Star Wars: Rogue One Creator Defends That Death Star Shot


Debates about the scientific plausibility of fictional stories are always great fun, but when it comes to Star Wars, they’re usually rendered pretty moot.

It’s hard to have an argument about whether an aspect of the galaxy far, far away could ever manifest in real life, because the franchise isn’t built off of “hardcore” science fiction ideas like other stories, like Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica. There may be spaceships and blasters and aliens, but rather than giving us a vision of our future, the universe instead is about exploring concepts of our past like folklore and fantasy.

But that doesn’t mean there haven’t been plenty of exchanges about what part of the Star Wars universe could or could not work in our world. And sometimes, even the Star Wars creatives themselves can get swept up in the debate.

That’s what happened when Ain’t It Cool News writer Andy Howell (who goes by Copernicus) penned a breakdown of the teaser for Star Wars: Rogue One that points out how that shot of the Death Star looming over the jungle planet is scientifically inaccurate.

But Howell got a big surprise when he received an email from John Knoll, the executive producer and visual effects supervisor on the anthology film who also pitched the idea to Lucasfilm. In his email, Knoll politely explained that although they may have cheated the science a bit with that shot, they put a lot of thought into how it might actually work before they fudged the physics.

From Knoll’s email, quoted in the article:

"“I assure you we did discuss the magnitude of the cheat at some length.  I’m from a family of scientists and engineers, so I assure you this kind of thing doesn’t happen by accident, at least not on work I’m supervising.  Some of us at ILM consider our unofficial slogan, ‘We overthink it so you don’t have to.'”"

Howell then explains how Knoll walked him through their process for designing that shot, which is actually pretty interesting. The jungle environment was originally its own planet that was about 8000 miles in diameter, with the Death Star 100 miles in diameter. But they realized that because of where they wanted the Death Star in the frame, the physics wouldn’t work because both planets would be intersecting.

According to Knoll, that led his team to change the jungle planet into a jungle moon, making it only 590 miles in diameter. This brought its own set of problems, as apparently a moon that size would likely be unable to hold its own atmosphere, and the Industrial Light & Magic executive admits they cheated a bit here.

For the rest of the scientific problems involved, Knoll solves them using the Star Wars universe’s established technology. He says repulsorlifts, like the kind that make Luke’s speeder hover off the ground, prevent the Death Star from being affected by the moon’s gravity.

He also says that because the battle station uses its own artificial gravity system, it’s unaffected by tidal forces.

From Knoll’s email:

"“There was a great deal of discussion about these cheats, but ultimately we decided that this teaser can be thought of like an animated movie poster and we could cheat for dramatic purposes, the kind of artistic license often taken on movie posters.Anyway, yes, the powers that be have indeed thought this through and we cheated deliberately.  You caught us!”"

I love Knoll’s lightheartedness about the whole matter while he defends the work ethic and ingenuity of his team at ILM. And it’s really cool to see how passionate these filmmakers can get about their work.

I attended a panel that Knoll put on at Star Wars Celebration about the history of ILM and its many contributions to visual effects. During the session, Knoll showed clips of special effects from ILM films throughout the years while talking about their placement in history. But the panel actually ran 15 minutes over because he kept pausing to look at the images and let them linger onscreen.

Even though we kind of already knew it, it’s reassuring to see proof that the makers of Star Wars are just as devoted to this make-believe universe as the fans are.

Next: Star Wars: Rogue One Casting and Auditions