Roger Guyett is a man of many talents. The six-time Oscar-nominated English visual effects artist is known for his contributions within Industrial Light and Magic. 2020 marked 25 years of Guyett working in the company. Founded by George Lucas himself, ILM surely needs no introduction for they are one of the top industry innovators in visual effects. If you have seen any movie taking place in space or in some otherworldly setting, it’s a good chance that you have seen the work of the many talented ILM artists. Guyett’s projects, in particular, are worthy of wide recognition.
Guyett worked his way up the ladder to work as a lead special effects supervisor on notable films within The Pirates of the Caribbean and Harry Potter series. He has a special long-running history collaborating with director JJ Abrams, having supervised special effects on Mission: Impossible III, both of his Star Trek films, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. He also served as the second unit director for the latter three. Guyett, of course, returned to his visual effects duties when Abrams brought the Skywalker Saga to a close last year. Although, it is fair to say that The Rise of Skywalker is quite unlike anything both Guyett and Abrams have tackled in their careers.
We were lucky enough to have Guyett for an exclusive interview. We crack open the case of the many difficulties designing visual effects for what is quite literally meant to be an ultimate finale. We talk about visual similarities between The Rise of Skywalker and The Force Awakens, how they got 10,000 space ships to appear out of nowhere, and the challenges of incorporating Carrie Fisher.
DF: You have a long history with ILM, but it goes to say that even though you’ve worked on these types of movies for a long time, each new one is not going to be exactly the same as the last. You’ve worked in Star Wars before, but no Star Wars movie is like The Rise of Skywalker. Each film has its own set of planets, environments, and visual palettes. Can you talk about what you wanted to bring to this film to give it a unique look, unlike the other previous 8 entries?
RG: Obviously, every movie has its own set of challenges and that’s what makes it fun. I love working with JJ Abrams. We’ve done a number of movies together and he’s so creative, challenging, and also just very inspiring to work for. It’s a joy working with him and a lot of the crew that worked on this movie, on IX, also worked on VII as well. It’s like working with a great team of friends. There are so many kinds of people, Neil Scanlan with creatures and my old friend Dan Mindle the director of photography. That’s how the sandwich works together. It’s always fun to start from a position where you can really try and do something very creative and interesting. Obviously, these ideas you generate around the story and the script. That’s your first priority.
But there were some fantastic challenges in this movie as soon as we started to read the script. The real challenge of bringing Carrie back to the screen and all these sorts of things. JJ is a very visual director, so it’s always fun to work from my perspective – somebody that’s very interested in creating what I hope to be very captivating images. My general philosophy about IX was very similar to VII in the sense of the style of the movie. Obviously, no two Star Wars fans feel exactly the same in terms of the movies, their favorites as it were. But visually I wanted it more grounded in reality, which means rather than creating too many digital worlds we were trying to photograph as much stuff on location.
Having said that, of course, we ended up using a tremendous number of tools to create digital versions of real places, but still grounded in reality or in some kind of tactile sense to me. Really it’s what makes the movie feel more like something that if I was a kid – actually I don’t even have to be a kid, I can be a middle-aged man and still enjoy the process of being with your heroes and going on these crazy adventures. Feeling as though they are actually plausible within the range and context of the movie. The idea really is to ground them in this sense that you really can find. To really fly the Millennium Falcon and those kinds of things. Philosophically, I feel strongly about that.
I also just love the opportunity to create images that tell a story, but also hopefully have some art in them. To me, a great example of that in the movie is when the star destroyers rise out of the ground right towards the beginning. The imagery you’re creating is dramatic and captivating, but it also tells a story with artistic value.
DF: You’ve been talking about a sense of escapism. All of these very dramatic images, but at the same time they still feel real. Everything even though fantastical, still feels tangible enough that you could actually walk up and physically touch.
RG: Yeah you’re almost saying it better than I am. Ultimately, my goal is to try to create that and of course, cinema is a grand illusion isn’t it? I think if I was a kid, you want to be Luke Skywalker you know? You want to be that guy or gal, in this case, that is going on these adventures. Even though it’s really about that to me, what I’m trying to do within that framework is creating interesting and artistic images that are as beautiful as I can make them be. That is not always easy, but I always think the challenge in visual effects is not necessarily during the spectacular moments, because you know that they will work. It’s taking the more mundane moments and turning those into something special, making those images more interesting. My goal is to try and find some kind of odd in everything we do.
DF: You’ve worked with director JJ Abrams on basically all of his space centered films, but none of them are like The Rise of Skywalker in terms of scale. This one is literally an ultimate finale, unlike the previous two Star Trek films and The Force Awakens. Specifically talking about the massive ship battle in the third act, it has been highly praised for the visual spectacle. It’s the biggest setpiece that Abrams has ever done. Can you talk about how you brought that to life – including all the different ships, some that haven’t been seen on film before but fans know from other media such as the animated shows?
RG: You feel like sometimes you’re sort of building the Great Wall of China. It just seems like an impossible task to create a battle like that. But we had a fantastic team working on the movie. We had a whole bunch of other supervisors that worked on the show, including Patrick Tubach and Dominic Tuohy. My old friend Paul Kavanagh is the animation supervisor. You just literally have to take it sort of step by step. The first thing, of course, was trying to build a tool. Probably one of the most complicated shots in the movie, strangely enough, is the reveal of the 10,000 ships that have come from the galaxy. It sounds sort of silly that something like that is the technical challenge, but it’s not just about the idea of doing and rendering the shot with all those ships – it’s actually designing all those ships.
James Clyne and Chris Voy were the main art directors on our end and James I’ve worked with many times before. Basically, the first thing we had to do is obviously cast a net across all the movies and shows and see what ships were available for us to use within the shop. Then we had to start designing ships around the general idea that these were galaxy ships, but they should fold design-wise within a certain kind of look. Then we had to write a program that basically took those ships and created variations around those design ideas because we just physically could not build 10,000 ships in the time that we had.
DF: Right, that makes sense. You really couldn’t build 10,000 ships from scratch.
RG: We literally didn’t have the manpower to build those ships individually. We had to rely on some degree of technology to know that we would have the first ones that you already saw belonging to the heroes and then take a program to design and build variations of ships. James and Chris designed these ships so that they looked kind of modular and then the computer would come up with variations around that. People came up with these ways to generate thousands of ships, and doing it in a way that hopefully felt sort of organic to that moment.
Ironically, it’s one of those strange things. We went through this loop a number of times and it was amazing how your eyes would go to certain ships or you would notice things that didn’t seem to be quite correct. It was kind of a strange experience, but we kept on going through. You would see this oddball ship and sometimes it was awesome and sometimes the computer created something you really didn’t want to see in the movie or it was too close or too far. It was all these sorts of things. Then, of course, we wanted to have a bunch of ships that the fans would seek out.
DF: From everything that you’ve just said, it sounds like ILM is consistently doing innovative work. You all are trying to figure out new ways in how to further the craft that is visual effects. Now ILM has always been one of the major companies at the forefront of revolutionizing visual effects in general. You brought it up earlier in the interview, but can you talk about the challenges of the scene with young Luke and Leia?
RG: We landed on this idea that instead of doing something where we would create a digital version of any of those sort of legacy moments – rather than doing the digital version of those characters and creating noise around whether or not it was the correct way of going about it, JJ said, “Well, why don’t we just try and find images that kind of work for the story we’re trying to tell”. So we went down that path with Carrie. Pretty much every Carrie face that you see in the movie, it’s really her taken from another movie. Obviously, we wanted to make her feel unique to our movie. So for the most part, she’s wearing a digital costume and has digital hair, but her face and acting is all Carrie Fisher. You could put your hand on your heart and say that’s Carrie Fisher, she’s acting, and its very much her.
DF: Right, she is actually present to a degree.
RG: When we get the legacy thing and I think even Rogue One had the same problem, there is actually very little footage available to you from the older movies that has not been seen before. George in the early movies was very much run and gun. They didn’t do a lot of takes and didn’t have to shoot other things that were not in the movie. It’s fascinating to go back and look at all the outtakes and footage that hasn’t been used. The other problem, of course, is that this was a long time ago. So, a lot of it was lost. I’m not totally sure about the exact amount, but some proportion, of course, is lost.
Some of it is kind of unavailable. Then you have the subset of that which is available to you. He didn’t shoot that much material because he was operating almost like an independent filmmaker. He didn’t have the luxury of a big movie to say, “Hey let’s go again”. When he thought he had something, he moved on. That meant that there just weren’t many outtakes. So, we were really limited on both Carrie and Mark Hamill. We had to literally design that shot where you see them lift up their helmets after fighting in the jungle around two images. I think we literally had the choice of maybe one or two choices. It was so limited but also fascinating.
We designed the shot spacely around the perspective of those angles and lighting that we had for those moments. That was the other problem we had – if you find one interior shot for one of the characters, of course, you have to find an interior shot for the other character. It really made it a kind of huge puzzle to solve. It is hundreds and hundreds of hours spent going through material and trying to find moments that you think might work for the movie.
DF: I feel like you pulled it off to the best of its abilities, especially with the current technology at hand. I know we’re in crazy times with everyone in quarantine, but can you share any information about any upcoming projects?
RG: I’m sort of in-between at the moment, so I’m afraid I don’t have anything dramatic to say other than the fact that my love goes out to everybody in the world. I hope that they enjoy watching The Rise of Skywalker and enjoy escaping into the great world of Star Wars. It’s brought so much joy to me having worked on them and I hope it does the same for those watching.
DF: Well, now that we are in quarantine we have something extra to enjoy.
RG: Yes I hope so!