The Force Awakens (again), this time on Blu-Ray, and of course, that means bonus features. Surprisingly enough, for a franchise that its fans pour over, remember, and debate every minute detail of footage, this time the bonus features are definitely quality over quantity.
I was anxiously awaiting the "feature-length" documentary, "Secrets of the Force Awakens: A Cinematic Journey", only to be disheartened upon starting that the time remaining was a mere 68 minutes (not counting the credits). I thought, "68 minutes wouldn't even make for a feature-length time with commercials!" What we do get for those 68 minutes however, are a remarkable look at the makings of the most anticipated film in recent (if not all of) history.
It begins in comedic tone. Since most interviews were conducted before the theatrical release, Daisy Ridley's glance off-screen asking if she's allowed to talk about an audience-unknown subject, Mark Hamill's "I can't talk about that", and Gwendoline Christie's hilarious "talk about it, then after the interview don't say anything?" response gives an intriguing look at just how closely the plotlines were guarded until release.
The documentary itself has four chapters, dealing with various portions of film production. Chapter I begins with the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney. A few seconds are spent on Michael Arndt's process in writing the original script, and the time constraints prompting his departure and then flash-forward a month later to the art department, talking about developing characters and the use of CG over models.
It's here where you get the first sense of how much the love of Star Wars as a franchise is imprinted on development, as many of the crew were a part of, or a descendant of, the crew from the original trilogy. In one case, one art director's original drawings from Episode V were used by his son as a starting point for VII.
We also see J.J. Abrams and some members from ILM discussing the CG aspect. Prior to release, this was a hot-button issue from Star Wars fans, mostly stemming from its overuse by Lucas in the prequel trilogy. Telling quotes include "Real is hard to beat. There's something you can feel about seeing real objects. We want to make it as real as possible, but CG has finally progressed enough to where we can augment what we can't realistically do."
Next up, the casting. A brief section of Daisy's audition tape is shown, in which she does a tremendous job in Rey's torture scene. We also hear from J.J. that John had to audition 9 times for the role of Finn. While no other audition tapes are shown, there are likely thousands of hours of tape, and while I personally can't imagine anyone else in the roles after seeing the film, it would've been interesting to see how other actors interpreted the roles.
Chapter I runs roughly 20 mins.
Chapter II begins with the first days of shooting in deserts of Abu Dhabi, and discusses the technical side of production. This is easily the most entertaining part of the documentary, with some great looks at the working set during filming.
Quick side note: J.J. mentions a few days before shooting he had to fly to a parent's weekend at his oldest son's school, which was a benefit because he had something else to focus on, and couldn't stress out over every detail. I'd be going "Yeah, my dad's directing Episode VII, he also did two Star Trek movies and is a general sci-fi icon. No big deal.)
Sorry, back to the review. It is in this segment we see just how committed the team was to model work. The TIE fighter Finn and Poe crash is built buried in the sand, and looks huge, the AT-AT leg which Rey eats dinner and hears BB-8 is there, and multiple tents are built for the hunt for the scavengers' outpost. A couple thoughtful lines from one of the cinematographers (and echoed from J.J.) are "We wanted to stay true to the original trilogy, it has to be done on film" and "there's something you get from shooting on celluloid".
This sequence also features the CG augmenting discussed earlier. All of the explosions in the run-up to the Millennium Falcon are shown live; CG is only used to colorize the explosions in the film. I feel J.J. was smart to use models as much as possible; while the CGI in Avatar was awesome, its use in the prequels was before its time, and its overuse in the prequel was mostly negative, and would've likely been seen the same way here.
Also shown live is the new droid most of us love, BB-8! While a CGI droid could've been easier and cheaper to run, seeing a tangible BB-8, as well as the rig used to move the sphere and moveable head simultaneously, was a nice piece of stagecraft. Daisy also gives a nice quote on how much easier it was to convey Rey's relationship and connection with BB-8, given that BB-8 was initially seen as a knockoff of the iconic R2-D2. Kudos to BB-8's operator for working in a green-screen jacket in 120 degrees.
Chapter II segues into filming at Pinewood Studios, which is an iconic studio in London. While the look at set design and construction is personally intriguing, two topics really stand out here: Captain Phasma, and Poe Dameron's death. (dun dun dun!)
With that cliffhanger, head over to Part 2 of this review for more "Secrets of the Force" and other bonus features on the Star Wars: The Force Awakens Blu-Ray!