Taking on The Force Awakens, followed directly by The Last Jedi, Oscar-nominated visual effects supervisors Ben Morris and Mike Mulholland have been living in the Star Wars universe for years now, and they wouldn’t have it any other way.
On The Last Jedi, the pair would encounter ample creature work—typically involving a combination of practical and visual effects—finding one of their greatest challenges in the character of Supreme Leader Snoke.
While Snoke (Andy Serkis) had been seen in The Force Awakens in hologram form, The Last Jedi would require the character to be seen in a different light. Sharing scenes in the room with Rey, the Supreme Leader would need to be fleshed out.
Though director Rian Johnson entertained some discussion of bringing Snoke to life through prosthetics, he came to realize that this wasn’t a real option—not with the character’s previously-established, bizarre facial features.
While makeup and prosthetics have played a critical role in shaping many Star Wars creatures and characters, it was only through visual effects that Snoke could come to life, truly and without compromise.
Opening up a new Star Wars film must be a dream for many a visual effects artist. Why did you decide to stay on board for The Last Jedi?
Ben Morris: For me, The Force Awakens was a very positive experience. I got to work with Roger Guyett, who was the overall supervisor, and has a very close relationship with J.J. [Abrams]. There was definitely a sense of stepping into the role that Roger had on this, which was very exciting to me. As the creative director in London, this was a big project for us—it was the first time a Star Wars film would be centered outside of San Francisco,
Mike Mulholland: The big change from Force Awakens to Last Jedi for me was that we were working on it right from the start and getting involved in a lot of the asset creation in London. Huge amounts of builds and spaceship design were happening over here, which was really interesting to be involved with. The scope of the work we were doing was on a different scale to the previous film.
Given the mythology and visual language that all Star Wars films share, did Rian Johnson convey specific notes as far as his hopes for the aesthetic of this film?
Morris: Rian wanted to attempt to do as much as he could practically, and that’s not a unique aspiration of directors nowadays. That came from the fact that Rian hadn’t done a very large visual effects film before. He did Looper, but it was a very subtle use of visual effects. He wanted to very definitely make the film feel filmic, even if we were capturing the images on a digital device.
Those were some overarching briefs from Rian, and the other thing that I would say is, he was incredibly consistent. His script was fantastic as a first draft, and it didn’t really change that much. With Rian, less is more. He never wanted us to go big for no reason.
Mulholland: There is a set template—there’s a recipe for the Star Wars films—and we’re always trying to work within that template and be within the same world. Rian was very attuned to that. He was coming at it with his experience with the films as a fan, and he wanted visuals that stayed within that world.
We were mixing some of the old and some of the new. A lot of the things we were making were updated based on older designs—some of the Resistance fleet, for example. A lot of them have designs back to the original ships, but just 30 years later, or even bring back a ship from the past; such as the A-wing, which makes a reappearance. It’s continual—whenever we’re looking at any kind of model, if it’s at the art department stage or in the final renders, we’re always trying to look at what we’re doing and make sure it ties back into previous defined looks, and the flavor we’re used to seeing.
What was the process of designing new creatures for the film, from a VFX perspective? Supposedly, the porgs were inspired visually by the puffins that inhabit Ireland’s Skellig Island, where a number of Luke Skywalker scenes were shot.
Morris: With the porgs, the intent was to take inspiration from Skellig Michael, the island off the Irish coast where puffins were everywhere, and mix up the puffin with a sea lion and a couple of other looks.
The hope was that we’d be able to use puppets for every piece of action in the film that they’re in. We had some amazing puppets, and they had to build special rigs for almost every gag because the puppets are sometime quite limited in what they can do. When we got back to editorial and the film started coming together, we were tasked with removing some of the puppeteers’ rods, and other work that we were doing on the faces was quite minimal and 2D. Rian, when he finally saw the cut, wanted to expand some of those performances, so we actually built CG porgs, as well. Ultimately in this film, it’s a right mix-up. There are certain shots that are pure puppet, there are others that are pure CG, and then there are ones where you’ve got CG and puppets right next to each other. The great challenge there was, we had reference in every shot, using a real puppet so we could match our CG perfectly to that.
The large creature that gets milked is entirely an animatronic—that was a huge piece of foam latex. For the crystal foxes, there was an amazing concept done by Aaron McBride from Ireland’s art department of these crystal, alien creatures. We went through a period where Rian considered the creature guys doing it as a practical costume over a small dog. That didn’t turn out to work, but it was a sterling effort.
Also, an animatronic puppet was built, which we shot on a number of occasions, but what we suddenly realized is, some of the beautiful and refractive and reflective quality of the crystals that was in the original concept just wasn’t achievable practically. It turns out with the crystal foxes, they’re entirely CG in the film. We didn’t use that animatronic in the end.
What went into designing a new iteration of Supreme Leader Snoke?
Mulholland: We started off by sitting down and working out what needed to be reworked from the version of Snoke who was in Force Awakens, and Rian came in with some specific questions and ideas about what he wanted Snoke to be in this one.
Morris: There was no question Rian wanted to bring him down to the human level, and the performance needed to have that resonance. Rian was very concerned that doing it entirely in CG was a good idea initially. I reassured him and said, “It’s absolutely the best way to do it.”
Rian got a sculpt done by the creature team, which completely transformed the look of Snoke away from the almost gelatinous zombie look that was in The Force Awakens, and stamped him into the real world. We had that maquette on set, and we also made sure that we had an older actor who we could shoot on every time we had a shot. So we would have Andy Serkis in his performance capture outfit. He’d have a head-mounted camera system on—we actually had four cameras, two stereo pairs watching his face. We were capturing his body movements, and we had two or three witness cameras in addition, so we covered all of that. We also had this reference maquette, and then an older age person and a younger, very tall actor, who wore the incredible golden gown—which, again, is entirely CG in the film.
With all of that reference, Rian went into editorial and started cutting together the sequences. Andy’s got this wonderful resonant voice, and we started to watch the whole thing come together without any CG Snoke in there. It was working beautifully well. As Mike and the team started to put together CG Snoke per the sculpt that had been approved, we suddenly realized that he was a far more imposing character. Andy’s voice gave a sense of a larger chest cavity. His throat carried far more timbre. When you look to the CG model that we were building that matched the sculpt, he just looked too flimsy and frail. We had to put the brakes on and say, “We’re going to have to change this.”
We did a number of broader things—we made him over eight feet tall, rather than seven feet tall. We expanded his chest. We restructured all the anatomy of his throat, and we took some scoliotic curvature out of his spine that was a feature of the original sculpt. We also restructured his jawline, to give him more of an imposing face.
Mulholland: Doing those modifications tied our Snoke to Andy’s voice, so it was no longer clashing. The key was to try and capture the essence of the actor and make sure that you’re able to transmit that into the CG character. Our work was to first of all make a CG version of Andy, who didn’t look like Snoke at that point. It was Andy talking, and you move that performance onto Snoke. Once we’d done the technical side of the transfer, the animation team would go in and work to eek out all the subtleties and intonations, and the expressions were even slightly modified so they worked better on our Snoke character. It was a painstaking process to go beat by beat and make sure that it was the performance that Rian remembered from set, and that was what Rian held us to.
In one of the film’s most extraordinary sequences, Leia is exploded out into space, and commands the Force to get herself back to her ship. What went into that moment from a visual effects perspective?
Morris: There was actually a practical bridge for the main cruiser. We did multilayered effects to get her out, so we had practical special effects, pyro explosions going off. We would shoot all the different layers, so Ackbar and his other generals, they also get blown out of the room.
We worked with Carrie [Fisher] to at least get her to be blown forward in a believable way before she gets sucked out. Then, when she’s outside, it was a combination of digital double Carrie for the wider shots, and then we actually shot her, so we could do the moment where she comes to and the ice starts thawing off her face. We shot that with her. We didn’t hang her on wires. It’s incredibly uncomfortable on wires, so we were able to support her in other ways. It’s a combination of real Carrie and digital doubles when the moves were wide enough, and it made most sense to do it that way.
Rian always wanted it to be a very moving moment. It was a very sensitive moment for everybody, in particular because we lost Carrie before the film came out, so we wanted to get it exactly right—and the imagery that you see there is Carrie. It’s not like we did on Rogue One, going for an entirely digital Carrie. And then Mike and the guys did some amazing simulations and volumetric cloud work on the space outside.