ROGUE ONE: John Knoll On VFX And The Future of Effects in Film

How they made Scarif and the use of VR in filmmaking.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story will be released on Digital HD March 24 and on Blu-ray April 4, 2017. We got a chance to travel to Industrial Light and Magic in San Francisco, CA to chat with executive producer/VFX supervisor John Knoll about how they made the live action and CGI shots blend seamlessly, creating the planet of Scarif and the future of tech and VR in filmmaking.

We checked out a number of shots from the film and how they were built. Knoll explained during a presentation that for some of the sets, especially ones they wouldn’t be shooting on for long, they built up a blank room with suggestions of furniture and control panels, then added the details later. He told us that this made it easier for the actors to imagine their surroundings. We saw examples of sets like this, including inside of Admiral Raddus’ ship and the final scene with Princess Leia.

We also learned that director Gareth Edwards was given thousands of virtual environment shots that could be scrolled through. These could be superimposed on the set that was built, so it could be used over and over. For instance, in a scene where Chirrut stands up at a window, a number of shots could be scrolled through for the scene outside that window.

Knoll told us in our one-on-one interview, that blending the live-action shots and the CGI shots are a big part of the history of ILM. He said, “As an example, when I started working here, and this was prior to the beginning of computer graphics, there were a lot of mechanical restrictions on doing this kind of work. A great deal of planning and technology needed to go into the planning of a shot. As an example, we didn’t have any good way of putting a synthetic anything into a handheld shot, and doing a really accurate match for something like that. We didn’t have the tools for that. That meant that for a film that might have had a lot of handheld motion, when you get to an effects shot, it just feels different. Suddenly the style of the movie has changed and you know an effect is coming. So we’ve worked hard to try to eliminate those kinds of things to free up the filmmaker to shoot those kinds of things. So you can ignore that it’s visual effects and shoot it like anything else.”

He continued, “We try to design the sort of workflows that are friendly to the director, friendly to the performers. We want to try to create situations that give what’s going to be a CG character or creature in the scene, something that is sort of friendly for the actors to deal with so they’re as comfortable as possible, to foster good performances. We try to make things easier for cinematographers as well. We’re trying to be good citizens and work out ways to make this as painless a process as possible.”

Knoll spoke about whether or not knowing what was currently possible in tech changed what he comes up with in terms of story. “I will say that a lot of our favorite projects are projects where, when you look at the script, you say, ‘Oh, how are we going to do that?' The answer to that,” he said, “ is that the challenge is usually getting all the smart brains together and starting to pick out the problems. I really enjoy that process. To date it’s never failed us. Those are really the fun projects. Usually the promise is, when we solve that, it’s going to be something really memorable and special.”

During the shoot, the team came up with a way to walk around virtual sets and set up shots, that was more advanced than anything they’d done before. We got a chance to see the virtual camera station, which was, believe it or not, rigged from an iPad mini. It looked a bit like a Nintendo Switch, with Nvidia game controllers on the sides and a number of sensors on the front that sort or worked like the balls on a motion capture suit. We saw the shield gate scene rendered on the screen, with ships flying by. As the camera operator walked around with the unit, he could try out different shots and angles, over and over until he liked what he saw.

We also got a chance to check out the way the planet Scarif was built up from shots taken in the Maldives. Knoll explained, “Very early on, Gareth wanted to do this ‘battle in paradise’ idea, to contrast the beauty of the environment against the starkness of the battle. We looked at a number of different locations that we could potentially shoot at, and the Maldives was Gareth’s favorite…we all moved the whole unit over to the Maldives for a week of shooting. We got some really good material there. Certainly the vistas down at ground level all come from the Maldives shoot. But we had some real restrictions there, that we couldn’t set off any pyro. We couldn’t do explosions or big stunt-y things there. We knew we were going to have to do some portion of the shoot back in the UK where we could control the shoot a little bit better and have the freedom to do those kinds of things. So we always knew we were going to be grating a bit of the two together. We have shots in this spectacular environment and we’d be shooting on a much smaller set fragment in the UK, and doing extensions to make that look like the Maldives.”

We asked about the future of film tech, and the use of virtual reality. Knoll told us, “I think it will be a progression of a lot of what you’ve already seen. On this picture, we did do a bunch of VR set scouting. This is something we’ve been playing with for a while - the idea of being able to scout locations, and be able to walk sets without having to do a build. You’re familiar with a lot of the foam core models that the art department builds in the planning stage, where you build it all out in an eighth inch to a foot scale, to understand the set. Then you can put a lipstick camera down there to try to get an idea of the camera angles you’re going to get. But I always find that there is a disconnect between how big you think that’s going to be…it’s a different experience to when you walk on a set and you’re like, that’s actually smaller than I thought it was going to be. When you build a quickie CG model, and then go into that environment with a headset, you get this very powerful, visceral sense of presence and scale. I think you really understand how big a set is…I think it’s a better way of doing it.”

Are you guys going to check out Rogue One: A Star Wars Story when it hits on Digital HD and Blu-ray? Let us know in the comments or tweet us @BMoviesD.