When George Lucas was getting ready to film the original Star Wars film in the mid 1970s, he discovered that in-house visual effects department at 20th Century Fox was no longer in operation. Given the paramount importance special effects had in bringing his galaxy far, far away to life, Lucas knew he had to formulate an alternative plan so he could get his movie to the big screen. He started the company Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) in California, and the rest is cinematic history.
Nearly four decades later, ILM is one of the premiere names in Hollywood visual effects. Their prolific résumé includes several of the biggest and most recognizable blockbusters of all-time, such as the Indiana Jones series, Back to the Future, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and Jurassic Park. Of course, director J.J. Abrams worked with ILM when helming Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens and the results earned the team an Oscar nomination. Screen Rant recently spoke with Roger Guyett and Patrick Tubach of ILM about adding to the Star Wars legacy and delivering the franchise's classic spectacle to a new generation.
The original Star Wars is a movie that’s looked at as one that changed visual effects in Hollywood, and ILM was a huge part of that. What was it like for you guys to work in the franchise that started it all and add to the legacy?
Guyett: It’s a great honor, isn’t it? It’s like you’re dipping into this world, but it literally has this incredible history and legacy. And interestingly, there’s a few people still around that were a part of that, Dennis Murren and other guys that were around from that period. So it was interesting talking to them about their experience making these movies all those many years ago. It’s really fascinating to hear their thoughts about what drove them to make certain decisions. It’s a great honor, and obviously we’re excited to try to make The Force Awakens the best it can be. So it’s a very exciting experience.
Tubach: Early on in my career at ILM, I worked on Episodes II and III, and Roger worked on Episode III with me as well. I was so excited at the time to work on those films because of being such a big fan. I really did not believe, and still I am reminded by my friends constantly that I did not believe there would be an Episode VII. I just didn’t think it was going to happen. So just having the chance to work on this now is like a second lease on a dream, being able to take another swing at something that was so important to you back then, is now coming true.
Guyett: Think about it. Star Wars is the DNA of ILM, isn’t it? It’s the very foundation of the whole company. It’s very interesting and a lot of fun to look around and then come back to this 40 years later. It’s incredible.
A lot has changed in the Hollywood landscape since the first film came out. Now it feels like there’s an effects heavy tentpole opening every other week. I would say that some moviegoers have become a little desensitized to special effects because they feel like they’ve seen everything by now. So what did you guys do to overcome that so you could deliver the awe-inspiring spectacle that Star Wars is known for?
Guyett: I think one of the things that we tried really hard to do was show a little restraint. Because I do think people are numb to just plain spectacle. So there’s a version of this movie where you have more TIE fighters and more Star Destroyers and more BB-8s. And part of J.J.’s viewpoint across the whole thing was just, let’s get back to the thing that really excited everyone about the first movie. In a strange way, that was refreshing, because so many other movies go in the complete opposite direction. I was very interested personally in something that was a bit more restrained, a bit more focused and try to just excite people through a more immersive experience. And of course, it has these big spectacle moments; we blow up the planets and do all that kind of stuff. It’s just a balance between delivering on a large scale and also very much on the human scale and following these characters and not losing sight of that. And we really tried to design our work based around storytelling and make sure we weren’t do something for just spectacle alone.
Tubach: And I think we were also trying to deliver people an experience that they haven’t seen before in terms of the marriage of the practical effects with the digital effects. In this desensitizing period where people have gotten used to visual effects spectacle, I don’t know that they’ve seen this level of collaboration between the two things. In a way that you did in the old trilogy movies, where you could be watching them with your kids and you honestly couldn’t tell them exactly how everything was done because everything blurs in a way where it becomes all one giant effect. And I think that’s what we were trying to do, where you get lost in the moment and you stop thinking about the fact that things are computer generated and there’s so much of an overlap with the practical that you kind of lose yourself in that.
Guyett: You’ve seen the movie, of course, right?
Yes I have. It was great.
Guyett: If you imagine you walk through the bar to discover Maz, and Maz’s character was something that Neal Scanlon and his team designed. They designed all of the creatures in the movie because you want them to feel like they’re all cut from the same cloth and fitting into that world. We’re thinking about making our digital creatures feel more like practical creatures. But you’re also mixing up the worlds so that it might be a digital creature in a practical world, and some of those practical creatures are simple in some respects. It might be a simple makeup or a mask or something, but there’s still this incredible challenge of the process. It’s really kind of blurring that line and blurring that process. You’re seeing multiple realities at the same time.
You guys talked about the blending of practical and digital effects. How important was it to find that balance when working on The Force Awakens? I know it’s something J.J. was heavily pushing.
Guyett: We want the movie to succeed, we want our effects to succeed, and we know that if you have the kind of foundation or basic idea that you’re starting from something more tangible and real, I think it just tees our work up to succeed or have a better chance of success. Fortunately, we’ve worked with J.J. for a long time, so we have a similar point of view on this stuff. And a lot of the time, I would encourage people to build things. Sometimes, people would say ‘it’s only on camera for a few moments.’ And you go, ‘yeah, but it’s gonna give us an incredible reference or it’s gonna be so important to see what that kind of thing might look like, so let’s go and do some reference photography and work out what a shot going through the desert might look like.’ And when we do our version of it, we have more chance of success. We just always want to go back to that kind of reality to try and understand what makes that little nuance that makes people believe that that thing is really happening.
Tubach: I think it gives all of us a lot of confidence to have shot everything as much as we have, because when you do go to create those things, you are really feeling confident that you’re getting it right. And that goes from J.J. on down through us that we all have a collective vision of what it is because we’ve seen it. We’ve seen what was shot and so when we’re going to recreate things, we’re working from a place of a shared understanding of what the reality is. And then J.J. is just a remarkable guy in terms of his ability to understand what new technology can do for him, and the types of things he asks us to do are using that restraint and keeping that restraint in mind. He doesn’t settle for things, he pushes us to do better and better, but he knows where the lines between reality and being successful lie.
Guyett: If you remember that first shot where you pan across the desert and you find the Star Destroyer. Do you remember that?
Guyett: That shot for example, it was a very layered kind of approach to that. Because it’s a Star Destroyer, certainly the Star Destroyer wasn’t there.
Tubach: Not real [laughs].
Guyett: Not real, yeah. But, we had a version of that shot where we photographed it for real, but that wasn’t sufficient to cover that whole length of the shot and it wasn’t quite right in its composition. But we knew having that point of reference, what that thing should look like when we put it back together again. So, I think most people think it’s just a pan across the desert. Truth is, it’s a digital shot that’s made up using elements that we were able to capture photographically. And the fact that we did a slightly different version of it just meant that we had this amazing foundation to do it more accurately and more successfully. And the weird thing is, the real world is sometimes not quite what your brain thinks it should be. And those tiny little nuances are the things that just make it more real.
My last question is, were there any creatures or special effects that you guys planned to use in Episode VII, but either couldn’t use or ended up being cut from the movie?
Guyett: There was a tremendous amount of design work down for the show. One thing that was really exciting to see was the art department working alongside J.J. as he developed the script. And so a tremendous number of ideas percolated up through that process and there were a lot of vehicles and technology and there were a couple of characters. I’m not sure exactly what I can tell you, but I can say that some of the things just naturally fell off the tree as it were, as far as that kind of stuff. The other characters, there were things that we couldn’t take advantage of in this movie, vehicles, the other speeders and stuff like that. So there were lots of things that we explored and obviously a lot of other designs. But you can only cram so much juice into one fantastic thing. There will be many other things that I think you’ll see in the future.
Tubach: I think they’re making more of these movies.
Yes they are.
Guyett: I think you’ll see some of those ideas pop up as we try to imagine what we can do.
Tubach: Part of the fun for fans is the repeat viewings, and that’s one of the things that we’re constantly aware of. This is not a one time experience for people, this is not a one and done ‘I went to the theater, I saw it, and I’m never going to see it again.’ They might go four or five times, and then they’re gonna bring it home and watch it at home with their kids and study it. And they’re gonna discover these things and then they do want to hear about deleted scenes and deleted characters and ideas that didn’t quite make it. And that’s part of the fun. So I’m sure some of that stuff will start to come out.
Guyett: And you can imagine. Obviously, we created so many ships, so many environments, so many substantial visual effects. So there’s a lot of work that we got through. We also tried to create this very sort of layered movie. One of the first projects that I worked on a long time ago, I remember the director telling me how when you’re looking at those things, you want people to discover things in the future. And that’s the fun of Star Wars, you go back to see it again, and you see something else. And we had a lot of fun making the movie, we hope we put things in there that people can discover on a second or third viewing, and that’s the sort of texture of the thing that makes it so much fun.
Thank you guys so much. Great job with The Force Awakens and I can’t wait to see what you come up with in the next ones.
Guyett and Tubach: Thank you very much.
Star Wars: Episode 7 – The Force Awakens is now in theaters, and will be followed by Rogue One: A Star Wars Story on December 16th, 2016, Star Wars: Episode 8 on December 15th, 2017, and the Han Solo Star Wars Anthology film on May 25th, 2018. Star Wars: Episode 9 is expected to reach theaters in 2019, followed by the third Star Wars Anthology film in 2020.