A couple of weeks back, we were invited to pay a visit to the offices of Lucasfilm/Industrial Light & Magic in advance of today's home video release of ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY to interview a couple of the film’s key players and a get a behind-the-scenes glimpse at some of the new technology developed for the film’s fairly tight production schedule. Since director Gareth Edwards is known as a filmmaker who sometimes likes to work on the fly, grabbing the camera and seeing what looks good to him in the moment, the ILM team came up with a few software ideas that might make that possible and a bit easier on them in post-production.
I don't think I’m overstating anything by saying that one of the runaway, scene-stealing stars of ROUGE ONE is the Imperial droid turned Rebel comrade K-2SO, played by the versatile, Renaissance actor Alan Tudyk, who both voiced K-2 and did the motion-capture work on set. As part of our experience in the ILM workshops, we visited the motion-capture stage—a vast space with cameras everywhere to best capture the performers movement from every conceivable angle. At one end of the room, was what appeared to be a standard-issue floor-to-ceiling mirror which showed a fully-rendered K-2SO responding in real-time to the performer in the mo-cap suit. When the “motion mirror” was shifted, the image moved until it was no longer visible, just like a real mirror. You could even adjust the lighting in the mirror image to change the reflection on K-2 body as well as the way his shadow was cast.
It was a remarkable thing to see, especially seeing just how much detail was available with a live, fully mobile rendering. We were reminded by Victor Schutz, ILM’s computer graphic supervisor, that the live rendering done for Tudyk on set was a great deal less detailed since there were fewer cameras on him at any one time. We were told that having these renderings in such detail made the finishing animators’ work much easier, and I did notice that the motion in K-2’s eyes was not there at all in the mirror version of him. Other similar droids in ROGUE ONE also took advantage of the motion-capture technology.
Since K-2 is a much taller character than his human counterparts, with arms that extended well beyond his body as well, Tudyk did most of his performance on something similar to painter’s stilts (he was also fitted with arm extensions when needed). The designers and animators also had to come up with various, battle-worn versions of K-2, since he takes quite a beating in ROGUE ONE.
Speaking of his eyes, we were also given a presentation by Hal Hickel, the animation supervisor primarily in charge of K-2SO. He told us that the production team wanted the droid to be expressive without being too cartoonish, so they experimented with dozens of different eye designs, including how much to move the eye around in the socket, even eyebrow-like pieces that could move. We saw test footage of K-2 blinking and various other eye expressions, but ultimately the filmmaker went with something more subtle, leaving it up to Tudyk to breathe life into the character. The actor played with making K-2 more or less robotic, but ultimately landed on a characterization that gave a hint that there was something smart and suspicious going on behind those rotating eyes.
After the presentations, I got a chance to sit down with Hickel and Tudyk to dig a little deeper into the creation of K-2SO. Tudyk is an actor I’ve wanted to talk with for years. His range and ability to improvise (which he did a great deal of in ROGUE ONE) is legendary, dating back to early work in such films as 28 DAYS, A KNIGHT’S TALE, and WONDER BOYS. But it was his role as pilot Hoban 'Wash' Washburne on the short-lived series “Firefly” (and the subsequent film version SERENITY) that secured his place in the geek pantheon. He’s done voice work in the ICE AGE films, BIG HERO SIX, FROZEN, I, ROBOT, ASTRO BOY, WRECK-IT RALPH, “Good Vibes,” “Chozen,” “Young Justice,” ZOOTOPIA, and most recently as the chicken in MOANA, to name a few. He’s also starred in such works as DODGEBALL (Steve the Pirate), DEATH AT A FUNERAL, 3:10 TO YUMA, TUCKER AND DALE VS. EVIL, TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON, 42, and MAZE RUNNER: THE SCORCH TRIALS. He’s currently starring in the NBC comedy “Powerless” and Vimeo series “Con Men,” opposite his “Firefly” co-star Nathan Fillion.
With that, please enjoy my talk with Alan Tudyk and Hal Hinkel, and I’ll have one more report from my ROGUE ONE adventure very soon…
Capone: This wasn’t originally going to be my first question, but seeing the footage you showed us before, something occurred to me. K-2’s head isn’t at the top of his body. It’s here [points to just below the neck], and that’s a really funny visual because it looks like he has terrible posture. Was that deliberate, and did you play with that a little bit? That does make him seem more…I don’t want to use the word human, but that is it. Was there a practical reason for doing that, or did you want it to look like he had some sort of back issues?
Hal Hickel: Or did we screw up? [laughs] I think that’s something Gareth [Edwards, director] wanted to make him look more hulking. He’s meant to be this imposing figure. He’s an enforcer droid from the Empire, so I think that was part of it, just to lower his head a little bit relative to his shoulders to get that shape. I think that was the idea behind it. And then when you got here, you could see yourself as K-2 and figure out how to make that work with what you’re doing.
Alan Tudyk: I realized standing up straight—if I hunched over, it really went into osteoporosis. So that was a choice, because I saw it when we were first playing with the character in real time in the greenscreen room, basically the void. That was not going to work. Standing up straight did. Hand gestures were great, but too much wild arms got really clowny fast. So finding the restrictions, finding the limitations, and also the freedom that I had in being emotionally physical, that he can move in an emotional way. He’s not stuck straight, and the hump, actually, plays into that as well. It does give him character. I don’t know if it gives him hulking character, but I think it gives him an oafish character.
Capone: I didn’t want to say it like that, but that’s exactly it.
AT: In the coolest way.
HH: When possible. A coolish oaf.
Capone: I know we get glimpses of other droids like K-2 to get a sense of what he used to look like and how he once behaved, but did you get much sense of what had changed personality wise from when he was an Imperial droid, and how he’s different when we meet him?
AT: The way I thought about it was that, when he was with the Empire, he was much more of a soldier, much more straight forward, regimented, follows orders, of course, and that the reprogram was less about changing everything about him and more about removing the restrictions on him and freeing him in a way. During that process, he took out a little too much of the rigid to where he’d follow orders, where he gave him far too much freedom, gave him a personality, let the personality that was there show through. In that way, if he’s born with Cassian’s reprogramming, he is like a child, which he was. “Why does she get one and I don’t?” “No one likes you.” He has that child-like petulance. That’s how I saw it. It helped my relationship with Cassian that he was a dad figure in a way. He was the one who saved him.
Capone: There are hints, we get little glimpses of how fast and strong he can really be, but you just show us little bits. It’s actually kind of nice, because he’s not just some giant, destructive force in the film. But I think it’s important to know that he’s actually built to be something of a weapon. Talk about his design and what we’re meant to understand from just the way he looks.
HH: I don’t know. There used to be more opportunities in the film to understand what he was. There used to be a bit on Jedha when Jyn and Cassian first arrive, and they’re making their way thorough the town, and an enforcer droid appears in the crowd and we think he’s coming for them. He says, “Freeze” or something, and they freeze, but it turns out he was looking at some other guy who bolts and runs, and that droid shoots and kills the guy. It’s just police activity, basically random, so they move on, but you get the impression the Empire has these things, they patrol, this is what they do, they’re lethal.
When Jyn shoots the second one, and he says, “Did you know that wasn’t me?” That was meant to tie in with the fact that we would have already seen these thing patrolling. That ended up going cut for time, to get the movie down to the right length. So really, aside from the one that gets blasted and the one we see in the Imperial facility that really looks very different in terms of his movement and everything, we don’t get a lot of chances to see what K-2’s original design intent would look like in action until his heroic end; then we can see he can fire with perfect accuracy, he’s super strong, he picks up stormtroopers and throws them. That’s when we get to see what an enforcer droid or security droid does.
Capone: We were down in the motion-capture studio, and I was really impressed with how complete the image looks when it’s live rendered. It looks almost finished. I think someone down there said they basically can hand that footage right over to the animators to finish it up. Is it really that easy?
HH: No. For one thing, that’s a dedicated motion-capture space, so it’s ability to capture whoever the performer is and really have this perfect data that’s just great looking…
Capone: Verses on set?
HH: Right, verses when we’re doing it on set. There’s a little more hand work that needs to be done after the fact, the trade off being that it’s happening on set where we need it to happen. So there’s that, but there’s also a little bit of an interpretive process. You were talking about K-2’s posture. We didn’t have Alan trying to mimic that. He just was doing his thing acting, and we would take that and put it on to K-2, and the initial result might actually be that K-2’s head is back up here. “Well, that doesn’t really look like K-2.” So the animator has to make that little adjustment. We still preserve all of Alan’s timing and acting choices and everything he’s doing. We just have to make sort of little off sets to make sure it fits right on K-2’s body. So it’s not just a button push. There’s a fair amount of handwork by the animators, but it’s in service of preserving Alan’s performance, not changing it.
Capone: Speaking of that, I keep hearing about how you were improvising, but what’s funny is, as much as K-2 is looked at as the comic relief of the film, so much of what he’s saying is doom and gloom. It’s all about “This is going to fail miserably.” He’s not really keeping things light.
AT: Yeah. That’s one of the funny things, in those moments when you have everybody going, “We can do this. All of us together. Come on, we’ve got hope and that’s all you need in this life.” And he’s like, “I’m not hopeful.” [laughs] It becomes funny for the audience even if he is a downer.
Capone: Did you work on different voices, or was this always the voice that you had for this character?
AT: I think in the beginning I sent in an audition. I met with Gareth on Skype and had a conversation about the character, and then he sent me an audition piece, and I did it three ways. One was my voice, just casually like this. I wanted an English accent, because he’s with the Empire, and it immediately gives him a difference and puts a little difference between him the Rebels.
Capone: A lot of the talking droids in STAR WARS have British accents.
AT: Exactly. Soome you can’t even understand. R2-D2 is like cockney [accent].
HH: That rhyming slang is so hard to understand.
AT: So good thing C3P0’s there to translate for everybody. So I did that, and then I did something more like what I did for I, ROBOT with Sonny, where it was just perfect speech in the way that you form every word. And I also did English, and Gareth said “I think English is the way to go.”
Capone: Thank you so much. It was really great to meet you both.
AT: It was a pleasure. Thanks a lot, man. Have a good one.