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How ILM Made the World Crumble in ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’

When Kylo Ren and Rey finally face off, light sabers in hand, they are determined to duel to the end, even as the ground crumbles beneath their feet.

“You’ve got to sell the drama of the moment, because otherwise there’s no point in all of the rest of what we’re doing,” says Dan Pearson, f/x technical director supervisor at ILM, of the work he did to make viewers believe the ground was genuinely falling away in the climatic fight in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” Pearson and his team created a simulation engine that was used to make that earth in the forest appear to disintegrate based on the qualities of the ground.

“There are some particles of the ground that are dry and others that have a bit of a muddy quality and we give this information to the simulation engine and it can create the appearance of all these particles moving as they should based on their composition.”

It’s a lot of information fed into their systems that’s designed to make auds believe they’re really seeing the ground move underneath the feet of these characters, because it behaves according to the laws of physics. physical rules we’ve unconsciously come to accept and expect.

Once the simulator can handle and project how the earth will moves, vfx teams don’t have to do as much manual work. But at this point the simulator just worked with ground particles. Any branches from the trees in the surrounding forest followed an entirely different set of rules because “their particles don’t act like dirt particles at all.”

“We read the script for this film early on and saw the opportunity to create the simulator to speed up the pipeline and relieve some of the pressure that we knew would be on getting the effects to look as good as they can,” says Pearson.

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