The Amazing Camera Technology Behind The Look of Rogue One

How old lenses and new digital environments helped Gareth Edwards change the visual language of Star Wars.

During our sit down with Rogue One director Gareth Edwards, we talked at length about the notion of taking risks and the ambition of creating high art in what it otherwise a slick blockbuster production. Those who have followed the director’s career from Monsters to Godzilla to Rogue One know that he’s not your average blockbuster yeoman. Even though he enlists the services of great DPs like Greig Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty), he also takes it upon himself to be very involved in the way his films are composed, often shooting a number of sequences himself in a hand-held fashion.

With his background in digital art and visual effects, it’s also no surprise that Edwards is a director who is more open to innovating. After all, he not only shot, but also completed the visual effects himself for Monsters, his breakout film in 2010.

It was both of these elements ‐ his hands-on approach to cinematography and his openness to innovating in the digital space ‐ that were on display in the stories we were told as we toured the offices of Industrial Light & Magic. Members of the ILM team walked us through a number of the ways Edwards, Fraser, and team played with the visual language of Star Wars to create an experience that felt fresh.

The 70mm Lenses

One method for melding the classic and the future was in the use of the same Ultra Panavision 70mm lenses that Quentin Tarantino used to shoot The Hateful Eight. Not similar lenses, the exact ones that Robert Richardson and Tarantino dug up at Panavision. But instead of shooting on film, Rogue One affixed these lenses to Arri Alexa 65, the 6k Large Format camera used on the latest Mission: Impossible film. The marriage of Arri’s new camera with the Panavision lenses is described as giving the filmmaker all the benefits of digital while maintaining the grit and magnificence of those lenses. It provided the filmmakers a massive surface area for the film, though as Edwards described, it was a nightmare for the focus puller during sequences that involved a lot of action in both the foreground and background. It was as if the camera itself was fighting to capture the entire field of vision perfectly. In the end, aspect ratio on Rogue One was cropped a bit ‐ they didn’t get all the way to the 2.76:1 ratio that Richardson got on Hateful Eight ‐ but they did have the benefit of all the detail from both the lenses and the camera.

Shooting Space Battles Handheld

The lens conversation was particularly impressive when we were shown the more innovative element of Rogue One’s production. Something that ILM had developed for filming digital environments. Imagine you’re the filmmaker of a Star Wars film and you’re sitting down to describe a big space battle to the artists that will ultimately render it. In the past, this involved scripting and storyboarding, then presenting that information to the artists. They would then go off and render it to a certain point and bring it back to you. From there, you’d provide notes, they’d go back and back changes, and so on and so forth until it was right. This would take numerous sessions of feedback between the filmmaker and the artists to accomplish. It’s why films such as this one have so much time dedicated to post production. It’s why someone like Felicity Jones spends six months on set, then goes off and films other movies for the intervening year until Rogue One is ready.

What ILM developed was a virtual camera system that feels like something out of Tony Stark’s garage. It’s a room in which a space battle can be projected along the walls (and, we’re told, in hologram form) and rendered by a computer in real-time. This means that the human filmmaker ‐ now taller than a moon ‐ can walk through the sequence with a handheld remote camera. On his remote is a screen showing him the same image that he’d see via a viewfinder on a camera if this scenario were real. With fluid movement, said filmmaker can quite literally shoot the action as it’s playing. You can see what this looks like from the other side of the room in the image below:

What the filmmaker is seeing is the sequence rendered about 80%, or far enough along to look pretty sharp. This allows the director or DP, whomever is operating the handheld device, to compose shots as if they were shooting on location. One of the neat little extras is that the handheld device comes with triggers. Using these triggers allows the filmmaker to quickly toggle between versions of their favorite lenses and settings. Including, as we’re told by the ILM team, a seamless version of the 70mm Panavision lenses. So even the sequences in Rogue One that are completely digital get the benefit of those Panavision lenses and the eye of its cinematographer or director. And while the simulated versions will undoubtedly draw criticisms from purists, it’s an impressive step in the realm of digital filmmaking. One that invites us to think differently about the relationship between cinematography and computer generated frames. As we’re constantly reminded every time we talk to artists at ILM or other companies, the images may be rendered by computers, but there are still many human hands that go into bringing them to life.

The prime example is the shot at the top of this article, taken from the first trailer for Rogue One. This was created by Gareth Evans during an early session using this simulator. The filmmaker and the ILM team were trying to find just the right shot for the introduction of the iconic super weapon, playing around with all kinds of angles. At one point, Edwards stopped and said, “Okay, go back and play that again” as he held the “camera” still. The playback revealed the exact shot that ended up in the trailer. As the ILM team explained to us, the process of getting that shot doing it the old way would have taken days, not minutes.

Much has been made of how much footage was in that first trailer that didn’t make it into the final movie due to reshoots and editing, but that shot certainly made it. It’s also a testament to how much easier it is to rework things when your “reshoots” can be rendered in real time. In the end, while the story of Rogue One looked back to a time before the original Star Wars film, it’s production used a melding of old and new techniques to press forward with its visual language.

For more on Rogue One and Star Wars history, check out The Star Wars Story:

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