Crafting Crait: ILM’s VFX supe on how Rian Johnson wanted to go ‘redder, redder, redder’

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Scenes of ships darting across a salt flat-like looking environment and tearing up shards of red crystals permeated the early trailers for The Last Jedi. But what was this world, and what was the major battle teased there?

The final film revealed the location to be Crait, the location of an old Rebel base where the Resistance now seeks refuge to send out a message for help. But the First Order launches a swift attack, and a battle along, and even below, its white surface plays out. Here’s overall visual effects supervisor Ben Morris from Industrial Light & Magic on what was required to bring the exciting Crait sequence to life – including its incredibly distinctive redness.

Location shooting

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Ben Morris (overall visual effects supervisor): We looked all over the world for salt flats – and it was very clearly a salt flat and not a snow plain – Rian was very keen on that. We actually went to Salar De Uyuni in Bolivia, it’s about 12 and a half thousand feet up, it’s the biggest salt flat in the world. We went out there, and it’s a 30 mile radius, 60 miles long desert, freezing cold at night, blazing hot sun reflecting in your face. You have to wear snow goggles the whole time. The reason we went out there is, I wanted to be able to ground that sequence in some sort of reality. You could just look at that and go, ‘We’ll just do it in CG,’ but I didn’t want the end sequence to just have that weakness to it.

We flew out, we spent three or four days there, we had a couple of helicopters break down, but we ultimately had a Russian arm tracking vehicle that drove up from Chile – a crazy team of camera guys, just wild pirates. Then I spent my time in a helicopter. We shot through the mornings, we’d get up, see sunrise, we’d pick up plates for the different lighting conditions, we’d be capturing full panoramas at full-depth HDRI, and then we’d also shoot Russian arm material. We had some traffic cones laid out because it’s quite a featureless terrain, and we were driving along at up to 80 miles an hour.

Then the other things that we would do is, we’d take the helicopter up on a 180mm lens, and we’d just shoot straight down at the incredible hexagonal-shaped ground. You look at it and you suddenly realise that it’s more than just the hexagons, there are these nodules of salt and all sorts of things. Also even the discoloration per cell within that is unique. There must be a billion cells out on that field, but everything is slightly different. Also we noticed the reflectance in certain areas. It’s not wet, although it can get wet there. You get these wonderful shimmering specularities.

We spent three days shooting there, and some of those plates got into the movie. A lot of what we shot there is reprojected and used as the base build for CG elements. We then built a full trench with 200 foot by 200 foot white salt. It was elevated eight feet off the ground so that the trench could exist in the correct physical space. We built one of the large turrets, in fact built two of the large turrets, that get blown up. There’s one side angle raking along where Chris Corbould, the special effects supervisor, set up 28 physical effects charges of his red muck.

There’s two shots in the film that have practical red explosion, and they’re both in that trench. That’s a combination of mulched-up shredded paper, red paper, mixed with just the right amount of water, to give it a sort of reflectance that somehow simulates the red look. Then everything else was done by ILM in San Francisco, overseen by Eddie Pasquarello – they augmented with procedural explosions.

Going redder

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For the red crystals being thrown up from the ski speeders, ILM visual effects art directors Kevin Jenkins and James Clyne had done some early concepts of what it might mean, and the idea of these rooster tails came up. I think, as with everything in the film, Rian had a story that he wanted to tell through pictures and words. He wanted this thing that this red was secret, and there was a serenity to this incredible plain and this sort of massive door at the end.

We talked about the fact, it’s kind of like when an ice rink has just been freshly cleaned, and then the first skater gets out and starts gouging and slicing. That’s what he wanted these little ski speeders to be. Then slowly their crashes and the Tie Fighter interactions cause more and more of these red streaks and lacerations, as we used to describe it. That builds up and builds up until the cannon ultimately wipes a long line of this red, and then ultimately Rian wanted the red, almost a sort of Kurosawa bloodbath at the end, that they’re standing on, is this red plateau of, ‘What on Earth has happened there?’

Then even to have the white fallout of salt slowly settling to effectively cleanse it. For a while we had the white cleansing happen, but then we realised it didn’t have such drama as keeping the red. We knew from the get-go we’d have to work out how to make those speeders create these rooster tails and tie that to the animation. The great thing about rooster tails is, it’s like sports skiing, and you get those sort of banking sprays, and the curtains that we created with the two speeders. That was all in the original previs and ideas.

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It was amazing, Eddie and his guys, Dan Pearson, the CG supervisor, spent a long time trying to work it out. One of the challenges for me there was, Rian always wanted redder, redder, redder, go red, and I think where we’ve ended up is something that is believable, but still reads as very vibrant red. If we’d gone almost too far it would’ve turned into sort of caramelised toffy apple and you might not have believed it, whereas there’s just the right amount of specularity when you need it. You get to see the really lush crystalline structures when you go inside on the Falcon chase. It was a lot of work, and trying to work out how to also have the beam of the mega-cannon clean that red stuff off the terrain.

At the end of the fight, Rian literally said, ‘Come on, this is full opera now. We’re in space, I want Wagner. This is a bloody big movement, and let’s bring the skies down and lets do all of that.’ The red just gave it that, and that’s why I think, again, Rian’s really clever. He sprinkles red through everything in the movie.

Convincing cockpits

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They weren’t straightforward, and we shot them in the light dome, but I would say the majority of the contribution was the key light, which was just a traditional light. Steve Yedlin, the DOP, he’s incredibly meticulous. We hadn’t been to Bolivia yet, but he knew roughly the stop that he would’ve shot at. To be honest, as we built those up, Rian wanted those ships to feel like first world war planes, where just everything is rattling and crazy. Chris Corbould and the special effects guys rigged that on a gimbal that allowed us to have higher frequency harmonics that allowed us to hit those rattles as well as the broader stuff. Then VFX supervisor Alex Pritchard and his team in Singapore did those shots, working with Eddie. We didn’t have any glass in the cockpits because of reflections. Interestingly, the design of the ship meant that they were open, which is very like traditional old fashioned aeroplanes , so you’ve got people’s hair given some freedom.

I remember being in a review, and Dennis Muren actually sat there and said, ‘Let’s put some reflections in the glass, Ben.’ I was kind of like, ‘Yeah, but Dennis, it’s a clear sky dome. What are we going to reflect?’ He was just like, ‘Come on man.’ He said, ‘Have you ever watched the Indiana Jones truck scene going through the forest?’ He said, ‘There are reflections in there that have nothing to do with what was going on.’ I kind of thought, okay, and we tried it, and it was great.

So we layered in reflections, we had secondary laser blasts, we put in dust trails, schmutz, just everything wizzing through frame, and we layered it up and up and up. It’s actually a slight conceit, because Bolivia is almost hermetically clean, it’s so high, but it carried, because of the context of the action and all the stuff that was going on, we just played that there was atmospherics in the air. I think it’s also some really good editing by Bob Ducsay as well. He never stayed too long on a cockpit, and we jumped around as much as we could.