'Star Wars' Visual Effects: Creating Maz, BB-8 and 110 Creatures

"The main version of BB-8 was puppeteered a little bit like a wheel barrel," says creature effects supervisor Neal Scanlan.
Courtesy of Lucasfilms 2015/Walt Disney Studios

The making of Star Wars:The Force Awakens, which was nominated for five Oscars on Thursday, included the creation of roughly 110 creatures from featured names such as BB-8, Maz (Lupita Nyong’o) and Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) to background characters. Practical effects to fully CG creations were used to bring them to life. 

There were seven versions of the droid BB-8. "The main version was puppeteered a little bit like a wheel barrel," explains creature effects supervisor Neal Scanlan. "A puppeteer pushed BB-8 around and a second lever allowed him to move the head around on top of the body, so he could roll BB-8 wherever he wanted and move BB-8's head anyway he wanted."

"A second puppeteer, through radio control, operated the turn of BB-8's head and the lights in his face," he related, noting that in this case, the puppeteer was removed from the shots digitally in postpoduction. For shots when BB-8 stays in one place, a different version was used that didn't require puppeteer removal; and yet another version had stabilizing wheels that were removed digitally. Since this was shot on the desert sand, lots of crew and puppeteer footprints also had to be digitally removed from the final shots.

A more theatrical approach was used for two of the creatures on Jakku. "The beast that captures BB-8 was very much like War Horse. There were two people [puppeteering the creature] — one in the front and one in the back — and we could digitally remove the bottom of the puppeteers legs," Scanlan says. "The beast at the water hole had five people in it: one in each leg and one in the head. It was 20 feet long and 15 feet wide."

Maz and Supreme Leader Snoke were a mix of performance capture with key-frame (hand) animation. The design of each started as a replica that was scanned into the computer.

Serkis is veteran of the performance capture process, having played roles from Gollum in The Lord of the Rings to Caesar in Planet of the Apes, but this was new for Nyong'o. "The great thing was that Andy was around for a couple sessions with her, so that she wasn't intimidated by the technology. He helped her to understand what was going on, and he's the grand master of motion capture," said the film's VFX supervisor Roger Guyett of lead VFX house Industrial Light & Magic.

The VFX supervisor added they were careful with combining the practical and digital characters for a seamless look. "If you had a lot of practical creatures and then a CG character, we didn't want it to bump against that world. Neal was involved in all the creature design and gave us a lot of advice so that we could render [in this case Maz] and put her in that world. It was very important."