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Never a Dull Moment: Paul Kavanagh Talks ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’

ILM animation supervisor discusses the wide range of complicated shots that kept his team scrambling for two years on J.J. Abrams’ blockbuster sci-fi action film.

Over the course of two years Industrial Light & Magic animation supervisor Paul Kavanagh spent working on Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens, he was always certain of one thing – the fast pace and constantly shifting work focus meant he never had a dull moment on the project. That work trajectory took him from initial experimentation with characters, spaceships and scenes to actual shot production, eventually concluding with a mad rush to complete everything on time.  “You don’t have a moment to stop and breathe because you’re going all the time,” Kavanagh notes. With overall visual effects supervisor Roger Guyett (Star Trek Into Darkness) overseeing the project, ILM took on 2100 visual effects shots, with contributions from their studios in San Francisco, Singapore, Vancouver and London.  As Kavanagh describes, “Nowadays big tentpole visual effects movies are split up between multiple facilities and different companies.  We were lucky with Star Wars being such a huge show that it stayed in-house with ILM.  The only thing we had to deal with was the time zone difference.”

“One of the things we wanted to do was use our new facial motion-capture technology along with keyframe animation to bring the full CG characters of Maz and Snoke to life in ways we had never done before,” states Kavanagh.  “Then we had a lot to do with space battle sequences.  We were trying to streamline the process so much that the animators could work in real-time.  With the new technology inside Maya, we were even able to drive some of the lighting direction including which way the shadows fell.  It’s the kind of stuff that we’re not used to doing. But it was important to get that point across for J.J. [Abrams, the film’s director] so he could see a more finished render come straight out of animation. We’re doing more complex animation renders with textures, lighting, particle effects and motion blur because of the speed of the software. It’s great.”     

Kavanagh’s team spent time talking to modellers, making sure the models were light and fast to better enable the animation work. “We do a lot of layout tasks in animation, setting up the environments and what they will look like,” he explains. “When we built the Starkiller Base with the trench run towards the end of the movie, we pencilled that all out in rough animation with simple objects we could build ourselves. That helped us get a sense of scale and speed because we were controlling all of that in animation.  Then we worked closely with the Environment Department, which helped us out with models and texturing.  We were all working together in a much more collaborative way.  The walls are definitely coming down and the departments are blurring into each other.”

A great source of information on the project was the pool of creative talent at ILM who worked on the original trilogy.  “Dennis Muren and Scott Farrar were a wealth of knowledge,” says Kavanagh, who attended presentations conducted by the two ILM veterans where they spoke about shooting techniques, such as making the models feel big and imposing by always looking up at them. “You have a model of a Star Destroyer which is at a certain scale that requires a lot of detail.  Then there’s a stage which physically has a certain dimension. You want to use a particular lens, so the camera has to be put right at the other end of the building to do a move pushing into ship.  It was great hearing stories about the problems they were going through at the time, how they would solve them and the aesthetic choices being made along with the technology.  Nowadays we don’t have those limitations within the computer, but we wanted to make it look and feel like the original Star War movies. So we would talk to them about composition, camera lens choices, and lighting direction.”                        

“J.J. cast actors in the roles of Maz and Snoke to bring their personalities, developing those characters on-set while they were shooting,” explains Kavanagh when discussing the decision to use motion-capture performances from Lupita Nyong’o and Andy Serkis.  “We have a system at ILM where animators can tweak the motion-capture performance and separate it out into facial shapes and expressions.  If J.J. wanted to push a certain expression at a particular time, we could do that and it would still the performance of the actor.”

Adjustments had to be made to accommodate both Maz Kanata and Supreme Leader being completely different physically from Nyong’o and Serkis.  Says Kavanagh, “Snoke was more straightforward because he is humanoid. But when you look at Maz, she has these big eyes, small mouth, tiny nose and eyebrows in a different spot.  When you add the motion-capture on top [of the model] it could push her face into an expression that you don’t want.  The animators massage those shapes and facial expressions coming out of the solve and look at the reference of Lupita performing to make sure they’re faithfully representing what expression she really should have on the model of Maz.”

In addition to the challenge matching Lupita’s performance to Maz’s body, Kavanagh had issues with the character’s skin. “We’re all used to looking at the skin quality of a human face,” he observes.  “But when you add a bronzy orange skin tone you don’t want it to feel like make-up on top of an actor.  What you want to say is, ‘This is a living and breathing creature which has that skin pigment colour.’  We worked hard when rendering to get the right quality and feel of the skin.  Maz looked great in the movie.  I went along with her character and totally believed it.” 

The alien was physically created by creature effects supervisor Neil Scanlan (Prometheus) who took advantage of recent advances made with prosthetics and animatronics.  “We were impressed by how far he [Scanlan] could take something and breathe life into it,” notes Kavanagh.  “With Maz, we wanted to make her feel like an animatronic puppet. But J.J. was adamant at the beginning that he wanted the performance of Lupita to come through on the character.”

The film also introduces a skittish new droid in the form of the rolling ball known as BB-8.  “It was quite hard to physically make a puppet which worked like that,” states Kavanagh.  “There were four to five different versions.  When the design of BB-8 was finalized a CAD model was built and a puppet was milled from that.  I grabbed the CAD model in the computer and started rigging it up and doing some quick animation tests to see what this thing would look like.  All of that information got fed over to the guys making the model.  They could look at the animation tests and J.J. could say, ‘I like the wiggly antennae. I don’t like the way he is rolling.  I want him to weave left or move right.’  I have to give credit to the puppeteers, Brian Herring and David Chapman who did a fantastic job bringing such character into BB-8.”  The droid had to be able to emote without the assistance of eyelids or a mouth. Kavanagh continues, “If BB-8 is sad his head droops forward on the ball and he rolls away.  When BB-8 is excited his head pops up on the top of the ball, looks around left to right very quickly, and the ball wiggles around. He gives thumbs up with a little tool that pops out of his body.  It’s amazing the amount of emotion you can get out of BB-8.”

Shot design and ship animation were a big part of the Falcon Chase/Graveyard Sequence where Rey (Daisy Ridley) pilots the iconic spacecraft, pursed by TIE fighters, into a crashed Super Star Destroyer.  “We wanted to it be kinetic and dynamic,” explains Kavanagh.  “We had never seen the Falcon being chased in an atmosphere, so we wanted it to feel gritty like a classic car chase.  We thought about those types of movies as far as what we could do with the shot design, as well as how the Falcon flies.  We didn’t want to mess with the Falcon because it’s a massive character in the Star Wars universe.  We were doing little things like making the tail of the Falcon swerve out as it turns a corner.  The Falcon is a big ship, so we tried to keep the weight but also wanted it to feel agile.  A lot times we would animate the camera opposed to the ship if we wanted to get more speed or more dynamic shots.”

Kavanagh continues, “[That type of] Virtual cinematography is not just about composition and animation.  It’s about how the lighting affects it, what the backgrounds look like, and determining how much depth we put into it with the compositing.  We talked about all of those elements in dailies.  It’s great to be that collaborative with everyone.”                                                 

The Castle Attack scene was equally complicated. “For the Castle Attack we did a test shot for the trailer where the X-Wings fly low over the water, kicking up a bunch of mist,” remarks Kavanagh.  “J.J. loved that idea. It was piece of artwork that we turned into a shot. It ended up in the movie more as a sequence and was mainly plate based.  They shot a bunch of plates at the Pinewood back lot of the destroyed Castle and Stormtroopers fighting the Resistance.  We were tilting up and panning off the battle down onto that fight.  We would do some wide geography shots so that everyone could understand what was going on.”

As they moved towards the end of the movie, they started employing more all CG sequences.  “We wanted a more exciting third act so we thought it would be great if Han Solo and Chewbacca were instrumental in blowing up the planet and that the X-Wings came back into the fight,” say Kavanagh. “Then our hero Poe Dameron [Oscar Isaac] is able to put the final dagger in to kill the beast.  That whole sequence came from that idea later on in the process. We created a whole sequence where the X-Wings are fighting above Starkiller Base, then see that Han and Chewie have done their part and dive down to the planet. The whole trench run came out of that.  We wanted to pay homage to the original movie but do it differently with Poe going into the centre of the base and blowing up the big red pipes with BB-8.  It was a fun sequence to do and added a layer of jeopardy to the ending.”

As Kavanagh describes, all of the ships had their own character throughout the movie. “X-Wings are agile, like fighter planes, while TIE fighters are gnarly little ships that are moveable and fast. We tried to get a good silhouette of the TIE fighter without obscuring the cockpit with the large wing.”  Cockpits were constructed and attached to gimbals, giving a great feel and motion to the plates that were then used within the computer for the ships driving through space. “One of the things we said to the animators was not to look at the backgrounds, because they were rolling and moving the gimbal in such a way to get a beautiful light shadow to pass over the cockpits and pilots,” Kavanagh explains. “We wanted to make the shots really dynamic with this fantastic foreground element we could tie into.”  Digital doubles were made for most of the pilots and heroes. According to Kavanagh, “Rey and Finn had a big digital double element, as well as Han falling to his death, which we were quite worried about.”

As Kavanagh describes, the biggest challenge was being faithful to the Star Wars legacy. “We watched the movies over and over again,” he notes. “We wanted to make it feel like you were a kid again in a movie theatre.  We didn’t want to do anything that took you out of that feeling.”   One signature sequence in particular elicited cheers from audience members.  “We worked on the Falcon Chase from previs to shot completion so we were excited to see the faces of people when they discovered the Falcon,” says Kavanagh. “This was a big show with a big legacy to live up to. We had an amazing team of people on the show and enjoyed the process.  J.J. worked with us plenty of times before and was comfortable with us.  Kathy Kennedy was amazing, letting us run with some ideas that ended up in the movie.”

Trevor Hogg's picture

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer best known for composing in-depth filmmaker and movie profiles for VFX Voice, Animation Magazine, and British Cinematographer.