'Star Wars' Visual Effects Team Reveals Secrets Behind Millennium Falcon's Relaunch

"The scope of the project was massive," supervisor Roger Guyett of says of creating the film's 2,100 VFX shots.
Courtesy of Lucasfilm Ltd.

When Harrison Ford's Han Solo is reunited with his iconic Millennium Falcon in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, that look of recognition with which he greets his trusty ship is probably shared by a lot of the movie's fans. That's because the visual effects team behind the film took great pains to bring back the spacecraft in all its original battered glory.

"The cockpit for the Millennium Falcon was made bigger for Empire Strikes Back, and there's an original blueprint at ILM," creature effects supervisor Neal Scanlan explains, adding that the production "copied that implicitly." The inside of the Millennium Falcon also had pieces from an old Citroen car, and they couldn't find the pieces anymore, so they contacted the Citroen motor company to get them.

"It's almost a 100 percent faithful reproduction of the original," he says. "It's a museum piece."

This reproduction was used for all the scenes that involved the actors. For example, when the Millennium Falcon swings into action, the actors were in its cockpit, mounted on a motion base, and then the visual effects team added the rest of the craft and battle digitally in the computer.

The textures also added to the authenticity of the Millennium Falcon. "We had the actual Falcon models that we were able to photograph," says ILM VFX supervisor Patrick Tubach. "A lot of the textures that you see on the Falcon were derived from those actual photographs of the models in the archive. The decals and all the little stickers and everything on there was painstakingly and lovingly put onto the Falcon."

That fealty to George Lucas' original trilogy, as well as a commitment to blend practical effects with the latest digital tools, characterized the VFX work on the new Star Wars installment. The "DNA of the original trilogy" is all over The Force Awakens, says VFX supervisor Roger Guyett of lead VFX house Industrial Light & Magic. On Thursday, the Academy took notice, giving the movie five Oscar nominations, including one for visual effects.

The 1977 Star Wars changed the face of the visual effects industry, and the film and its two sequels, Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, all earned Oscars for their effects. (The original Star Wars earned a total of six Oscars plus a Special Achievement Award.)

“We wanted to go back to the real locations, and build sets and have creatures and effects happening in camera when we could," Guyett says of the production, which encompassed roughly 2,100 VFX shots, including environments, battles and all kinds of creatures. “But we didn’t want to make a retro movie; the idea was that it would seem familiar but be as innovative as the original. We wanted the charm of the in-camera stuff — the tangible quality — meets this 21st century contemporary technology.”

During land battles, the special effects team staged elaborate practical explosions, with one rising an estimated 150-200 feet in the air, according to special effects supervisor Chris Corbould.

"A huge amount of [the original Star Wars] was done practically, because that's what technology was available.  [Director] J.J. Abrams tried to do as much as he could practically [for The Force Awakens], so that it was familiar," says Corbould. "The good thing was now we have the digital tools to help us out as well, so we were able to expand on the original but keep the feeling of the original."

Rey's speeder is among the new vehicles introduced in the movie. "J.J. was very particular about the design; we had to find a mechanized way to make it go across the desert," says Corbould. "We built a bespoke steel chassis, with a high-powered motorbike engine in it and a hidden driver." To complete the shots, they used digital tools to paint out what the viewer isn't supported to see.

Guyett notes that a secret weapon was that some who worked on the 1977 film are still employed at ILM and contributed to Force Awakens. For instance, Dennis Muren (who has won nine Oscars, including those for The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi) "talked about how you didn’t have to be photorealistic all the time and that you could use lights to show off surfaces," says Guyett. "So we weren't taking what he said exactly — we were inspired by their motivations.”

Among the latest technology used for the film is a new simulation engine for smoke and other environmental elements. “When the crevasse opens up at the end of the movie, when Kylo Ren and Rey are fighting in the forest, all of the rocks and the snow and falling trees and the trees themselves breaking apart — that’s all from that engine,” says ILM VFX supervisor Patrick Tubach.

New tools were also developed for lighting and rendering, while a new "universal asset pipeline" was employed during production. "That means that we could develop assets that we could pass between our environment artists and lighting artists and not have to have separate assets, which is something that has bogged us down in the past,” says Tubach, confirming that that also means that they can be used going forward for Star Wars VIII.