How a nuclear explosion and a 19th-century painter inspired Rogue One’s most destructive moments

Star Wars may look like the future, but it all comes from the past

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While we may now all be shifting our excitement towards the next Star Wars film coming this December (hello, The Last Jedi), there’s still a lot to learn about last Christmas’ prequel/spin-off adventure Rogue One. 

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Case in point? The fact that one of the film’s biggest and most destructive moments was inspired by a combination of real-life nuclear explosions – and some 19th-century Romantic paintings.

Well, it did take place a long, long time ago, after all… 

“I have to say it’s a pretty amazing prospect, to literally play with the Death Star,” Industrial Light and Magic VFX supervisor John Galloway told the audience at London’s VFX Festival yesterday.

“When our supervisor told us about this he drew a big circle on a whiteboard, and I think we all sort of went weak at the knees.”

As Galloway and fellow VFX supervisor Stephen went on to recount, the team were tasked with creating the destruction of Jedha City in early parts of the film, and went back to real historical explosions for their influence.

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“We started by researching a lot of nuclear explosion reference,” Ellis explained. “Watching this over and over again in dailies is sort of scary, but it really did influence the look of our sequence a lot.”

“Of course there’s one point when Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) looks out the window and he sees the result of this, and the point is it’s not actually a nuclear explosion we’re seeing, it’s the start of some giant event,” Galloway went on.”

“And it’s very, very far off in the distance. And we really just wanted to communicate the sort of apocalyptic mood of that. 

“And we came across this particular image from, it’s a photo of a nuclear bomb test called Castle Bravo. And it’s taken in 1954. Now, nothing about the colour or exposure of this is representative of how this might look in real life.

“But there’s something so beautiful and moody about it, and it also sort of linked to the greens of the Death Star laser fire itself. So we took this as a sort of direct reference to create that nice….not nice, but apocalyptic feel.”

Still, it wasn’t just photographs that inspired the ILM team, with director Gareth Edwards suggesting they pick up some ideas from a Victorian painter for the Death Star attack (implausible as that sentence may seem).

“He pointed us directly towards these paintings by John Martin,” Galloway recalled.

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John Martin’s 1853 work The Great Day of His Wrath, cited as a key inspiration for the Jedha attack

“Some of you may be familiar with John Martin – he was a 19th-century English Romantic painter, and you can see a lot of his work in the Tate Britain. And you can see that again, we’re following similar themes here, but Gareth was very keen to get that sort of sense of apocalyptic doom.

He concluded: “So we used that very much to drive the look and style and palette of our comps, and you can see lightning in the top left corner of the [finished shot that] is a direct nod to those paintings and that style.” 

So there you have it – just spend years learning to use complex software, studying US history and picking up a History of Art degree and you could help make Star Wars look cool too. Inspirational stuff.

John Galloway and Stephen Ellis were speaking at The VFX Festival run by Escape Studios. The company teaches students the art of film-making and specifically VFX/animation. 

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Rogue One: A Star Wars story is in cinemas now