John Knoll’s Death Star hobby project because, well, he’s John Knoll


“…a fun hobby project that may or may not see use in an upcoming film…”

If you were lucky enough to be at the Star Wars Celebration Europe 2016 event in London on Friday or watching the livestream, then hopefully you saw what I think was one of the most insightful panel presentations that’s ever been presented on Star Wars. The highlight, for me, involved ILM visual effects supervisor and chief creative officer John Knoll showing off his ‘personal hobby project’ in re-creating the Death Star and the trench run graphics. Well, he said they were hobby projects but they also did coincide with early production on Rogue One (the story for which was Knoll’s idea).

An image taken by Raymond Gangstad at Star Wars Celebration Europe 2016.

Just stop and think how cool that is. The visual effects supervisor from films like Pirates of the Caribbean, Pacific Rim and the Star Wars prequels basically took it upon himself to explore what it would be like to re-create or touch on some of the most famous sci-fi legacy material the world has ever seen. He showed it to the London audience in a fantastic panel called ‘ILM Presents: Star Wars Archaeology’ which also included ILM executive creative director Doug Chiang and supervising art director Kevin Jenkins. I’ve taken some screenshots from the live stream of the panel and transcribed some of what Knoll discussed in this round-up.

UPDATE: The full panel is now online as a standalone video.

Re-creating the Death Star hangar

We all know the Death Star hangar space so well from A New Hope. It’s where the Millennium Falcon is pulled in by a tractor beam and came to life on screen via miniatures, forced perspective and a live action set. Knoll re-created a virtual set of the Death Star hangar, and referenced the original ILM effects in what he said was an effort to build “a virtual re-creation of this set partly as a hobby project and partly to have a conversation with some folks about the use of digital sets.”

Knoll referenced the live action set photography, noting “the very back of it is a forced perspective. Stripes taper off into a forced perspective and you can see there’s only half a Falcon, with the wall right there. The set was meant to be a bigger space than it really was.”

Then Knoll showed a beautiful walk-through of the virtual hangar, full of incredible detail, Knoll noting that this was “not from any particular movie.” From my point of view it was like being in the movie.

A view from the walk-through.
Remember, this is a digital re-creation.
From the hangar walk-through.

Building the Death Star (again)

Knoll also re-created a digital model of the Death Star. Interestingly, for reference you would assume he could go back to ILM and Lucasfilm’s amazing archives for the actual miniature used in the film. But they no longer have it. “It got packed up in storage case after New Hope completed and put into warehouse as Lucasfilm and ILM moved to Northern California,” outlined Knoll. “When the lease came up, someone said get rid of what’s in there – nothing’s valuable. So ILM doesn’t have the model, so I figured we’d need to re-create a version of it for Rogue One.”

Death Star miniature reference imagery.

For that, Knoll did reference the many photographs ILM had of the miniature under construction and the model as filmed. One of the toughest parts of the re-creation were all the intricate panels on the Death Star surface. “I wanted to do an accurate reconstruction of where all the panels were,” said Knoll, “so I collected a bunch of photographs from ILM image archive and on the internet.”

“As part of re-creation I discovered something about the model that I can’t unsee,” said Knoll during the panel. “If you look at the outline it’s not round, it’s pretty oblong in the southern hemisphere. I chose not to re-create that aspect of it.”

Knoll then described the process in using the real photography of the real miniature to make textures for the digital Death Star: “You take a photograph and you match the photograph on a computer and then you project that onto the model and unwrap it. If you do that for a whole series of stills this is that photograph unwrapped.”

Unwrapping the Death Star imagery.

“If you do the same thing for a whole variety of stills from different positions at different resolutions, they become a master map and then this is the result of that,” added Knoll, pointing to specific unwraps of the northern and southern hemispheres of the Death Star.” The final result was another still that Knoll showed, but he also mentioned a rendering was used in the teaser trailer for Rogue One.

A final rendering of the re-created Death Star in CG.

The trench run – a graphic tale

The 3D graphic display of the stolen Death Star plans seen in A New Hope were vector-like animated graphics made by Larry Cuba. Knoll again mentioned that he embarked on “a fun hobby project” a few years ago to re-create the graphics in case he had to re-use it for the film. Also, ILM doesn’t actually have the original graphics. But more on that later.

Larry Cuba’s graphics for the Death Star plans under construction.

The first thing Knoll discussed was that the Cuba graphics do not match the Death Star in the film. The laser eye is at the equator (whereas the miniature Death Star has it in the northern hemisphere). What happened was Cuba was provided with a matte painting concept for the Death Star and based his work off that.

The painting Cuba based his graphics on.

Meanwhile, Knoll’s intimate knowledge of the Death Star graphics dates back to the summer of 1978 when he was living in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and actually saw Cuba present on the work at the University of Michigan. “I went and attended that talk and at the end of the talk he showed a video about the making of,” detailed Knoll. “I hadn’t seen it in years and I found it about two years ago. At the very end of that he reproduces the entire graphic.”


Knoll then showed a snippet of the video (which even explains the laborious process of using circles and arcs and a data tablet and pen to draw the Death Star and the tiles for the trench run portion). Luckily, the end of the demo video included a full version of the graphic, from which Knoll could start re-creating a new version in 3D and matching elements, frame by frame.

“I made a whole bunch of individual tiles and animated my own version of graphic, using the one from the film to get all the camera angles and proportions exactly right,” said Knoll.

At one point, Knoll showed a side by side of the original graphics and his newly built edition. “You can see jumping back and forth you can see I was pretty methodical – stupidly so – in matching which tile was where,” said Knoll.

“Ever wonder what the trench run looks like from the side, there it is,” stated Knoll. “That’s how much trench we fly through.”

This simply was a stunning thing to see. The devotion Knoll displayed in even tackling these re-creations (note: he has form – check out the moon landing visual effects he helped on) is just incredibly clear.

Interestingly, audiences nearly got to see the re-created Death Star graphics last year. Knoll says he “showed it to a bunch of the development group when we were working on the early stages of Rogue One and we were still toiling around with ideas about what we might show at Celebration last year. We were joking that this could be the trailer! I thought, if you put Inception music on it you can make anything into a trailer. And we did that – we played the Mind Heist / Inception music on this and when you see this with the Bham! it actually it’s not bad. I was forbidden from actually showing that here because of copyright, but you can imagine that.”


The rest of the Archeology was equally incredible, diving into the re-creation of costumes, sets and the use of practical and digital visual effects on previous films. One can only assume Knoll and ILM have even more incredible content up their sleeves to reveal about the production of Rogue One at this event and in the future. And, this reel released at Celebration Europe certainly makes me even more excited about the film.