Action made in Singapore for a galaxy far, far away

(From left) Rotoscope lead JeanLe Koh, 34; production manager Pei'an Lau, 31; layout artist Janice Chan, 33; texture lead Elvin Siew, 29; and lighting technical director Adrian Tsao, 35, were in the team that worked on the latest Star Wars movie's vi
(From left) Rotoscope lead JeanLe Koh, 34; production manager Pei'an Lau, 31; layout artist Janice Chan, 33; texture lead Elvin Siew, 29; and lighting technical director Adrian Tsao, 35, were in the team that worked on the latest Star Wars movie's visual effects.ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI
More than 200 visual effects in Star Wars: The Force Awakens were done at Industrial Light & Magic Singapore. One of them is the sequence where the stormtrooper Finn escapes in a TIE Fighter.
More than 200 visual effects in Star Wars: The Force Awakens were done at Industrial Light & Magic Singapore. One of them is the sequence where the stormtrooper Finn escapes in a TIE Fighter.PHOTO: WALT DISNEY STUDIOS

Team of 100 at Lucasfilm's visual effects unit here created scenes for The Force Awakens

The action in the latest Star Wars movie may have played out in a galaxy far, far away, but some of its visual effects were created in Singapore's backyard.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens has received five Oscar nominations, including one for visual effects, and more than 200 of those shots were done at Industrial Light & Magic Singapore, a visual effects division of Lucasfilm.

This came up to a quarter of the scenes in the movie, and included set design, post-processing and texture modelling.

About 100 people, half of whom are Singaporeans or permanent residents, working from the studio at the Sandcrawler building in one- north, had a part in the movie's visual effects. Many are die-hard Star Wars fans, and to work on the seventh movie of one of the highest-rated franchises was an opportunity to be part of movie history.

"When my manager told me I was going to be working on the movie, I remained very cool on the outside. But inside I was thinking 'Oh yes!'," said production manager Pei'an Lau, 31, pumping his fist.

SURREAL MOMENT

When I watched the movie and knew some of my shots were coming up, my heart beat faster. How will it look? Is it good or bad?

MR ADRIAN TSAO, lighting technical director.

A lucky - or unlucky - few got to know the movie's plot and twists as far back as 1½ years in advance.

"There's an upside and downside," said Mr JeanLe Koh, 34, a rotoscope lead. "There's the privilege of working on such a huge title, but then you have to know the things that happen and you can't watch it fresh in theatres."

There were small nods to fans who scrutinise every frame of the movie.

"There's a box from the first movie, Episode IV, that we put in the hangar," said texture lead Elvin Siew, 29.

His team designed the model of the Star Destroyer Hangar, where the TIE Fighter escape sequence occurred, and the Bolt Interior, where Han Solo confronts Kylo Ren.

"And in the background of one scene in the hangar, you can see one mouse droid falling over the edge of the hangar - that's just some things we add for fun for the fans," said Mr Siew.

The team started work on the visual effects in December 2014, after primary shooting had wrapped up. No detail was too small for them.

"I was making adjustments to something as small as 20 pixels - it's something someone would spot only if he played the movie frame by frame and zoomed in a hundred times," said layout artist Janice Chan, 33.

As each person worked on various specific scenes, it was surreal to finally see their work come together on the big screen.

Lighting technical director Adrian Tsao, 35, said: "When I watched the movie and knew some of my shots were coming up, my heart beat faster. How will it look? Is it good or bad?"

The studio in one-north currently houses more than 400 artists and support staff.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that he is glad that Singapore teams had the chance to work on the movie. He added that he hopes Singaporeans will have more chances to work on such exciting projects.

The Force Awakens, which has made US$1.87 billion (S$2.7 billion) globally, is up against strong contenders for the Oscars in visual effects, like Mad Max: Fury Road, Ex Machina, The Revenant and The Martian. But the team thinks that The Force Awakens has the best chance of winning because of how seamlessly it draws the audience into its world.

"The work speaks for itself - the amount of artistry that went in, both on the practical and digital side, is something the whole team is proud of," said Mr Siew.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 23, 2016, with the headline 'Action made in Singapore for a galaxy far, far away'. Print Edition | Subscribe