And the shot of the characters launching into the air when the speeder crashes? That’s a practical stunt
Star Wars is filled with wondrous speeder scenes; the Endor sequence in Return of the Jedi, the Coruscant chase in Attack of the Clones, and – my most recent favorite – the Pasaana speeder scene from The Rise of Skywalker.
To pull it off, this would be a sequence that required particularly close collaboration between the special effects and visual effects teams, since real speeders would be built and driven, motion bases constructed and filmed in the desert, and then digital versions of the vehicles and the entire desert environment created in CG, along with a host of effects simulations.
I sat down with production visual effects supervisor Roger Guyett, ILM visual effects supervisor Patrick Tubach and special effects supervisor Dominic Tuohy to break down how it was done.
The thinking behind the approach to that scene
Roger Guyett (production visual effects supervisor): At heart of this whole film is capturing the DNA or the spirit of those early movies where everything is tangible and believable. So, if you went to a planet, we really wanted to find somewhere on Earth that people could relate to. So, Tatooine was Tunisia. In that spirit of that, we’re going to Jordan for Pasaana. We didn’t do a lot of alteration to the landscape. It is that fabulous – the scope of it.
Shooting the live action
Roger Guyett: How do you go about shooting something like that speeder chase? Well, first we had these designs from the art department, from production designers Kevin Jenkins and Rick Carter, of the speeders, which would be built by Dominic and his team.
Then we previs’d that probably more than any other sequence. The Third Floor previs’d beats and those beats allowed us to do two things. One, to design a stage, an exterior greenscreen stage. We wanted to photograph the sequence in the Jordan light. Because if you can get somebody, an actor like Daisy, on a rig that’s moving like a speeder in the right light with a whole bunch of wind blowing at her, the shot is going to have more chance of success.
Then we had a series of moves that we had to test because the thing has to be safe. You’re putting your actors on there, so you’ve got these complex gimbals that can have pre-programmed animation and we’d have certain beats that would be pre-programmed.
Dominic is the master of animating this thing on the set. We’d start with running a cycle of animation done by ILM’s animation supervisor Paul Kavanagh, and then there might be other moments, quick moments where Daisy’s weaving, where Dominic would be on the controls. So now we’ve got an element of a speeder, with an actor on it, with wind, and in the right light.
Dominic Tuohy (special effects supervisor): We also built practical speeders which were four wheel drive, V8 engine, 500 brake horsepower. They’re like Dakar rally vehicles, basically, which gave us the scope to be able to drive on the Jordan sand. Obviously we could never reach the speeds that we wanted, but what it gave us was the opportunity to do the start and the end of the journey. When they first steal the speeders, those are practical, and they drive away, and then we’re on the motion base.
Then when they come flying off, that was a practical rig as well. It’s a captive track rail system with the speeder on there and it’s using a pneumatic cylinder to pivot the front. And we had three stunt performers on it and we threw them through the air for real. They were on a pick point on a cable and you get that natural movement and you get speed – you get all of that.
Roger Guyett: When you watch it, there’s one hero shot of the first speeder going, and then you’re getting the other ones start to go, and then you’re cutting to another shot of them flying through the air. Obviously we didn’t do C3PO as a stunt, he’s a digital character, as is BB8. And we added a lot of debris. But the spirit of it is, you are photographing a stunt and then we are augmenting it. There’s some reality there. And that’s what we always pushed towards, however small a part it might play in the final image.
Roger Guyett: Then how do you create the backgrounds? Well, we had a few choices, but to me what you’re doing is you’re marrying this kind of incredibly practical technology with this incredibly sophisticated digital technology and what we’d learned on VII was how do we build an environment as photorealistically as possible, which is a background player. You don’t want people to go, ‘Oh my God, look at that!’ You want people to just think it’s the desert.
The desert is essentially completely digital. Patrick, in fact, spent an inordinate amount of time logging, and analyzing, and scanning, and photographing the desert so we could do exactly that; build the desert. You don’t want to over-contrive it. But the truth is there was no canyon there that we could have shot in for that moment. It just didn’t exist. And by building it digitally we allow J.J. to move the camera freely while making everything feel as real as possible. One of the cool things, too, is that we actually built a path for those speeders that is one continuous path. The journey is a continuous journey and the environment team can show you the entire model they built of the desert.
Patrick Tubach (ILM visual effects supervisor): We were given the freedom to have a unit – we called it the Visual Unit – which was our environment team, plus myself, and we had different tools that we used. We had drones that we used that we could photograph actual plates with. And of course the drones didn’t go quite as fast as you could go with say a helicopter so we did some helicopter plates as well and shot those. And then we also had drones that we used for still photography that would go into a canyon area and we’d just go through and just fire off hundreds and hundreds of photographs of an area.
We were able to take all of those pieces and have them be real pieces just manipulated by us and moved around. And I think that was a real win for us because it didn’t limit J.J.’s creative freedom when he was out there. He could shoot whatever he wanted to.