It was early 2016, and the scheduled release of the first Rogue One: A Star Wars Story trailer was coming up fast. But something was missing.
“Just a few weeks before the first trailer of Rogue One came out, a decision was made that there needed to be this Death Star reveal within the trailer,” recalled Rachel Rose, who worked as a visual effects artist on the film. "But this was something we weren’t expecting to actually do.”
Indeed, one of the most striking shots from that first trailer came together at the last minute. It was one of many secrets and stories told at “Galactic Innovations: Star Wars and Rogue One,” an event on Thursday night at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences’ Samuel Goldwyn Theater. The evening included presentations from visual effects artists from 1977’s Star Wars to 2016’s Rogue One. Kicking off with Academy president John Bailey entering with a military escort from two Stormtroopers, the event was hosted by Kiri Hart, who formed the Lucasfilm Story Group and was a co-producer of Rogue One and Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
(Watch a stream of the event below.)
In a night that highlighted the technological advances that the Star Wars visual effects teams have witnessed over 40 years, the story of that Death Star reveal shot stood out. Rogue One director Gareth Edwards, who was in attendance Thursday, used a virtual camera setup — kitbashed together from an iPad mini, a Gamevice controller system and a Vive controller — to navigate a digital environment in real time himself, “experimenting live with lights and shadows in order to find this particular shot,” said Rose. In fact, Edwards used the setup for many other shots in the film, including some in the final space battle above the planet Scarif.
It’s technology that was likely impossible to imagine back in 1977 and is a fitting continuation of the work done by the first employees of the George Lucas-founded Industrial Light and Magic. The team behind the original trilogy was a scrappy bunch, the type who once posed together, eight artists crammed into a small hot tub. “It captures the essence of how ILM, at the time, was what we would now call a startup," Bill George, designer and builder of miniatures on 1983’s Return of the Jedi, said of the photo.
That original team built their own innovative camera that changed the game: the Dykstraflex, which was the centerpiece of the evening and part of why the event came together. “This was the most sophisticated motion-control camera built at that time to accomplish the demands of George Lucas’ vision for Star Wars,” said Richard Edlund, first cameraman and founding member of ILM on the production of Star Wars, who is also Academy governor of the visual effects branch.
The Dykstraflex simulated a real camera in miniature environments and could move nonlinearly, allowing the team to capture dynamic action shots and shoot the miniatures with natural motion blur to avoid the image stutter seen in stop-motion film. If the rig made it easier, Edlund would occasionally shoot upside down with the motion system. In fact, the iconic opening of Star Wars, where a rebel ship zooms out just above the camera, followed by a massive Star Destroyer chasing it, was shot upside down.
“Star Wars had dogfights with spaceships and things blowing up … what could possibly be better!” exclaimed John Dykstra, the camera's namesake and a founding member of ILM.
“Back then, we actually had to put real things in front of the camera and photograph them,” he joked.
Editing was a different beast back then too. Marcia Lucas, editor of Star Wars, Return of the Jedi and also Taxi Driver (1976), recalled being approached early on to work on the visual effects shots for the Death Star assault and trench run.
She used footage of the Rebel pilots, footage of the Empire and Rebel war rooms and six minutes of 16mm World War II movie footage to fill in where the visual effects would go. When she precut the sequence, without storyboards, she discovered something.
“ILM was very pleased that they didn’t have to do half of the special effects shots that happened when he made two runs!” she added, laughing. “Now he only had to make one run, so we saved some money.”
Marcia Lucas also pushed to add more tension to that sequence.
“The thing that was missing was a time clock. How much time does Luke have to make this shot before something horrible is going to happen?" she explained. Influenced by a scene earlier in the film when the Death Star destroys Princess Leia’s home, Alderaan, the team added in the element of the Death Star slowly lining up to shoot the rebel planet at the end of the film.
There was a lot to do and not much of a paycheck on that first film. “We had 350-plus shots to do in roughly 23 months on about a million and a half dollars,” Dykstra said.
Since then, much has changed, particularly the emphasis on computer generated effects.
“It’s easy to break this transition into a single sentence, but looking back, the transition was a slow and sometimes painful one,” Bill George said. “Innovation is messy and sometimes cruel. The advent of new technologies has advanced our craft tremendously, but it also left behind some really incredible practical artists and technicians.”
But ILM still finds a way for the new visual effects work to connect to the old. “On Rogue One, the digital model makers scanned vintage model kit pieces to try and emulate the unique look of their practical ancestors,” George said.
When writer-director Rian Johnson wondered if he should use practical models on Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Dennis Muren, former ILM creative director, showed him the fidelity of CG models. Working with shots from Empire Strikes Back, Muren and crew inserted CG duplicates of a Star Destroyer, an AT-AT walker, TIE fighters and the Millenium Falcon — the sight of two Falcons drawing huge laughs from the Goldwyn crowd. “[Johnson] said, ‘Oh my god, you can do it. It looks fine. It doesn’t look like a CG ship,’” Muren recounted.
While George worries about the loss of practical techniques, he’s optimistic about what computer-generated work can do now.
“Although the computer workstation is now the most common tool used in visual effects today, I think digital sleight of hand can still be magic," he said.