THIS ARTICLE INVOLVES SPOILERS FOR STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS! DO NOT READ ON IF YOU DO NOT WANT SPOILERS!
I’m not a cheerleader or a detractor of CGI. I’m not a filmmaker, but in theory I prefer the best method for the shot. I’ve seen instances of successes and failures using both techniques in all six Star Wars films. Recently there has been a lot of annoyance at the way The Force Awakens is being sold to fans. These pitches stress the usage of the “real” and denounce the usage of computer based images to tell a story.
There’s about 28 shots in Star Wars: The Force Awakens that are completely CGI. (That is out of about 357 scenes.) I say “about” because some scenes were shot twice, once on location in Abu Dhabi and once at Pinewood Studios. We keep hearing that there are so many practical effects in this new film. So what is CGI in the film? I can’t say for certain how much CGI will be used to hide puppeteers and things like that. There’s some of that as we’ve seen in behind the scenes videos that tip us off there. Things could have changed and these numbers might have shifted somewhat. But as of last Summer these numbers were pretty firm and I have my doubts they changed much at all.
Ironically, the first shot in this “practical effects movie” is CGI. The lightsaber tumbling to the ground towards the savanna is entirely CGI. The second shot that is completely CGI is Kylo Ren’s ship heading for the Star Destroyer after failing to get the saber on Jakku. When the TIE fighters head for the Star Destroyers after the battle, that’s all CGI. In fact, most of the scenes in the film that are CGI are TIE fighters and Star Destroyers. (That’s when it isn’t the Falcon.) Spaceships and space shots.
When the Falcon goes through the crashed Star Destroyers to lose the TIEs in pursuit, that IMAX sequence is entirely CGI. Later when the Falcon escapes and is caught by the giant freighter, that is also CGI, as are the ships destroyed during the array attack. The Sledgehammer that steamrolls the Star Destroyers are computer effects-driven shots too. The Falcon flying to meet Luke is… you guessed it, CGI.
Get it? Most of the space shots are CGI sequences. The film does not really seem to have any CGI sequences involving the main heroes physically. Of course Maz and Snoke are CGI-based creatures and there is no delineation for that in the information I’ve been privy to. I believe this is because these characters might be somewhat practical on set and augmented with motion capture technology.
Locations mostly rely on plate shots to create the look of the environment. Maz’s castle, the Resistance Bay and the Starkiller base are mostly created by the establishing exterior shots. There are about 23 of this style of shots in the film. There is a plate shot to establish Luke Skywalker’s Jedi Monastery as well. I assume these plate shots can be enhanced by CG elements. So ultimately they probably add to the CG count considerably but not necessarily.
Just to reiterate, I’m not cheerleader of practical effects or CGI. I love Star Wars movies full of both techniques. I liked when Kathleen Kennedy was selling Star Wars: The Force Awakens as a film using all the “tricks in the bag.” That is what this movie utilizes. But overwhelmingly, the film is a film full of sets that are “practically” built, really there and do not exist only at ILM. At this point, we don’t know how “in your face” the CGI shots are. If they’re subtle the film might not seem like it has any CGI at all. But if they’re really awesome shots that are truly spectacular, such shots might be what audience remembers and therefore changing the way the film feels.