Singapore. Last year’s Star Wars standalone film, "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story," left a special impression in fans’ hearts because of its unique take on the Star Wars Universe, merging the original trilogy with a modern approach and fresh storyline.
"The legacy of past movies created 40 years ago still lives on [...] It is not just about the art of storytelling but the techniques used in presenting the visuals," said Nigel Summer, a visual effects supervisor who worked on "Rogue One," at the Singapore Toy, Game and Comic Convention (STGCC) at the Sands Expo and Convention Center on Sunday (10/09).
Within the series' timeline, "Rogue One" takes place just before the 1977 original, "Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope." The visual effects team, Summer said, was forced to reinvent many of the visual details while remaining loyal to the original film.
"For us, the challenge was living up to that legacy and creating visual effects that wouldn’t just look and feel like the original but have the emotional connection when we first saw 'A New Hope,'" Summer added.
In August 2015, Summer took his team to the archives section at the Skywalker Ranch, a workspace dedicated to the Star Wars films and run by the series' creator, George Lucas, in Marin, California.
The archive houses an extensive collection of original models used in the film, including ships, vehicles and even latex masks.
"It’s a museum. You’re not allowed to touch anything. It’s humidity-controlled, UV-controlled and it has all the original models that were used not just to create the legacy movies, but also the prequels, and even the subsequent movies as well," Summer said.
Summer’s team took as many photos as possible of the models at the archives and tried to recreate old battleships via computer re-imaging software.
However, they found that after four decades, the models didn’t quite stand the test of time. Some materials have eroded and their colors faded.
His team made a second visit to the ranch and used a device called the Nix Sensor, which is capable of detecting any color of a surface the device rests on.
"But even that wasn’t enough. Because of the erosion, the colors we were sampling were actually wrong as well, so with the permission of the archives, we actually pulled out pieces of the model to find areas that had been painted that hadn’t had some aging and withering to get as accurate color samples as we could," Summer said.
After the color samples were taken to the visual effects team’s library, the team began to work on creating new physical models for the vehicles in the film.
One of the techniques they applied is called "kitbashing," where pieces of model kits from artillery, racing cars, planes and other vehicles were used to add details on much larger models.
"Using the kitbashing technique, and all our digital assets, we actually got very close to the original look and feel. You had to do some paint upgrades because there were parts of the original model where you never saw in the movies, so they [creators of the original trilogy] didn’t paint them," Summer said.
One of the ships that proved especially challenging was the Tie Fighter, known for its iconic hexagonal solar panels. Summer said the solar panels were difficult to recreate because there had to be precision in depicting how the lights rolled on the panels.
Making Use of Old Tapes
The visual effects team, however, had more work laid out for them. Summer talked about how the team also integrated old footage of the original trilogy films into "Rogue One."
His team re-analyzed footage of a cockpit scene in the original film where Rebel Alliance pilots communicate with each other just before launching an attack on Empire bases.
The team decided to keep the original dialogue in the scene as opposed to the whole material, as Summer said most of the visual footage had already eroded. He also pointed out that the cockpit's original design had to be adjusted to scale.
"The cockpit in the original footage didn’t match our design. Back when they shot the original movie, they had to actually stretch the cockpit vertically to physically fit the camera, so we decided not to keep any of the cockpit, just keep the pilot," he said.
Bringing a Droid to Life
The franchise is also known for its iconic, lovable droids, like R2-D2, C-3PO and BB-8. "Rogue One" added a new robot to the Universe, called K-2SO, who helps Rebel Alliance characters in the film complete their mission.
"The original idea for K2SO was that he would be an imperial protocol droid, not like R2-D2 and C-3PO. R2D2 and C-3PO have very definable, exaggerated characters but they don’t always have humanistic personality, or the ability to move like humans," Summer said.
Compared to the two original droids in the trilogy, K-2SO looks more flexible and human-like.
At first, the visual effects team planned to incorporate moving mouth and eyes on K-2SO, as opposed to C-3PO, whose eyes could only glow. However, the idea was dropped because it felt too far-fetched and dissimilar to how droids behaved in the original trilogy.
"In the end, he was much like C-3PO but we added some digital ways to animate the eyes. […] Even with physical movements you still get a good performance of K-2SO," Summer added.
Instead of having a full CG droid throughout the filming process, filmmakers enlisted actor Alan Tudyk to play and voice K-2SO. Tudyk is known in the film community for bringing life to robotic characters, in large part due to his role in 2004's "I, Robot."
"He was pretty much familiar with how a physical performance could translate into a digital character," Summer said.
Apart from donning a spandex costume with colorful markings, Tudyk was forced to walk on elevated stilts because K-2SO is about a foot taller than humans. He wore the costume throughout the duration of filming, except during scenes with rocky or sandy backdrops.
"Fans like to dress up not just like K-2SO but K-2SO in his own mockup costume," Nigel said.
Directed by Gareth Edwards, "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" received a nomination for Best Visual Effects at the 89th Academy Awards and Best Special Visual Effects at the 70th British Film Academy Awards.