Gravity Meets Black Hawk Down: Rogue One’s FX Lead On His Star Wars Aesthetic

Special effects veteran Neil Corbould began his career 40 years ago as a FX artist on the 1978 Superman movie, but for Rogue One, he was faced with a new challenge. As Special Effects Supervisor on the first Star Wars anthology film, he and his team of artists needed to design an aesthetic that made Rogue One stand out while maintaining ties to the original trilogy which, in the Star Wars chronology, kicks off just as this new story ends. Ahead of the in-home release of Rogue One, we talked to Corbould about how he and director Gareth Edwards pulled it off.

“That was a huge thing to do,” says Corbould, “to keep Rogue One in the Star Wars theme and not deviate too much from it. A New Hope was such an iconic movie and we wanted to make Rogue One fit right into it. So I studied A New Hope, watched it many times before starting the project and grasped an understanding in my head where I thought we could go with it.”

In preparation, Corbould said he screened the first Star Wars movie start to finish at least a half-dozen times before tackling Rogue One. Pleasing long-time fans of the franchise was front and centre in his mind. “We wanted to keep it true to them as well and not take it off on a completely different tangent,” he explained.

To do that, Corbould drew on past projects. “When I first met Gareth he said he wanted to create a war movie—Rogue One is a war movie. The feel of it was to be a bit like Black Hawk Down and Saving Private Ryan and Apocalypse Now, which was great for me because I worked on two of those movies [Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down and Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan], so I had a great starting point to work from. It was a fun thing to mix up those movies with the Star Wars universe.”

Technically speaking, Corbould says that his work on Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity also played a part in influencing the way the effects were executed on Rogue One.

Gravity, going back to that movie, that was all pretty groundbreaking. When we started that movie we really didn’t know how we were going to do it. The visual effects people didn’t know, Alfonso didn’t know… So we took a bit of Gravity, the LED screens, and brought that into Rogue One but on a bigger scale, like a humongous scale. On Gravity we had a little four-metre by four-metre box of LED lights. On Rogue One we had over a hundred feet of LED screens, which was quite an amazing experience—having a spaceship on them. You actually felt like you were flying through the Star Wars universe.”

Corbould, whose next big movie, Alien: Covenant, is yet another collaboration with Ridley Scott, says that keeping up with fast-moving filmmaking technology is a challenge. “It all moves so quickly. With VR coming along it opens the doors to ‘What could practical effects bring to that?’ Shooting a movie in the VR world—I don’t know whether we’ll be able to afford it or not. It’s hard enough just keeping up with now.”

April 4 is the date for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’s release Blu-ray and DVD. Check out the special in-home edition trailer below: