British Columbia

Inside the visual effects of Star Wars: The Force Awakens

The pressure from fans was enough to make the Star Wars: The Force Awakens' VFX teams turn to the dark side — but all that hard work paid off for B.C. man Ryan Clarke.

B.C. man Ryan Clarke shares his experience of working on the movie as a visual effects compositor

Industrial Light & Magic studios from around the world worked on the visual effects for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, including the studio in Vancouver. (Lucasfilm/Twitter)

The pressure from fans was enough to make the Star Wars: The Force Awakens' visual effects teams turn to the dark side.

"Even when we were releasing the trailers and the art works we saw the people online and the message boards that were just analysing our images straight down to the smallest pixels," said Ryan Clarke, a visual effects compositor at Industrial Light & Magic in Vancouver.

As compositors, Clarke's department was responsible for taking everything that was shot on set and combining it with the other effects — modelling, animation, creature design, lighting — produced by other departments.

"That at times got us worried. We always had that extra artistic eye and scrutiny on our work, to make sure it was as close to perfect as we could do."

Staying true to the original

But the force was strong with Clarke and his colleagues at Industrial Light & Magic studios around the world.

The Force Awakens has already joined the ranks of the top 10 highest-grossing movies of all time (not adjusted for inflation), and has been widely praised for capturing the feel and nostalgia of the original trilogy in the 70s and 80s.

"For me, growing up enjoying Star Wars as a kid and then finally being able to work on it is quite an honour, especially to be among the greats at Industrial Light & Magic who were involved in the first one," said Clarke, who lives in Coquitlam.

He said the visual effects teams were given the mandate of "trying to keep everything in that original world."

"Even for things like the starfields — when all the star destroyers and all the spaceships are up there — even those star fields were stylized to go after the pinhole effect that they had in the 1970s, rather than trying to do a realistic starfield," he said.

New and old effects

Even though The Force Awakens features a new lightsaber design, Clarke said the lead visual effects team in San Francisco "had a vision to always have us look back to the original sabres for colour, for how the light reacted, how they moved."

However, Clarke said this time the actors on set actually had "practical sabers."

"We can use that as reference, and the light and the environment helps out hugely, because back in the day, they just had plastic or wooden sticks, and no light interacting with the environment, and they were just drawn optically on the frame," he said.

"The effect definitely has gotten a little bit nicer over the years. But still, when you look back at the old version there's something about it, just because there's so much love and work that went into the frames."

Clarke said every time he went out for dinner or drinks with friends he'd be faced with questions about the film, but said he and the other visual effects specialists were motivated to not reveal anything, because they didn't want to spoil it for anyone.

"We had seen it a few times, and so many of us had loved it so much that we didn't want to ruin the experience for anyone."

To hear the full interview listen to the audio labelled: Coquitlam man worked on visual effects for Star Wars: The Force Awakens


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