Meet John Knoll, the Creative Genius Who Brought Rogue One to Life
one corner of John Knoll’s office at Lucasfilm stand three racks of
imposing black computer servers. The sleek 6-foot-tall towers, complete
with mechanical switches and fans, flash blue LEDs. Each bears the
insignia of the Galactic Empire from Star Wars and a name—Death Star
748, Death Star 749. Imperial computers, these are.
and menacing as the machines appear, they aren’t real. They’re just
faceplates wired with Arduino controllers to make the lights blink and
flutter like actual computers. They are, in other words, visual
effects—and a look into the mind of Knoll, the 54-year-old chief
creative officer of Industrial Light & Magic, Lucasfilm’s famed VFX
A museum’s worth of movie props and models decorate
Lucasfilm’s labyrinthine halls—the flotsam of Star Wars, Star Trek, E.T.
… a half century of iconic cinema. But Knoll’s servers (or, rather,
faceplates) aren’t from a movie. They’re what made the movies. They come
from the machines that spent roughly 13,000 hours rendering digital
effects for the three Star Wars prequels, on which Knoll was a lead
effects supervisor. The march of Moore’s law turned the server farm that
created those movies into scrap. Or, for Knoll, a project.
“It took a few weeks,” Knoll says, shrugging. “I play around with a lot of different things.”
Knoll has the demeanor, appearance, and excitable gee-whizziness of a
STEM-obsessed, garage-full-of-half-built-projects dad. But unlike most
of those dads, when Knoll takes on a hobby, he gets so good at it that
he sometimes changes entire industries.
Like the time Knoll got
interested in using computers to edit pictures. He and his brother ended
up creating Photoshop—maybe you’ve heard of it? Or when he started
tinkering with commercial computer software and incidentally reinvented
how moviemakers use it to generate images for film. Or when he got so
good at making Star Wars movies that he—well, that brings us to his most
In a darkened conference room outfitted with a big
flatscreen monitor and speakers, a team of effects specialists is
sitting at the center table. One starts typing into a keyboard, pulling
up movie scenes. In the first, a tight grouping of TIE fighters chases
an X-wing as it skims the surface of a Star Destroyer—familiar players
in the Star Wars spaceship armada. The shot is part of an epic battle
between the Empire and the Rebel Alliance that’s a key sequence in Rogue
One, the newest entry in the Star Wars universe. It’s a prequel again.
Knoll is running VFX again. And more.
The X-wing pulls up as it
approaches the battle cruiser’s conning tower. “So are we going to have
him blow up that dome on his way over?” asks Vick Schutz, the CG
supervisor, pointing to one of the Epcot-looking polyhedrons that for
reasons no one in the room is quite sure of sit atop all Star
Rogue One, the first of the non-“saga” Star Wars
films (which is to say, it doesn’t focus on Luke Skywalker’s bloodline),
comes out on December 16. Knoll is not just supervising the 1,600-plus
effects shots. He is also responsible for the movie’s existence. In his
free time, Knoll came up with the plot.
“People are usually good
from a technical side or a creative side, but not both,” says Gareth
Edwards, the movie’s director. “John Knoll is definitely a filmmaker.”
Edwards should know; before he became a director, he spent years doing
visual effects. “When it comes to Star Wars, some people get excited
about meeting Harrison Ford,” Edwards says. “For me, it was John Knoll.”
he was a kid, Knoll built models—World War II fighters, spaceships, and
vehicles of his own invention. And like most kids building models in
the 1970s, he bit hard on the effects in the original Star Wars.
Suddenly, model builders (model builders!) were moviemaking heroes, and
Knoll obsessed over articles on their work in American Cinematographer
and Cinefantastique. But then he did something most kids wouldn’t do.
1978, Knoll’s dad, Glenn Knoll, a nuclear engineer at the University of
Michigan, was scheduled to speak at a conference in Anaheim,
California, and he took John and his other two sons along. Thrilled to
be near Hollywood, John checked the hotel-room phone book to see if it
had a listing for Industrial Light & Magic. There it was. A minute
later John was actually talking to Grant McCune, the head of ILM’s model
shop. In as professional a voice as he could muster, John explained
that he was a model maker and talked his way into a tour. McCune
realized he had been talking to a 15-year-old only when John’s dad
dropped him off at ILM in Van Nuys the next morning.
up hanging out for the entire day, watching the team construct models
and choreograph the camerawork for the original Battlestar Galactica TV
show. It was the first time he’d ever seen people—average people, people
like him—designing special effects for a living.
Knoll went back
to LA for film school at USC, the alma mater of George Lucas and Robert
Zemeckis, and while still a student started showing his portfolio
around Hollywood. One of his first gigs was for Greg Jein, who built the
miniatures for Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Trek: The
Motion Picture. “I was impressed by the fact that he could cut and draw a
straight line,” Jein says, “not something all model makers can do with
complete accuracy.” Freelancing for Jein, Knoll built things like
alien-spaceship landing gear for the TV miniseries V.
time he graduated in 1984, Knoll was finding steady work. Which was its
own kind of problem. “As soon as you take your hobby and make it into
your profession, it sort of kills it as a hobby,” he says.
his Star Wars obsession came through for him again. Knoll remembered
reading about the computer-controlled camera that visual effects pioneer
John Dykstra invented for the first movie in ILM’s early days. The
“Dykstraflex” shot precise, repeatable sequences that helped make
miniatures look real and allowed effects makers to composite multiple
shots—critical for creating convincing space battles.
Knoll decided to build his own.
took a three-year-old Apple II computer and connected it to a
controller for a milling machine that could drive four stepper motors.
Then he attached an adjustable camera stand. It was cheap and it worked:
Knoll used the camera to create a two-minute cartoon that became his
It also landed him his dream job: A year later
ILM—the company Knoll had cold-called as a kid—hired him to work in its
camera department, moving him to the company’s new offices in the San
Francisco Bay Area. “My very first day, I was working on the original
Dykstraflex camera,” Knoll says. “Even being next to it was a thrill.”
again Knoll’s hobby had become his profession. But that meant he needed
something else to do with his free time. So he started coding.
calls the photo “Jennifer in Paradise.” It shows his then-girlfriend
(now wife) on a beach in Bora Bora, facing away from the camera, her
hair draped over one shoulder. She looks off at an island in the
distance. The picture is a historic artifact in the annals of
photography and software: It’s the first color image ever Photoshopped.
1986, Knoll, still just a camera operator, asked for a tour of ILM’s
fledgling computer graphics group and the machine it had built: the
Pixar. Inspired by the device’s ability to digitally manipulate large
images, Knoll went home and started trying to write his own graphics
programs on his Mac. “I wrote a little ray tracer and some processing
code,” he says. You know, for fun.
By coincidence, Knoll’s
brother Tom was working on the same thing. For his PhD in computer
vision at the University of Michigan, Tom was writing software that
could do things like adjust the brightness of a digital image or detect
the edge of an object in a photo. After a visit, John took a copy of
Tom’s software home and started playing with it. In a few weeks, John
was pretty sure they were onto something.
“We should sell this,”
he eventually said.
“Are you crazy?” Tom responded. “Do you have any
idea how much work writing a commercial application is?” Tom started
writing one anyway.
Still young and unmarried, Knoll was on the
night crew at ILM, working from 7 pm to 5 am. That meant he had his days
free to shop their hobby project to software companies. While visiting
Apple, Knoll asked to borrow a flatbed scanner, which he used to upload a
photograph of Jennifer.
In front of techies up and down Silicon
Valley, Knoll cloned an onscreen Jennifer, then cloned her again. He
created a new island in the background, shrouded in mist. It was
astonishing. Finally Adobe, maker of the application Illustrator and the
printer language PostScript, signed up to license and distribute the
software. After trying and failing for months to come up with a good
name, they defaulted to simply calling it Photoshop.
this time, partially because of his work on the program, Knoll got his
first chance to work in computer graphics for a movie—James Cameron’s
The biggest CG project ILM had done up to that point
was a knight made of stained glass in Young Sherlock Holmes. It was
roughly six shots. “This was like 16 shots,” says famed visual effects
supervisor Dennis Muren. “Jim didn’t know if it was going to work.”
Knoll had a reputation for problem-solving; Muren asked him to look into
The CG scenes centered on what the team called the
pseudopod: a liquescent, tentacle-like creature that could morph its
surface into faces. “We were in new territory,” Cameron says. “But John
Knoll figured he’d better cover all the
angles—literally. He brought a still camera to the set and captured the
scene from every possible light and camera location. “For reflections, I
needed to photograph the whole environment all the way around,” Knoll
says. Almost by accident, he had invented a fundamental approach to
compositing. “Now it’s become standard practice to have still cameras
photograph the environments of every setup we do.” Knoll pasted the
photos together using Photoshop.
“We managed to get it done on time and on budget,” Muren says. “And it looked really good.”
Photoshop took off. By version 3, Adobe decided it needed to own the
software. “So they made us a really good offer and just bought us,”
Knoll says. Tom went to work for Adobe, which now has more than 10
million Photoshop users. John stayed at ILM.
“In high school and
college, I’d set a bunch of goals for myself,” Knoll says. “I wanted to
be the lead effects supervisor on one of these really big, innovative
visual effects productions, something on the scale of a Star Wars movie.
And I wanted to work on a project that wins the Academy Award for best
That is what moviemakers call foreshadowing.
1995, George Lucas announced that he wanted to clean up and rerelease
the Star Wars trilogy. Originally he just wanted to create new
prints—the negatives were in terrible shape. But while cleaning and
digitizing them … why not polish up some of the effects?
project, which would become known as the Special Editions, happened to
line up with Knoll’s latest hobby: over-the-counter graphics software.
Knoll knew something the rest of ILM didn’t. He could replicate—even
improve—many of the effects, cheaply and easily, on his Mac.
engineer mindset and DIY attitude can seem more attuned to Star Trek
than the more fantastical mysticism of Star Wars. (Ask him about this
and all he’ll say is, “Well, I came from a family of scientists and
engineers …”) And as it happened, while working on the Star Trek: The
Next Generation TV show, Knoll was the one who had figured out how to
take the starship Enterprise to warp speed. He used a classic technique
called slit-scan, filming models of the Enterprise with a moving camera
and long exposure through a partially blocked lens. The result: The
Enterprise appears to stretch and then snap! Boldly going.
1993, Paramount Pictures started making the first TNG movie,
Generations. ILM did the effects; Knoll was the supervisor. He asked the
computer graphics department what it would cost to create a better warp
effect. “The numbers that I got back were so high I didn’t think I
could even turn them in to Paramount,” Knoll says. “So I decided, all
right, I’m going to do this myself.”
He went home and sat down in front of his Mac. Five weeks later, the shot was done. Snap!
why, two years later, when ILM started working on the Star Wars Special
Editions, Knoll asked Tom Kennedy, a VFX producer on the project, if he
could try the same thing—rebuilding the space-battle scenes with
off-the-shelf software. Kennedy was skeptical. He set up a bake-off,
Knoll versus the entire ILM computer graphics department: They would
work on similar shots of X-wings and compare the results.
Four days later, Knoll was done.
was in addition to John’s day job,” says Kennedy, who left ILM in 1999.
“I had this mental image of him at home with his children hanging off
him competing with an entire CG team.”
After a month, the
computer graphics department still hadn’t finished. Kennedy pulled the
plug. “John took on as many of those battle shots as George wanted him
Star Wars fans still fret about the Special Editions.
The space battles are better, but changes like the shock wave rings in
the explosions of Alderaan and the Death Star? Pass. (Oh—spoiler alert.)
thought the revisions looked great, though. So when he came up with his
next big movie, he called Muren—and Knoll. In 1996 they drove to Lucas’
Marin County retreat, Skywalker Ranch, to see 3,600 storyboard panels
laying out Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace. “Every couple of
boards there was something we’d never done before,” Knoll says. There
were shots with hundreds of CG objects onscreen at one time (the most
ILM had attempted was 16), shots that would require the graphics team to
simulate soft, believable cloth, shots that would require them to build
rigid robots that would blow apart convincingly.
just that Knoll’s team would have to invent new software—it was the
sheer volume of effects they would have to create. Most blockbusters at
the time had something on the order of 360 effects shots. Phantom Menace
needed more than 2,000. And Lucas wanted to make three prequels.
“George’s attitude was just: You’ll figure it out,” Knoll says.
was now officially a visual effects supervisor on something as big and
ambitious as the original Star Wars. “It was five times bigger than the
biggest show I’d ever been involved in,” Knoll says. “What I kept
telling myself was ‘This has gotta be how the guys on the original Star
Wars films felt.’”
While many people in the company were
panicking over the scope of the project, Knoll calmly laid out a plan
that involved ramping up full-scale effects production for 18 months
instead of the typical two. “They would listen to that speech and then
go, ‘OK, sounds reasonable.’ And they would leave, and I’d go, ‘Whew, I
hope that works!’”
That can-do attitude was typical. “I have
never heard John say ‘No, that can’t be done,’” says producer Jon
Landau, who worked with Knoll on Avatar. “John takes on a challenge and
finds a way to solve that challenge.”
And solve it, he did.
Inside ILM the prequels were recognized as a heroic feat—something that
fundamentally changed what the company felt it was capable of. The
project also managed to get Knoll close to his other goal. Phantom
Menace and Attack of the Clones were both nominated for VFX Academy
Awards. (Knoll finally won, two years later, with Pirates of the
Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.)
In 2012, Disney bought Lucasfilm,
ILM, and Skywalker Sound from Lucas for $4 billion. The company then
announced that Lucasfilm would begin a slate of new Star Wars movies.
had, over the years, daydreamed his own fan fiction. And early word on
the plots of the new movies didn’t impress him. “The first couple were
kind of backstory,” Knoll says. “How Han and Chewie got to be the
characters that we know in Episode IV. And I thought, ‘Yeah, but what I
really want to see is more of an action-adventure story—something that
has some of the Star Wars themes, maybe it touches on things that we
know, but it’s all-new characters.’”
Like what? Knoll kept coming back to this:
It is a period of civil war.
Rebel spaceships, striking
from a hidden base, have won
their first victory against
the evil Galactic Empire.
During the battle, Rebel
spies managed to steal secret
plans to the Empire’s
ultimate weapon, the DEATH
STAR, an armored space
station with enough power to
destroy an entire planet.
recognize it—it’s the Opening Crawl, the setup kicking off Star Wars
(OK, OK, A New Hope). Knoll wondered, who were these spies? We don’t
hear anything more about them. Maybe they were a SEAL Team 6 in the Star
Wars universe on a Mission: Impossible–style caper. That’s a movie
Knoll would like to see.
He couldn’t let it go. For weeks he
buttonholed friends in ILM’s spaceship-and-monster-filled hallways with
the words “Picture this …” In the company’s cafeteria at lunch, he’d
refine the story, live. People loved it. “It would get a little more
elaborate in each telling,” Knoll says. “We have this annual trivia
night, where we raise money for charity. And I sat down at one of these
tables with a bunch of friends of mine, and we had about a half hour
before the thing was going to begin, and somebody said, ‘Hey, tell me
your Star Wars idea.’ So I did like a half-hour version of it.”
The response? Pitch this to Kathy.
Kennedy had become president of Lucasfilm when Disney took over. She’d
known Knoll for decades. Like everyone, Kennedy had first heard about
Knoll as the coinventor of Photoshop. But then, on a company retreat,
she was on a Trivial Pursuit team with him. “There’s something about
John’s ability to retain detailed and complex information that is really
on a genius scale,” she says.
Still, when Knoll came to pitch a
movie, Kennedy felt trepidation. “Is everyone at the company going to
come at me with Star Wars movies?” she thought.
But she listened.
And she liked what she heard. “You hear a lot of pitches, and they are
pretty convoluted,” Kennedy says. “When you hear something that at its
core is a simple but big idea—that is really rare.” Green light.
in the dark conference room at ILM, Knoll’s effects gang still has to
decide whether to blow up those troublesome polyhedrons. Rogue One will
be in theaters in a little over nine weeks. All Knoll’s team wants is
for the boss to look at a shot and say the magic word: final. Then they
can move on.
“So the reference from Jedi is, it’s just a giant
fireball,” says Hal Hickel, the animation supervisor. “There’s nothing
even in it.”
“Like it’s made of gasoline?” Knoll asks.
“Maybe it feeds into the generator that runs the shield,” someone else jokes.
Scripts often don’t answer issues like this, offering little more than an elaborate version of “spaceships fight.”
the battle wants to be broken up into seven or eight beats,” Knoll
says. One of the beats is that the Rebels have to annihilate two Star
Destroyers. It’s up to Knoll and ILM to figure out how.
So … explode the polyhedron? “Fine with me,” Knoll says. Half the room groans. The shot had been close to complete. Not anymore.
job also requires painful, almost microscopic scrutiny. At one point he
reviews a Star Destroyer torn in half in battle—the reflections, the
textures, the realism of the bent metal. The model maker is working from
the book Incredible Cross-Sections of Star Wars: The Ultimate Guide to
Star Wars Vehicles and Spacecraft to make sure that what an audience
sees inside the ship matches what’s known about Star Destroyers. No one
wants to be the subject of a subreddit dedicated to power converters and
the jerks who put them in the wrong place.
And it’s not just
space battles. In one scene Jyn Erso, the Rebel hero played by Felicity
Jones, has a conversation with Rebel captain Cassian Andor, played by
Diego Luna. They’re on an alien planet, and Knoll spots a problem. “I’m
detecting a little too much magenta on his face.” You might not have
seen it, but it could have made the world seem less visceral, less real.
watch every shot over and over. Knoll sends most of them back for
revisions—some minor, some substantial. Everyone is slumping in their
chairs. They just want a final.
Next up: a sequence of two Star
Destroyers about to collide, part of the beat that ILM had to solve. The
shot is impressive—the immensity of the cruisers overwhelming, the
cinematography stunning. Knoll smiles.
“Final,” he says. The room cheers.
Then a scene of a droid walking down a hall.
“Final.” Another cheer. They’re getting there.
Rogue One is almost done. And John Knoll needs a new hobby.
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