‘Star Wars: Episode VII’ Producer Talks Story, Characters, and Practical Effects vs. CGI

Published 2 years ago by

Star Wars Celebration Europe occurred over the weekend in Germany, and a slew of updates for director J.J. Abrams’ highly anticipated Star Wars Episode VII have been released, such as the announcement that John Williams will return to score the next film.

Actor Warwick Davis (Wicket the Ewok in Return of the Jedi) hosted a panel which included Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, who offered updates on the development of Episode VII, which is currently being written at Bad Robot by J.J. Abrams and his creative team. We have interesting statements from Kennedy made during the panel and above is a backstage video made after the panel with Kennedy and Warwick Davis in which they discuss the cross-generational appeal of Star Wars, and touch on the development process.

The most crucial – and speculated upon – aspect of the new series of films is easily the question of where the filmmakers intend to take the story and what the approach will be regarding new characters, along with the return of old favorites. Kennedy spoke to this issue:

“The story and characters are all we’re talking about right now. We have an amazing team at ILM, who can create fantastic effects, but if we don’t have a great story and characters, the effects mean nothing. I do think making huge popular culture – and I’ve had the good fortune to be a part of a lot it – is really hard to do and get right. And if you don’t spend the time you need on developing characters, and finding stories, complicated stories, the audience gets tired because they think they’re seeing the same thing again and again.”

star wars episode 7 start date Star Wars: Episode VII Producer Talks Story, Characters, and Practical Effects vs. CGI

These sentiments are to be expected, but they’re probably accurate, given director Abrams’ reverence for this universe. Despite the flaws of the various Bad Robot narratives, they typically have bold stories at their core.

Kennedy also addressed the role of special effects in the new film(s), specifically the use of practical effects versus CGI:

“It’s a conversation we’re having all the time in the development of ‘Episode VII.’ Looking at all the Star Wars movies and getting a feel for what even some of the early films did, combining real locations and special effects – that’s something we’re looking very seriously at. So we’re going to find some very cool locations that we’re going to use in support of ‘Episode VII.’ And I think we’re probably going to end up using every single tool in the toolbox to create the look of these movies.”

Part of the success of the original trilogy was the lived-in nature of the practical sets and models, created by a gifted team of effects artists who proved themselves to be geniuses at desperate improvisation. The prequel trilogy relied so heavily on CGI that the overall feeling was cold and distant for the most part. It’s likely that Abrams knows this, and as a fan will recognize that the physical reality of the Star Wars universe is the crucial to the audience’s belief in the universe.

As to what’s in that toolbox, Kennedy elaborated:

“It’s using model makers; it’s using real droids; it’s taking advantage of artwork that you actually can touch and feel. And we want to do that in combination with CG effects. We figure that’s what will make it real.”

Judging from her statements, Kennedy knows how important the seamless integration of CGI alongside real models and sets will be for audiences perhaps expecting another entry laden with computer-generated scenery. Will Abrams be able to re-capture the magic of the original trilogy? Time will tell, as always, but these comments sound like a step in the right direction. Expect more news on Episode VII as details become available.


Star Wars: Episode VII will open in theaters in Summer 2015.

Source: Coming Soon


Follow Anthony Vieira on Twitter @malaclyptic
TAGS: Star wars
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  1. Practical effects is the second most important aspect next to story when you’re talking a successful Star Wars movie, in my opinion. Of course CGI will be needed, but only for scenes that are impossible to create otherwise.

    • Agreed practical effects is a must this time around. With CGI implemented when needed for certain scenes. Look forward to this.

      • And then more changes to the originals. Yeah, I’m not letting go.

        • Let it go!

    • Heard it all before. In fact, every time someone is planning an effects heavy movie. They have to tell you it’s about the story & characters. Because if they don’t you will never know… Because of all those awful cgi & practical effects. Yes, that’s right. Practical effects are just as damaging to a film as cgi. Just look at Prometheus.

    • Lucas, Listen to the diehard Star Wars Fans. Only use the CGI stuff in areas that is needed. Make the movie more like the original without CGI R2D2′s and 3CPO’s and JAR JAR Crap. Take us back to real actors and make something that blows us away.


  2. It sounds like they have a good awareness of things, generally. I do have to say that the biggest criticism I have of a lot of the stuff JJ Abrams works on is that often there doesn’t seem to be much of an actual story beneath the great visuals and dialog. The characters are usually engaging, but I really hope that the plot for the new SW trilogy is a great story in and of itself.

    • Agreed. I do worry about Abrams working on Star Wars, especially after Into Darkness. For a Star Trek reboot, Into Darkness was good. For a Star Wars movie that needs to not only live up to the original trilogy, but make up for a ton of flaws in the prequels, I don’t think it makes the grade.

  3. “if we don’t have a great story and characters, the effects mean nothing”


    • HA!

    • tell that to George Lucas 14 yrs ago right? haha

  4. I wonder what a SW dogfight would look like now-a-days if they did it with models and stuff aided by CG. Could be pretty epic!

  5. I am so glad they’re going to find the balance between cgi and practical effects that along with a brilliant story and the right people will help to bring along a terrific star wars movie. I love Abrams I think he’s amazing for this and I can’t wait to c what he does with star wars

  6. JJ is writing?!? What happened to Academy Award winning writer Micheal Ardnt?

    • I’m not sure but it sounds like he and ardnt are makings revisions together

  7. Now that’s Good News, Take that George “Mr. CGI” Lucas!

  8. Ive seen a lot of directors talk about using practical effects but always resort to cgi so we will see. I hope they stay as practical as you can that would be great. Nolan always does really well with his practical effects. It was my biggest problem with the hobbit, since the practical urakai (?) Looked so good in lord of the rings the cgi was so frusterating. Its a lack of craftmanship imo

    • Agree totally. Anyone remember the horrid “Wolfman” remake a couple years back? Originally, it was going to be “true to the original”, use little to no CGI, and look for scares the old fashion way. Instead, it was a CGI, nearly SyFy level mess.

      Just give us a true to the universe Star Wars. That is all we want.

      • Also, Medusa in the newer Clash of the Titans, vs the old stop-motion effect. Of course, CGI can be really good when used correctly. But nothing is worse than cheap CGI.

      • The Thing sequel/prequel was the same way, they had all this practical effects work done for it so it would feel true to the 1982 movie, then ended up trashed most of it and went with noticeably below par CGI.

    • “There really wasn’t much CGI. We built all the sets… We built all of the [moving stone staircases, converging stone pillars and other pieces] so it was very nice.”

      - Guy Hendrix Dyas (March 2008, regarding Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

      Yeah, the “we’re not going to use much CGI” doesn’t guarantee a great film. I’m hopeful for a great Star Wars film, but I’m not betting money on it.

  9. So will we have complex serious and maybe….dark, more grounded and gritty Star Wars? Is Nolan co-director already?

    - Look here. We’ve found this on crime scene *shows naked Yoda card*
    - I’ll do it.
    - O_o
    - *flies on speedster*

  10. I wouldn’t mind if Warwick Davis got a cameo in the next one

  11. Suspension of disbelief, secondary belief, and immersion are the tenets of world building. The Star Wars brand already have the first two nailed down. All Abrams has to do is maintain the first two through story telling and immerse the audience through details. The “used car look” of the originals greatly contributed to the audience’s immersion. If Abrams can replicate that atmosphere then he’ll have a sure hit on his hands. I like the priorities they’ve outlined for themselves. Hope they stay true to it.

  12. I’ll believe it when I see it, and I’m not entirely sold on JJ Abrams ability, especially after how empty Star Trek Into Darkness felt.

    Of course, I’m not a huge SW fan either so it’ll take a fair bit to convince me to start with.

    • Star Trek: Into Darkness was an awesome film… until you left the theater and thought about what you just watched and realized that it made very little sense. It was just action sequence/reference to classic Trek/action sequence/reference to classic Trek/action sequence… you get the just…

      “Empty film” is a pretty accurate description of that film and I sincerely hope the new Star Wars doesn’t resemble it in the least.

      • Very true. Star Trek into Darkness had all the things wrong with it that they’re talking about here. So is Star Wars in the right hands?

  13. I’m worried they will cater to kids as Lucas did with Ep VI, I, II and III… Time for Nolan to reboot Star Wars Ep I-VI!

    • oh my word. If they cater to the kids then this thing is doomed! A lot of people think it’s going to go that route because it’s under Disney, but I don’t think so. I just hope JJ will be able to capture the seriousness and intensity that the KOTOR games had and blend that mood with a believable, interesting story. We shall see.

  14. I liked ST into Darkness. Abarams made me care for the characters and thats always important. Hope that he does the same with the core characters of Episode 7. Balancing practical effects with CGI is the way to go. I cant wait to see this film!

    • Star Trek: Into Darkness was a decent action flick. Here’s my problem with using the same type of film for Star Wars.

      Ask me to describe “A New Hope”: The story of an empire that controls the galaxy and a rebellion that is fighting for freedom. Two droids, carrying stolen plans to the empire’s new weapon, find themselves on a journey, encountering a young boy, an old warrior, two swashbuckling smugglers and a princess. Together, they escape the empire, deliver the plans to the rebels and destroy the empire’s super weapon.

      Ask me to describe “Into Darkness”: Um, a guy who’s kid is dying is approached by a super human with magic blood. He’s promised his kid will live if he blows up a secret testing ground for the Federation. Then he tries to destroy all of the leadership of the Federation and flees to the other side of the galaxy. Kirk goes after him with orders to kill, then doesn’t kill, then goes after the guy, then the guy saves him, then they arrest the guy. Then the guy turns out to be the leader of the clones. Then another guy who is an admiral in the Federation comes with a super ship, then they fight, then something happens with the super human. Oh yeah, there’s a bunch of super humans in torpedoes… and …

      ST:ID kinda falls apart when you think about the actual story…

  15. I really don’t think CGI is necessary at all, I think it’s just cheaper and faster all around than model making. But the practicality and tangible quality of the spaceships really made them feel so real. I’m glad she is on point with her comments on this. Sounds like they’re finally making sense over there at Lucasfilm and listening to the truths that are evident to almost any fan.

    • Man, you don’t know much about movie production and the costs.

      1. Its MUCH cheaper and FASTER to get (any) result using CGI then building any kind of the real thing. And in case of models, they will look fake when you’ll put more then 1 type of colour around it and some object interraction. Not to mention some results will be impossible to achieve without CGI unless you think old method of drawing special effects would look better(than again time consuming as hell). And what about composition and lightning you will never achieve without CGI or in some cases will have to wait for weather to be good?

      2. CGI plays part not only in fantastic, fantasy and so on. It plays quite big part in other types of the movies. You will never say it was or wasn’t CGI until studio will show you the breakdown of a scene.

      So blaming CGI for something is wrong by design. Its only there to help. CGI doesn’t make dumb or simple plot and script, CGI doesn’t make actors’ play s*****, it can work as excuse but thats it.

  16. Here’s what I worry about

    1. Abrams. Don’t get me wrong, he makes good action, and occasionally has some good story, but the guy gets way too caught up in action sequences and tends to cloud stories. Not to mention that his plot twists and writing style is very similar in every film/show he’s done.

    2. The comment “And if you don’t spend the time you need on developing characters, and finding stories, complicated stories, the audience gets tired because they think they’re seeing the same thing again and again.” Um, for 14 years I’ve been waiting for someone to explain to me what the story of the prequels was. I would have enjoyed the prequels a lot more, even with it’s silliness, if the story was one I could follow.

    3. The Empire Strikes Back syndrome. Abrams went nuts making Into Darkness into a direct competition with Wrath of Khan, and it didn’t work. I don’t care what anyone says. Wrath of Khan was better than Into Darkness. I hope they don’t try to use an Empire Strikes Back formula to make the new film. Not to mention, Empire wouldn’t have worked if it hadn’t followed the great introduction with A New Hope.

    4. Han Solo, Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker. One of the things that worked so well for A New Hope was that it was the story of a nobody (Luke) who didn’t have a hope in heck of being anything but a farmhand the rest of his life. We connected with that, because that’s everyone. We’re all stuck in our lives and wish we could escape to a world of fantasy, heroes and action. It was yet another reason the prequels didn’t feel right. We knew from the first appearance of Anakin, exactly what was going to happen to him. I worry that tying the original trilogy characters and their offspring too into the plot of the new film will cause a loss of mystery, anticipation, and most importantly, identifying with the characters.

    I understand how people who weren’t around for the original trilogy can say that the prequels were good. From an action point of view, they were pretty good. They had enough story to keep people interested.

    But what a lot of people don’t understand (especially those young’uns) is that the original trilogy, especially IV and V were absolutely epic. They weren’t good, they weren’t great, they were far far beyond that.

    I’d like to see that from the next Star Wars film, but, as I’ve said in many comments. I’m not betting any money on episode VII being epic.

    • Mmm. Nah, I think Into Darkness is respectfully a much better version of Wrath of Khan. Because a lot of things from the old film are cool, but a lot of things are cheesy and laughable as well.

      • Umm, you are kidding right? Into Darkness in no way (other than FX) even compares to Wrath of Khan. WOK was by far superior in every way. Even considering the time it was filmed and effects technology at their disposal. I’m 36, my brother is 49 and grew up with the old school stuff and intorduced me at a young age to Trek and SW. Love it all. He enjoyed Into Darkness immensely, thought it was better than the 2009 film, although I respectively disagree. But even he cannot say it was better than Wrath.

        I agree with Worpt i bleieve it was who said Ito Darkness was a rehash of Wrath, action, fanboy porn, action, rehash. Did I enjoy the movie, absolutely, thats what movies are for. But it is more than just Nostalgia that makes Wrath great. or more accurately “epic” as has been used above to describe Eps IV and V of SW.

        Those films were and still are EPIC. Into Darkness did feel a bit empty to me as well, and I believe that cast is phenomonal, it just aint the same chemistry that Shatner Nimoy Keppy and group had after years together in those roles, and better dialogue, and the comical “cheesy” scenes are some of the best moments in those films.

        Not taking away from Into Darkness, but WOK was better. I think 99.9% of people can agree with me there.

        SW prequels totally agree with Worpt. excellent description. But to compare the depth and weight that the orginal films (yes even Jedi) had, the prequels are just fluff. Very empty as well. Ewan McGregor was the best part of those films..and General Grievous, thats a cool F’n character..lol

        • oops…*Kelly, as in Deforest. sorry for the misspell…

  17. Ok elephant in the room. Who the hell is that midget in the video?

    • Warwick Davis? From Willow, Harry Potter, The Leprechaun, Prince Caspian… but most notably, he would be Wicket, the most familiar of those fuzzballs known as Ewoks.

      If I had my way, we’d be bar-b-quing those guys over Darth Vadar’s body at the end of Jedi. :)

      • Oh he’s an Ewok? And be nice, I love the Ewoks. If it were up to me, we’d be burning every existing copy of Episodes 1-3.

        • Because of the two films prior to Jedi, and because of the incredible dual between Darth and Luke, I’ll let the Ewoks live. :) But I just gotta say… the scene that’s always bothered me from Jedi is when Han tricks the Imperials into opening the hanger doors. The garrison of stormtroopers run out and there is ONE GUY with a blaster and a bunch of teddy bears with spears. C’mon! If I’m a stormtrooper, I’d be like “Hey, troopers, shoot the guy with the gun and then start picking off the furrballs!”

          I guess we can agree to disagree. I didn’t absolutely hate the Ewoks, but that one scene, every time I see it, makes me go “WHA? Shoot them! Just shoot them!”

          But I’ll gladly join you for a prequel burning while singing Nub Nub any day of the week! :)

  18. is it true they plan to film in Ireland does anyone know?

    • I’ve heard the U.K. so Ireland is definitely a possibility, but I haven’t heard exactly where. Thank the Force they’re not filming in front of a green screen!

  19. Into Darkness was an awesome film. But by no means was it perfect. It still had room for improvement. JJ Abrams has all the talent and tools to make a great Star Wars movie. I’m not asking for him to make the perfect film.. I just want it to be great and something that I can watch over and over again. Good luck Abrams

    • And at least have it make sense… Unlike Star Trek into Darkness.

  20. @haouzy
    To my knowledge its at the moment an all England Shoot.But there had been scouting so there may be.

  21. I have to say, though… all of this is the same thing we heard from George Lucas when he announced Episode 1. “It’s all about story. CGI and Effects without Story are nothing.” And yet, look at the story we got.

    That said… I have absolute faith in JJ Abrams. I’ve loved his movies, even when they miss the mark, and I’ve loved his reboot of the Star Trek franchise. I love that they’re not afraid now to bring on Laurence Kasden and other writers (my biggest complaint was that George Lucas didn’t let anyone else have input on the Episode 1-3 scripts – not even Carrie Fisher who’s a well-known ghost writer in Hollywood).

    I trust that with more established writers working together on story and script that we’ll actually get a story worth watching this time ’round.

    • It wouldn’t have mattered anyway. Lucas’ ego is so big that even if he did get other opinions, he would still do it his way.

    • Believe it or not, I saw “Medi-Minti-Chlorian Breath Mints” on sale a few years back. A little part of me died that day.

      As the great Harry Plinkett said, “The problem with the prequel was that instead of focusing on telling a great story they seem to focus more on creating tons of pointless crap to be later turned into more merchandise.”

      If you don’t know who Harry Plinkett is, look him up on YouTube and prepare to laugh and cry at the same time.

  22. People do realize that there were more practical effects used in each single one of the prequel movies than the entire OT combined.

    What people seemed to get confused by is the things were digitally composted as opposed to comped on film. When people think that everything in the background is CGI there are greatly mistaken. They seem to confuse animatics with CGI. Those backgrounds are models created then placed in the scene with additional CGI enhancements on top.

    Watch the various docs on the PT DVD’s and you’ll see all the real sets, parts sets and only screen sets used. Real locations are fine but you can’t go to Mustafar at a real location. Oh BTW the Mustafar miniature was the biggest shoot in Lucasfilm history to that point. Another thing. PJ used NO models at all in The Hobbit and he loves them but decided not to use them.

    • The effects were really well done to begin with.

    • Nah. I’m not gonna sigfer through those horrible prequels, again. At least not willingly

  23. Can you believe that this is the promotional approach to this movie. I mean, really. This is the most basic approach to film making. If you have to spell it out to your fans that you are making it all about the story & characters then you have been doing it all wrong & we have to worry wether they’re the right people to be making this film. I’m going to spell it out to you… It doesn’t matter it it has loads of cgi in it or not. It’s got nothing to do with it. If you have an awful story then you haven’t got a movie & to be frank about it. The reason for doing this film is not that they had a great story that they have to tell. Nope, it’s all about recouping those billions they spent on purchasing the franchise.

  24. It’s not about wether it has loads of cgi in it or not. If you don’t have a good story to tell you don’t have a movie. Are they making this film because they have a story that they just have to tell everyone… Or is it about recouping all those billions they spent on purchasing the franchise. You know the answer don’t you.

  25. How nice. Thanks for letting us have Star Wars George. By the way… Your prequel films were awful. How insulting to Mr Lucas. Don’t forget, this guy created all of this, so careful of what your saying. Your the guys cashing in on this.

  26. I think it would be cool of Samuel Jackson and Warwick Davis got cameos together

  27. Put the Millennium Falcon and an older Han Solo as a teaser trailer and your set.

  28. Really, really wish they’d use the Thrawn triology as basis for the new movies. We already know that plot line is awesome.

  29. Dear Disney. Please work hard on the Star Wars movie. I love the original two movies, and the Rancor scene in “Return…”, especially the musics. Here is my criticism of the 2nd trilogy: (1)Darth Vader isn’t supposed to have an athletic guy in the suit (the very cool suit!).(2) The story is too dark. (3)Boba Fett is supposed to be a man-with-no-name kind of guy under the armor, he’s too much of a domestic kind of guy in the films. (4) Ever since Star Wars came out there was an epic story alluded to in the mention of the Clone Wars; in the prequels the Wars are actually a few battles, not a trans-galactic WAR with HISTORY (5) The music sucks. I think John Williams is better than Wagner. What happened!!! I hope my comments shed light on the drawbacks to the prequels.