CS Interview: John Knoll and Rogue One’s VFX Team

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CS chats with the Rogue One VFX crew, including EP John Knoll. John Knoll came up with the concept for Rogue One.

Hal Hickel, John Knoll and Neil Corbould talk Rogue One and reveal a hidden surprise you might have missed!

Rapidly approaching a billion dollar take at the worldwide box office, Walt Disney Pictures and Lucasfilm have another major hit with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. While we previously brought you conversations with director Gareth Edwards and the film’s cast, we’re now jumping behind the scenes for conversations with some of the talented people who helped bring the first Star Wars Story to the big screen. Today, we’re speaking with the VFX trio of John Knoll, Hal Hickel and Neil Corbould.

Knoll, CCO of Industrial Light & Magic (and co-creator of Adobe Photoshop!), has been a major player in the Star Wars galaxy since the Special Editions in the late 1990s. He’s a particularly important player for Rogue One, however, as the film started from his idea! John Knoll shares an Academy Award with Hal Hickel for their work on Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. Corbould, meanwhile, has two Academy Awards to his name for his work on Gladiator and Gravity. Rogue One marks his first foray into a galaxy far, far away.

Read on for an overview of some of the challenges the VFX ran into making Rogue One and learn about a hidden surprise in the film that no one has found yet!

Check back soon for interviews with Rogue One Sound Editors Chris Scarabosio and Matthew Wood and another with editor John Gilroy.

CS: John, I know the story that was told at Celebration two years ago is that Rogue One was originally your idea that you pitched to Kathleen Kennedy. Could you take me back to then and just tell me what that was like?

John Knoll: (Laughs) Yeah, Kathy was very good to humor me and listening to this pitch. But yeah, it had developed over the last bunch of weeks before the pitch meeting. I had been chatting with friends of mine about this slate of new films and in particular, we were all intrigued by this idea of standalone stories that would be set in the Star Wars universe, but that weren’t necessarily a part of the Skywalker saga through line. And you know, it began almost as a joke. “Picture this!” That kind of thing. But I got such good reactions and each telling got a little bit more elaborate until I had this fairly long, sort of 20 to 25-minute version of it. One of my friends, having heard that went, “Oh man, you need to pitch this to Kathy. You really should go make an appointment and pitch it.” I actually think it says something really wonderful about the atmosphere at Lucasfilm, that Kathy was open to such a thing. So she humored me and listened to the pitch. About a week later, I got a call from Kiri Hart saying, “Well, we’ve been talking a lot about this, and we may want to do something with it.” And then it sort of snowballed from there.

John Knoll talks about ship design in Rogue One.

CS: Did it change much from your original pitch?

John Knoll: Oh yeah, it definitely changed. In its original conception, it was a bit smaller film than this. You know, Kathy had talked about these standalone stories being smaller and scrappier and potentially lower-budgeted pictures. I had kind of geared the story with that in mind of not as many locations or as many big, epic events. As we got into more detailed story development, you know, the canvas sort of kept expanding and more epic things kept popping up and going into the movie. And you know, the discussion with Disney, it became clear that they were really open to the idea of going bigger with these movies. And they thought, hey, if it’s a good story, the budget will be there, so let’s make it the best movie we can make it.

CS: I think Star Wars is a part of everyone’s lives these days, but you guys’ especially. What was the biggest surprise you found, in returning to the original film? Did you learn anything new or have you seen it so many times now, that it’s old hand?

John Knoll: I’ve seen the movie a zillion times already, but we watched it over and over again, different portions of it, as we were doing things that I had to kind of made up to do, or things that we saw before. And we went and looked at a bunch of the original costumes and props and miniatures at the archives building, and looking at really good reference photographs of things that we needed to match. And a pretty common experience was to look at a really good picture of something we were meant to match and realizing, boy, I remember it being a lot better than that. And so, the overriding philosophy of the show became, “Well, we should match how you remember it more than how it necessarily was.” So a lot of the vehicles and items in the movie, costumes and everything, are kind of upgraded from how they actually appeared, more to match your expectations and your memory of them than how they actually were.

CS: I also wanted to ask, what was the hardest secret to keep over the years, making this?

John Knoll: Biggest secret? Oh, I don’t know. I mean, I’ve been working in this industry for, oh, a shockingly long amount of time. And everybody wants to keep their IP confidential, so every project we work on is sort of top secret until the film comes out, so I’m kind of used to the process of my head being full of all kinds of fun, cool things about the movie that I’m just dying to talk to somebody about, but no, I’ve just got to wait until the film is out and then we’ll chat.

CS: One of the things I wanted to ask you guys about was the Grand Moff Tarkin effect, which is incredible. And I’ve read that there were alternatives planned, in case it didn’t work out. I wonder if you could tell me about that?

John Knoll: Well, one of the biggest alternatives was the potential that Tarkin could have been, at least for some of the scenes, somewhere else and talking to Krennic via hologram. So that was something we talked about. But our feeling was dramatically that he should be there physically present, and we thought we could pull it off. And so, that was really plan A all along.

CS sits down with John Knoll and his VFX team for Rogue One! John Knoll even reveals a Rogue One secret!

CS: What was the barometer for that? When did you know it was something that would actually be able to work on the big screen?

John Knoll: Well, boy, yeah. It wasn’t like we proved it before principal photography started. You know, the actual proof that we thought we could get there happened pretty late, so it was a lot of my reassuring various people that, “No, no, no, we’re going to get there. It’s going to be okay.” But yeah, that didn’t happen until fairly late in the game.

CS: And I did want to ask, there were obviously a lot of reshoots that happened. How does that change your job?

John Knoll: Well, being one of the executive producers, I had a little bit more direct involvement in the story and where that was going and how we were dealing with the initial cut coming in kind of long, and then us needing to shorten it down into something that was a rational runtime. And then, story threads that had to go in order to do that. And then, well, and we should probably do a pickup of this scene to explain the stuff that we’ve left out here and this character isn’t in anymore, and all that kind of thing. So I had some heads up of what was safe to work on and what was still shifting sands. So we tried to not burn a lot of labor on things that weren’t going to get picked up or omitted. So I’d say that there’s not a lot of idle moments, shots that we finished and then got cut out of the movie. What we do is, well, we should probably put that scene on hold, because we know we’re going to reshoot the last part of that. So we’d sort of focus our intention more on the stuff that was a little more solid ground or on just prepping assets, building things and getting ready for shooting.

CS: What about the TIE fighter we saw in the trailer? I’ve talked to people in the past, and it sounds like a lot of the times, it’s tricky to deal with VFX because they have to be done while shooting has already happened. It seems like with the reshoots sort of offer some extra leeway. But I’m curious to know how that scene ended up looking so good in the trailer and then not existing in the final film.

John Knoll: Well, it’s a pretty common occurrence, that the people that are editing trailers are not in the editing room with the people that are cutting the movie, but a separate group, and they have access to our dailies, and they have access to a lot of things that we’ve made for the movie, you know, pre-vis and the animatics. And they’ll sort of cut together something that seems exciting and that they think is in close agreement with what we’re saying the movie is. But a lot of times, they’re using different shots or different things. And as the movie takes shape, it’s not uncommon that things that have been in the trailer have gotten cut out, or maybe were never in any version of the movie. And that shot is an example of something that was not in the movie. They used a piece of pre-vis that wasn’t where we were going with the movie, but they really liked the vibe of it in the trailer. And Kathy liked the shot. And so, we did a special version of that, that was only for the trailer, but was not for the movie.

John Knoll explains why this TIE fighter sequence was removed from Rogue One. John Knoll even reveals a Rogue One secret!

CS: I kind of actually like the fact that these things didn’t appear just because it brings back this sort of feeling of like, this big toy box that everyone’s playing with.

John Knoll: Well, yeah, there’s different opinions about that. There’s a group of people that feel like it’s false advertising to include things in a trailer that aren’t in the final film. And there’s people that like it because then you go to the theater and all of the surprises aren’t spoiled for you.

CS: Every day, it seems like there’s more Easter eggs that are coming out and all sorts of just cool things in there. Do you have a favorite hidden surprise in Rogue One?

John Knoll: I’ll point out one that nobody has picked up on yet, and that’s, you know the shot of Krennic’s ship leaving the Death Star? And you know, we designed it to kind of help illustrate the scale of the Death Star, where you can see how big the docking bays are in there, and then the camera pulls back, in not quite a powers of 10 sort of way, to really quite illustrate how big it is. But the equatorial trench on the Death Star is almost, I think it’s a half a mile high. And it’s big enough that Russell Paul, who’s my model supervisor, got talking about, you know, that’s big enough that you can make a giant docking bay the star destroyer could fit into. And in the shot, if you look about halfway down the trench, there’s a giant docking bay, with a star destroyer docked in it. And nobody’s picked up on it, but it’s there. And it makes sense. In theory, the star destroyer could dock in the equatorial trench and refuel and refit and whatever, but it’s never something that was seen until now.

John Knoll and his VFX team discuss Rogue One. John Knoll even reveals a Rogue One secret!

CS: When you’re dealing with stuff like that, I know that everything before a certain point is now “Legends” and not official canon, but do you return to a lot of the EU to look for inspiration?

John Knoll: I think we felt free that if there’s a cool idea in something from the, that, well, we can use it. You know, we own all of it, so there’s no reason why we can’t.

Hal Hickel: There’s a wealth of—Ralph McQuarrie and Joe Johnston and some of the others—there’s a wealth of designs that didn’t make it into one movie or another, but that we can mine from to create vehicles and things.

CS: I do want to ask all you guys, what is your favorite “Star Wars” collectible or prized “Star Wars” object?

John Knoll: Well, since the K-2SO character was in my original draft and became one of my favorite characters in the movie, I love 80’s diecast toys, so I love the [Elite series] K-2 toy.

Hal Hickel: I’m very excited about the Hot Toys version of the K-2’s that are coming out, but my favorite Star Wars keepsake is a B-wing. A Kenner B-wing toy that’s sitting in my office that I really like. In fact, I wanted very badly for us to have B-wings in “Rogue One,” but they don’t quite fit in the timeline. We don’t really see them until “Jedi”. But I’ve got a big Kenner B-wing in my office that I love.

Neil Corbould: I will divulge that I’ve bought all of [the “Rogue One” figures], two of each. One to open. And now I’ve got to get the other packs!

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Weekend: Dec. 5, 2019, Dec. 8, 2019

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