Oscar and BAFTA nominee Ben Morris, creative director of Industrial Light & Magic’s London Studio, was the overall visual effects supervisor for Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Morris has received an Oscar and a BAFTA award for The Golden Compass, a BAFTA nomination for War Horse, a Primetime Emmy and VES award for Dinotopia, and VES nominations for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Golden Compass, War Horse, and The Last Jedi.
Morris began his filmmaking career as a model maker in Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. He moved into computer graphics and became a lead CGI artist on the 2000 film Gladiator at Mill Film, and then a CG supervisor at Framestore for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. His first film as a visual effects supervisor was The Golden Compass. Morris took charge of ILM’s London studio in time to become a visual effects supervisor for Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi is nominated for four Oscars (visual effects, sound editing and mixing, and music), two BAFTAs (visual effects and sound) and four VES awards (two for effects simulations including the Mega Destroyer destruction and Bombing Run Destruction, Virtual Cinematography for the Crait surface battle, and Outstanding Visual Effects.) The film received a 91% average critical rating on Rotten Tomatoes and earned $1.326 billion worldwide to become the top-grossing film of 2017 domestically and worldwide.
Rian Johnson directed the Disney/Lucasfilm production, which finds the Resistance battling the First Order on land and in the air, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) battling with himself, and Rey (Daisy Ridley) discovering the force within her while battling Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Snoke (Andy Serkis and ILM animators).
In addition to Morris, Mike Mulholland of ILM London, Creature and Special Make-up Effects Creative Supervisor Neal Scanlan, and special effects supervisor Chris Corbould received Oscar nominations for Best Visual Effects.
Editor’s Note: Seen the film yet? If not, consider a SPOILER WARNING in effect from here forward.
Studio Daily: Why do you think your colleagues voted for Star Wars: The Last Jedi to receive Oscar nominations for best visual effects?
Ben Morris: I think it was a great combination of a wonderful piece of storytelling and well-executed VFX work. People have commented on the overall photographic consistency of the shots. And, for such a familiar franchise, there were great new pieces of imagery that we created to tell Rian’s [director Johnson] story.
Give us some examples of those new pieces of imagery.
The combination of images and absence of sound for Holdo’s [Laura Dern’s] death, when she pilots her ship through the Mega Destroyer. This was Rian’s idea from the get go. We spent a long time ensuring that it is not a tragic moment, but beautiful and serene. We represented her sacrifice in a positive way because she allowed the rebels to escape. It really catapulted the film into the third act and finale.
Snoke was a wonderful CG character. Andy [Serkis] was able to play a twisted characterful moment: He had smiles on the outside, and was tense and taut on the inside. It became complex and close-up digital acting.
A number of people commented that everyone knows the space battles in Star Wars, but I hope we took them to another level with the complexity of the destruction. We can see the ships tearing to pieces. The way we broke up the ships took it to another level of believability.
And lastly, the juxtaposition of the planet Crait with its beautiful pure white salt plains and blood red crystals. It was an inspired idea. It could have looked wrong, but I think we struck a good balance of believability and a unique strong design.
How many studios worked on The Last Jedi?
All four ILM studios – London, San Francisco, Vancouver, and Singapore. Plus 10 third-party studios.
How long did you work on the film?
Three years — from the end of 2014 until we delivered the last shot in mid-September 2017.
How many visual effects shots did the film have?
Officially, about 1,850. There were also maybe 100 or 200 digital make-up and production fixes. There were beautiful shots without visual effects in Ireland and on numerous closed sets, like with Luke and Rey in the tree.
You mentioned the digital character Snoke. What other digital characters were in the film?
Maz [Lupita Nyong’o], but she arrives as a hologram. In the last film, it was the other way around, with Snoke as the hologram. The other performing characters were the porgs, the crystal foxes, and the giant [horse-like] fathiers. We also had Mark Hamill’s cameo as a toad alien in the Casino. He wanted to do a little bit of motion capture, so Rian wrote that character especially for him. He burps on BB8. Mark had lamented about how he had done voice performances for computer games for years, but he had never been able to “do the dots thing.” So we gave him a chance.
How did you divide the work?
The great thing is that everyone wants to work on a Star Wars movie. London was the visual effects hub for the film. In London, we had Snoke, Maz, the fathiers, the space battles, the casino with the fathier chase and the lightsaber battle in Snoke’s throne room. San Francisco, supervised by Eddie Pasquarello, had the majority of the end of the film, and the end of the fathier chase — about 450 shots. They worked closely with Singapore, led by Alex Prichard. Dan Seddon, the VFX supervisor in Vancouver, got to work with our third-party collaborators in Canada. Vancouver did most of the Jedi Island, the Mega Destroyer, Holdo’s death, and interiors in the mega-hanger. They had a huge number of shots — 600 or 700. To be honest, I think everyone got a good, juicy piece of the film.
Tell us about the new ships.
Kevin Jenkins was the overall design supervisor for Lucasfilm. James Clyne [VFX art director at ILM] and Kevin designed the resistance bombers — wonderful, old, antiquated-looking ships with a large vertical bomb clip and almost submarine-like fuselage. They were featured in the opening Bombing Run approaching the Dreadnought, a First Order capital ship that’s two or three times larger than The Force Awakens’ Star Destroyer. It threatens the rebel base at the beginning. It has huge cannons like World War battleships, but they’re underneath. So that was huge. We also had Kylo’s new TIE fighter. It was terrific fun. It was inspired by and is an extension of the original TIE interceptor in Return of the Jedi. We had a new revision of the A-wing, but they’ve been seen before.
Then in the Resistance fleet we have a new medical frigate. We also had a new main resistance cruiser — we built it based on Ralph McQuarrie’s original concepts for a ship that wasn’t used in Return of the Jedi. We had ski speeders on Crait with hydroplane foils. The inspiration for them when they’re flying was World War I biplanes — the floaty, bouncing dynamics of those old planes. In addition, we had a new shuttle and the Mega Destroyer, Snoke’s flagship, which has a wingspan of 60 miles. It was so big it was almost like building a city. That’s the one Holdo flies through.
Where were the ships built?
Most were built in London and shared across the ILM studios, where they were extended and detailed further as required. On Crait, the San Francisco and Singapore studios had the ski speeders and the new AT-M6s. We called them “gorilla walkers” because their subtle yet obvious silhouettes reminded us of a gorilla.
The bombers were built and used in London. Snoke’s Mega Destroyer went to Vancouver and Singapore, along with the big flagship resistance cruiser and medical frigate that runs out of fuel.
How did the studios manage the massive ships?
We couldn’t work interactively with the full-res ships; we had a hierarchy of complexity. We’d use a base form for previs and a more detailed build for animation. Then we’d up-res to add further surface greebles in the belly button, for example, on the Dreadnought. As we localized the builds and the studios added detail and texture, the ships got heavier and heavier. We used the same kit-bashing technique we had used for Rogue One [John Knoll detailed the process for StudioDaily last year]. We have a vast digital library now of historical plastic model kits we use to add details. We couldn’t load the entire ships at full resolution — we had to wait until they were rendered. The great thing about lookdev is that every time we had a new iteration of the ships, we’d run turntables and have a camera set up to do still frame renders of key areas.
And then you destroyed them …
When the simulation process occurs, when we’re tearing the ships apart, the effects artists worked with proxies to simulate primary rigid-body animation and then added the pyrotechnics. It was a very layered approach. We had to tear them apart before we could add flames and smoke. We built the bomber from the inside out and made sure that when we ripped a hole in it, we could see all the bombs in there and they would ignite like firecrackers. It looks so interesting.
What was the hardest thing about working on this film?
Conceptually, I think the hardest was getting to the look of Holdo’s death sequence. Once we got it, it was great. We wanted to upres our explosions radically and that was hard. Also, making Crait with those red crystals feel like natural geology was a big deal. We didn’t want sugar candy everywhere, so working through that with Eddie [Pasquarello] and the guys was a challenge. But once we got the format, we could create all the shots with consistency.
In terms of technical complexity, the fathier chase with the actors on them. We had actors riding on Chris Corbould’s motion-control rigs with our animation fed into them. We’d transition from the digital doubles to the live action, motion-controlled actor elements on the back of full CG fathiers.
And ultimately, it was Snoke. Because I wanted to get that right.
What was the best thing about working on this film?
The best? I know this sounds sort of lame, but I enjoyed the whole thing. Working with Rian was great.
Watching Frank Oz performing Yoda was a fantastic treat. For me, it was self-indulgent. It took me back to when I worked at Henson’s and I used to see him come into the Creature Shop in London. To sit and watch Frank work with the Yoda puppet was amazing. A wonderful moment.
The biggest kick, though, was when I heard the audience reaction when Rey and Kylo started their saber fight. I love the saber fights in all the films. Seeing those with an audience cheering was a great moment.
Did you learn anything from working on this film?
I learned lots of things, not a single thing. The big thing is that when you have a production so enormous happening all around the world, it’s important to support and inspire the team. It’s important to keep it consistent and in tune with Rian’s storytelling. To stand back and think about the story as well as the imagery is very important.
What are you working on next?
I’m having a cheeky break. Then, the London studio has grown from 150 to 600 people, so I’ll be doing my other job, being in charge of the London studio. We’re working on Solo: A Star Wars Story, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Avengers: Infinity War and Aladdin.
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