Best Star Wars effects, picked by this year's FX Oscar winner
Adam Valdez, winner of the 2017 visual effects Oscar for "The Jungle Book", shares his favorite jaw-dropping Star Wars FX -- and breaks down the innovations behind them.
Richard TrenholmFormer Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
Valdez supervised the team of effects wizards at London-based Moving Picture Company who created the film's lush computer-generated jungle and personality-packed digital animals. We asked him to talk us through the Star Wars saga's most jaw-dropping visual effects sequences and the pioneering behind-the-scenes innovations that made them feel so real. Here's what he said, in his own words.
Adam Valdez: I saw "Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope" at 6 or 7. The mind-expanding possibilities of cinema and fantasy entertainment got to work on me early in life.
I remember my father talking about details like how the robots were dirty, not perfect. This was proper world-building, with the illusion that behind every corner of the sets was a persistent reality of a million characters and towns and planets and ships. My Lego constructions took on a Rebel vs Empire theme.
As I became a teen and the remainder of the original trilogy was released, my mind turned to making films, and especially the fantastical content that the visual effects artists were making. I was lucky to learn from Phil Tippett, who was a lead artist on the original trilogy, culminating in his first Oscar for "Return of the Jedi". Having just won an Academy Award for "The Jungle Book", I suppose some circle is complete. The apprentice learned something from the master...
She's got it where it counts, kid
Space movies need spaceships doing cool stuff. A favorite is any scene of the Falcon shooting by at high speed, a bundle of TIE fighters on its tail. The Falcon's signature flying style is of a heavyweight freighter that has the agility of a sports car. You can feel its heft and power. This feeling was worked out by these artists, and it required enormous planning and discipline.
Long before CGI previsualization (digital mockups of a modern film's shots), teams went from storyboards to photography. Specially built Dykstraflex motion control rigs -- basically robotic tracks and arms which hold models and cameras -- were advanced one frame at a time for a series of photographs. This involved plotting out arcs of camera movement in real space on the miniature photography stages, choreographing these nuanced and complex scenes. Early computers were used to drive these rigs electronically via motor, all set against a blue screen for later combination with backgrounds.
An elegant weapon for a more civilized age
Many effects in the saga involve the meticulous tracing of photography. We call this technique rotoscoping, or "roto" for short. It's a technique used to give glowing boundaries to lightsabers, laser cannons and certain deadly pyrotechnics.
Back then it was often traced onto animation cels frame-by-frame, drawing over an image projected down onto a bench from above the artist. It's also used for the general compositing and masking of the various element layers of a complex shot. It remains hard to do even with the aid of computers.
Back in the day, layers of film were laced with high precision into an optical printer, a huge cast-iron machine in which new exposures were produced from this film-sandwich of imagery. That's how a background filmed in the desert can be combined with a miniature spaceship filmed in the studio. Anytime you saw original Star Wars footage that had been originally shot against bluescreen, the printer was involved in making the final frame. These tools are all over the movies. They're painstaking, essential and unsung.
That's no moon...
The surfaces of the two Death Stars are examples of miniatures that successfully create a sense of enormous scale. The density of lovingly crafted detail on the models, the skill of lighting them and choosing the right lenses to fake their size is impeccable in the original trilogy.
The model shop and miniatures photography teams, sometimes shooting outdoors in natural light, established fabrication techniques and shooting strategies for miniatures which are sometimes the size of a house. It's the details that sell scale, and there's no way around the amount of labor required to make such things. It's natural to regard the subject of a shot, a person or spaceship. But it's the world of a film, the surround, the set, the environment, which gives scenes mood and a sense of realism. When dealing with fantasy, this balancing act of creating something special, but believable, is particularly tricky.
Luminous beings are we
Jabba the Hutt is the king of his castle, but my favourite creature is the Rancor pit monster lurking below his feet in "Return of the Jedi". A hand puppet was shot at high speeds with very fast puppeteering moves, so that when the footage was played at normal speed it felt big and powerful. This trick of working at different speeds means the little bit of drool hanging from his mouth swings with the right weight ... and you can't tell it was a fairly small puppet.
My first boss Phil Tippett was instrumental in a lot of this and ran the creature shop for a while. I worked around his library of reference books and materials, and saw the breadth of influences. Then came the craft of creating flexible foam-latex-based puppets, masks and entire body suits. Foam latex bends and creases like flesh and skin, for an authentic feel, and it takes paint well. For me, the inventiveness of the designs is what advanced the state of the art.
Get alongside that one!
The speeder bike chase in "Return of the Jedi" is so cool -- seek out the making-of footage on your DVD.
First, the team pre-visualised the scene with miniatures on videotape. Then they took a Steadicam and walked the forest of Northern California with film running very slowly through the camera, so that when played back at standard speed we get the sensation of incredible speed. Then they combined stop-motion animators and motion-control camera passes alongside close-ups of the actors on full-scale bikes, creating one of the best chase scenes in memory. And the Speeder Bikes? Instant classic Star Wars vehicle.
It's a trap!
"Return of the Jedi" has a few famous shots with an enormous amount of spaceships in them. The continuity and choreography within the chaos is key to the scene cutting well.
I'm sure there was a complex editorial collaboration on the Star Wars movies -- this highlights the importance of the VFX editor. These days, in visual effects, main picture editors tend to do all the cutting, but in the past the visual effects group themselves would often deliver cut scenes back to the main picture editor. All of these scenes were shot on film, reviewed on film and cut on film daily to check on progress. And the folks making these incredible shots wouldn't know if they were working unless they kept cutting and testing.
The circle is now complete
My favourite line from the saga is from "A New Hope". Obi-Wan and Luke are standing in front of the defeated Sandcrawler, the ground littered with bantha tracks and the Sand People's signature Gaffi Stick weapons. A fantastic setting. Then comes the story twist: Obi-Wan gently reveals to Luke this was not just local trouble, but the work of Stormtroopers. How does he know this? Obi-Wan sagely answers, "These tracks are side-by-side. Sand people always ride single file ... to hide their numbers."
For a young person, being introduced to this idea of concealing one's forces, via a fantasy situation, was mind-blowing. World-building in these films was complete when script and visuals supported each other. The line has weight because of the wonderful production design, the attention to detail and the world around them -- a world I totally believed.
Tech Culture: From film and television to social media and games, here's your place for the lighter side of tech.
Star Wars at 40: Join us in celebrating the many ways the Force-filled sci-fi saga has impacted our lives.