When Roger Guyett of Industrial Light & Magic set to work as visual effects supervisor and second unit director on Star Wars Episode VII – The Force Awakens, he had to put aside the intimidating nature of such a long-awaited film. “You just become incredibly preoccupied with the task at hand,” he says, “just trying to make it the best it can be, and obviously we worked incredibly hard.” In fact Guyett was in so deep on this project, it wasn’t until the first trailer aired that he remembered the scale of what he was doing. “Suddenly you’re totally reminded in a very simple, very visceral way–seeing this huge crowd go absolutely berserk.”
The British-born Guyett, who had previously worked with director J.J. Abrams on Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness, was conscious of creating a film that harkened back to the ‘realness’ of the original Star Wars trilogy. “We worked so hard to make it not feel like an effects movie, despite the fact that really it’s at the core of the whole project. I mean, try and do Star Wars without visual effects. It would be kind of a dull movie. Maybe they’d spend all the time talking about other planets or whatever, or having lunch or something.” However, with an Oscar nom in the offing, there’s hope Guyett will be rewarded for the massive 2,100 effects shots he painstakingly packed into The Force Awakens.
As a boy watching the original Star Wars in England, did you one day dream of doing this job?
When I was growing up, the idea that I’d ever work in the film business was mad. I remember my dad saying to me, “You love going to the movies.” But at the same time, the notion of working in the film business just seemed like going to find the Wizard of Oz or something. It would seem a bit mad if I said to my dad, “I’m going to go work in the film business.” I think he would’ve had me committed.
But there were lots of things that I was interested in that have a connection to what I do now. I was really interested in photography and art and drawing and I had a big interest in model-making. But I had no access to even a Super-8 camera or anything like that. We certainly didn’t have the money for that. It’s funny, when they announced the nominations recently, my mother called me–she’s 87–and she said to me, “just think what your grandparents would’ve thought of all of this!” My grandfather was a very hard-working garage mechanic and it just seemed a long way from that world.
You’ve got an enormous body of work behind you, including Star Trek and Revenge of the Sith, but was there a part of you that felt, “this is the big one?”
Yeah, I think so. You have flashes of that really strong feeling. J.J. would say to me, “Oh my God, we’re making Star Wars!” He would have the same feeling. I would say I’d never worked as hard on any other movie, and that’s probably part of that responsibility, or the feeling that you don’t want to disappoint people, and we just didn’t want to settle for anything but the best. But in truth you’re so preoccupied on a day-to-day basis that we would just occasionally have those moments. I think when they started selling tickets and somebody said, “Oh, the Internet has exploded,” or, “the ticket system has melted,” or whatever because there’s so many people online trying to buy tickets, you realize, this really is that fever pitch.
Fans have celebrated this film as a return to the original Star Wars style, with what they perceive as a less CG-heavy look–but there are actually 2,100 effects in the film.
Ultimately that’s what we were really striving for. At the core of what we were trying to do was to create this experience for the audience where you’re not really so aware of the effects work that we’re doing, and we tried to make it as photo-real as we could–we made plenty of choices to try and enhance its realism. Obviously if you just stop and think about what you’re actually saying on the screen, clearly you’d have questions as to whether or not someone had actually managed to make a weapon that was the size of a planet, or whether or not they truly got the Millennium Falcon to fly. I think the innovation we had there was just coming at it from both sides, which was embracing the old school kind of approach of really going to locations, but then marrying that with the biggest technological advances that we could come up with.
So how did you pull off that realism exactly? I believe you went to the desert and flew helicopters to get a photographic sense of it?
Yeah. And that really is just creating this kind of reference library of material that you can call upon. Imagine if you were really photographing for real, say the Falcon chase. Every day you’d be going up in your special spaceship with cameras onboard, and you would be watching the Millennium Falcon fly across the desert being chased by TIE fighters, and you’d be choosing angles and photographing that. The fact that the Falcon is traveling at 700 miles an hour, or whatever it travels at, just means that practically it’s very difficult to build up or shoot a plate for that kind of action because we just don’t have access to that kind of equipment generally. So our approach was: okay, how do we create this environment so that we can essentially make it look real, but also just create the shots as we need them? So you build up that environment from a real place, and then you could take advantage of the fact that you can shoot reference of the sand dunes and the way they behave in the light and all those sorts of things. The same was true for virtually everything that we did in the digital world–we would always base it around real places so that you could build up this reference library and understand how those shots might look. Again, that was just doing the right homework to create these worlds in a way that people just felt had a more attachable and realistic quality to them.
How did having real models help you?
A lot of the time it’s sleight of hand that we tried to embrace, so even BB-8 would often be digital and then he’d become real again, and then he’d be digital again. Those kinds of things are so much easier to pull off and so much more successful when the qualities of that character are something that you can define. So if you use a puppeteer, and the puppeteer is actually animating BB-8 for example in the real world, JJ can react in real-time and say, “Yes, that’s how I want that droid to behave.” Then, when we do our work later in post, and we do digital shots of BB-8, you have this incredible foundation of who that character is, what his personality is like, how the materials that make him actually function in the real world.
It also allows all the other actors to react to him and understand his behavior. You’re not just saying, “Hey, we’re going to do BB-8 in post.” They can see him developing as a character in front of them, and anything that we can do to ground the actors in some sense of reality, we did do.
Likewise with the digital characters, we got real people to play them. You have Andy Serkis and Lupita Nyong’o, and I think Lupita did an extraordinary job of her performance that Maz was based around. So, it’s always just grounding these things in some version of reality, which sounds a little mad when you’re talking about Star Wars, but that’s kind of our approach.
What do you particularly enjoy about working with J.J. Abrams?
It’s like a long-standing marriage where you have these touchstones in your history together that you can refer to. And when we’re developing an idea for something, you know, we just have this tremendous amount of experience together. This is the fourth movie that I’ve done with him, and I even worked on Super 8 for a tiny bit. I think he’s an incredibly creative man, and he finds that right balance of having fun and the challenge of the work.
He is incredibly challenging and not afraid to be bold. I think so many directors, as soon as they’ve taken on a project like this, would just be frozen like a deer in the headlights, and that was not him. He full-on ran at this thing, and that sort of level of energy is just totally infectious.
As a human being, I have a tremendous amount of respect for him. He’s very appreciative of people’s efforts. Filmmaking is a collaborative thing, and he’s not afraid to listen to other people’s ideas, but at the same time, I think so many things in that movie come from him. I give a tremendous amount of credit to him for all sorts of things, including even designing BB-8, I mean, he designed BB-8, basically.
How hard was it to keep all those Star Wars secrets on lockdown?
My best friend has two twins, I think they’re 13 now, and every time they saw me they’d just be all over me, asking me questions about things that they’d seen. It was very sweet. It was just a lot of fun. Most people, I think they were just so excited and that sort of thing is incredibly infectious. My sister and brother were relatively restrained, but my girlfriend always said, “Don’t ask him any questions because he’s not going to tell you.”
I remember Dan Mindel, the DP, was asked some question about how we were going to shoot the movie before it was officially released. He had been speaking to someone at Kodak or something and Dan said, “I think we’re probably going to shoot it on film,” and then, literally that afternoon the whole internet erupted with, ‘Star Wars shot on film.’ I think he was just mortified. So from that moment on–that was literally six months before the shoot–I thought, “Holy crap, you’ve got to keep your mouth shut.”