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John Knoll: The Oscar Winning Special Effects Legend That Created “Rogue One”

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He is the Chief Creative Officer for LucasFilm’s Industrial Light & Magic and one of the reigning legends in the special effects game. John Knoll’s recent masterpiece of visual magic is the new film, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, that will make its debut in theaters on December 16.

He has long been a legendary VFX creator and supervisor and his impressive list of credits include such films as Avatar, all three of the Star Wars prequel films, Star Trek: First Contact, The Hunt for Red October, and all of the Pirates of the Caribbean films, among so many others. In fact, his brilliant work on Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest earned him a share of the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects back in 2006. In all, he has five Academy Award nominations.

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John Knoll, 54, began his stellar career long ago as a boy growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He was an avid model maker and even created and built many of his own. His whole life changed, however, in 1977, when he went to his local movie theater and saw Star Wars. He was so taken with the technology, and with trying to comprehend how it was done, that his path seemed secure all the way to USC’s School of Cinema. In fact, he toured LucasFilms and stood stunned as the special effects magic for the film was, finally, revealed to him in 1978.

As soon a Knoll got out of USC, he headed straight for LucasFilm looking for work. Though hired a few months after, he was initially rejected as a job applicant. To this day, Knoll’s rejection letter hangs proudly on his office door. He joined LucasFilms in 1986 and worked in the computer graphic department as a technical assistant. Apparently, he wasn’t challenged enough because, in 1987 – just a year later, he and his brother released their software creation they had been working on known as Photoshop. After they had come out with their third version of the software, Adobe decided they had to buy it from them. The brothers sold it to Adobe and Photoshop now has over ten million users around the world.

Whatever Knoll decides to turn his hand to, while he considers them to be a hobby, has profound implications and has, often enough, altered entire industries. He began to really hit his creative stride, and unleash his genius, as the VFX supervisor for the ambitious Star Wars prequel series. The projects were daunting, to say the least.

Knoll wanted to Rogue One to be "more for how you remember it that for what it actually was."
Knoll wanted to Rogue One to be “more for how you remember it than for what it actually was.”

“Phantom Menace was a huge project,” Knoll recalls.  “It was the biggest special effects project ever done up to that point and it was a little scary as to how big it was and how many unknown technologies had to be developed to do that work. Every couple of boards, there was something we had never done before.”

In fact, all of the crawlers at the start of all of the prequel films were designed by him and took a long and intense filming using a camera dolly system. He designed and produced the entire sequences at home on his own computer.

Rogue One had a new feel all its own but Knoll and the film’s director, Gareth Edwards, knew that some subtle changes had to be made. There have been some costume tweaks and there is no long scrolling prelude to the film.

“As silly as it sounds to make it associated with a Star Wars film,” Knoll said,  “we’re trying to go for higher realism and more grounded, but still with all of these fantastic elements. You go through a mental exercise of, ‘if all this were real, how would you shoot it and what would it be like?’ and try and let that drive alot of the decision making. The overwhelming philosophy (for the Rogue One film) was to match more for how you remember it than how it actually was.”

For the film’s director, Gareth Edwards, there is just no one like John Knoll.

“People are usually good from a technical side or from a creative side,” said Edwards. “But not both. John Knoll is definitely a filmmaker. When it comes to Star Wars, some people get excited about meeting Harrison Ford. For me, it was John Knoll.”

 

Mr. Sawyer is a freelance writer, editor and journalist from Tampa. He has written thousands of articles for hundreds of magazines and news sites on countless topics including science, the media and technology. He is also the author of many white papers, special reports and ebooks covering a wide range of subjects.
Kevin Sawyer
Broadcast Beat - Production Industry Resource