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October 15
2020

ISSUE

Fall 2020

Dynamic Duos: SFX and VFX – Dominic Tuohy and Roger Guyett

By IAN FAILES

When Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker Visual Effects Supervisor Roger Guyett first sat down with Special Effects Supervisor Dominic Tuohy and director J.J. Abrams to discuss the centerpiece Rey and Kylo Ren lightsaber duel in the film – which happens on a section of the fallen Death Star in the middle of a raging ocean – they all had one common goal in mind.

This was, relates Tuohy, “trying to find something that lets the actors act as if they were in that environment,” with an added goal, says Guyett, of “convincing the audience that there is an integrity to whatever they’re seeing on the screen.”

The idea for the duel then was to supply as much ‘live’ effects interaction as possible during filming, covering the actors in sprays of water to replicate the waves that would be hitting the section they were on. That practical water was down to Tuohy, who won a VFX Academy Award this year for 1917 and has also been Oscar-nominated for two other films. Visual effects artists from Industrial Light & Magic (overseen by Guyett, himself a six-time Oscar nominee) then used that in-camera water as a starting point for their digital simulations.

It was just one of the many times during the making of Rise of Skywalker in which the duo had to closely collaborate, and where they were part of relying upon multiple effects methods for various final shots in the film – others included the dramatic Pasaana desert speeder chase and the moment the heroes sink into black desert sand.

Dominic Tuohy, Special Effects Supervisor, The Rise of Skywalker. (Image courtesy of Dominic Tuohy)

Roger Guyett, Visual Effects Supervisor, The Rise of Skywalker.

A view of the practical set at Pinewood Studios, where wave machines provided physical water splashes. (All The Rise of Skywalker images copyright © 2019 Lucasfilm.

AN OCEAN… IN A PADDOCK

The Death Star lightsaber duel is a demonstration of the power of Rey and Kylo Ren, as well as further insight into their deep connection. For shooting, which took place on Pinewood Studio’s outdoor paddock lot surrounded by bluescreen in order to acquire the right quality of light, Tuohy’s team designed and built a system of water cannons to generate wave and spray effects, having sold Abrams earlier on the concept by showing the director some similar but smaller previous work and some early tests.

“The cannons would push the water out and vertically up in the air and then it would fall down in a straight line,” Tuohy explains. “We were pumping water nearly 40 or 50 feet up into the air. We had 14 water cannons on one side and eight on the other. They were timed with the amazing stunt choreography of the fight to match its ferocity.”

Originally the filming had been planned for the U.K. summer but had to be moved to late fall, and that meant extremely cold outdoor temperatures. This necessitated not covering the actors in as much water as originally planned. However, occasionally the wind would still get hold of the water spray and drift onto the performers.

“Daisy was there in an outfit with bare arms, and I must admit there were a few times when I heard her shout ‘Dominic!’” shares Tuohy. “The thing is, Daisy would physically flinch when that water hit her – you can see in the footage her tense up when the water is covering her. That’s what makes it feel real, because that’s exactly what you would do.

“Plus, every time a water cannon went off, there was a big roar of air,” continues Tuohy. “That almost always gives the actors something to react to, to remind them of where they are. We had big wind machines running at the same time. So the ambiance of noise that surrounded them is something that really made them feel that they were on the top of this Death Star piece.”

The scene in progress. ILM simulated waves and pieces of geometry to build out the environment.

The live-action actors composited into a wider digital ocean setting.

Kylo Ren and Rey duel on a section of the downed Death Star.

The scene, shot in the U.K. in late fall, was filmed with cold water, adding an extra layer of authenticity to the actor’s reactions when they would be hit with splashes.

“If we hadn’t shot it the way that we had shot it, I just don’t believe it would have looked anywhere near as convincing. Because they wouldn’t actually be there. Daisy wouldn’t be cold. They wouldn’t be covered in spray. They wouldn’t be wet. A spray or splash is changing the lighting constantly. So all of that interactivity is adding in layers to help convince the audience.”

—Roger Guyett, Visual Effects Supervisor

TAKING IT FURTHER

“If we hadn’t shot it the way that we had shot it,” suggests Guyett, “I just don’t believe it would have looked anywhere near as convincing. Because they wouldn’t actually be there. Daisy wouldn’t be cold. They wouldn’t be covered in spray. They wouldn’t be wet. A spray or splash is changing the lighting constantly. So all of that interactivity is adding in layers to help convince the audience.”

For ILM, of course, the approach to shooting the sequence meant that VFX artists had an authentic base to start with, even if it did end up replacing much of the spray and generating the undulating ocean.

“A tremendous amount of the work that Dominic did was very atmospheric,” observes Guyett, “in that it wasn’t actually exactly what a wave would do when it hit a surface like that Death Star section. But what it did do was create atmosphere, which was amazing for the actors to imagine that these explosive waves were going off all around them. They didn’t have to imagine that because it was really happening and they really were getting wet.”

Guyett notes that ILM re-wrote its water simulation pipeline as part of the challenging Rise of Skywalker sequence. It allowed artists to lay out and control large blocks of waves to iterate on, and also to treat the water as more of a character in that sequence.

The studio also had to deal with the extraction of the actors and partial set from that bluescreen Pinewood set – always an intricate task – but it’s one, again, that Guyett says benefited from the practical water interaction.

“You’re replacing the dynamics of a real water splash with the dynamics of a digital water splash, but they’re occupying the same kind of area in the screen. The level of realism that all of that adds is well worth the headache in terms of the extraction. I’m just always thinking, ‘What is the best version of this that’s going to end up on the screen?’”

Guyett marvels, in particular, at Tuohy’s efforts in conjuring the wave and spray arch that Kylo Ren emerges from at one point in the duel. “That was almost working in-camera,” he states. Adds Tuohy, “We did that several times to get it right with Adam who just got drenched time after time, and he never complained once.”

SELLING THE REALISM

Although for editorial reasons they did not appear for as long as originally intended in the film, earlier scenes of Rey heading to the downed Death Star on a sea skiff were planned and shot. Again, the moment was imagined as a combination of both practical and digital effects to tell the story of Rey having to struggle across the rough water.

“We thought there should be a skiff on a motion base that allowed us to closely read the movements to see Rey fight and hold onto this ship,” details Tuohy. “We built a hydraulic platform that was computer-controlled in that same outdoor paddock lot environment with smaller water cannons, and the entire skiff. Even one of the outriggers was made to swing completely out over the top while we made it rock and roll.”

ILM was intricately involved in the operation of the skiff gimbal, too, with Animation Supervisor Paul Kavanagh pre-animating specific behaviors on rough water geometry, which would be matched by Tuohy’s operation on set. Overall, the physical structure and the water interaction was aimed at helping to sell [Daisy] Ridley’s performance.

ILM’s simulation artists had to deal with many different types of water in the scene.

The behavior of the waves often echoes the intensity of the duel.

The skiff navigates the treacherous waves as Rey pilots it toward the Death Star.

A wide shot of the skiff entering the Death Star area.

“What you’re trying to do is convince the actor that whatever is happening is actually happening,” attests Guyett. “It’s not just a greenscreen and her sitting on a plank of wood with us saying, ‘Well, you’re on a raging ocean. Just imagine it’s freezing cold and you’re wet and you’re trying to steer this thing to the Death Star.’ We weren’t doing that.

“Instead, Daisy’s actually on a real skiff. The special effects guys could talk to her about pulling the levers or the handles and operating this thing. So now she’s not having to work so hard as an actor because she’s actually on the skiff, and now you’re hitting her with water. So her performance elevates because she’s really on that machine and it’s really moving. She doesn’t have to pretend she’s cold because she’s actually freezing! All of those things I think give this a better sense of realism.”

 

THE EFFECTS RELATIONSHIP

Both Guyett and Tuohy are at pains to point out their work for Rise of Skywalker was of course carried out in collaboration with scores of other practitioners (the duo ultimately received a visual effects Oscar nomination for the film, alongside Special Creature Effects Supervisor Neal Scanlan and ILM Visual Effects Supervisor Patrick Tubach).

Importantly, they say, no one single effects approach was ever pushed in favor of another during production.

“The trick is getting that balance right,” points out Tuohy. “And when you get that combination of special and visual effects right, you believe it.”

“We’re all pragmatic about what we think we can achieve,” adds Guyett. “It’s about the collaboration and what’s on-screen. It’s not about me just trying to use a piece of technology for its own sake. You’ve always got that shot in mind. And I think that’s what we did for every aspect of the process.”


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