Industrial Light & Magic’s visual effects supervisor John Knoll has been telling stories in the “Star Wars” universe for many years, though typically in segments and pieces, providing some of the prequel saga’s most lavish and eye-popping FX. But the tale of “Rogue One” was, from the outset, entirely his brainchild.
Beyond his “Star Wars” bonafides, Knoll has the unique distinction of co-creating Photoshop with his brother Thomas and has garnered multiple Academy Awards nominations for his work on some of the biggest FX-driven film franchises of the past quarter century, including the “Star Wars” prequel trilogy, “Avatar,” “Star Trek: First Contact,” “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol,” “Pacific Rim” and his Oscar-winning work on “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.”
But George Lucas’ galaxy far, far away has always held a special place in his heart, ever since his youth. So when a possible plot for a new series of standalone films set in the rich universe kept percolating in Knoll’s head, he found himself suddenly driven lending his creative vision to the beginning, middle and end of a “Star Wars” story, as he related to CBR during a visit to ILM’s San Francisco headquarters to promote the Blu-ray release of “Rogue One.”
CBR: When did the very first glimmers of the idea for the story for “Rogue One” start formulating in your brain, and how quickly did it go from daydream concept to a full-fledged notion to you crossing over from your FX work and saying “I’m a storyteller, and have to get the story told somehow.”
John Knoll: It’s longer than you might think — it was nine years. The first inklings of trying to tell that story happened in Summer 2003 when we were shooting on “Episode III” in Sydney. I had heard that Lucasfilm was developing stories for a potential live action TV series, and they were active in story development at the time. That was kind of intriguing, and I started thinking about, “What would be a fun thing to do as a one-hour episode as a live action ‘Star Wars’ TV show?”
One thought was, “What about a ‘Mission Impossible’-style break-in into the most secure facility in the Empire to steal the Death Star plans? There could be a lot of tension of potentially being discovered and overcoming security measures. That could be a lot of fun!” I started tinkering with this idea internally. Then a day or two later, I asked Rick [McCallum], I heard you were developing this TV show. He started telling me about the era that it takes place in, and the themes of the show. As soon as he started going into that, I realized, actually, that idea has no place in that show, so I just dropped it completely.
It wasn’t until Kathy [Kennedy] announced this new slate of “Star Wars” films that, in addition to “VII,” “VIII” and “IX” that would be continuing the saga, that she also wanted to do these standalone adventure stories: stories that took place in the “Star Wars” universe but weren’t necessarily connected to that through-line. A lot of us were really intrigued by it. “That sounds like fun.” I thought that idea of the mission to steal the Death Star plans, telling that story could make a pretty good standalone feature as well.
I sort of did an informal pitch to a friend of mine at lunch, once. I said, imagine this, and kind of took him through the story. I got such a good reaction to it. Another friend asked me about it, so I pitched it, but this time it was a little more elaborate version of it. I had been going through this mental exercise of kind of thinking through more of the plot mechanics, and who these characters were. Could I work this out into a full feature film? Finally, I had this 20-minute version that I could tell that had, I thought, pretty good story logic, and pretty good characters, and all was very exciting, just beautifully meets right up to “Episode IV.”
A friend of mine said, “Okay, you really have to pitch this to Kathy. Make an appointment and go pitch it, because you have to.” I realized as soon as he said that that if I don’t, I’m always going to wonder what would have happened if I did? So I thought, “What the hell, I’ll make the appointment, I’ll see if I can do the pitch. If it doesn’t go any further than that, at least I’ll have done it.”
So I made the appointment, and I did the pitch to Kathy and Kiri Hart, who’s head of story [at Lucasfilm]. At the end — they listened to the whole thing very politely, and at the end, Kathy said, “All right, well, thank you.” So I got up and left. I didn’t hear anything for a little while. I thought, “All right, well, okay, I did it. I’m not going to wonder.” About a week after, I got an email from Kiri: “We talked about this a lot, and we may want to do something with this.” Then it snowballed into this.
At some point, the writing duties were handed off to different screenwriters like Gary Whitta and Tony Gilroy and director Gareth Edwards. What was that like, to know that, “Okay, here’s this idea. I got the ball this far down the field, and now I’m going to let the rest of you guys run to the end zone with it?”
I participated in a number of the story conferences. You bring in a lot of talented folks who have their own takes on what they think would be cool, and what needs to happen to enrich the emotional investment, and all these kinds of things.
Inevitably, things change a bit. I feel like about 50% of what I wrote survived, which is not terrible. A lot of the major characters are still the major characters that were in that first pitch. Jyn Erso was in the first thing I wrote, as was K-2, and Krennic, and even the character that got renamed but eventually became Cassian. So those were all in what I pitched originally. It still ended [the same]: the very last thing in the movie was with Princess Leia on the Blockade Runner as she gets the plans, and has to decide what they’re going to do.
Given your past history at Industrial Light & Magic, and so much great “Star Wars” work that you were clearly very invested in, was there a little bit more on the technical side for you on this one? Did you really want to give this all the extra special care you could?
I do on every project. Everything gets my best effort. One of the things that George [Lucas] used to use ILM for on his projects is, everything that he did, he tried to experiment with production methodology, and push the envelope a bit. That was something that I think was really healthy for the company. George would drop a script on the table, and we would go through it. There were always things in there that were like, “I’m not sure how we’re going to do that.”
The answers to solving a bunch of those problems ended up being really good for the company, the innovation that that drove, because we could then offer the things that we came up with as services to other productions. It was good for us. I felt like our own projects should be doing the same thing: as we continue to make new product, more “Star Wars” films, that we kind of owe it to the company to continue to move the ball down the field and foster animation.
That leads nicely into my next question — in “Star Wars” in particular, is there a new threshold that you guys are looking to break? Is there a next level that you’re trying to get to in sight, as far as effects?
It’s always a commitment to trying to look at, is there a better way? To take what you learned from the last project, and see, maybe there’s a better way of doing this that could give us a better result. Something that [veteran ILM effects artist and supervisor] Dennis Muren always said that I’ve always taken to heart is, “You have to look at the last thing you did as obsolete, now. You don’t want to just repeat that. You want to see, what can you do to do something more surprising, and fresh, and different. Something that really is new.”
My hope is that as we keep going into the newer “Star Wars” films, I hope that we’re going to make even this stuff look obsolete. They’ll keep pushing the boundaries. I think that’s good for us.
Is there an aspect of “Star Wars” that you were just particularly zeroed in on as a kid, that now is like an extra level of fun for you when you’re working on an effects sequence? Like, did you love the Millennium Falcon, so when you get to do a Millennium Falcon thing, it’s an amazing thing for you?
I just love the space battles. I think the designs in the original ships were so well-conceived. As we were trying to design new ships that fit into that aesthetic, you gain a renewed appreciation for how many decisions were just done right the first time. It’s just about impossible to improve on them.
Knowing that we needed to have a space battle, since it’s referred to in the opening crawl, I wanted to make sure that this space battle contained a lot of my favorite things from the space battles in the original. So you want it to have some good X-wing, TIE fighter, Y-wing actions in there, Star Destroyers. We needed to have something that constituted the victory that’s referred to in that opening crawl, that the Rebel spaceships just won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.
What we came up with was this idea of using that Hammerhead Corvette to crash one Star Destroyer into another. I came up with that to be a different way to destroy these spacecrafts. I didn’t want to do something where you hit the weak spot and it blows up, because we’ve seen that so many times, and it’s kind of become a cliché.
I thought, “if we can make this about mechanical damage, you think about something that’s bigger than a cruise ship…” We’ve all heard the stories of, you get something like an oil tanker or a cruise ship up to speed, and it takes 20 miles for them to stop. If you are pouring all this kinetic energy into a Star Destroyer, a ship that’s a mile long that represents this giant mass, and you get it up to 50 miles an hour, it’s not going to stop suddenly. It’s just going to crash through. Seeing the mechanical damage of these two ships crashing into each other I thought might be a fun way to see something that’s visually different.
“Star Wars” does come with a built-in challenge of wanting to have some degree of matching the look, style and design of the original films, which are now nearly 40 years old. You want to have some connective tissue in the look and feel of it, but still keep pushing all those boundaries. What’s your philosophy on that equilibrium?
That was one of the fun things about this story, was that it’s a fun mixture of new characters, new locations, but then you start to see familiar things. That sort of increases as the film goes on, with additional characters showing up and environments converging. That meant that we were going to be depicting a lot of very familiar things: the Death Star, Death Star control room, Yavin secret base, X-wings, TIE fighters, all of that were going to appear again.
What was interesting was going back and actually looking at the original props. I remember them as being better than they were. Partly, it’s the time lapse. I saw the film when I was 14. Partly, it was shot on 35mm film, that had a fair amount of grain to it. Then the prints that you saw in the theaters, originally, were two optical generations down from the original negative. Film jumps around in the gate, the projectors aren’t super bright and all that. So everything looked great in the theaters on the day. A lot of those same things don’t hold up to the kind of scrutiny that they get when you’ve got modern projection systems and modern cameras.
We would look at some of the costumes, the original Stormtrooper helmets, some of the original models that were beautifully done for the day, but when you frame in as tight as we were planning to do in our film, some of that stuff just wasn’t going to hold up. What we decided to do was match your memory of these things more than the reality.
One example is, there are Star Destroyers that are depicted in our movie. It’s an iconic design, brilliant bit of design. Originally, they built two models. They built a three-foot model that they used for “New Hope,” and that’s the model that’s used for that amazing opening shot, which is extremely well-detailed along its lower surface. But then the upper side was left largely un-detailed, because there’s no shots that really see it closely. So recognizing that they were going to try and do a lot more with the Star Destroyers for “Empire Strikes Back,” for these big fleet scenes, and the Falcon stuck on the back of it, they built a big eight-foot model that was hyper-detailed. There were a lot of things that were different about the design of the eight-footer.
The “Star Wars” nerd in me wanted, we should be matching the “Episode IV” Star Destroyer, and there are some things you could tell that are different about them. The shape of the superstructure on the top and some of the other details. That’s sort of been canonized now as Imperial I and Imperial II-type Star Destroyers. Those design differences are sort of official. So I thought, our film should have Imperial I Star Destroyers in them.
But that original three-foot model, for example, had no internal lighting. Everybody’s memory of a Star Destroyer has all those little porthole lights along the side and on the upper surface, but that wasn’t part of that original model. We wanted to build a hybrid that was kind of how you remember it. We were going to match those features of the three-foot model so that you recognize it as Imperial I. But it had the lighting scheme, the built-in lights that were in the Imperial II.
Then, the upper surface of the Imperial I was largely un-detailed, so we cribbed a lot of that upper surface detail from the eight-foot model. And what we ended up with was this hybrid that didn’t really match either one of them, but I think people responded to pretty well as that feeling, “Oh yeah, that is the Star Destroyer I remember from the film.” But it’s us cheating. It’s a memory. It’s matching memory.
Tell me about the digital kit-bashing process, because I’m really fascinated by this idea. I loved the origins of kit-bashing – using bits and pieces from off-the-shelf modeling kits as techie detailing on the spacecraft – from the original films. Tell me how you’re doing it in the digital realm now.
That was an idea I had way in early pre-production. I got talking with some friends of mine in the model group here. We were observing that a very important part of the aesthetic of the original films came from that technique of how they were detailed. That idea of pulling all that mechanical detail from model kits of artillery pieces and tanks, and Formula One cars. It’s a great shorthand. You’ve got this very plausible mechanical detail very quickly. I’ve experienced on other projects I’ve worked on, when you have to build that super greeble-y detail, it’s hard to justify the kind of labor that goes into building every little nut and bolt on there.
I thought that if we didn’t build an analog of the model kits thing, this was going to happen in an uncontrolled fashion. What would happen exclusive of this idea was that the first ship that we built that had a lot of mechanical detail on it, something would brute force it. Then the second thing we built, somebody was going to open up that model and start stealing pieces off of it. This would happen in this uncontrolled fashion. If instead we confronted this upfront, and kind of made a fun project out of it, we could build these highly-optimized, very detailed pieces, we made really nice, good mechanical detail on them, and build a whole library of these things, then we could enable a workflow that was like what the original model makers were doing.
So we started by getting a bunch of the original model kits. We have some of our folks from the good old days here – Paul Huston still works here from the original model shop, and John Goodson, who was in our model shop for a bunch of years, is pretty familiar with all the kits that were part of that library of pieces. So we got a bunch of those model kits. We had to buy some off of eBay. Then we went through and identified what the most useful pieces would be on there, with Paul and John going through and saying, “Al lright, we use this a lot,; we use this a lot; these are important…”
We did very detailed 3D scans of those, and then we built these highly-optimized versions of those, about 300 of the most important pieces. Then from there, we had this nice interface for the modelers so that as they were adding mechanical details, it was almost literally like, alright, I’m going to pull this thing out of the bin. So you can have this library you can just scroll through, and take that, and put it right there. The hope was that if we enabled a workflow that was like what the model makers were doing originally, that some of that aesthetic would transfer. I’m happy to say, I thought that was really pretty successful. I think our models had that authentic “Star Wars” feel.
Is there a ship that was a good example of that that you would point people to?
The Star Destroyer. That was all detailed with the model kit pieces. If you do a direct comparison, you may see that some of the pieces are different, but a lot of them are the same bits, and you can even identify that Formula One engine pieces in there, and this bit from that flak cannon.
Directed by Gareth Edwards from a script by Gary Whitta and Chris Weitz, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” stars Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Jiang Wen and Forest Whitaker, is now available on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital HD.