This week’s digital release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi gives viewers access to hours of deleted scenes — including several shots that Industrial Light and Magic’s Stephen Aplin found “heartbreaking” to leave on the cutting-room floor. Aplin, the global animation supervisor, had a hand in every animated effect in Rian Johnson’s film. But one of the things he worked the most closely on in his London office was the fathier chase. In the finished film, Finn (John Boyega) and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) jump on one of the backs of the horse-like creatures and lead their herd through the resorts of Canto Bight. As they flee to the beach, the fathiers destroy the casino — but originally, they also crashed through the roof of a bathhouse, sending startled aliens (including a naked, one-eyed creature played by Star Wars stalwart Warwick Davis) flying. As Aplin told Yahoo Entertainment, that extended sequence, which can be seen on the digital and Blu-ray editions, was one of the most time-consuming for his team. On the plus side, a few of his favorite shots did make the final cut — including an animated character contributed by Mark Hamill during his off-hours from playing Luke Skywalker. In a conversation with Yahoo, Aplin talked about the process of animating the fathier chase, how it felt to see his work cut down for the finished film, and where to spot Hamill’s secret cameo.
When it came to the Canto Bight chase sequence, the first challenge for Aplin’s team was designing the mythical fathiers. “We studied so many different quadrupeds,” he told Yahoo. “We started out with big cats, we studied dogs, we studied horses. We knew this thing had to run at speeds of up to 50 miles an hour, but then it had to be kind of dexterous to navigate the alleyways of Dubrovnik [where the Canto Bight scenes were shot] and and to be smashing up tables. So there was no one creature we could look at… But what we found is that horses got us the closest.”
Using horses as a starting point, the animation team created “run cycles” to capture the fathiers’ movements during the chase, a “library of motion” that could be applied to up to 30 creatures in one shot. Then they found a game-changing piece of reference footage: video of a moose running along a highway, shot by someone in a moving car. “It had this extra weight that the horse footage that we had found just didn’t have,” Aplin marveled. “It had all this secondary motion. It was a lot more muscular. And it fit our creatures a little bit better.” The animators applied those moose qualities into some of the fathers. For the casino-destroying footage, they looked to videos of bulls.
When the creature design was in place, the animation department pre-visualized the entire sequence. After the location shoot in Croatia was over, they did a post-visualization process to incorporate the live-action shots of Tran and Boyega riding their fathier. Neal Scanlan and Chris Corbould, who were responsible for creatures and other practical effects, designed a mechanized fathier for that purpose. “It was nicknamed the fathier-tron,” said Aplin. “And the actors could sit upon that and it would give a very natural motion, which we would then be able to take the footage of them being shot riding that, and plug those plates of the actors back onto our CG fathier.”
Though the finished chase sequence does appear in the film, it was downsized from the original version. “There was so much work that went into it, and once we got out of the city and were going up the clifftops and there’s the whole bathhouse piece of the sequence — it was heartbreaking when bits and pieces got cut!” said Aplin. “But at the same time you know it’s for the greater good, you know the film needs to move at a certain clip, and you hope that someone will see it on the DVD extras.”
Not only do the digital and Blu-ray extras include the chase scene, they also feature additional footage of the casino guests. The wild assortment of aliens, said Aplin, was largely achieved without CG. “Honestly, cards on the table: That was mostly Neal Scanlan and his practical puppet team,” he said. “We did one fully digital character in there, which was the little drunk, old, frog-looking guy who starts putting the money in BB-8.”
That character, named Dobbu Scay, was played by Hamill. “We had Mark Hamill had put his hand up and said, ‘I want to try a little bit of this motion capture,’” said Aplin. The initial shot of Dobbu drunkenly putting coins in BB-8 was based on Hamill’s motion capture performance, as was the later shot in which Dobbu is showered with coins. “Rian actually was guiding him and sitting on the floor with him and pretending to throw money in the air,” he recalled. “So they found that moment together and that’s what we honed in on.”
As for Davis’s cameo, that can be seen in both the extended chase scene and the feature-length documentary The Director and the Jedi, which shows the actor (who, as a child, played Wicket the Ewok in Return of the Jedi and has appeared as various aliens in subsequent films) getting into his character’s full-body rubber suit. (“What we do for the entertainment of millions of people around the world!” he quips.)
Aplin himself appears in one of the extras, a featurette about the process of animating Supreme Leader Snoke, featuring original footage of Andy Serkis’ motion-capture performance. Does Aplin feel conflicted about letting the audience behind the curtain? On the contrary.
“I think it’s great. Firstly, Andy is the soul of that performance,” he said. “He’s not just the voice; there are things he did which make that character. But I think it also helps to educate an audience to see how much work goes on, on top of what the initial performer did… And especially when we get into the close-up action of Snoke where we’ve added a lot of micro-expression detail, which you couldn’t pick up quite so much with Andy’s performance. Because Andy’s very fleshy. He’s got this great malleable face, and Snoke is this skull with skin pulled taut over it. So you get a different performance straightaway from the quality of the skin, but that also gives you the ability to go in, with these big eyes that Snoke had, that are a weird distance apart. And you can just start adding little bits and pieces here and there, but always coming back to the foundation of Andy’s performance.”
Star Wars: The Last Jedi is available digitally now and comes to Blu-ray on March 27.
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