Ink & Pixel: Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Ink & Pixel is a source of pride and joy for me as a writer and as such, I'm always striving to take this column further for those who read and enjoy it. In an effort to widen the reach of our continuously growing fan-base, Ink & Pixel has broadened its horizons with the inclusion of films from the Horror, Sci-Fi, Action-Adventure, and Fantasy genres. Additionally, if you yourself, or anyone you know, helped to make any of the amazing feature films found within this column, I would love to talk to you to further my knowledge. Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org so we can discuss it further.
At this very moment, people all around the world are cheering for a little film by the name of CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR. As a matter of opinion, I believe the merge between Disney and Marvel Studios was not only a stroke of business genius, but also an entertainment-changing event for geek culture enthusiasts everywhere. Seriously, would you not agree that we're living in a very exciting time – a time when we get to witness things like legendary super hero characters and timeless icons of science-fiction dominate the box-office and put smiles on the faces of the next generation? Forget all the social media meltdowns that can sometimes place a negative spin on a bit of casting news or the re-purposing of a fictional historic figure. Lean back, put your feet up, and enjoy the ride!
For me, there's no doubt in my mind that the Marvel Train is going to keep chugging along nicely these next few weeks, as Team Captain America and Team Iron Man battle it out for superhero rights and responsibilities. That said, there's a car on that money-making locomotive that belches black smoke speckled with flecks of stardust as the walls of the speeding car vibrate with the shake and shimmy music of Figrin D'an and the Modal Nodes. That's right, I'm talking about the boxcar belonging to the almighty Star Wars franchise. So please, join me for a ride along the railsexploring the technology and creature effects used in creating the latest addition to the Star Wars canon: STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS.
It's funny, I'm not quite sure that including a description and plot synopsis for this film is entirely necessary, but in the interest of consistency I'm going to do just that. As you may already be aware, STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS is an American Science Fiction Space Epic directed by J.J. Abrams – who also shares writing credits for the film alongside Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt. Of course, the movie was produced by Lucasfilm in cooperation with Abrams' own Bad Robot Productions and was distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. The star-studded cast of this action-packed space opera includes the talents of Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong'o, Andy Serkis, Domhall Gleeson, and many more!
As the seventh film in the Star Wars canon, The Force Awakens takes place approximately 30 years after the events of STAR WARS: EPISODE VI – THE RETURN OF THE JEDI. With the second Death Star destroyed, and the reign of Darth Vader fading like a dying light among the cosmos, the last remaining Jedi, Luke Sywalker, has vanished. And so it is that from the ashes of the fallen Empire a new threat who call themselves The First Order have come into power. Under the instruction of General Snoke, and the force-wielding hand of his under-study, Kylo Ren, The First Order have built a new weapon – a deadly canon that is capable of obliterating multiple planets with just one super-charged blast of energy. Quite obviously, this does not bode well for the rest of the galaxy, and so it's once again up to members of the galactic rebellion to sabotage The First Order's plans for galaxy-wide domination.
Now, with the fate of entire worlds at stake, an astromech BB-8 droid, a rogue Stormtrooper named Finn, and Rey, a scavenger of the desert planet Jakku, must deliver a vital piece of information to the rebellion before all is lost and only The First Order are left living among the stars. Thankfully, prolific members of the rebellion who helped to bring an end to Darth Vader's rule are still kicking around the galaxy. Thus, Rey, Finn, and BB-8 join forces with the legendary smuggler, Han Solo, his wookie compatriot, Chewbacca, and the well-decorated General Leia to put a stop to The First Order, and with any luck, locate the whereabouts of their long lost Jedi friend, Luke Skywalker.
When aiming to create a universe as imaginative and fantastic as the one found in the Star Wars franchise, it goes without saying that you'll need to move around quite a bit if you're to find suitable filming locations. Yes, it's true that a fair amount of CGI was used to complete the look of the film, but thanks to Abrams' steadfast desire to honor the effects and presentation of the original trilogy, much of TFA was shot on-location. Where exactly? Principle photography for the film began at Pinewood Studios located in Buckinghanshire, England. After that, it was on to the Nordic island nation of Iceland for a series of shots involving the Viking-friendly landmass's countryside and many picturesque waterways. Next, production moved to the city of Abu Dhabi – the capital of the United Arab Emirates,located on an island in the Persian Gulf. From there, the cast and crew visited County Kerry, Ireland, the former RAF Greenham Common military base in Bershire, and Puzzlewood, an incredibly dense section of forest located near Gloucestershire, England. Each locale, with its own unique set of features, served to create the film's bizarre and mesmerizing regions.
Hey, guess what? We've arrived at my favorite section of these Ink & Pixel articles, where we dive in and investigate the effects of the film! It's been widely publicized that the crew behind the making of STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS worked tirelessly to create and film as many practical effects possible for this intensely visual sequel. On a personal note, I say thank Yoda, because the overuse of CGI effects is what killed the prequels for me - almost more than the terrible writing and inclusion of He Who Must Not Be Named. Funnily enough, an effect that captured the attention of many fans was the scene in which Rey prepares a portion of her food rations.
Like several others, I'd assumed that the bread ration was a CGI-created effect. However, it turns out that the bread was real, man! In an interview with MTV, and courtesy of themarysue.com, the film's Special Effects Supervisor Chris Corbould had this to say in regard to creating Rey's helping of “insta-bread”: “You wouldn’t believe how long it took to actually perfect that one, that little tiny gag in the film. It started off with the mechanics of getting the bread to rise and the liquid to disappear, but then there was the ongoing problem of what color should the bread be? What consistency should it be? Should it have cracks in it? Should it not have cracks in it? It took about three months. The actual mechanics of it was fairly simple, but the actual cosmetic side took a lot longer.”
In the end, Corbould was quite pleased with himself for deciphering the best way in which to represent this effect – even if the bread's on-screen time was minimal. All of that said, MTV claims that the bread “tasted terrible and probably had no nutritional value.” That's okay, I can only imagine how gross most of the food used in the making of a film actually is. Just imagine how long some of it sits off the the side while having to re-calibrate the cameras for another take. Vile!
Ah, now for some bits and bobs about my absolute favorite aspect of this film, its wide array of creature effects! I remember the day I found out that Jim Henson's Creature Shop was not contacted about working on this new film, and my heart nearly broke into a million tiny pieces. If not the Henson workshop than who would you even deem capable of handling a project of this size? Well, the answer to my question came by way of Abrams requesting that Neal Scanlan - a retired London-based effects supervisor – be up to the task.
Scanlan accepted Abram's proposal, and began working out of Pinewood Studios in an effort to create approximately 105 different creatures to be used in the film. Scanlan used nearly every trick of the trade when creating the eclectic cast of alien beings found throughout the Star Wars universe from prosthetic suits to animatronics and hand-puppetry. Not only did Scanlan and his team create effects to be worn by individual actors, but prosthetic characters that required a total of up to 6 people were constructed as well. Of course when speaking on suits that housed several puppeteers at once I'm talking about creatures like the Jakku scavenger character Teedo and the Luggabeast – the lumbering duo that were aiming to trade BB-8 for spare parts.
Due to the animatronic nature of the film's character design, many of the creatures needed to be outfitted with a complex system of hydraulics and remote electronic wirework in order to function properly. In some cases, characters that did not require the use of a human body to operate were instead manipulated off-camera using a dual-stick control system. With a series of buttons, levers, and sliders at their disposal, mechanical engineers performed every spoken word and gesture while away from the cameras watchful eye. And although the craftsmanship of Scanlan and his team allowed for many of the Star Wars universe's populace to perform and function without the use of CGI, there were times when a bit of computer magic was necessary to help complete the illusion. I'm talking about subtle things: mouth articulation, eye movements – things like that.
Lastly, because this movie is massive and I can't possibly discuss it all in just one article, I want to focus for just a moment of the re-creation of everyone's favorite Wookie, Chewbacca. While several characters received visual and technical upgrades in an effort to reflect the leaps and bounds made in the effects industry since the original trilogy, Chewie was one of the few characters who remained unchanged for this sequel. Using the original sculpted head for the crossbow-clad furball, the team at Pinewood Studios employed the old school method of knitting together the wookie's body suit by hand. Can you imagine having to meticulously poke each and every individual hair into that material? Yikes! The reasoning as to why the effects team used this method of fabrication was because it was agreed that it could not be improved upon, even with all of the advances we've made in the costuming industry. There's something about the way the hair sits, moves, and appears on-camera that is so authentic that Abrams and Scanlan wouldn't dare change it.
At the close of its positively stellar run at the box office, STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS had earned a staggering world-wide total of $2,066,045,288! That's just … wow! When breaking down the numbers boxofficemojo.com reported that 45.3% of this jaw-dropping total came from the domestic market with includes both The United States of America and Canada as well. The other 54.7% was collected from the foreign box-office, with both China and the United Kingdom as the largest contributors to the film's overseas success. Impressed yet? What if we take into consideration how much of a merchandising juggernaut the Star Wars franchise truly is. I'm talking t-shirts, onesie pajamas, backpacks, Funko Pop and Action figurines, Hot Toys collectibles, the Disney Infinity 3.0 video game adaptation, and so much more! For several generations, Star Wars has remained a cultural touchstone that represents the power of imagination and storytellers desire to go beyond the stars. The good news? There's a whole lot more of it come. After all, it's a big galaxy out there.
Personally, I think that STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS might be my favorite of all the Star Wars films. If not, then it stands proudly side-by-side with STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. I'll be honest, I was what could be described as a “casual” Star Wars fan before the release of TFA. If I tried to pinpoint the reason, I guess it would that I always considered myself to be more of a sword and sorcery kinda guy, as opposed someone with an affinity for warp drives and horribly calibrated laser guns.
As it would happen, Episode VII presented me with an installment of Star Wars that I could really get behind. I love that the film features a female lead, I enjoy how it nurtures and promotes diversity both in its world-building as well as its casting choices. My heart burst with joy at the knowledge that Abrhams and his special effects team were looking to implement practical effects and advanced puppetry wherever it served the film best. For these reasons and so many more, STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS turned me from a “casual” Star Wars fan into an honest-to-goodness enthusiast who now looks forward to just about anything the franchise has to offer. I'll catch you next time, friends, and may the force be with you all.
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|Extra Tidbit:||The list of actors who appear in this film (beyond the main cast) is amazing. We've got Simon Pegg, Bill Hader, Jessica Henwick, Daniel Craig, Billie Lourd, Kevin Smith, Ewan McGregor, and tons of cast members from Game of Thrones!|