Director J.J. Abrams and his crew faced an almost impossible task in creating The Rise of Skywalker: How do you tell a story with an iconic character at its core when that actor who plays that character is no longer with us? The ways in which Lucasfilm used old unused footage of Carrie Fisher from previous films (specifically, The Force Awakens) to “naturally” insert her into Star Wars: Episode IX are well documented, but in an interview, the movie’s visual effects team tells Inverse exactly how it happened (including that flashback scene), sets the record straight on one huge misconception, and reveals a few other thrilling details.
Warning! Spoilers ahead for The Rise of Skywalker, but you probably guessed that already.
“Every shot that we designed to have in the movie is in the movie.”
In a December interview, Chris Terrio (who co-wrote the movie with J.J. Abrams) told Awards Daily that the reason Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) has such a minor role in Rise of Skywalker was because she was supposed to have more scenes opposite Leia at the Resistance’s jungle base, but some of those scenes didn’t “meet the standard of photorealism” so they were cut.
Terrio later walked back those statements, and Lucasfilm Visual FX supervisor Roger Guyett confirms the same to Inverse, adding that every scene with Leia he worked on made it into the movie — though he can’t account for Terrio and Abrams’ writing process.
“In truth, I don’t think any scenes that we worked on are not in the movie, just FYI,” Guyett said. “So that you have the real truth, there’s been a couple of stories out there that I know that people have told me about that’s just completely incorrect. The truth is that every shot that we designed to have in the movie is in the movie. So whatever that rumor is, I’ll put that to rest now.”
The process of putting General Leia Organa into The Rise of Skywalker involved pulling unused footage from The Force Awakens and writing the new script around those lines of dialogue. After that, the VFX team stepped in to make it look as realistic as possible with a brand new process that Guyett calls “a bit of a game-changer.”
“Once we had that, we basically cut out her face, the live-action element of her face and built a digital version of Princess Leia around that facial element, which basically gives you a new costume, new hair, new jewelry,” he said.
Creating young Leia in The Rise of Skywalker
One particular moment featuring a younger version of Carrie Fisher in The Rise of Skywalker has drawn particular criticism for seemingly using a CGI version of the actress. However, it turns out that flashback sequence, which shows Princess Leia training as a Jedi with her brother Luke Skywalker shortly after the events of Return of the Jedi, was created using a similar technique to the rest of her appearance in the new movie.
“Once we got into this process of using the footage, which in some ways is a bit of a game-changer in terms of being able to offer new performances or new scenes from previous performances, we realized that we could use the same tech technique to recreate this flashback moment,” Guyett said.
In this case, the footage actually came from Return of the Jedi, though finding unused recordings of Fisher from the original trilogy wasn’t easy.
“The truth is, there are not that many outtakes,” Guyett said, “but we took a couple of shots that we thought would work. The idea was just to use their real faces, so it required a tremendous amount of pre-planning and, of course, you want to integrate them into the scene. It wasn’t like you wanted to have a shot of Luke and then cut to a shot of Leia. We wanted to do a shot of Luke and then pan to Leia.”
Building Maz Kanata
"We learned an awful lot and we’ve moved forward an awful lot just using Maz as that example. — Neal Scanlan
In The Force Awakens, Maz Kanata was a CGI creation, but in Rise of Skywalker, Lucasfilm ended up building a fully functional animatronic version of the character that pushed the limits of movie technology yet again. Why create a physical version of Maz when the CGI one looked pretty good? The reason is painfully obvious.
“When we started talking about doing these scenes with two characters, Maz and Leia, one of whom would potentially be digital and one of whom obviously sadly passed away, we felt like, okay, what can we do here?” Guyett said. “Well, the obvious thing to do is at least we could build Maz.”
Enter Neal Scanlan, creature effects supervisor on The Rise of Skywalker.
“J.J. Abrams initially wanted her to be completely performable in the moment,” Scanlan tells Inverse. “He didn’t want anything to be pre-programmed. He wanted limb movement. He wanted hand movement. So we designed the most complicated animatronic than we’ve ever made by far. Her fingers, the individual digits on her fingers, her wrists, arms. All of those shoulder movements were all mechanized so that it could be the performance of a person.”
The end result was a fully functional animatronic puppet controlled by someone wearing “a data suit with data gloves” on set, allowing them to react to the scene as it played out.
“They would be Maz and that information would be then transmitted to the animatronic and the animatronic would mimic the body movements,” Scanlan said. “We learned an awful lot and we’ve moved forward an awful lot just using Maz as that example.”
A shocking cameo
"There were over 500 characters in that scene. — Neal Scanlan
Early in Rise of Skywalker, the good guys wind up on the desert planet Pasaana in the midst of a festival that only happens every 42 years (as C-3PO helpfully points out). It’s a massive celebration full of Star Wars aliens that could have easily been CGI creations — and probably would have been if this was the prequel trilogy.
However, according to creature effects supervisor Neal Scanlan, those weren’t just real actors, they were also a pretty unusual cameo.
“There were over 500 characters in that scene,” he said, “practical characters that were performed by the Jordanian army.”
That’s right. Those dancing aliens that look like an elephant crossed with a squid are actually played by members of the Jordanian military, a detail which Vanity Fair teased all the way back in May 2019.
“All the galaxy’s ships”
"It ended up 16 or 17,000 ships that were of created for that moment. — Roger Guyett
Lucasfilm VFX supervisor Roger Guyett describes the final battle at Exegol as one of the most difficult moments in Rise of Skywalker, but the biggest challenge in that scene may have been the sudden appearance of thousands of ships from across the galaxy that arrive to help the Resistance.
“J.J. Abrams kept on saying, ‘I want all the galaxy’s ships to turn up,’ and we’d be going, ‘Oh my goodness,’” Guyett recalled. “It ended up 16,000 or 17,000 ships that were of created for that moment, and obviously more than a thousand Star Destroyers.”
The Rise of Skywalker is in theaters now.