When working on the mega hit Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens, one goal J.J. Abrams had in mind was to take the franchise back to its roots in terms of visual aesthetics. A key part of the marketing campaign was illustrating how the crew was going to blend the modern digital technology with practical effects to bring the galaxy far, far away to life, striving for the feeling of authenticity that the original trilogy is known for. The previous films felt tangible, which helped sell the strange concept of Star Wars to audiences in 1977 and changed Hollywood forever.
As a massive studio blockbuster in the 21st century, The Force Awakens certainly has no shortage of CGI imagery, but those who have seen the film will most likely agree that Abrams was successful in creating environments that felt real, a byproduct of his insistence to shoot as much as possible in-camera (including searching out remote locations for certain scenes). This has been Abrams' mantra ever since he started making films, so it isn't surprising that his Star Wars movie would follow it. However, it appears he's set the tone for the series moving forward.
Screen Rant talked to Force Awakens special effects supervisor Chris Corbould and creature shop head Neal Scanlan, who were both nominated for Oscars for their work on the film. When asked if the upcoming Star Wars films would place an emphasis on practical effects similar to Episode VII, they said it was something Lucasfilm is interested in doing:
Corbould: Working with Rian [Johnson, director of Episode VIII], he’s very, very keen on the practical side of it... Personally, it’s something that I get a lot of excitement and satisfaction out of. I like to see my crew stretch to the limits. And I think if you can get the real practical elements in there, combined with what the digital guys can do to punch stuff up and touch it up a little bit, I think it pays big dividends when you see it on screen.
Scanlan: When we started on the project, there is a language, there is a vocabulary, there’s a world that George [Lucas] created. It’s a unique world that George created. It’s what makes Star Wars what Star Wars is... And in order to push ahead and keep the films in their own unique genre, I think we have to hold on to it. I think that’s a desire from everyone from Kathleen Kennedy downwards to try to achieve as much practically, to try to hold on to that real, tangible world that makes us feel like we know this environment in some way.
When he visited the Force Awakens set in 2014, Johnson praised Abrams' commitment to utilizing practical effects, so it shouldn't come as a shock that he'll continue the practice in his movie. It also seems that the anthology films will follow Abrams' footsteps. Leaked set photos from Gareth Edwards' Rogue One have shown X-wing models and images from a battle, illustrating that Edwards will be incorporating as many real-world elements as he can. The tone for each Star Wars film may differ (notably in the spinoffs), but since they're all part of the same universe, they all should look similar so it always feels like a Star Wars movie.
For their part, the Star Wars 7 VFX team knows that now the fan base has expectations for how special effects will be handled in the franchise moving forward. The Force Awakens set a template and now they need to keep evolving it with each movie:
Scanlan: We have a slight problem in that we set a standard, and people very quickly become used to that standard... You can’t stand still, and hopefully the audience will see that there is an evolution throughout any film that comes out from now. None of us intend to stand still and hopefully keep pushing on and making the new Star Wars as technically innovative as the originals were.
Corbould echoed this statement, telling us that it's on them to "keep upping the bar all the time." And that would remain true to the franchise's history. Each film tried to raise the ante with some kind of jaw-dropping special effects sequence; the original trilogy evolved from the Death Star trench run to the asteroid field chase to the Endor space battle. Star Wars movies are no stranger to technological advancements, so as long as the visual effects crew keeps stretching their limits when it comes to the marriage of practical and digital, fans will be in for a treat every time they settle in for the next project.
Star Wars: Episode 7 – The Force Awakens is now in theaters, followed by Rogue One: A Star Wars Story on December 16th, 2016, Star Wars: Episode 8 on May 26th, 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.
Source: Screen Rant
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