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Conjuring “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” FX Magic and Sound Majesty

by  in Movie News Comment
Conjuring “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” FX Magic and Sound Majesty

The shroud of secrecy that enveloped “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” for so long meant there was as little information available about the film’s production process as there was about its plot and characters.

However, following a theatrical run that delivered a satisfied audience and a record-breaking $2.06 billion global box-office haul, Lucasfilm is finally pulling back the curtain as the seventh installment in the saga debuts on Digital HD and – on Tuesday – Blu-ray and DVD.

The release features extensive extras and a full documentary, “Secrets of ‘The Force Awakens’: A Cinematic Journey,’” spotlighting the skilled and creative artisans who crafted some of the most eye-popping and ear-pleasing elements of the film are finally able to reveal some of the tricks of their trade.

Two of those filmic Jedi, Industrial Light & Magic visual effects supervisor Roger Guyett and sound supervisor Matt Wood, joined Spinoff Online to shed further light on how their teams pushed “Star Wars” forward while still bringing the film back to its roots.

Spinoff Online: Where did the “Star Wars” saga fit in your own lives as sort of a touchstone, and how important was this opportunity to work on the new film to you personally?

Roger Guyett: I think the answer to that is a version of just saying yes, both in terms of what those earlier movies meant to me, and then I was lucky enough to come to America and work in the visual effects industry and movies. The legacy of “Star Wars” is just so enormous in that field, so it’s an honor to work on a movie where the history includes names like Dennis Murren and Richard Edland and John Dykstra. It’s really where so many innovations were made.

I worked on “Episode III,” so to be affected by so much growing up then work on “Episode III” with George [Lucas], and now to work on it with J.J. [Abrams] – yeah, it’s just an amazing honor. Obviously, I have so much respect for the whole franchise, and a great love for the characters and the movies. Of course everyone was a little nervous about it, but I think ultimately it’s a very exciting experience, and one that you just don’t get to have very often in life, and I think it’s very unique from that aspect.

Matt Wood: Those original films made a huge impact on me. When I was a really, really little kid I used to record “Star Wars” off the screen with my tape recorders and do fake interviews with Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker on tape. So coming into work for Lucas – I worked on all the prequels and the special editions with George Lucas, so thinking that we were finished in 2005 with “Revenge of the Sith,” and then having it all come back again with J.J. and his energy and a new perspective on “Star Wars” is just a dream come true, to be able to take that and work side by side with somebody from my same generation to bring “Star Wars” to the screen with passion as a super-fan.

As Roger mentioned, both effects and sound are groundbreaking elements, especially of the original trilogy, and the prequels. Tell me what ground you needed to break on this film in terms of what each of you were doing.

Guyett: In many respects, the safest of all safe bets would’ve been to create almost like a retro movie – but I felt that that was the wrong thing to do, and obviously J.J. felt the same way. But we wanted to have the imagery be soaked in DNA of 1977 and that era, and somehow create something that had its own energy and sort of move the thing forward.

Those guys making those movies were daring, and it had an excitement to it. They were breaking new ground. We wanted to do our own version of that. And our version of that was really doing this kind of strange mashup of the old school technology and mashing that against the most contemporary technology that we could bring to bear.

Ironically, we did not use a lot of old-school visual effects techniques in many respects. We used a lot of digital technology. But we developed a lot of what I consider to be really cutting edge technology to create the performance of Maz. We approached it in a way where the image was sort of sacrosanct, in the sense that we felt that we wanted to create something that you felt was plausible, was something you could really have gone out and photographed. … But it’s the way that we went about that I think was slightly different, mostly being relatively modest in the way that we were designing some of the shots so it felt more plausible. It felt like it was something you could have photographed — shots where we were “mounting” cameras to the side of X-wings, and things like that.

After showing some of the movie to some of the guys that worked on the original movie, they said some of those ideas were things that they had actually considered at the time, but just were unable to do because of the technology that they had available to them at the time. Once I had people saying that kind of stuff, I really felt like we were on the right path. It was this journey that we were taking, and we wanted it to have its own excitement, but at the same time feel as though it was deeply rooted in those early movies.

Wood: From a sound perspective, we had access to Ben Burtt, who created a lot of the iconic sounds from “Star Wars” in the ‘70s, like the lightsabers and the TIE Fighters and the Millennium Falcon and R2-D2. So we have that legacy that we’re working within, and the actual creator and artist of those sounds is with us. We have a whole bunch of new planets and new characters to conquer, and we want to be in that same sort of “Star Wars” patina, yet we still want to push the bounds.

For example, working with Kylo Ren, we wanted Adam Driver, who’s very method in his way, to be able to feel that character and intimidation of his mask, which is purely created for intimidation, and it’s not sort of a life force like it was with Darth Vader, to keep him alive. And the process that we created for Adam Driver to listen through that and do his performance for all of his lines with the mask on, with the sound design from how his mask sounds, is something that we never had done before on any “Star Wars” film. So it was a nice blend of technology and the artistry of an actor’s performance to blend together to give you what we seen on screen.

Give me a little contrast and comparison, working with J.J. Abrams as opposed to working with George Lucas. How was their creative approach very similar, and how was it wildly different?

Guyett: [Laughs] I worked on one movie with George, which was “Episode III,” and at that time, he was such an innovative man in terms of the technology that he brought to that movie. It really was the start of the digital era, in the sense that he felt that you could create a movie in a different way. I think he was slightly ahead of his time in many respects, and I’m certainly extremely proud of the work that we did in that movie. And he’s obviously incredibly imaginative – both J.J. and he are incredibly creative people, both of them.

The interesting thing, of course, is that in some ways, I think that somehow what was lost in that process is the humanity, in a strange way. All of the reality, the humanity and the physical world that he actually used when he created those earlier movies were somehow lost in that translation.

I think the fans really responded to the fact that J.J. went back and looked at the way those early movies were made, and the foundation of the movie became less about recreating spaces digitally, and more about really traveling to places. I think the fans respect and really responded to that choice. There was that sort of tactile quality that somehow was possibly lost in the prequel movies.

Wood: I’ve done a few films with George over the last 20 or so years. and I had done the two “Star Trek” films and “Super 8” with J.J. I thought George’s process was fairly linear and thought out and planned, and not a lot of surprises going into it – we kind of knew what we were seeing. A lot more pre-vis, and it was a lot less overtime. But J.J. really thrives on the excitement of the now.

When we finally had all our components together during our final mix, we had John Williams sitting there, we have all the sound design that’s been created by David Acord and Ben Burtt, and all the dialogue that’s been recorded, and all the new material. We sit down and do it, and that’s where he thrives. He’s sitting there and we’re creating things at the 11th hour, and everyone’s on that same buzz of “Let’s make this happen!”

Let’s talk fan versus artist experience for you: Single out something from the retro side of “Star Wars” that made you particularly happy that you got to accomplish in this film, and then something belonging to the brand new world of “The Force Awakens” that made you very proud.

Guyett: Creating that imagery – there’s something amazing about just going to a desert and just seeing those first few weeks where we were shooting where you literally, you saw vaporators in the desert and Rey standing there, Daisy [Ridley] standing there in the costume in the desert with John Boyega and everything else. There was something magical about that that I think is impossible not to be touched by that, just the quality of those images.

And seeing the Millennium Falcon out there in the desert was just an amazing thing. Obviously we didn’t have the entire ship out there, but we did the same thing that they did on the original movie, which is build a slightly scaled-down one. But we had, like, a third of it, or a half of it, and it’s pretty amazing seeing it out there in the desert like that, and seeing all the trappings and people wandering around in costumes and stuff.

Then combining that with the Millennium Falcon actually taking off, which you see fairly early on in the movie – that combination of spanning what is the most simple notion – you build something in the desert – to using the most incredibly up-to-date technology that the guys on the team that I worked with, just spent such a long time developing the technology to allow that to happen, both in the way that we were able to light more realistically the build of the ship. The love that went into all of those components, and the physical simulations we did, of the way that the ship would affect the dust in the desert…and the way the engines would react and explosions would happen.

It’s kind of all in one moment: You’re going from very old-school into the most contemporary visual effects. But at the same time, part of this is just that sort of emotional strand of the story that you’re hoping is not cut when you jump from one technology to another, that there’s no interruption. It’s just a seamless piece. And that’s what we were really striving for very hard, to make it a continuous experience and not to have the audience just drop out of the movie. Working very hard to make those special effects very tangible and plausible, and at the same time be exciting and feel very fresh. There are many moments that I felt were watershed moments for us.

Wood: In sound, it was taking those legacy moments – items like the lightsabers, or the TIE Fighters, that have been created so long ago and so revered – and putting them in new environments. Like, you’re never seen the TIE Fighter or the Millennium Falcon really fly around inside the atmosphere of a planet before in the way that it is done. Also Kylo Ren’s lightsaber, which was taking an iconic thing like the lightsaber and changing it into something that was more unfinished, and being able to play and build a character’s iconic weapon based somewhat on the past, and also new in the future in an unfinished sense.

It’s a dream to be able to play in this universe and create these characters’ arc for what’s going to happen for the next three episodes in sound. That’s what “Star Wars” is for us. It’s a special show that has opened a lot of doors for a lot of people, is a great icebreaker for conversation, and also touches so many people around the world. It’s quite the phenomenon to work on.

Are you both going to be staying involved in the “Star Wars” universe as it moves forward? Or are you taking a breather right now?

Guyett: For me, it’s slightly different: The visual effects teams are in the process of shooting “Episode VIII,” they’ve already shot the “Rogue One.” On the visual effects side, it’s way harder being involved in the following movies, in some respect. They’ve even actually crewed up for “Episode IX.” I’m not sure where my place would be in the next movies, but I’d love to go back and work on something again, of course.

Wood: I’m involved in “Rebels” series and we’re working on “Rogue One” and early days on “Episode VIII” – I went out to the set and met the crew over there. I just want to make sure we get a crew that can push this series forward. Always with “Star Wars,” it’s such an iconic series that you usually have the pick of the litter of who you want for the crews, and everyone’s very excited. It’s about getting new generations excited from an employment perspective as well. We’ve got great people mixing and editing and designing on these next projects, and I’ll be supervising.

We’re only just now having the curtain revealed and talking to folks like yourselves about the behind-the-scenes details. Tell me about the fun of keeping things under wraps for so long – and the challenge of it all.

Guyett: Obviously, sometimes it can be rather irritating trying to make sure you don’t mention anything to anybody. You become acutely aware of just how important this whole thing is. Sometimes you just become incredibly conscious of the fact that you can’t say anything, and you want to share a lot of the experiences that you’ve had, and obviously the love and excitement about that.

The real fun is when it’s just revealed to the world. It’s kind of like that Christmas that hasn’t been spoiled – you don’t know what’s inside the presents, inside the wrapping. I think more than anything, J.J. really respected, in terms of the fan experience, that there’s something amazing about people going to the theater and actually genuinely being surprised by what they see.

What’s amazing to me is just how we managed to do that, and it did actually work. I think for a lot of people, the experience going to it was very unique, in the sense that they weren’t sure what to expect. I think the fans really respected that, too. I heard so much from people saying, “I just don’t want to know until I see it.” So I think the spirit of that was just simply that, that it would be a surprise and an experience that was very anticipatory. So despite the fact that sometimes yes, it was inconvenient in terms of actually practically making the movie, it was great fun just to see that level of surprise and the level of enjoyment – the fact that we didn’t let the cat out of the bag on a lot of things.

Wood: I am so grateful that the major secrets of the film lasted all the way until the release, just for the fans to be able to enjoy it and feel that impact of what the plot devices that were put in there that were really intense in this last film. I worked on the last prequels too, and in the early inception of the internet, I wasn’t fearful of that. But I’m so glad that with the thousands and thousands of people that worked on the film, that we were able to keep a lot of that under wraps. That’s just ultimately going to benefit the movie.

In fact, I’m working on the next two films, and I frankly don’t really want to know about things that are going to happen with these characters until the very last moment I can, just so I can really feel it when it hits me. I love that secrecy, and J.J. was great with that. He’s run whole TED Talks about the concept of secrecy, and we definitely were able to take that all the way through, and I’m certainly grateful for that.

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