Sunday, May 15, 2016

Visual Effects Artists from Lucasfilm Singapore Spill Some "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" Secrets

As part of the May the Fourth celebration earlier this month, Lucasfilm's Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) - whose regional headquarters is at the Sandcrawler in Red Dot Island - hosted a special hour-long panel at the Sports Hub Library about the Oscar-nominated visual effects (VFX) featured in "The Force Awakens".

Red Dot Diva has attended a few Lucasfilm ILM panels about their VFX work in other movies before, but never for Star Wars, due to the fact that "The Force Awakens" is the first Star Wars movie released after 10 years. Being an avid Star Wars fan, she could not pass up the chance on learning more about the magic that happened behind the scenes.

(Warning: If you think that knowing more about VFX work spoils your enjoyment of the movie, then *loud signal blares*... DO NOT PROCEED. Feel free to click here and read another article about what other fun things happened during the May the Fourth Celebration instead.)

The panel, moderated by Dominic Zou from 501st Legion SG, started off easily enough with an introduction of the four homegrown artists involved with the movie: Associate Production Manager - Pei'an Lau, Lead for Rotoscoping and Paint - JeanLe Koh, Lead for Texturing and Look Development - Elvin Siew and Animator - Zaini Jalani.

From the get go, Red Dot Diva noted that unlike the stereotyped notion of them being awkward geeky type artists who hide behind their computers the entire day, these four artists were intelligent, articulate and quite, quite charming! Also, their love for Star Wars was very evident as they spoke about their experiences working on the movie.

Zaini, one of the animators of the team involved with the movie, shared that he has worked with Lucasfilm since 2006 and his first project with the company was the video game called "The Force Unleashed". He also worked on Star Wars TV series "Clone Wars" as well as "Rango", before landing the "The Force Awakens" project.

"As an animator, my job entails anything that requires movement or motion on the screen," Zaini explained. "For example, my job is to move creature and characters in the digital world and to create believable performances so that they appear to have an inner thought process and appear to have feelings. So that when you, as an audience, watch that, you are able to suspend your belief and empathize with the characters."

Regarding how animation work schedule fits into the entire process, Zaini said that it follows after the work done by a few other departments, for example, layout and camera layout. Once the animation shots are being blocked out, the animators will try to push their output to the other departments like lighting or creatures effects and texture, as early as possible. In the meantime, they will also work concurrently on other segments and assist with finishing up on shots.

In "The Force Awakens", there were not as many motion capture animation work done compared to some other movies. Those that were animated however, included the facial movements for Unkar Plutt, and the stormtroopers in that nail-biting Tie-Fighter escape sequence in the Star Destroyer hangar.

"In the hangar, there was a whole army of stormtroopers. We had a whole library of mocap to choose from. If it's not sufficient, we key frame it and show it to the director and see how he reacts. For the hangar long shots, it was actually an empty hangar, and there were no stormtrooper actors at all. For the mid-level shots, it was a mix of CG and real life stormtroopers," Zaini revealed.

In the VFX world of texturing and look development, lead of the department Elvin explained that they work very closely with the models department. The digitally sculpted models come in as plain grey objects and their department will need to paint them with the required surfaces that include skin, fur, cloth and/ or metal. These will then be rendered digitally to simulate the real world so that they can blend in with the practical footage taken from the film set.

Elvin said references include actual photos taken from the set, or research from the internet. "We also scan items. Some people have visited my table and there are these random bibs and bobs of crystals, rocks and animal skin. We scan and use those for our work."

Most hardcore Star Wars fans are somewhat familiar with the term "rotoscoping", usually in their understanding on how the lightsabers were rendered on screen. JeanLe clarified that rotoscoping is just one half of the work that his department does, and it involves painstaking digital work to add background and figures behind an actual live actor or inanimate object that has been filmed.

"The other half, which personally, I find the the more interesting, is paint. We do a lot of clean up. In any given movie nowadays, very often there are actors on wires because they have to jump from high places or because explosions are used on set. We can't have the wires in the movie so we have to erase the wires. Or if there is an airplane seen flying during the shoot of a period movie, or camera equipment and boom mikes, or a puppeteer seen in the shot - we have to remove that. To put it simply, if we do our job right, no one will notice."

To bring about all the different aspects and departments together, Associate Production Manager Pei'An said that he worked a lot with numbers in order to manage the resources, the budget and schedule for the show.

"Things always change," he said. "In our industry, change is the only constant. So we always have to plan and schedule for that. If the director reviews something and decides if a performance looks better if its this way, we always have to account for that in our schedule."

Regarding how the team dealt with sudden story changes to the schedule, Elvin and JeanLe provided these interesting tidbits about Finn's initial scenes on the planet of Jakku.

Watch the video to see what they said:

As for the appearance of the materials and texture seen in "The Force Awakens", Elvin said that the director and supervisors had a very clear vision about the movie. They were adamant that the look and feel of the older Star Wars movies were to be used as a close reference.

One of the main things that they had to ensure was spot on was the look of R2-D2. "You know when R2 meets BB-8, that was all digital. We had to recreate R2 with every single dustbunny and stain on the model. Even the cloth that was pulled off is not real. It's all computer graphics."

Upon that revelation, the audience was stunned for awhile. But why, WHY was that all done using VFX?

Elvin thought that it was due to story change. "It was probably that the director wanted an actual motion but he didn't manage to capture it. BB-8 couldn't stick out his arm, pull the cloth down and roll away. So, in that sense, they had to do it digitally."

A fan from the audience asked the team how long it took for one shot to be completed. Pei'An said that for the a complex shot like Tie-Fighter escape sequence, the team spent almost 6 months working on that segment. That was because the whole set and environment was required to be done digitally. Now, to put that into perspective, that particular scene only chalked up to less than 5 minutes on screen. Red Dot Diva thought it was definitely one of the more memorable ones though!

The team were also asked about how they dealt with the news about the death of Han Solo and keeping secrets regarding the movie's storylines. Elvin said that his department was in charge of building the bulk interior where that tragic turn of events went down.

"So, when we got the turnover from the client, we had to watch it. So the leads and production watched it and everyone went silent. There were only a few of us in the room, and we watched it three, four times to let it sink in. And then, the hardest thing was to let the team know because we can't do it alone. We had to get my guys in the room and said, 'Guys, we are going to watch something. If you don't want to watch it, tell me now and we'll find something else for you to do.' That's what we did. And then, we kept the secret for a year."

As for Zaini, being in the Animation department, he had to watch the entire show to understand how the story flow. "But it was all tight-lipped and hush hush," he said. "You couldn't even watch it at your own desk. I could only talk in code language with my fellow animators on the show."

And what was the code that they used for the Han Solo scene? "You know... *THAT* Shot," Zaini said, as the audience laughed.

"It was harder to keep it from my wife every day when I went home," Elvin lamented. Awwwwwwwww.

Red Dot Diva had a chance to ask the group what their most memorable learning experience while working on "The Force Awakens" was.

JeanLe said that as a longtime Star Wars fan as well as a someone who loves space battles, it was a pleasant surprise to find out that he was chosen to be part of the team for "The Force Awakens". He certainly feels very privileged to be involved in the work behind the scenes.

"For me, Star Wars is not just another movie or project," Pei'An added in his firm, quiet voice. "It is almost like a culture. So it's really a great privilege for me to be part of this culture. I believe ten years down the road, people will still watching the movie and say how awesome it is. The entire project was memorable but the side projects were also interesting, we involved in the Duracell commercial and the iPhone app for Bad Robot. It's just awesome to be part of it."

Elvin said the best and most exciting moment was working on R2-D2, and making him look photo-realistic. As for Zaini, it was good to be back working on the animation for Star Wars, but working on the FX movie app for Bad Robot was also very fulfilling. "I worked on the one for BB-8. Once the app was released, I checked out on YouTube and saw people interacting with my animation. That was interaction with the audience on another level for me. That was something new to me this time round and I will really remember that."

When asked who their favourite Star Wars characters were:

Zaini: I like Darth Vader.
JeanLe: For me, it's R2-D2.
Elvin: Darth Vader as well
Pei'An: Kylo-Ren. I feel that there's so much more to him.
Audience perking up: OOOOooooooooooooooooo
Pei'An: Nooo.. This... I'm just saying .... Based on what has happened in the movie, I'm excited to see how the character develops. I'm not giving any hints or anything that I know that I cannot share with you.
Round of laughter from the audience. That was a valiant attempt, people. Good try.

With no further questions from the floor, the panel wrapped up with the organizers handing each of the guys a special goodie bag.

Of course, Red Dot Diva had to grab the crew in for a photo. Look at all those beautiful, creative biceps!

The Force is Strong with These Dudes.

Here's another look at the charming guys again - a few of the local VFX heroes who helped made "The Force Awakens" look so visually fantastic on screen.

The next time you watch "The Force Awakens" again, stay on for the credits, and give the team at Lucasfilm Singapore a huge round of applause!

Bravo, everyone!

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