Rogue One filmmakers defend decision to bring back iconic Star Wars characters

Contains spoilers and technical jargon

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A couple of weeks ago Rogue One director Gareth Edwards revealed to RadioTimes.com how an iconic character from the original Star Wars trilogy was brought back for his prequel/spin-off, thanks to some clever CGI work along with the help of Holby City actor Guy Henry. 

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“It was a massive thing for him, it was very gracious of him, because essentially he’s doing this big performance and getting zero credit for it,” Edwards told us.

“He was gonna be totally replaced, and then had to keep it all secret. So, um, that was a big ask.”

But now the team behind Rogue One have gone into more detail about how they achieved the impressive digital recreation, as well as their reasons for doing so, so there’s a bit more information out there about the year’s most suprising special effect.

Look away now if you’re still avoiding spoilers…

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Still here? Then you must know that Henry was embodying the late Peter Cushing’s original character Grand Moff Tarkin, with Henry wearing motion-capture materials throughout filming and Cushing’s face replacing his own in postproduction. Reportedly, Henry was chosen because his build and stature are akin to Cushing’s and he can speak in a similar manner.

“We’re transforming the actor’s appearance to look like another character, but just using digital technology,” visual effects supervisor John Knoll (who also came up with the original story idea for Rogue One) told the New York Times, describing the process as “a super high-tech and labour-intensive version of doing makeup.”

The overall process was a struggle, as Cushing was lit very differently in the original Star Wars film in a way which couldn’t be replicated without drawing attention, while missing facial tics from the veteran actor made the composite appear “like maybe a relative of Peter Cushing and not him exactly,” according to Knoll.

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If the effect didn’t work, other options were considered to account for Tarkin’s absence – “we did talk about Tarkin participating in conversations via hologram, or transferring that dialogue to other characters,” Knoll said – but in the end it they pulled it off, and sparked debate around the world around the ethics of bringing a man who died in 1994 back for a new movie. Could this be the beginning of all sorts of dead stars digitally returning?

“I don’t imagine that happening,” Knoll said. “This was done for very solid and defendable story reasons. This is a character that is very important to telling this kind of story.” 

“We’re not planning on doing this digital re-creation extensively from now on,” he added later. “It just made sense for this particular movie.” 

Though of course, Cushing wasn’t the only star of 1977’s A New Hope brought back for this prequel. Two X-Wing pilots from the original film were included thanks to the discovery of some unused reels, while the movie concludes with the surprise appearance of Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia, the last film appearance by Fisher (or at least her likeness) before her death this week. 

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The effect with Leia was achieved by having body double Ingvild Deila filmed from behind as the Princess, and then digitally recreating the face, hair and costume from Fisher’s A New Hope performance when Leia turns round. The moment is now cited by the filmmakers as the ideal use of the digital recreation technology, tying the new film neatly into the original for the audience.

“To deliver on that moment of hopefulness, that is really underscored by the fact that you do get to see her face,” said Kiri Hart, a Lucasfilm story development executive and Rogue One co-producer.

“That’s the best possible use of effects, to enhance the meaning and the emotion of the experience for the viewer.”

Only time will tell if this technology sticks around or grows in prominence as the years go by, but clearly we have one thing to thank it for – it gave us an extra Carrie Fisher appearance when we needed it most.

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Rogue One: A Star Wars story is in cinemas now