‘Rogue One’ VFX Team John Knoll, Hal Hickel and Neil Corbould on Creating Digital Tarkin

     January 24, 2017


Before going any further: Rogue One spoilers are discussed during this interview. You’ve been warned.

Now that Rogue One is playing around the world and fans have had the opportunity to see the latest Star Wars movie, it’s time to dive into the secrets of how the film was made. If you’ve seen the film, you know two of the big surprises were the reveals of a digital Grand Moff Tarkin and Princess Leia. While the film could have been made without the appearance of either of these characters, I’m happy they were included to help tie Rogue One into the greater Star Wars story. Also, when both characters show up on screen, at the screenings I’ve attended fans love it (and some get pretty vocal).

Last week I landed an exclusive interview with John Knoll (who came up with the idea for Rogue One), Hal Hickel and Neil Corbould. They’re the ILM wizards that helped bring the film to life. During the interview they talked about creating the digital characters, how technology has changed over the past few years, making the movie look like it was shot on film even though they used digital cameras, how they kept the secrets of the film under wraps till the world premiere, Easter eggs, and a lot more. If you’re curious about the making of Rogue One I’m pretty confident you’ll enjoy hearing what they had to say.

rogue-one-final-posterCOLIIDER: I know you’ve been doing interviews for the last few hours, so I wanna start with a fun question. Do guys ever think before a project starts, “We’re fucked”?

[All Laugh]

JOHN KNOLL: On every one. No, I mean –The projects that we’re most attracted to are the ones where there’s some element of the unknown, where there are some aspects of it that we don’t necessarily know how we’re gonna do. Those end up being the most exciting because you apply the ILM method to it where we have a lot of really smart and talented people and we break these problems apart into smaller problems, and it hasn’t failed us yet. These projects where you go in and you’re not quite sure how you’re gonna do it end up being the most exciting and rewarding.

For the three of you, for Rogue One – and I’m gonna get into Tarkin and Leia in a bit– what was the thing that when you guys were breaking it down that made you think, “This is gonna be a real challenge”?

KNOLL: Unfortunately it was self-inflicted but, yeah, the digital humans. At the beginning in my first draft I had the very last moment in the movie was with Leia, and pretty early on in the more detailed story development Gary [Whitta] asked, “How do you feel about Tarkin having a role in the movie?” and I said, “Yeah. Let’s do it, let’s do it” knowing that that’s really hard stuff, digital humans is one of the hardest things in digital graphics, but we were all eager to take on the challenge.

Let’s jump into Tarkin for a second. There’s obviously shots where you could sort of put him more in the shadows, but the movie does a great job with keeping him in the light and making him look like he’s right there. Can you talk about balancing how to bring this character to life and also making him look as real as possible?

KNOLL: Well, I had some long conversations with Greig Fraser who’s our DP about how we should be treating these characters, and I encouraged him to, “Don’t do anything different that you would do if he was right there on set. Let’s not try and script this, let’s just treat him like he’s any other character.” And the first time we see him that was all Gareth, [Edwards, Director] in what I thought was a really very clever stage reveal where it starts off where it’s a small figure that’s out of focus in the background, then we get closer and we’re just seeing the back of his head.

The hope is that you think, “Oh, maybe that’s all they’re gonna show us, the back of his head. Showing his face would be really hard.” But he steps closer to the window and you see his reflection and then, “Ah! I see they’re just gonna show his reflection!” and then when you’re sure they’re just gonna show the reflection, the he turns into the close-up and, “Oh my god! There he is!” And it was all a pretty deliberate stage reveal and shot design that Gareth came up with.

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