Here at FX we were lucky enough to see the only 70mm IMAX film print in Europe of Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens at the London Science museum. A massive thanks to the Visual Effects Society for making this happen.
After the screening we had a live Q&A session streamed from the US. The Panel consisted of the director J.J Abrams, visual effects supervisors Pat Tubach, special effects supervisor Chris Corbould and creature effects supervisor Neal Scanlan who was retired, well until JJ Abrams got in touch!
When shooting StarWars JJ wanted to “See what was possible on set in camera, it went beyond what I thought could have been done”
The original Star Wars trilogy brought about huge nostalgia for the panel. For Neal (creature effects) Star Wars was a world where practical effects were possible and desired. From physical puppets, stop-motion and in camera effects. The Star Wars fanbase welcomed this approach and was incredibly well received, it even gave the film a unique marketing hook
However Neal goes on to mention If these types of practical effects were to be used in a different film they may not have been as well received due to them being classed as out dated and limited. Although having Neal’s team working alongside the powerhouse ILM (Industry Light and Magic) with the digital side it made the practical effects less limited.
The team had to make a creative choice in using the best approach for a shot, which relied on bringing practical and digital visual effects together. For J.J. Abrams it ultimately revolved around creating a feeling to decide which approach was best. For example “BB-8 had to feel alive, tangible and real.” Neal Scanlan’s team created a real life BB-8 puppet that was controlled by puppeteers Dave Chapman and Brian Herring, not only did it help the actors enormously it allowed the scenes to come alive rather than being performed later and added in post. It allowed J.J. Abrams to see what takes were working.
J.J. Abrams decided to shoot with traditional film stock rather than digital. Yes shooting in digital is a more malleable medium than film but there is an intangible magic to film and J.J. Abrams felt it was the best medium to capture the movie. It had to feel part of the original Star Wars universe as if it was going back to the time and place of the originals, Film was their way to achieve this.
The Force Awakens mostly uses standard 35mm stock, however J.J. decided to shoot the Millennium Falcon chase scene on Jakku in true 70mm IMAX Format. This was incredible experience to see, the screen opened up revealing a crisper, larger image creating a sense that you were truly immersed in the StarWars universe. Below is a comparison of the two formats.
Pat Tubach (VFX supervisor at ILM) said this Millennium Falcon chase scene was worked on very early on and was only completed right up to the end of production.
Early on ILM created Previsualization shots so the team could visualise complex scenes before filming providing a common language of what was going to happen. Although J.J. Abrams prefers something more sketchy to capture a feeling and goes on to say, In some cases you can rely too heavily on Previs shots which end up dictating the look and feel, when ultimately they are to be used as a loose guide. Interpretation is the magic allowing each team member to have their own creative flair to the overall look and feel of the film. Previs sequences can feel rather mechanical however they are extremely useful in making sure that everyone can understand a shot and it’s context as long as people interpret it in there own way.
From 110 puppets to detailed CG characters and real explosions you can see that everyone involved in the production threw their passion and craft into the making of this film. The Force Awakens finds a unique balance of practical and digital effects that brings you back into the original Star Wars universe celebrating a wide range of expertise and promotes traditional film.