Actually, Roger Guyett, the head of visual special effects, starts dreaming up his biggest ideas in the same way that you might—by doodling images on a piece of paper. His whole approach revolves around the fundamentals of art creation: He looks in every pocket of his life for inspiration, keeps a stack of paper deskside for fresh ideas, and spitballs “What if?” propositions with his team to tease out the idea germs into full-fledged, on-screen whizbangs.
Guyett’s process affirms that no matter the scale and scope of your projects—from the galaxy-sized Star Wars to your next individual exhibition—we all start with a blank page. Here he provides insight into how he gets started down his road of good ideas, why art should strive to stir up human emotion, and how it might take 40 years for your germ of an idea to mature into something great.
How did you come up with the special effects ideas for Star Wars: The Force Awakens? Do you follow a certain process?
The script is the foundation of the ideas. Take the Rathtars scene where they get loose in Hans Solo’s freighter. Director J.J. Abrams was talking about the scene being this fun, energetic sequence where a group of people come together and get chased around the freighter. A weird contradiction between looking funny and aggressive. First, we started sketching out what a Rathtar might look like and then did some animation tests on it to see how the creature might move. What if it went faster? What if it rolled? Then we tested to see if it could roll and, if it could, then it could move at different speeds. Could it grab people with long tentacles? If it could grab a guy and pull him back, then could Harrison Ford punch this guy and throw him in the mouth of a creature? One thing informs another. The ideas come together as we constantly rethink our ideas.
The idea of special effects conjures up computer-generated catastrophes and explosions, but do you ever sketch out your ideas?
Yes. I’m a big fan of pen to paper, though I’m a bad artist. I have a massive stack of paper next to my desk and, when I get an idea, I just pick up a sheet and do a drawing. We’re trying to be as efficient as possible and get that idea across as quickly as possible.
Based on what you’ve learned from more than 25 years of creating special effects, what advice would you have given yourself back when you were just starting down this path?
You can watch behind-the-scenes videos and teach yourself the process of doing the work, but a lot of people don’t think hard enough about what they’re doing. They’re creating a piece of the movie, yes, but, at the end of the day, they’re trying to create an emotional reaction in a human being.
There are a lot of different ways to create that emotion. When you’re beginning, you struggle with the technical aspect of learning how to use all of the tools, but don’t lose sight of the fact that you’re just trying to create a moment.
Star Wars isn’t your only blockbuster project. You’ve also supervised the visual effects for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and earned an Oscar nomination. How did you land that that job?
The movie’s producers came to ILM, and so I had to do the pageant and compete against my colleagues for the job. I read the book and then I began looking for images that were somehow relevant to the story.
One of the main characters are the Dementors [dark demons], and I found some abstract paintings that had a Caravaggio-esque kind of darkness and some strange underwater paintings of octopuses. I wasn’t quite sure how they all fit in, but I was sure there was something relevant about the mood. Then I met with director Alfonso Cuarón, got my pictures out, and said this is the kind of mood for the movie.
How do you come up with your ideas?
The obvious thing is to watch the movies that are similar to the one you’re working on. But more often than not, you might be inspired by something that feels less relevant. It’s part of being observant all the time and somehow that all gets stored away and you reference it later.
For Star Trek, I was inspired by a photograph that my father had that was taken from one of the Apollo flights. He first showed it to me when I was a boy in the 1960’s—it was when people first started taking photographs. I remember being so impressed by a picture of the Earth. The dark side of the planets were so black, and, for some reason, when we started working on Star Trek 40 years later, I flash backed to that moment and that image resonated with me—about the astronauts going into space and the darkness of it all. I decided we were going to get really dark in Star Trek. The darkness represents the unknown and that is where they’re traveling to. And I wanted the lit side to feel quite the opposite, to have a strong contrast between light and dark. That one photograph informed my whole process.