Visual effects artists are a lot like film directors. If the movie on which they were working didn’t have a hard-and-fast release date, they likely would continue to tweak specifics until the cows came home. Star Wars: The Force Awakens was no different. Even as the movie raced along toward its predetermined December 18 release date, the visual effects team assembled by director J.J. Abrams worked tirelessly to make sure that every effect looked as polished and perfect as possible… even when it looked like time was running out.

During a recent press day held on behalf of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I was lucky enough to speak with visual effects wizards Roger Guyett and Pat Tubach, veterans at ILM who’ve also worked with Abrams on his Star Trek movies (as well as countless other blockbusters). We didn’t know it at the time, but both men were about to be nominated for the Oscar for their visual effects work on Star Wars: The Force Awakens! The biggest laugh I got out of the pair, during a lively conversation, was when I asked them which visual effect did they fear wouldn’t be finished in time for the release date on The Force Awakens. Their choice? The entire montage of Rey’s flashback, triggered when she picks up the lightsaber in Maz Kanata’s bar.

Pat Tubach told me:
One of my worries towards the end was just thinking about, how are we going to complete this Force back sequence, where Rey -- we called it ‘Force back’ -- when Rey flashed back to... has that sort of key dream-like moment. That was really challenging, because it was so freeform, so we were exploring many different ideas and we presented many things to J.J. and he had a lot of very specific things he wanted to get in there. But he was constraining us and, of course, that means you have reason to explore many different avenues.

But I think the one thing that sort of gelled for us was when J.J. mentioned that it was OK to treat the sequence more like a stagecraft sort of thing, and I think that really freed, that sort of did something in my mind where I said, ‘OK, I get. He’s imagining that this dreamlike sequence has a theatrical quality to it.’ And that’s when we started doing things like turning the lights on and off, so the lights will drop in the foreground and the lights in the background will come up, just like you would do on a stage. It was like, ‘Oh, that’s what makes it feel dreamlike.’ And he was totally right about that. And that really helped us get through that, because we were searching for, what is the look, or how do you transition between the scenes, because the transition was the hard thing.

I think it’s incredible that J.J. Abrams gave them as much freedom as he did with what amounts to a truly significant sequence. And when I asked the men if different scenes had been planned out or filmed for use in that sequence, they said that they didn’t have additional scenes, but they definitely visualized different ways of portraying what J.J. Abrams had determined was important, and what had to be shown.

In the weeks following the release, we have spent a lot of time analyzing the information shown in that sequence. We know that the voices of two different Ben Kenobi’s are featured in the montage. We see Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and his Knights of Ren ins a significant moment. We see young Rey (Daisy Ridley) being left on Jakku… but with whom? And we see Luke (Mark Hamill) and R2 standing outside the remains of what we believe to be the Jedi Temple.

But it’s fascinating to know that, as important as that sequence is to the future of this new Star Wars trilogy, it almost wasn’t finished in time.

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