We Interviewed The Man Behind The Visual Effects In The Last Jedi
At last week’s Academy Awards, the Oscar for Best Achievement in Visual Effects went to Blade Runner 2049, but an equally viable case could be made for The Last Jedi, which bombards viewers with ambitious visual effects for most of its 152-minute running time. Working with an international team of effects artists numbering roughly 930 (according to IMDb), visual effects supervisor Ben Morris ensured that everything writer-director Rian Johnson imagined made it to the screen.
Earlier this week, we had an opportunity to speak to Morris about Johnson, J.J. Abrams, and the ideas that fuel their respective approaches to visual effects. (If you have yet to see The Last Jedi, consider yourself warned: there will be spoilers.)
Space: In the decades since the original Star Wars trilogy, visual effects have undergone major changes. As a visual effects supervisor, what role do those earlier films play in your approach to the new films?
Ben Morris: Well, they’re a huge inspiration. I would say that every person who has worked in my crews around the world has been inspired by them, probably since they were kids. I certainly have. That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing. More specifically than that, they help define a world and a visual filmmaking language that is something we want to embrace, nurture, and on occasion push forward. It’s like—The Bible is the wrong word—but it’s like a ground truth that we all know, a certain sensibility that you feel when you watch a Star Wars film, and we’re very mindful of that. That’s one of the wonderful comforts and joys of doing a Star Wars film.
Having worked on both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, how would you compare J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson, specifically in their approach to visual effects?
Every director’s got their own sensibilities. I’d say they’re both film buffs and they like to shoot on film. (We shot digital on both as well, but the primary medium was film.) On The Force Awakens, I was with J.J. through the whole shoot—although Roger Guyett supervised the overall film—and I think J.J. is inspired by turning up at a location and discovering things. It’s very instinctive. He’ll discover things on the fly, which is a very dynamic and fast way to work.
Rian tends to be a more methodical person. He has a plan and when he came to us, he had a very clear picture of what he wanted The Last Jedi to be like. That could have been in terms of what it should look like, how the camera and photography exist in the world of visual effects, what he was after. Both J.J. and Rian were very interested in the older techniques and at every opportunity would ask, “Can we shoot this in camera? Is there a way we can use a non-digital technique to achieve a result?” So I think there are huge similarities there. More than you might suspect.
How did Rian Johnson’s aesthetic influence your work on The Last Jedi?
Rian maybe does have is a slightly more formal approach to shot composition and camerawork. He would often talk to us, not with reference to The Force Awakens, but with reference to what you can do in a computer nowadays. In some cases, he thinks—and I align with him on this—you can come up with some sort of magic camera moves where you know that the only way a camera could have created the shot was through a computer because of the speed the camera moves, the way it accelerates or decelerates, or the proximity that a camera will pass close to an object. You know that couldn’t physically happen in the real world, so he would just be very mindful of that. If we ever were creating previs or animatics or any sort of dynamic sequence, we always made sure that we grounded the cameras in reality, so they could have been shot on a standard camera mount dolly or a crane or a helicopter.
You’ve also talked about Rian Johnson’s desire to ground Snoke in reality a little more. Are there other established characters or techniques that he wanted to change?
His first instinct on everything was, if we’re doing a character, can we do it for real? I think I’ve said it before, but with Snoke, he did on one occasion say to me, “Is this going to work? Are we going to believe this character?” He almost wanted us to get over the belief bit and just get back to the story, which I think is a really amazing thing about working with Rian. Everything is to do with the story. What he didn’t want the audience to be fixating on is “Hey, that’s a fantastic character. I wonder how that could have happened. How could it have been created?”
It was all about story, and so you could look at characters like the Fathier, the big running creatures that are in the film—again, he was very interested in how much of that could be achieved practically. In the end, [creature and special make-up effects creative supervisor] Neal Scanlan built a head and shoulders puppet that pops up over the stable doors as the very first establisher of that creature. That was a perfect moment to do that.
What made that a perfect moment for a practical effect?
It was in a controlled environment, the range of movement that was required was constrained, it grounded everyone in reality, and John [Boyega] and Kelly [Marie Tran]’s reactions to the creature’s head popping out of the stable were real. They hadn’t seen it before, so those moments are wonderful on set. Once you get in for the dynamic action, the actual animation of a character like that, you realize that for the whole sense of believability and the dynamism of what we were trying to do, we had to use the CG version, but again I would say—very similar to J.J.—we made a Fathier that looked exactly like the practical one, and then we allowed it to do more things. It could stamp its feet, its muscles could jiggle, it could have somebody riding on the back of it, it could leap over speeders, and crash through walls. Those are all things we can’t do practically. Porgs are the same thing. Half of the Porgs are real and half are CG.
When you read the script, were there particular sequences you were excited about or felt daunted by?
In that first read-through, the one thing that stood out to me was that Rian was concerned about the Fathier, and he was asking a lot of questions about how we would be able to get the actors to ride on the back of these creatures during this dynamic chase with the police. For me, that was obviously where Rian’s concerns were and we talked a lot about that and how we have lots of techniques to do that really effectively now, but it requires a combination of special effects, visual effects, and even creature effects to come together and pull that off.
What else did you focus on in that first meeting?
Another thing was the death of Holdo, when she sacrifices herself, launches into The Mega Destroyer. There were relatively few words on the page, but you knew there was something quite interesting that had to be conveyed there. It was certainly something that we’d never seen before. Again with that one, we read through it and I made my assumptions of what it meant, and then Rian turned that on its head. It’s not the obvious. It’s not going to be loud, colourful explosions. He wanted something entirely different.
The other thing that got my attention was the Crait planet. It took a lot of discussion to work out what it should look like, what natural locations in the real world we could go to… and then also this amazing geology of red crystals, how that played into the degradation of the whole battlefield until you get to the kind of bloodbath at the end when Luke and Kylo have their standoff. That whole thing was orchestrated through Rian’s writing in the script. We then had to visualize that through lots of concepts.
Based on the work you’ve done on The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, do you have a sense of what new potential there might be for the future of the franchise? Is the visual effects team able to share their ideas and influence what comes next?
Yeah, absolutely. I don’t know anything about the future stories, I’ll tell you that straight, but in terms of how we work with the directors, that’s one of the mot exciting things about this. We’re in a very known universe, but everybody—including the directors and us as filmmakers—wants to push it forward. As long as it has that feel of Star Wars, we can go anywhere and there are all sorts of interesting stories that can be played out. The most important thing ultimately is the story, but the potential is huge. We have a brain trust where we all gather together and discuss the future projects and films.
I was talking to Dennis Muren, who worked on the original ones, and he obviously knows everything about these films. He founded them in many ways visually with his visual effects work, but he wants to push them forward, and we’re always talking about visuals that could change the way that we look at the stories. From a technological perspective, it’s now more about the ideas than it is about what technology we use to create those ideas visually. To me, that’s really exciting. The new digital technology gives us the freedom to create anything a director might want to put onscreen.
The Last Jedi is now available on Digital and arrives on Blu-ray in two weeks—on March 27. You can read our review of the movie here and check out the trailer below.