The world of Star Wars CGI is an interesting one, ranging from creating planet-destroying explosions to tweaking your designs to tie in with toy releases, and the effects in latest episode The Last Jedi are no exception.
Industrial Light and Magic VFX supervisors Ben Morris and Mike Mulholland lifted the lid on just how they pulled off some of the more impressive sequences in the latest Star Wars movies in a new interview with Deadline.
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In particular, the arduous process of creating Andy Serkis’ Dark Side maestro Supreme Leader Snoke sounds like it was quite an endeavour…
“We started off by sitting down and working out what needed to be reworked from the version of Snoke who was in Force Awakens, and [director Rian Johnson] came in with some specific questions and ideas about what he wanted Snoke to be in this one,” Mulholland began.
“There was no question Rian wanted to bring him down to the human level, and the performance needed to have that resonance,” added Morris.
“Rian was very concerned that doing it entirely in CG was a good idea initially. I reassured him and said, ‘It’s absolutely the best way to do it.’
And that’s when thing got a lot more technical, as Morris went on to explain. Buckle in, because this is about to get a bit in-depth.
“Rian got a sculpt done by the creature team, which completely transformed the look of Snoke away from the almost gelatinous zombie look that was in The Force Awakens, and stamped him into the real world. We had that maquette on set, and we also made sure that we had an older actor who we could shoot on every time we had a shot.
“So we would have Andy Serkis in his performance capture outfit. He’d have a head-mounted camera system on—we actually had four cameras, two stereo pairs watching his face. We were capturing his body movements, and we had two or three witness cameras in addition, so we covered all of that. We also had this reference maquette, and then an older age person and a younger, very tall actor, who wore the incredible golden gown—which, again, is entirely CG in the film.
“With all of that reference, Rian went into editorial and started cutting together the sequences. Andy’s got this wonderful resonant voice, and we started to watch the whole thing come together without any CG Snoke in there. It was working beautifully well. As Mike and the team started to put together CG Snoke per the sculpt that had been approved, we suddenly realized that he was a far more imposing character. Andy’s voice gave a sense of a larger chest cavity. His throat carried far more timbre. When you look to the CG model that we were building that matched the sculpt, he just looked too flimsy and frail. We had to put the brakes on and say, ‘We’re going to have to change this.’
“We did a number of broader things—we made him over eight feet tall, rather than seven feet tall. We expanded his chest. We restructured all the anatomy of his throat, and we took some scoliotic curvature out of his spine that was a feature of the original sculpt. We also restructured his jawline, to give him more of an imposing face.”
Serkis’ performance also added to the process, as Mulholland went on to explain.
“Doing those modifications tied our Snoke to Andy’s voice, so it was no longer clashing. The key was to try and capture the essence of the actor and make sure that you’re able to transmit that into the CG character. Our work was to first of all make a CG version of Andy, who didn’t look like Snoke at that point. It was Andy talking, and you move that performance onto Snoke.
“Once we’d done the technical side of the transfer, the animation team would go in and work to eke out all the subtleties and intonations, and the expressions were even slightly modified so they worked better on our Snoke character. It was a painstaking process to go beat by beat and make sure that it was the performance that Rian remembered from set, and that was what Rian held us to.”
In the end, though, we’d say it paid off. And who knows? If Serkis gets his way and has his own Snoke spin-off, ILM might be able to dust off all that groundwork and get Snoke up and running once again.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi is still airing in UK cinemas