How 'Rogue One: A Star Wars Story' was realised on screen

19 Dec 2016 BY Joe Ursell in Film Features

7 mins
Rogue One
Rogue One

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is set after the events of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and before Episode IV: A New Hope, but exists as a stand-alone story - the first in the history of the Star Wars franchise. That gave the filmmakers freedom to take creative risks with the film, as they were not so beholden to the established visual language of the rest of the saga. The film is directed by Briton Gareth Edwards, known for his impressive low-budget debut Monsters and his massive reboot of Godzilla. Edwards' work is notable for its use of intimate hand-held camerawork, resulting in a more kinetic, grittier feel to Rogue One compared with what we are used to from the franchise.

This is the first Star Wars film not to open with the legendary opening crawl, emphasising that this is a stylistically and tonally separate story to the main saga. The film does, however, open with the iconic quote: "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away..."  

The idea for the film came from veteran ILM visual-effects supervisor John Knoll. John was fascinated by a single line in the opening crawl for A New Hope, which read: "During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire's ultimate weapon." The question of who these rebel spies were and how they had managed to steal these secret plans is what fired the imagination of the filmmakers.

With the Jedis in hiding after the events of Revenge of the Sith, in Rogue One it's the ordinary citizens of the galaxy who are tasked with stepping up and showing their heroism, fighting and engaging in acts of bravery without the benefit of the Force. They are led by Jyn Erso (British actor Felicity Jones), a defiant young woman whose father is reluctantly designing the Empire's Death Star, and who was raised as a fighter by a rebel commander. Jyn is joined by a rebel officer named Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and Bodhi Rook, a former Empire pilot who has switched sides (another British actor in Riz Ahmed). Filling the role of the new villain is Ben Mendelohn's Director Krennic - however, while the heroes are all new, several recognisable villains from the main saga do make an appearance...

Like any Star Wars film, Rogue One comes complete with its own droid character, this one a 7'1" reprogrammed Imperial security guard with the designation K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk). Brought to life using motion-capture by Tudyk, K-2 is a complex character, and also provides much of comic relief. The film also contains more than 30 new aliens and creatures, designed and created by a crew of 130 people. Most notable among these is the fearsome interrogator creature, Gullet. Gullet's design involved him being sculpted at full size - something never before attempted, which involved an amazing two and a half tons of silicon. It measured ten feet in length, by six feet in width, and the same again in height, and required 15 puppeteers to operate.

Filming primarily took place at Pinewood Studios in London, but where possible Edwards preferred to shoot in actual locations, including Iceland, Jordan and the Maldives. One of the more unlikely locations was Canary Wharf tube station in East London, which was chosen as the site of the interior Empire base. Filming in such a busy location was a challenge. The crew moved into the station as soon it closed at 1am on a Sunday morning, and set about transforming it into something from a galaxy far, far away. Filming then took place as quickly as possible, and by 5:30am the unit had wrapped and all traces of the set removed. By 7am, it was as if the production had never even been there!

As well as the Maldives, the filmmakers also used the rather chillier location of an old RAF airbase in England to create the tropical islands of Scarif. Unfortunately, there was a noticeable lack of sand and palm trees in England, so 2,000 tons of sand were shipped in, along with over 60 palm trees. In order to build a beach, the filmmakers used recycled water from Pinewood studios - a total of 800,000 litres, which is around 5,000 bath's worth of water! The final set was enormous, measuring 700 x 500 feet, or about eight acres, perfectly creating the illusion that they really were in the Maldives - or, rather, the alien world of Scarif.

Rogue One also revisits some key locations from A New Hope, most notably the rebel base on Yavin 4. In 1977, for budgetary reasons, George Lucas was only able to build a part of the set, relying on a matte painting to fill in the rest of the setting and give it the illusion of size. No longer restricted by budgets, the Rogue One crew could construct the entire thing for the first time, at the Cardington Airfield in Bedfordshire - the exact location of the original set. The centrepiece of the rebel base is the enormous briefing table. Needing to be painstakingly reconstructed, despite no drawings or blueprints existing, the set decorator had to rely entirely on what he could see in photography from the '77 set and footage from the actual film. The process was hugely detailed - right down to the millimetre - and took nearly six weeks. 

One of the biggest SFX challenges was in creating an enormous explosion as an Imperial Shuttle is blown up. Armed with his hand-held camera, Edwards wanted to be as close as possible to the action. Dressed in a full-fire suit, he was surrounded by shielded stuntmen in order to be safe. Planning and testing took three months, and the final explosion could be seen for miles, as 2,500 litres of fuel created a fireball about 200ft high! The film also utilised real-time visual effects, making it possible to gauge what the final world would look like as shooting took place and make any necessary adjustments. This was particularly useful when it came to crucial aspects of the filmmakers art, such as lighting, which is always difficult to judge when only green screen is being used.

Gareth requested the construction of 360-degree sets, which provided the camera with the potential to look in any direction, which was particularly useful for sequences on the Death Star, which was originally built in 1977 from just a single screen and wall. For authenticity, extras were asked to sustain their background performances over extended periods of time, rather than in short bursts, to help the world feel more real. To create the desired look and feel, Edwards and cinematographer Greig Fraser also returned to the camera lenses of the 1970s and combined these with modern digital technology. The result is a unique combination of the epic cinematic quality of the period lenses, countering the clarity and crispness of today's ground-breaking digital filmmaking techniques.

Diego Luna talks Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Actor Diego Luna, who plays rebel agent Cassian Andor in the film, talks to reporter Michael about what it was like working with the incredible practical effects on set rather than relying on green screen, and discusses why appearing in a Star Wars film is a childhood dream come true.

Ben Mendelsohn and Mads Mikkelsen talk Rogue One

Actors Ben Mendelsohn and Mads Mikkelsen - who play villain Krennic and reluctant scientist Galen respectively - discuss the new Star Wars film, revealing their highlights from being on set, and how the film's story and themes are relevant to today's world.

Portrait picture of Joe Ursell

Joe Ursell, Film Curator

Joe has a BA in Film & American Studies from the University of East Anglia and an MA in Contemporary Cinema Cultures from King's College London. He has worked with the BFI London Film Festival and on the production of ITV documentary 56 Up.

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