Warning: This post contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.
When Carrie Fisher passed away in December 2016, the current forces behind the Star Wars franchise made it clear that the actress wouldn’t be replaced by a new performer — Meryl Streep, for example — or a digital avatar for the final episode in the sequel trilogy, The Rise of Skywalker.
Instead, director JJ Abrams used eight-minutes of extra material from his 2015 film, The Force Awakens, as well as Rian Johnson’s 2017 follow-up, The Last Jedi, to craft a send-off to Fisher’s signature alter ego, General Leia Organa.
That said, there is one crucial sequence in the film where Leia is (briefly) portrayed by another actress. Midway through the movie, we jump back in time to the post-Return of the Jedi era, when Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) trains his Force-sensitive sister in the ways of the Jedi.
Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment, ILM Visual Effects Supervisor Patrick Tubach says that Hamill played the “young” Luke in that sequence, and had his youthful appearance restored thanks to the magic of de-aging technology.
But they also needed an actress to perform Leia’s role, someone whose face would be digitally replaced by a younger version of Fisher in the finished film. When the time came to shoot that scene, Abrams decided to keep the part in the family by asking Fisher’s daughter, Billie Lourd — who also plays Resistance lieutenant Kaydel Ko Connix in the sequel trilogy — to take on the mantle of Leia.
“Billie was playing her mother,” Tubach reveals, confirming rumours that first surfaced online this past spring. “It was a poignant thing, and something that nobody took lightly — that she was willing to stand in for her mom.”
Lourd’s performance as Leia lasts mere seconds in terms of screentime, but Tubach and the rest of Rise of Skywalker’s visual effects team understood the drama of the moment.
“It was an emotional thing for everybody to see her in that position. It felt great for us, too. If you’re going to have someone play [Fisher’s] part, it’s great that it’s [Billie] because there are a lot of similarities between them that we were able to draw from. The real challenge was just making the Leia footage we had to work with fit in that scene.” (As far as where the footage of the young Leia comes from, Rise of Skywalker co-writer, Chris Terrio, recently told The Hollywood Reporter that the filmmakers used images from Return of the Jedi.)
The limitations of that archival footage also meant that the flashback scene had to be kept short and sweet. “What you see is what we developed,” says visual effects supervisor, Roger Guyett, shooting down speculation that there might be a longer version of Leia’s Jedi training.
“The idea was to provide this great surprise where they take the helmets off, and you see Luke and Leia’s younger faces. We scoured outtakes from the original movies, and we took some pieces and then had to try and figure out the technical aspect of putting that shot together.” As to whether Leia’s likeness might ever be used again in a future Star Wars movie, Guyett suggests that’s up to the actress’s family, particularly Lourd. “The truth is that Carrie was a friend of J.J. and Billie is a friend of J.J. They talked a lot about that, and I think the heart of it is the utmost respect for Carrie and her memory and her performance.”
Respect for Fisher’s memory and performance were the guiding principals the VFX team used for all of Leia’s scenes in Rise of Skywalker. “When you see her in this movie, it's the live-action element of her face taken from outtakes of either The Force Awakens or The Last Jedi, and then building a digital Carrie around that face,” he explains.
“She's wearing a new costume, she's got new hair, she's got new jewellery. We didn't want it to feel like we'd simply taken previous shots from previous movies just edited her in; we wanted her to be unique to this movie, and we wanted her to be integrated into the scenes. J.J.’s principal in pre-production was, ‘I want Princess Leia to be played by Carrie Fisher. How do we do this?’ That was the integrity that he wanted brought to it, so that he could really put his hand on his heart and say that Princess Leia was always played by Carrie Fisher.” Well… Carrie Fisher and Billie Lourd.
Here are some other galactic secrets we learned from the VFX team behind The Rise of Skywalker, one of the 10 films vying for nomination in the Visual Effects category at the 92nd Oscars.
Sorry, Kylo stans: There’s no Ben Solo Force Ghost floating around
At the end of The Rise of Skywalker, the family-seeking Rey sheds her Palpatine heritage and adopts the Skywalker name as the Force Ghosts of Luke and Leia look on approvingly. But why isn’t Ben Solo standing next to his mom and uncle in the Jedi afterlife? That’s a question that’s been bugging Star Wars fans, particularly those of the #Reylo persuasion.
According to Guyett, they VFX team never created a Force Ghost version of the former Kylo Ren that would have appeared alongside Luke and Leia in that scene. (For the record, Leia’s Force Ghost was created with Force Awakens footage.)
“My interpretation of it anyway is that when you see Luke and Leia there, it’s about the Skywalker [legacy],” he remarks of Ben’s absence, adding that he’s enjoying the fan speculation about that choice. Guyett also suggests that an on-screen cameo by Anakin Skywalker’s Force Ghost was never in the cards. Instead, audiences hear Hayden Christensen’s voice — along with the voices of other fallen Jedi — in the final battle between Rey and Palpatine, which was enough for Guyett. “I thought that was a really fabulous moment.”
Ghost to the rescue
Just when all hope — old and new — seems lost for the Resistance in the big climatic battle with Palpatine’s Final Order, Lando Calrissian flies to the rescue, with an armada of spaceships in his wake. And not just any spaceships! At the express direction of Abrams, the VFX team populated the fleet with vessels that fans will recognize from Star Wars animated shows like Rebels and Resistance.
“JJ was very keen on us getting some of that Star Wars history and nods to other series in there, because he loves that stuff so much,” says creature and special make-up effects creative supervisor, Neal Scanlan.
Eagle-eyed Rebels viewers (including star Freddy Prinze Jr.) already spotted the show’s central spaceship, the Ghost, in early trailers, but Scanlan says that other surprise cameos are hidden throughout the sequence as well.
“The Fireball from Resistance is in there, and there are some other ships from the other animated series. You throw them in the giant fleet, and they get a lost a little bit in the mix.” All the more reason to buy the movie on Blu-ray so you can do some frame-by-frame Easter egg hunting.
What you see of Palpatine is what you get of Palpatine
Move over #ReleaseTheSnyderCut: the new trending hashtag is #ReleaseTheJJCut. As more details about what’s not in the theatrical version of The Rise of Skywalker have leaked out through post-release interviews with cast and crew, fans are buzzing about a possible three-hour cut that would clear up such lingering mysteries as Palpatine’s return and why Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose Tico has such little screen time. In a recent conversation with HuffPo, Rise editor, Maryann Brandon, alluded to Palpatine material that viewers didn’t see, but Scanlan downplays how extensive those scenes might have been, at least in terms of the VFX team’s involvement.
Read more: The best Rise of Skywalker Easter eggs
“I don’t think there’s anything you haven’t really seen,” he tells Yahoo Entertainment. “J.J. would always shoot variations on scenes — that’s the natural moviemaking process. But to my knowledge there’s no alternative version [of Palpatine’s story]. We change camera angles, we change lighting, maybe there’s a dialogue variation. It’s just naturally what we do.” Scanlan adds that the now 75-year-old Ian McDiarmid had a grand old time revisiting his Sith roots, even if it meant spending much of his time on a rig hovering in the air. “He was totally game for everything. We did some digital augmentation for some shots, but for the most part we hung onto his performance. He’s fantastic.”
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is in cinemas now.