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Warning: This story reveals major plot points for The Last Jedi.
Of one particular scene in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, visual-effects supervisor Ben Morris told Yahoo Entertainment, “It’s just wonderful and definitely inspired by Rian’s belief that we could do the complete opposite of what the audience expects.” That’s a sentiment that could be applied to the entire film. As written and directed by Rian Johnson, The Last Jedi takes the Skywalker saga in unexpected, sometimes controversial directions, all the while paying homage to the original characters, creatures, and concepts that brought him there. Morris, the creative director at Industrial Light and Magic, was responsible for the film’s visual special effects — a daunting job that encompasses everything from creating digital characters like Snoke to designing space battles to perfecting tiny details like Luke Skywalker’s green milk mustache or the tears welling in a porg’s eyes.
The director surprised Morris by occasionally eschewing digital effects altogether — for example, in scenes of Rey and Kylo Ren’s Force connections, or in the case of those giant sea cows, officially known as Thala-sirens, beached on Ahch-To. (Morris reveals they were flown in and dropped on the island via helicopter.) Johnson demanded that a certain character return to his original puppet form and even asked if Supreme Leader Snoke could be brought to life with makeup, rather than motion-capture animation. Even so, Morris and his team in London had their hands full. In the end, the film’s hybrid approach results in a dazzling blend of fantasy and realism — like the moment of one character’s ultimate sacrifice, rendered in a real-world-inspired visual style unlike anything we’ve ever seen in Star Wars. In a conversation with Yahoo Entertainment, Morris revealed the secrets behind six of The Last Jedi’s funniest, most touching, and most awe-inspiring moments.
Ben Morris, Industrial Light and Magic: Yoda’s a practical puppet; Rian was very clear from the get-go. The only creative and technical questions I had with him that were of significance were, did he want him to be transparent? Because some of the older Force ghosts did have a transparency to them? And he chose to say no — he didn’t need that or want that, which was great. It meant that when we filmed, we didn’t have to worry about painting through the backgrounds.
In terms of how we put the glow onto Yoda, we looked back to the original films, and the other moments of Force ghosts, and there was no actual consistent effect in terms of that glow. So we sat down and we tried a few of the ones that matched the originals, and then actually we just came up with a very subtle one that allowed the edges of Yoda to have that sort of fizz to him. And also we just washed him with a little glow. When’s is backlit by the fire, it almost entirely disappears, in a really lovely way.
Rey and Kylo’s Force connection
Morris: The Force connections between Kylo and Rey, they were amazing. But the first time I read them in the script, they were pretty funky moments; you kind of thought, “How is this going to work, and do I need to write down there’s a digital effect involved?” From the get-go though, Rian just said, “No, no, this is going to be entirely done with an in-camera effect, with sound.” And I said, “Wow.” And everyone sort of said, “Are you sure?” And I have to say, for me, they’re some of the most powerful moments in the film – the sound design, and just the clever editing and eyelines with the two actors. I just think they’re fantastic. But no visual effects!
Luke’s last stand
Morris: Obviously Luke is an apparition. We had to be very mindful that he didn’t leave tracks and that none of the salt that was flying around in the air would actually land on him. When we were filming, if a fleck of salt landed on his shoulder or in his hair, we would have to remove it. It even got down to the point where we were saying, should his feet be moving the gravel that he walks on? [Laughing] But it’s quite subtle, what we did there.
And we had to help him dissolve at the ultimate moment. We tried lots of different versions of that, in terms of how we let him finally pass and disappear. Some was all of him fading at the same time, some was his body fading and then the cape. And ultimately we ended up with his physical body fading first, and then the collapse of his cape, and then we had a CG-digital simulated cape flying off into the sea.
Snoke, in the flesh
Morris: My team in London was responsible for the first incarnation of Snoke in The Force Awakens, and they also did this current one. Rian immediately said to me, “I want to take him out of the shadows, I don’t like the gelatinous goo-ish look with the white skin and sort of ghostly feel.” He said, “I want to shoot him down to being an imposing human, maybe 7 feet tall.” And then he said, “But I also want the look of him to be entirely believable as an old, disfigured human. He was actually concerned, and he said to me, “Ben, is this actually going to work?” And I said, “Of course, it is Rian, it absolutely is.” He said, “Well, because I’m willing to stuff somebody in makeup.” And I said, “You won’t make Snoke if you do that.”
So Snoke took about a year of refinement to build. We started from scratch again, built his new costume. And the entire thing was based off Andy’s performance that we captured on set and put hand animation on top as well. When you look at real-world images of old people and what happens to aging skin and to aging lips and eyes, and the scar tissue and how that tightens and all that stuff? We’ve added all those details: sunburn, age spots, freckles, moles, pores, horrible sort of old-man stubble, dried, crackly lips, weeping eyes where the lower lids sort of open up and the tears pour out — we just went for it. And all of that was simulated and rendered in CG. I’m very proud of Snoke. I think the great thing is, he’s not a fantasy character and he’s not an animal; he is a human. And I think we buy him.
Admiral Holdo’s jump to hyperspace
Morris: I assumed it was going to be chaos — absolute, massive noise, explosions, bright colors, all the business in the rainbow. But then Rian said “No, no, let’s just turn that all on its head – it’s a somber moment, it needs to be beautiful, it’s the sacrifice of a major character.” So we looked in some strange places. We looked at particle physics photography and cloud chambers and accelerators, to see what happens when a tiny object moving at the speed of light hits another object that fragments and shatters. That became inspiration for what he had there. Then we also looked at how we could convey utter, utter intense heat and energy, and we decided to drain all the color out of the moment as well, and make it look almost like a burning piece of magnesium ribbon. And I think it’s just wonderful and definitely inspired by Rian’s belief that we could do the complete opposite of what the audience expects.
The Thala-sirens (and Luke’s organic green milk) on Ahch-To
Morris: Those characters — we called them “sea sows” — were all practical. We had built them and they were helicoptered down onto the end of the rocks under black drapes. It was like a scene out of Apocalypse Now or something, this massive alien monster-creature being lowered onto the Irish coast. They were performed by people inside the creature as well as people using rods outside, and we would just [digitally] remove those people on the outside.
We did have a practical bit of milking going on there — I don’t want to go into too much detail because we actually helped milk them. Luke and the milk is entirely CG, because it wasn’t quite gross enough and Rian wanted it gross. So we went there. So actually, all the stuff around Luke’s mouth is us. [Laughing] We added that.
Watch our tribute to the late, great Luke Skywalker:
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