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Four Awe-Inspiring Star Wars VFX Moments

Four Awe-Inspiring Star Wars VFX Moments

The influence Star Wars has on the VFX industry and generations of fans as a whole is unmatched.

The Skywalker Saga has come to an end with the release of the 9th installment in the Star Wars mainline franchise. An end of an era, but just the beginning for Disney’s plans with the IP as spin-offs, series, and more films are already in the works. 

For pop-culture, Star Wars has been a staple of storytelling. For VFX, it means even more. From the birth of ILM to dozens of technical advancements and achievements, Star Wars will always be a foundational work in the history of cinema effects. 

For artists in the space, this means more than eye candy. It’s an opportunity to learn from the best and consider new ways of using effects to tell stories and build fantastic worlds in your own work. For those waiting to hit the theater until the crowds die down: spoilers head

1. Holdo’s Lightspeed Sacrifice - The Last Jedi

Though The Last Jedi is easily the most polarizing Star Wars film since the prequels, you can always rely on one thing from a Lucasfilm title: the visuals will amaze. This scene is no exception and for many is one of the most jaw dropping moments ever in a Star Wars film. 

This is a textbook example of how to use suspense to pull the audience in one direction and then subvert expectations. Rather than an immediate payoff of violent explosions we get near silence and an almost monochromatic and simplified picture of the star destroyers being flayed one by one. Consider this bait and switch for your next big VFX moment. 

2. Petranaki Arena Battle - Attack of the Clones

The Star Wars prequels unlocked a different tone and feel for the franchise with the heavy use of digital effects. Where lightsaber battles once appeared as calculated fencing matches, they were now high octane duels complete with acrobatics and Eastern influenced stunt coordination. 

For this battle on Geonosis, the shock factor comes in scale and environment. Never before had this many lightsaber wielding Jedi appeared on screen. Though the closed off arena keeps things limited, there’s still a lot of depth in the scene achieved through clever compositing. Mixed between the layers of Jedi and droids with lightsabers and blasters, there are a few well placed atmospheric and destruction stock assets that bring the chaos of the scene into light. 

3. Palpatine’s Lightning - The Rise of Skywalker 

Spoilers ahead! One of the visual highlights of The Rise of Skywalker is the Sith plant of Exogal. A true treat of stylistic world building, this dark and broody planet serves as the final battleground for the Skywalker saga. On it, we also see one of the most powerful displays of the force in all nine films when Palpatine sends a force lightning strike into the atmosphere that spans an entire fleet of ships. 

This displayed another incredible use of scale and timing by the artists similar to Holdo’s sacrifice in The Last Jedi. The light show was incredible on display because of Exogal’s atmosphere, as well with great contrast coming from the harsh and brutal lightning strikes against the dim and smokey world

4. Death Star Trench Run - A New Hope

One of the most iconic effects sequences of all time is the trench run from the original Star Wars film. I recall watching this on VHS tape as a child and dreaming of the days I’d be able to create such an incredible sequences. 

Today, however, it’s become a topic of controversy with multiple versions, CG re-skins, and remasters in the mix with each release of the films. Key takeaways from the original work are of course the masterful use of practical elements in the scenes. 

From the massive side panels of the Death Star which were created to the explosion of the space station itself, the earliest teams at ILM took no moment for granted as they burned and destroyed their own models in one California parking lot. 

With today’s technology, the best course of action is full synthesis. A modern trench run which aimed to keep some of the retro practical flair could be achieved through a strong combination of models/miniatures, CG, and stock assets all composited into a final look.

In many ways, the Star Wars franchise follows a modern history of the advancement in film effects. We saw some of the first computer generated graphics with the screens in a New Hope. Then we saw a very bold and early-adopter use of CG for world building in the prequels. Finally, we witnessed full-on industry leading visuals in the closing acts of the Skywalker Saga. 

As Disney continues to use the Star Wars IP with ILM at the helm of the VFX, one can expect even more awe inspiring moments from a galaxy far far away. 

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