'Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker' Visual Effect Supervisor Roger Guyett on Marrying the Practical and the Digital [Interview]
There’s one particularly telling and effective moment in The Skywalker Legacy, the feature-lenght documentary that’s included on the Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker home release that sums up much of the ambivalence and consternation that some had with J.J. Abrams’ return to the Star Wars universe. After showing the intricate construction of a giant, practical snake monster, the doc cuts back to footage of Jabba The Hutt, that old analogue beast that slithered its way into our hearts. The sentiment is clear – we’re making movies like we used to! A celebration of practical effects, the dripping of k-y jelly to give viscosity just like the old costume days, it’s all there. There’s excitement on set, everyone talking about how amazing it looks, how lifelike, how this is how you’re supposed to do movies like this.
Cut to Visual Effects Supervisor Roger Guyett who shatters the myth, letting us know the creature was replaced by a CGI version in post.
Guyett’s resume is mighty. Having made his bones on groundbreaking films like Twister and Casper, he helped Spielberg bring the events of D-Day to screen in Saving Private Ryan, helped bring to life the best looking film in the Harry Potter series, Alfonso Cuarón’s Prisoner of Azkaban, and even made the theatrical version of Rent feel more than a stage production. Guyett has had many collaborations with Abrams – from the Star Trek Reboots through The Force Awakens and The Rise of Skywalker (he was even second unit director on the former), as well as working with George Lucas on Episode III to round off the prequels. He’s in a unique position to speak to these changing landscapes of epic filmmaking.
We spoke at length about the apparent contradictions and indulgences in making a Star Wars film, and he made the case for why nothing was wasted and all contributed to the final presentation. He was erudite and open to the discussion, making for a dream conversation with a man who quite literally has helped shape what amazes us on screen for decades.
The following has been edited for clarity and concision.
We see practical effects being championed as almost a marketing ploy with the “postquels” as a mix of nostalgia and an attempt to delineate from Lucas’ second trilogy. In some ways the love of the practically-realized snake undercuts the extraordinary CGI you and your team accomplished, and raises questions about why the need to fetishize the on-set inclusions when they’re replaced anyway. Could you talk about that ethos, that somehow doing stuff on a computer is a “cheat” while doing an effect practically is not?
I think at the end of the day we’re all trying to do the best that we can, trying to make the best, most dramatic or emotional movie we can visually. I’m coming from figuring out how do you get the most arresting and dramatic imagery up on the screen and how do you go about achieving that. The story that’s told around what that process is is often very different from the reality of what is actually truly happening. The thing that makes those kinds of documentaries easier to watch is if the story being told is something that people can actually grasp – They can actually go oh, they made a puppet! It’s easier to go to the workshop and film that process and say here, here it is. Using digital technologies isa very different kind of story, and, as crazy as it is, maybe people maybe find that of story less sexy. When we build something on a computer and then put that in the movie, it seems more trivial. But it’s kind of ridiculous, because we have thousands of people working for the visual effects department, creating those images in the movie. Sometimes it’s frustrating when you see those documentaries that it boils down to, hey, they had a practical snake on set! I mean Neil’s [Scanlon, creature effects supervisor] is a dear friend of mine, and he for one would never diminish the contribution that we made to the movie. But his seems an easier story that’s told in these behind the scenes pieces.
I’m treading carefully here, but you have someone like Lucas, who as we well know has been excoriated often for “the digitalization” of this kind of epic cinema. Somehow, people think that every single frame of the prequels was simply smeared in CGI and were all filmed in a studio. As almost a retaliation to that ethos you have a generation of filmmakers who constantly champion the in-camera effects, lauding that they’re going to build everything and everything’s going to be great and more “real”.
I think there needs to be collaboration, that it’s not absolutely either of those paths. Between the virtual and the practical aspects, there is the eye of the needle is actually somewhere in between. I always have this conversation with JJ, and on occasion he’ll say we can do this later.
The ubiquitous “we can fix it in post”?
He not a fix it in post guy actually, for the record. But it’s a process. He asks how do we go about doing this, and I said let’s try and shoot this practically, because if we shoot this, this particular piece, that’s going to somehow ground everything that comes after we do that.
So, that’s the key – shooting practically isn’t so much a waste, even if replaced, as it informs the eventual final shot regardless even if all that work is replaced.
I’ve worked as a second unit director, and my career spans the miniature practical effect thing all the way through really the completely digital and the entire trajectory of George going from the location shoot to a green screen. As you say, there’s the ultimate irony – On Episode III which I supervised, there were more miniatures in that movie than any other movie in the history of ILM, and the longest single miniature shoot in the history of the company. People will overlook that in the prequels and say it’s all digital, which it isn’t. The thing that George was trying to do, which I think is very commendable, was pushing the envelope in a way, challenging himself to make a movie that it was not done in the traditional way of traveling to locations and to use digital technology to create these more fantastical worlds. But the truth is that there’s a tremendous amount of miniature work in those prequel movies.
One of the more seemingly ridiculous moments is that you built a green screen in the desert to shoot the speeder sequence. Even the actors seem bemused, but this seems to have been done not out of hubris but out of a desire to get the best shots possible. Does this really make enough of a difference to make this effort worth it, when it’s all going to be revised afterwards anyway?
In my case, I look at all of these as tools. I’m asking, what is the thing that is going to make the really biggest difference to the imagery that you see in the final movie? One of the biggest discussions we had was when we do the speeder chase. J.J. came saying to me, ok, so this is mad, you’re going to travel to Jordan, and we’re going to shoot outside on a green screen stage people out there in that environment. I said absolutely, that’s exactly what we’re going to do, because the light in that country at that time of year will be very different and we will not be able to recreate that on a blue screen stage in England or anywhere else for that matter. That a way to solve that problem, and get the most compelling imagery on the screen. People are on speeders and you’ve got expensive actors on a set piece, and you’re going to end up doing green screen photography, but you need to do it in the right light. The foundation of every visual effect is the light that you’re shooting it in. If you want someone to feel as though they’re standing outside in sunlight, shoot them outside in sunlight! That’s the thing that you gain. Yes, the backgrounds are generated using digital technology, but you’ve been to a place, you can replicate that place. That’s the real advantage. Now, for example, during the lightsaber fight on the Death Star rubble when firing the water all around – We replaced most of that water. But the practically realized water generates the emotion in the characters and performances. If someone is soaking wet and getting fired at with water, that’s the way they’re going to feel. They’re behaving correctly when they’re fighting on that set, it’s grounded in a reality. That’s the advantage and that’s the wonderful collaboration. You asked earlier about the snake – Well the truth is that the snake allowed J.J. to frame up all of the shots. The actors knew where to look, their eye lines are absolutely correct. What we have to do, is go and make that snake look more realistic, that’s a very different problem to solve than trying to fix people’s eye lines or changing the behaviour of the snake. J.J. can direct the creature in real time, and with every shot, he can say I want the snake to be here and then move towards them. That’s the advantage of having a practical solution. A real problem in digital effects quite frankly is that you’re at the mercy of an actor’s imagination as they stare at a tennis ball at the end of a stick. If you can build a practical version of that snake you do not have that problem as everyone’s looking at the same thing. The quality of the work becomes better because you’re not fixing problems that are a fallout of the process.
Could you talk about the changes that you’ve seen over the last few decades in developing this kind of epic cinema? They’re now shooting Mandalorian with screens that basically make holodecks. Will that thread that needle, giving the performance without needing to schlepp 600 people to the middle of the desert?
There is a practical aspect to all of these discussions aren’t there? It’s no good me saying the best way to shoot the desert scene is travel to the desert if you don’t have the budget to do it. I think filmmaking is a practical thing, and there are real physical problems you’re trying to solve. With The Mandalorian and the LED wall approach, when you think about it, it’s a 21st century version of rear projection. When I used to watch those old, the black and white movies with the road spanning behind the guy driving the car, that’s what Mandalorian is, except it’s an incredibly complicated version of that. It’s so much more realistic, tracking the camera and all of the lighting is correct and all of those sorts of things, so it’s where technology has caught up to an idea that obviously started, what, 70 years ago? It’s this amazing thing where you’re taking an idea that’s existed for a long time and you’re updating it and you’re making it using new technology. It’s kind of flawless, but it still has limitations. You’re still limited by the size of the LED wall stage, by the kind of light that you can use, all of those kinds of things and of course you have to build that world that’s on the LED wall. But the thing that I think is really being transformative is clearly the computer and its ability to create the imagery. The level of detail and photorealism has just been on this exponential climb, so I think it’s, the computer is an amazing tool to create fantastical and non-physically based effects. You can do whatever you want in the computer, you can make a world however you want and you’re not limited by any kind of physicality, which you would be if you’re making a miniature. There’s no limit to the imagination on a computer, but I think where the computer has now kind of come full circle is the fact that you can create things like the duel on the Death Star with these waves in the background. I’m hoping most people think that’s real water, it’s just obviously on a scale that’s not really been seen before. But you can actually do that with CGI these days, and I think the marriage is the thing that’s really interesting, the augmentation of practical effects.
Which of course forms the basis of your job, by navigating the various ways of making sure the imagery on screen is always focused on what’s best for the film rather than celebrating the way it was captured.
Being a visual effects supervisor, depending on the project you’re working on and the budget you’re working with, it’s a very practical and problem-solving kind of world. How do you get the most arresting imagery on the screen and telling the most compelling story with the tools that you have available to you? More often than not there’s a financial limit and a time limit on what you can achieve. It’s like walking into someone’s kitchen and saying I’m going to cook you the most interesting thing you’ve ever had, and you go to look in the cupboard and there’s nothing in there except some canned peas. If you know that you’ve got canned peas in there, that’s what you’ve got to work with, and your job is to find out how to you make that the most interesting dinner you can. It is a very practical thing. It is a really fascinating time, and of course the collaboration in filmmaking is the thing that makes it so spectacularly fascinating and challenging and creative and such a fantastic thing to do. Filmmaking is an organic process, and it’s me, J.J. and [cinematographer] Dan Mindle on set talking about shots moment by moment. Maybe there’s something that you wanted to do, but due to happenstance or the moment might be that you can’t do exactly what you want to do so you do something different. That’s the thing that you then push towards and anyway. In the end, I am a very strong believer in if you want someone to feel like they’re standing on the edge of a cliff, there’s nothing like standing them on the edge of a cliff.
…even if you replace the cliff in post?
Yes. Absolutely. You’ll get a performance, and if you’re trying to make something believable. That’s maybe where the George approach struggled a little bit. When you’re on the green screen stage, it is very, it doesn’t create the atmosphere. It’s an interesting thing, isn’t it? If you stand outside, you’ll feel different than when you’re interior. I think most people can sense that. Somehow or another, there’s a benefit with all of those kinds of qualities about the real world in the emotional reaction that you get from those moments. There’s something to it. I think you’re trying to help the actors create the most plausible performance. Then of course the audience is reacting to that, as that’s what you’re seeing, you know?
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