“A kind of homespun feeling” - talking effects with the team behind Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

There’s been a lot of talk about how Star Wars: The Force Awakens returns to the style of the original trilogy, complete with old faces, (actually funny) comic touches and even a souped-up Death Star threatening intergalactic peril.

“A kind of homespun feeling” - talking effects with the team behind Star Wars: The Force Awakens

And it’s awesome. There’s a fine line between homage and pastiche, but yet again J.J. Abrams treads it with perfect poise.

In their quest to re-conjure the magic of the original trilogy, the team decided to shoot on film, and to perform as many effects as they could in camera. This presented a huge creative challenge, so it was great to hear the film’s Visual Effects Supervisor on the film Pat Tubach, Special Effects Supervisor Chris Corbould, Creature Effects Supervisor Neal Scanlan and J.J. Abrams discuss it in a Q&A with VES earlier this month.

Around one hundred creatures and droids were made for the film, which look fantastic and effectively connect the story with the earlier episodes. Chris Corbauld talked about the value of involving the main actors in the explosions, and it really shows.

But times have changed, and filmmaking is not the same. As Neal Scanlan put it, “There are not many films these days… that use, or desire, practical effects… [Star Wars] is a world that still remains where practical effects are possible; in fact, they’re not just possible – they’re desired.”

According to Scanlan, practical effects reached their peak with the T-Rex in Jurassic Park. But that one creature required such a huge crew and infrastructure to support it that the constraints of modern filmmaking, which requires speed and efficiency, just wouldn’t allow it now.

The answer came through using a complex hybrid of practical and digital effects. Since ILM goes right back to the dawn of the galaxy far, far away, it was committed to bringing its digital ingenuity while staying true to the space opera’s hands-on spirit. Scanlan continued, “Working with ILM, and working with the digital side, the limits of practical effects have now become somewhat less limited.”

Pat Tubach agreed: “I think the general philosophy is, just shoot it when you can… what can we possibly do for real, and right up to the point you decide – it’s not just whether it’s convenient, or cost saving, it’s more about how is this going to look and what’s going to give us the most tangible sort of result, and I think these guys did an awesome job of taking it right up to the edge of what isn’t going to work, and that’s where we can jump in and help with those things.”

On the other hand, Tubach pointed out that scenes like the Millennium Falcon chase through the desert wouldn’t even have been possible when Episode III was made, just ten years ago. Just as George Lucas was keen to experiment with the possibilities of new effects in the original films, The Force Awakens pushes both digital and practical boundaries.

For the digital team, one of the most challenging tasks involved a chasm (not to give too much away). Tubach described daily meetings between the rigid, particle and environment teams to coordinate their work to bring this spectacular scene to life. It helped that ILM moved into London during this period, so they could be close to Pinewood Studios where much of the film, including this scene, was shot. From the London studio, kitted out by Escape Technology, ILM produced work that can only be described as mind-bending.

The resulting film is a dazzling display of narrative power, underpinned by genuinely beautiful effects, both practical and digital. It’s a massive, immersive experience, but J.J. Abrams still found while making the film that there was “a kind of homespun feeling…. Everyone was there, in a way making this little movie that we knew was part of something bigger than all of us.”
The feeling that comes from watching the film is of something at once fantastical and yet still deeply connected with the physical world as we understand it. It’s an astonishing achievement, and has us extremely excited about what’s to come next.