a hundred shots a week. I mean, it's kind of mind-boggling.

AWN: You've been working on big films for a long time, and you spent a lot of years making a number of the nine films in this famous franchise. Now this saga is coming to an end. Looking back, how do you feel about this work? What does it mean to you?

Guyett: Well, I'm obviously extremely grateful for having had the opportunity to work on Star Wars. I'm really honored and extremely proud of the work that we did. Part of what’s interesting to me about Star Wars is that it’s had this long timeline, which parallels the development of so many techniques in the visual effects world. So to have that be part of my career, to be linked in some way to all these people that have played such a huge part in the history of visual effects – John Dykstra, Richard Edlund, Dennis Muren, John Knoll, Ken Ralston and so many others – is really special to me.

Jon Hofferman's picture
Jon Hofferman is a freelance writer and editor based in Los Angeles. He is also the creator of the Classical Composers Poster, an educational and decorative music timeline chart that makes a wonderful gift.