Creating Characters With Sound and Visual Effects

From left: Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) in "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story." Photo by Jonathan Olley/© 2016 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Today’s Super Session “The Force Returns: ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’” will showcase how sound and visual effects worked together to help produce the box office hit for Lucasfilm.

Luminaries from Industrial Light & Magic will be on the panel. Not the on-screen stars of the movie, but the wizards who made the effects magic work.

“Cutting-edge sound and visual effects have been key to the success of the ̔Star Wars’ franchise from the beginning,” said Chris Brown, NAB executive vice president, Conventions and Business Operations. “We look forward to hearing from these effects leaders about the techniques and tools they used to bring the film to life.”

The panel includes John Knoll, executive producer and VFX supervisor, as well as Hal Hickel, who served as animation supervisor, both from Industrial Light & Magic; and Matthew Wood, supervising sound editor at Skywalker Sound. They’ll discuss how ILM and Skywalker Sound balanced new and classic elements of the film through technical innovations such as virtual production, their proprietary Flux software and an innovative production pipeline.

The movie presented audiences with more than 1,700 visual effects shots, including a fleet of new starships, a digitally created central character, Grand Moff Tarkin, and a screen-ripping space battle in the third act.

One of the greatest challenges while working on the film for Hal Hickel was creating K-2SO, Cassian Andor’s reprogrammed Imperial KX-series Security Droid. At 7 feet tall, K-2SO is strong enough to toss around Storm Troopers with ease, but his reprogramming has made him unable to filter his thoughts leaving him always saying exactly what he is thinking.

Diego Luna as Cassian Andor in “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” Photo by Jonathan Olley/© Lucasfilm LFL 2016.

“The K-2SO character itself was always part of John Knoll’s original pitch for the movie,” said Hickel, “and he needed to look like Imperial technology, but also like something the audience could identify with. We knew we wanted the character actor, Alan Tudyk, to be able to play K-2SO on set so we came up with some stilts for him, positioning him at the proper eye line when interacting with the other actors.”

Tudyk also wore a motion capture suit, but K-2SO was really built inside Hickel’s teams’ animation computers.

“There never was a physical version of K-2SO, and the animators had to do a lot of adjusting because the droid’s proportions were a lot different from Alan Tudyk,” Hickel said, “but having him on the set let us capture a lot of his vamping improvisation, which added to the humor of the character. Alan often unexpectedly cracked up the other actors.”

The team had to develop some new shoot techniques in order to film the space battle scene with newly designed ships.

“One of the things that was new for us on this production was that director Gareth Edwards frequently likes to shoot the A camera himself while he works out the blocking with the actors,” Hickel explained. “So instead of storyboarding the animation in pre viz and showing it to him, we animated a whole beat of the battle and loaded it into our virtual camera system. That way Gareth could be walking in the middle of the space battle as it floated around him while he chose his camera angles.”

Hickel said this enabled the team to give the space battle the same visual feel as the live action scenes. Then, of course, the animation team would go to work polishing up the results of the virtual camera to prepare the shots for inclusion into the final film.

The job of character animators hasn’t changed a lot over the last 20 years, but the tools available to create their sorcery have become much more elaborate.

“We are creating a lot more characters in partnership with live actors thanks to motion capture and keyframe animation,” he said. “And the advent of capture suits and the virtual camera provides many new options for us. For example, we brought Alan Tudyk onto a motion capture stage surrounded by big monitors and re-targeted him live as K-2SO so he could see himself as the character. That makes a lot of difference.”