Star Wars VFX Supervisor brings Carrie Fisher back to life

January 31, 2020 Danny Munso

For your reading pleasure, please enjoy this excerpt from our longer interview with Rise of Skywalker visual effects supervisor Roger Guyett from Issue 41 – our Oscar issue – of Backstory.


If you enjoy what you’ve read – we hope you’ll join us to read the rest of the article by buying Issue 41 as a single issue or subscribing to Backstory Magazine!

The Nominees: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
Visual-effects supervisor Roger Guyett on Leia, Maz, the giant space battle—and bringing the Skywalker saga to a close.
By Danny Munso

No decision made by visual effects supervisor Roger Guyett and director J.J. Abrams was more important than how to handle the character of General Leia Organa in Rise of Skywalker. Due to the untimely death of actress Carrie Fisher, the filmmakers were left in the unenviable position of scripting a goodbye to the iconic Leia without the benefit of the actress who had portrayed her since 1977. “The first thing J.J. said to me after he took over the film was that somehow or another we’ve got to get Carrie in the story,” Guyett recalls. “Yet he was extremely sensitive to the fact that we were dealing with the legacy of this great actress and someone he knew and regarded as a friend. She is sacred ground for both us and the fans.” They could have employed a similar technique used in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, where actor Guy Henry took the place of the long deceased Peter Cushing to portray Grand Moff Tarkin. For the final film, Cushing’s digital face was placed over Henry’s, but it was still Henry’s performance through and through. Abrams and Guyett never considered going down that road with Leia—only Fisher could portray her. Abrams remembered he’d shot a lot of unused footage of Fisher during deleted scenes in Force Awakens, and perhaps a story could be shaped from that. But that meant she’d be wearing the same costume Leia had on in that film. “There was a feeling that people would think we had just cut her out and put her in a different scene. We didn’t want that at all.”

The solution: Put actual footage of Fisher performing scenes as Leia onto the body of another actor, who would perform on set with the rest of the actors. So when you see Leia onscreen in Rise, it is actually Fisher performing her dialogue and reactions, just superimposed digitally onto the body of someone else. And the process is absolutely and stunningly seamless. Because Abrams was up front with fans that they were using old footage of Fisher, most assumed what they were seeing was what Guyett said they wouldn’t do—cut Fisher’s complete self out of one scene and place her in another. Instead, this process allowed Guyett and his team to give Leia a completely new outfit and hairstyle unique to this film and still have Fisher onscreen. “We re-clothed her and tried to make her as unique to this movie as much as possible so it would feel that she is original and being filmed at that moment for this movie,” Guyett says. “It was also extremely important that she interacted with the other actors and we weren’t just cutting to her as a single shot. So we included as many moments like that as we could. It was more complicated than I ever imagined it would be, but the result is well worth it.”

If anything, Guyett is underselling how complex it was to bring Leia to life. The first step they took was to build a huge database of unused footage of Fisher, both from Force Awakens and that film’s follow-up, Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi. Then it was up to Abrams and Terrio to take what they had and somehow craft new scenes with Leia and other actors that fit naturally with what was available. But it wasn’t as simple as that. Guyett likens the problems that arose to a Russian nesting doll. “Certain shots were lit certain ways, so the new scene they wrote had to match the lighting of the shot we had available,” he says. “You can’t use an exterior shot and then cut to a shot of her face that was shot inside. It wouldn’t look right. Then only a certain amount of shots that were lit right would have her saying the right thing for the scene. It was this tiered problem that required a tremendous amount of time and effort to figure out. It was a spider’s web of choices.” Late in the film, Abrams stages a training session between a younger Leia and Luke Skywalker. We see Leia’s face here as well, only this time she is the Leia from the original trilogy. To pull of that moment, Guyett and his team used a similar process to the present-day scenes, only with footage of Fisher from 1983’s Return of the Jedi. And in a poignant twist, the young Leia’s body was performed by Fisher’s daughter, Billie Lourd. And even though the filmmakers had access to Mark Hamill, they chose to use footage of the younger Luke from Jedi as opposed to employing de-aging techniques used in The Irishman or the Marvel Universe films.

Though so much work on Star Wars has to be digital, a major area Abrams and Guyett were determined to go practical was the various creatures that make up the galaxy. That’s Neil Scanlan’s department, and though one of his creatures has been getting the majority of the press—the adorable scene-stealing Babu Frik—it’s another of Scanlan’s creatures that has largely gone unnoticed and for good reason. Abrams devised the character of Maz Katana for Force Awakens to be an ancient creature with knowledge of the Force. She was performed by actress Lupita Nyong’o via motion capture, and the character appeared in the film as a completely digital creation by ILM. The original plan—to make Maz be an animatronic puppet—was scrapped due to time constraints. Even though the digital Maz was a technical revelation and became a fan favorite, Abrams wanted to try the animatronic version this time around. “Our basic philosophy is to make everything as real as possible,” Guyett says. “J.J. didn’t force the issue on us if we didn’t think we could make it work, but what inspired us to try it was there was a scene in one of the scripts between Maz and Leia. We realized if we did Maz digitally, we wouldn’t have either of the two principal actors in those scenes. So we had to give it a go.” The fact that most moviegoers didn’t even notice the change from a digital Maz to a practical one speaks volumes about the work involved.

If you enjoy what you’ve read – we hope you’ll join us to read the rest of the article by buying Issue 41 as a single issue or subscribing to Backstory Magazine!

For more info about all the other amazing articles in issue 41, view our Table of Contents.