THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS VERY SERIOUS SPOILERS FOR ROGUE ONE, SO IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN IT GO AWAY UNTIL YOU HAVE.
First up let me say that as usual my opinions are my own and not those of any clients or employers past or present. Secondly let me say that I am reviewing this purely from a visual effects standpoint only. (Although I may touch on a couple of other things). Thirdly let me get out of the way the fact that I think this is a fantastic film.
The visual effects as one would expect from Industrial Light and Magic are top notch in this film, most of them can’t be faulted in any serious way. However there is an elephant in the room and its name is Grand Moff Tarkin. Before I get into my theory as to why the Peter Cushing digital double didnt work very well in some scenes let’s have a bit of background.
Digital doubles have appeared in films for a fair old while now, and in most cases it’s in a way that makes it easier to sell their use. So whether it be swapping to a digital double for a complex VFX shot that would be impossible, dangerous or too expensive from an insurance point of view to do with a real actor; or as a prosthetic wouldn't work in such a case they have their uses. Now lets first of all point out there is a tremendous difference between a fantasy character or monster and a digital recreation of a person.
One of the reasons for example Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films worked as well was because not only the fantastic work by the animators and amazing 3D sculpt / modelling and texture work but also as it’s a fantasy character that does not look like a live human being. Therefore we are more forgiving to it. In a similar way, even a human digital double is far easier to sell if used sparingly than in feature shots, and even moreso if its an actor that is not widely known. But we will touch more on this later.
This is probably the first time a digital actor has been used in anything but a most sparingly of ways. So it's a first in that regards. It wasn’t just a matter of trying to sell it in a shot or two in semi darkness while in action of an actor you may not know, but rather of a well known character from the star wars universe who also had a vast film career behind him right up till his death. Many people have seen Peter Cushing in many films outside of Star Wars and as such on a subconscious level recognise his acting style and how his face moved for certain emotions. So it is that which is the hardest part, the creation of a convincing digital double is easy in comparison.
For another example if this had been de-aging Mark Hamill this would be a far easier proposition as the actor is still alive for facial motion capture so the performance would be the same (with the actual digital double / digital actor being fairly easy). When your mapping another person's facial motion data capture onto someone it can throw things suddenly into the uncanny valley. This is what I believe happened with the Tarkin digital actor in Rogue One. It was a very brave decision to make from a VFX point of view and one that the viewer can either overlook for the sake of the rest of the films story and VFX being damn good or not.
It also makes me wonder if the corrective facial blendshapes were accurate enough for the Peter Cushing we all know and love or not. I’m imagining that gathering reference may not have been easy given the sheer amount of films and acting performances he gave within his lifetime.
I spotted only a couple of shots were the lighting was not up to ILM’s usual standard, but guessing from my own experiences that may have been simply down to either last minute changes or an approaching deadline. The Carrie Fisher digital double seemed well enough done, and they got away with that one as it was a fairly short sequence, although I may revise my opinion once I get to see the film again on Blu Ray.
But the modelling, texturing, shader work, lighting, compositing, destruction and particle work was all the usual exceedingly high ILM standard. The film itself was a refreshing change with just enough nods to the fans without being distracting and not a basic rehash of a previous movie like The Force Awakens was. Away from VFX the one thing I noticed was even without John Williams music it sounded like a star wars film, which given John Williams age is a damn good thing. With a refreshing cast and a good story it’s well worth a watch, even with the epic Grand Moff Tarkin shaped elephant in the room.
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