Creating Holograms for Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens
As the founder of Video Copilot and creator of the wildly popular Element 3D and Optical Flares plug-ins for Adobe After Effects, Andrew Kramer is a bit of a rockstar in the visual effects community. If that isn’t enough, he’s also worked closely with Director J.J. Abrams on a number of sci-fi film and television projects, including Star Trek, Super 8, Fringe, and Almost Human. Most recently, he worked with Abrams on Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, designing the many holograms in the film using After Effects, Cinema 4D, and Element 3D.
How do visual effects help the storytelling in a film like Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens?
Kramer: The director has to tell a story instantly. The driving force behind what we’re doing with the visual effects is making things as clear as possible. It’s more than just having cool effects. The visuals have to help silence the audience’s confusion. They need to be able to see something and understand it so they can continue on with the story and get where they need to go.
For example, in the scene where they’re attacking the base, some of the logistics weren’t sorted out yet for the movie. We needed to figure out the location and where the landmarks would be in relation to it so our content would fit in line with the story without causing any conflicts.
What look did you want for the holograms in the film?
Kramer: Working on the holograms for the film was a bit like working a period movie. We wanted to create a more analog look inspired by the original Star Wars film. The holograms you see in Iron Man are very clean and laser-like. We were going for a more vintage, realistic, and organic look.
How did you achieve it?
Kramer: We came up with recipes for the different holograms, some of which included projecting VHS noise into the 3D space. The size of the noise had perspective, with pieces closer to the camera appearing bigger to give the holograms more depth and dimension. We did lots of tests using references from the old movies and projecting what the technology would be like 30 years in the future. For example, BB-8’s hologram had a higher-definition look, while R2-D2’s was more analog, not as bright.
All of the interactive lighting was also important. We put the holograms into the eyes of the characters so they reflected off of their eyes and illuminated their faces. It is little moments like that that make the shots come alive.
How many shots in total did you work on?
Kramer: We used After Effects on nearly 100 shots in Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens. Many of the hologram elements had to be rendered behind actors so it was important to have stable and smooth edges. For those we used the Refine Edge and Spill Suppression tools in After Effects, which worked really well. There were lots of different kinds of shots and we art directed everything. When we finished, we packaged up all of the shots for stereo so they were able to just open the files to create the stereo content.
How long did you work on the film?
Kramer: I began developing shots initially and then slowly grew the team of 7 designers and compositors. The project took several months but they were intense!
What’s next for you?
Kramer: Working with J.J. Abrams on The Force Awakens has been a great experience and it has inspired me to continue to work on more ambitious visual effects and try to push myself and my tools to the next level.
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