- The burning tree scene in “The Last Jedi” was a practical effect – they really lit a fake tree on fire.
- It took months to build the tree, and close to 25 separate gas lines were rigged to it to have the tree burn to director Rian Johnson’s liking.
- Special effects supervisor Chris Corbould explained to Business Insider how the scene was pulled off.
In an era when you assume anything amazing that happens in a movie is courtesy of computer-generated imagery, it’s always exciting to learn when a memorable scene was pulled off by practical effects.
Since the “Star Wars” prequels, in which George Lucas was heavily criticised for using too much CGI to create the worlds and characters, many big-budget movies have tried to find that happy medium of practical and visual effects to give the action on screen a more grounded feel. And the now Disney-owned “Star Wars” saga is leading the way.
A perfect example is in “The Last Jedi” (available on digital release Tuesday, on Blu-ray/DVD March 27) when Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) attempts to burn down the giant tree that holds the sacred Jedi texts. It’s a scene that also features a Force ghost of Yoda.
When Skywalker tells the legendary Jedi master what he’s about to do, Yoda doesn’t talk him out of it. But when Skywalker gets to the giant tree, with flame in hand, he can’t go through with it. This leads to Yoda summoning a giant lightening bolt that strikes the tree and engulfs it in flames. He then delivers his famous giddy laugh as Skywalker looks on in complete shock.
Almost all of that scene is done with practical effects. From the puppet of Yoda, voiced by Frank Oz, that Hamill traded lines with, to the enormous tree and giant flames shooting from it.
It was the handiwork of the movie’s special effects supervisor Chris Corbould, and one of the reasons why he recently received a visual effects Oscar nomination for “The Last Jedi.”
Responsible for some of the greatest visual effects pulled off on screen in the last 40 years, he’s done everything from James Bond movies like “Moonraker” and “GoldenEye,” to Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy and “Inception” (which he won an Oscar for). He’s now hit the effects industry mountain top with getting the “Star Wars” gig (he was also the effects supervisor on “The Force Awakens”) and the Yoda/Skywalker scene for him is one of his favourites.
There’s the nostalgia of seeing Luke and Yoda on screen again, but also the pride of pulling off a practical effect of this size.
“It was a tricky one,” Corbould admitted to Business Insider.
First, there was building the tree and rigging it to burn. Corbould said it took a couple of months for the construction crew on the movie to build the fireproof tree that was almost 60 feet high and close to 50 feet wide. It was so big that the tree could not be built on the set.
“They had to assemble it in various parts,” Corbould said.
So the tree was basically a very large Lego set. A piece of a trunk would be built on set, then another piece of the trunk would be brought in and attached to that. Then the multiple branches were attached one at a time.
After all that, close to 25 separate gas lines were put into the tree, each one with its own valve so Corbould and his team could adjust the flame to his and director Rian Johnson’s liking.
“It’s very easy to have it just burst into flames,” Corbould said. “Rian really wanted it to catch the light a little bit slower. So we had to spent quite a lot of testing time to bring the gas lines to a point where it looked like the flames were slowly creeping up and then totally enveloping the whole tree.”
The tree burning scene was shot over two nights with a crew of 20 people just responsible for the tree catching on fire. Most of the shots pre-fire were completed on the first night. The second night was for the shots after the tree was on fire, which included Hamill, the Yoda puppet, and Oz voicing the character in front of the giant burning tree. And it got hot – to the joy of everyone on set.
“When we shot the scene the nights were incredibly cold,” Corbould said. “I think the whole crew was happy when we lit that up.”
The tree was lit on fire close to 30 times by the time they wrapped on the scene, according to Corbould.
The special effects veteran laughed when he was told that many people probably think the tree fire scene is just another dazzling VFX feat by the wizards at Industrial Light and Magic.
“I think when you do something for real you get a much more convincing performance from the actors,” he said. “I think that’s why a lot of the directors – Chris [Nolan], Rian [Johnson], J.J. [Abrams] – they value those moments where you’ve got a real look of terror, anxiety, excitement on the faces of the actors.”
Corbould added that some of the excitement for him is seeing if a practical effect could even be pulled off.
He said he wasn’t completely confident he could pull off the 18-wheeler truck flip he did in “The Dark Knight.”
“There was a bit of banter between me and Chris Nolan,” he said. “Eventually we pulled it off.”
But in today’s moviemaking landscape, it’s what’s done on the VFX side that has really upped everyone’s game in the special effects profession.
“When CGI was first invented we all thought we’re not going to have a job in five years,” Corbould said. “But what it actually did is it allowed films to do even bigger visual effects and we had to enhance what they did – whether it’s an asteroid hitting the ground or blowing 10 cars up in the air. It’s a great marriage these days. It’s a combination of practical and visual effects to make that great film – that’s what we’re striving to do.”
Corbould’s next task: Making our hearts melt for Winnie the Pooh in the upcoming Disney release, “Christopher Robin.“
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