In the coming days I’ll have a bunch of coverage of the visual effects of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, based on a visit I made to ILM London just before Christmas. First up is a look at that stunning and surprising hyperspace moment when Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern) slams the Raddus – mid-hyperdrive – into Supreme Leader Snoke’s ship, the Supremacy.
The resulting white streak of an explosion is a heart-wrenching moment of sacrifice played out in complete silence. Overall visual effects supervisor Ben Morris from ILM initially thought the sequence might involve a ton of complex destruction effects simulations, but director Rian Johnson had something else in mind.
Ben Morris (overall visual effects supervisor): That scene was in the script, and I read that with my VFX producer Tim Keene when we were trying to quantify the entire film and work out where to put the work. And I sat there and went, ‘Oh my God, what are we going to do? It’s going to be epic! It’s going to be Bayhem! It’s the full works!’ – because it sounded like a huge destruction scene.
So we sat there and we ticked every box on the spreadsheet, meaning, it was going to involve all the hardest work. Then we had a chat with Rian, and I didn’t lay anything on him as a preconception, I just said, ‘Where do you think we’re at with this?’ He actually sat there and said, ‘I’m not sure, but I actually want to do the complete opposite of what the audience might expect.’
Rian said, ‘This is about sacrifice, this is an incredible moment that one of the key resistance fighters is willing to give her life. I’m thinking of just doing the whole thing in silence.’ At which point I was like, ‘Wow! Okay.’
We started working with some of the animation team in London, mainly with the art department here – with ILM art director Kevin Jenkins, and concept artist Luis Guggenberger – we spent ages trying to work out what this was. We looked at all sorts of natural phenomena. What we were trying to do is work out what infinitely fast means. ‘Cuts like a hot knife in butter’ was Rian’s phrase, and ‘ ‘serenely beautiful.’
You kind of get into the atomic level things. We looked at particle physics photography in cloud chambers, and the way that multiple atoms will hit each other, they’ll fracture, you have exit waves that spray. We got into that groove, and then in terms of conveying massive energy but in a very simple and beautiful way, we started saying, ‘It’s got to be bright, it’s got to be magnesium ribbon, it’s like chemistry classes.’
I think one of the really clever things is, usually with star destroyers in space, we all remember those as black background with white ships, and that tends to be the rule of thumb. What Luis did was turn the entire thing on its head. He said, ‘What happens if space is so full of debris and fine particularity that it becomes white and the star destroyers become silhouettes, and backlit?’
And also, ‘What happens if it’s so intense that we have to do a massive stop-down on the exposure?’, which gives you an entirely different look of photography. So Luis rendered something and then put this searing white line in. He took all of the colour out of the image, and Rian just walked in and went, ‘That’s it. That’s it. That is it. Let’s work with that.’
For us it was a bit of a journey, and then ILM Vancouver picked it up, and I think it’s everything that’s good about visual effects and filmmaking and sound design and editing. It’s powerful, it’s strong. The audience don’t expect it. For me it’s something new that hasn’t existed in a Star Wars film. It’s a stunning piece of work, and it’s entirely inspired by Rian’s determination to do the complete opposite of what the audience would expect.