Spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi follow below.
Now that Star Wars: The Last Jedi has officially hit the big screen, there are so many aspects of the film to discuss and marvel at, whether it’s the storytelling, characters, production design, visual effects, creatures, costumes or any endless number of things that have to come together in just the way right, like pieces of a puzzle, to make a finished film. After seeing the latest installment in the franchise, Collider got the opportunity to chat with visual effects supervisor Ben Morris about creating some of the incredible visuals and the extensive work that was put into realizing the vision of director Rian Johnson.
During this spoiler-filled 1-on-1 phone interview, Morris (who works at ILM in London) talked about blending Star Wars themes with new ideas, the biggest visual effects challenges, the design of some of the epic and iconic moments, putting together the look of Crait, the film’s most visually exciting lightsaber sequence, the importance of using the visual effects as part of the storytelling, and how he ended up in this line of work.
Collider: Every movie has its own set of challenges, but do the stakes feel higher because this is Star Wars? Do you feel an extra added amount of pressure, on top of just completing a project successfully?
BEN MORRIS: I think you do, but the wonderful thing about LucasFilm and the filmmakers, on a project like this, is that we’re all fans of Star Wars since childhood, so we come to the table excited, as well as challenged. The projects, themselves, help attract the best creative artists in the world. I was always confident, having read Rian Johnson’s script nearly three years ago, in the very first meeting. It was an absolute corker of a film, and the process of getting to the final film has just been a very consistent but enjoyable path. I think we’ve made something that’s really very special. It’s got themes of Star Wars in it, but there’s new stuff, as well.
What were the biggest visual effects challenges on this film?
MORRIS: In some ways, the scale of the work is often the hardest aspect, when you’ve got over two thousand shots and the visual effects have touched nearly every shot, and either created entirely or supported or helped nearly every shot in the film. A big stand-out success for me, and something that Rian was maybe slightly cautious of, at the beginning, is the character of Snoke. He wanted to move away from J.J. Abrams’ gelatinous, zombie-like look of the hologram in The Force Awakens. He said, “Look, the character needs to work with the other human actors in the film.” He was very concerned that CG hadn’t gotten far enough to do a non-fantastical character who’s so close to a human. So, Rian was very concerned that he’d have to take it back to an actor in make-up, and I said to him, “Absolutely not. You won’t get the look and the particular design features of Snoke, if you do that. We can easily do it.” To me, that was a huge success. As we went through that process with Rian, he got more and more confident. We actually pushed in closer and closer, per shot, as he got more and more enthusiastic about how the character developed.
Also, in the film, there’s that moment of silence when Holdo sacrifices herself by flying into the Mega Destroyer. We had always hoped that would resonate, both as a story beat and as a striking visual, and when I heard all of the cries and gasps in the silence, it was just fantastic. We realized that it worked. That’s never really happened in Star Wars before. On a creative and slightly technical level, it was based on physics photography of cloud chambers and high speed particles colliding with each other. We always talked about how this look would happen, where we’d drain all of the color out of the image. I think it shows strength, if you invert your normal concept of what space shots in Star Wars look like, with a white ship on a black background. For that sequence, you turn it on its head and you’ve got a black ship with white space. That was a huge visual effect. I think the destruction of the Mega hanger with Rose, Finn and BB-8, crashing around and fighting Phasma, the Crait battle, and the opening bombing run are just fantastic pieces of dynamic action filmmaking. A lot of that is almost entirely digital, as well.
Was the design of lightspeed plow through the First Order fleet something that went through an evolution?
MORRIS: That did take time. It definitely did. My art directors at ILM London spent weeks, if not months, coming up with ideas. Rian was always very clear in his description of a hot knife through butter. When I read the script, it said, “The final Rebel cruiser rips through the Mega Destroyer, tearing the wing in half.” Initially, I thought it was like hell on earth, with crazy explosions that were huge and epic. Rian turned that on its head and said, “You can convey that, but I want the moment to be absolutely serene and beautiful,” and the concept of the silence happened. That’s where we realized that we didn’t want to just be tearing up with glowing orange explosions and petrol bombs everywhere. We wanted to come up with something clean and new, that had that delicacy and serenity to it. That’s so impactful.
Did you have a hand in getting Yoda and his look to be what we see?
MORRIS: The honest truth with Yoda is that it is a practical puppet, the whole way, in this film for that short scene. Neal Scanlan did an incredibly good job of going back to the original molds and making the character, and Frank Oz performed the hand puppet as it was originally done. It was an amazing experience to watch that happen, with the tree being entirely practical. We cleaned up some of the stuff on the tree and did some very subtle augmentation of the puppet, if necessary. Sometimes you might see a cable or an eye blink might not be quite fast enough.
How did you put together the look of Crait and get the red-salt effect right, since it’s so responsive to movement?
MORRIS: It was a very clear brief from Rian, very early on in the initial script. He wanted these speeders to have these incredible rooster tails, spraying up the red crystalline structure under the white salt. He wanted the degradation of the huge salt flats to be a thematic part of the entire battle to the final confrontation. It’s pristine when you arrive and it slowly gets degraded, as the speeders come out. They’re almost like ice skaters on a perfect ice rink. As the TIE fighters and the speeders start to get blown up, you get these huge red gauges. We talked about the progression in the sequence. With the canon charge, it actually blows off even more white material, and then finally fires. You almost end up with a symbolic bloodbath in front of the door, which is the entire red crystal floor that Luke walks out onto for the final confrontation. That whole theater of drama, which is almost an opera that we create towards the end, is something that Rian always went for. In our world, it was technically challenging because crystalline structures are hard to achieve a good look for, in all directions. They tend to look sexiest or nicest when they have light coming from behind, so we had to massage the way in which we rendered stuff.
The simulations of all of those millions and millions of particles was a very complex thing. Each speeder was kicking up its own crystal trail that had to interact with anything else that was happening. There was a lot of work to create that. The other thing that was interesting was the Falcon chase that goes into the red center. That was fantastic, as well, because you go into a complete crystal chamber. I’m always very keen to look for real world examples of similar phenomena, artifacts or geography. For Crait, we knew it was a salt flat, so we actually flew to Bolivia and went up into the Atacama Desert at 12,500 feet, where there’s the biggest salt flat in the world, and we spent three or four days shooting plates to use in the film. We scanned and photographed the entire terrain and took lighting samples that would help us create the shots in that scene in post-production.
What were the unique challenges of Rey and Kylo’s big action scene, since it was framed in such an unconventional way for a lightsaber battle?
MORRIS: The complexity of it was beyond what’s happened before, and it was an amazing piece of choreography. Nowadays, we have lightsaber proxies that are tubes with red LEDs inside or blue LEDs that allow them to interact with lighting. There are some elements of practical foreground materials, but the vast majority of that scene is enhanced by visual effects. It takes a huge amount of detail because we have to track every frame of moment for Rey and Kylo and their sabers, and all of the guards, in order to augment and enhance all of it. We have to know where every object is because when it creates a light spark on the floor, it’s going to illuminate the leg of the person next to it. All of those layers of complexity actually give us that believable feel. The curtains, as they burned down, were entirely digital, as well. For issues of safety, there was no way that you could do that, but that was always a huge plot point that Rian wanted to hit.