Star Wars has always taken inspiration from a planet not very far, far away.
When Episode VII came out last year, cinema-goers were entranced by an uninhabited otherworldly island, Skellig Michael, which actually lies off the coast of Ireland.
After seeing Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, you’ll probably wish you could book a flight to the planet Scarif. It looks like it belongs in a glossy holiday brochure – a tropical paradise with fine white sand and turquoise sea – or at least it does until the Empire and the rebels go into battle.
In fact, the inspiration for Scarif is a country on Planet Earth: the Maldives.
“[The director] Gareth wanted to set up the third act in paradise, where the Empire is there to mine and strip the planet, to destroy it,” explains production designer Doug Chiang. “He visualised somewhere like the Maldives, but obviously we couldn’t go to the Maldives and blow it up!”
Some filming did take place in the Maldives, an island nation in the Indian Ocean made up of nearly 1200 islets. It’s long been a favourite with honeymooners because lots of those islands are extremely luxurious resorts, and it’s one of the best places in the world for diving and snorkelling.
But most of the Scarif scenes were filmed back in Britain at Bovingdon Airfield, an old RAF base in Hertfordshire, where the filmmakers painstakingly recreated the Maldives.
“We shipped in 2000 tons of sand in about 200 truckloads,” explains production designer Neil Lamont, “and imported over 60 palm trees from Spain and various greenery from the UK. We also needed to build a beach and the special effects team had the great idea of recycling water from the tank at Pinewood so it wouldn’t be wasted.”
They recycled 800,000 litres of water – about 5,000 baths full – into a giant tank. The final set measured about eight acres, and looked as close to the Maldives as an old RAF base is every likely to, until the battle began. SFX supervisor Neil Corbould went through around 2000 bullet hits a day.
But Corbould’s biggest challenge was to build an explosion of gigantic proportions.
“Gareth wanted a big explosion, so we showed him some tests that were about a fifth of what the full explosion would look like,” he explains. “And so when we came to shoot it, we had a 40-foot container, which we basically cut into bits, loaded with mortar parts, and then we covered it in a lightweight breakaway material. I told Gareth it was going to be a bit bigger than he’d seen.”
“Gareth wanted to get really close, and so I said it would be fine but he would have to dress up in a full fire Nomex suit, balaclava, gloves, etc. Everyone around him was also dressed up and wore fire suits, and we had stuntmen with shields around as well to protect him.”
After three months of planning and testing, the special effects team had a day to rig the explosion, which was pre-rigged and then craned in. The final explosion could be seen for miles around as the 2,500 litres of fuel created a fireball about 200-feet high with a 50 to 60 foot radius.
So the good news is you can book your next holiday to Scarif: the Maldives were untouched and remain as idyllic as ever.
The bad news? The Indian Ocean is still pretty far, far away.