One of the most crucial elements of the Star Wars franchise is the visual effects. Specifically, dating back to when George Lucas was crafting the original Star Wars, which we now know as A New Hope, practical effects have been a massive staple of a galaxy far, far away. In the Disney era of Lucasfilm, perhaps no individual has been more responsible for keeping that spirit alive than visual effects artist Neal Scanlan.

The Oscar-winning filmmaker has worked on all of the live-action Star Wars movies since Disney purchased Lucasfilm in 2012, starting with The Force Awakens and leading up to last year's Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. While fan opinions vary widely on each of the five movies Lucasfilm has produced in this time, it's hard to deny that Scanlan's work, along with the rest of those working on the VFX, specifically the practical stuff, has been outstanding.

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I recently had the opportunity to chat with Neal Scanlan in honor of the Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker home video release. Disney recently released it a few days early on Digital HD, with the Blu-ray/DVD and 4K Ultra HD release scheduled for the end of the month. We discussed what challenges Episode IX presented, some of his favorite effects from the movie, as well as some of what he has coming down the pipeline and more.

We're here to talk about The Rise of Skywalker, obviously. But, just for some people that might not know, and I'm sorry if this is a bit of a boring question, how would you explain your job to people? How would you explain what it is that you do?

Neal Scanlan: My job is to work alongside a director to try and realize a creature or a character that is brought to life through practical means. In other words, the majority of the way that it is being executed on film is using some form of practical puppetry or animatronics. Or makeup.

You've worked on all of the new Star Wars movies. But what from your perspective differentiated The Rise of Skywalker from the other Star Wars movies you had worked on before jumping on this project?

Neal Scanlan: I think it was an accumulative confidence. Not only with J.J. having already shot The Force Awakens, but everybody else who was on the team. Kathy Kennedy as a producer. Right down to the art department, the costumes and that level. What was different is that we were all ready and we were all a team right from the get-go. J.J. I think was much more able to, I think, in some ways, not suggest but just tell people, "I'd like to do that this way." Because he had already seen what was possible to do. We had an almost, I would say, a perfect team with all the necessary skills and talent to be able to execute the visual effects. That's what happens when you work on something over a period of time. You evolve together. You make headway as a team.

You deal specifically with practical stuff, but CGI has become so prominent in the past couple of decades. How has your job evolved as that has changed?

Neal Scanlan: I think two things come from that Really. One is that, of course in the CG world now, I think it's true to say that you can achieve anything. You really can. There was some incredible work that came out last year, from The Lion King to the Star Wars movies. You think, "My God. There's no need to do this any other way!" But I think there is also another aspect to it which is, there's a human aspect to this which has got to do with just the way that we are, and that we respond to theater. We respond to things which we know are real, and we respond to knowing that they have been made by somebody. Not in the digital world, but in the real world. So I think, certainly with a franchise like Star Wars, it's an incredibly important part of what makes that world real. It's what defines a Star Wars film. It's that you can not only accomplish visual effects, but those visual effects are part of a mix of the most cutting edge technology of the day, along with a more traditional, should I say it, version of that world as well. It makes us feel grounded. It makes us feel at one with a galaxy that far away.

It's interesting, in a sense, that CG and practical effects, certainly in Star Wars, and more in other films, have started to come together a little bit, as an artistic choice. As a director choice. As a storytelling choice. It becomes very much, why should we do this practically? Why will this work practically? What will be the value of doing it that way, compared to doing CG? And that could be true with anything, from the sets, to explosions, to guns, to creature effects. I think we've come to a great place. Certainly myself and Roger [Guyett] would always talk about a particular effect. It's been said that we always try to do everything practically in a Star Wars film, and that's not completely true. But I think that there is some sense that we look at it and think, how much can we achieve in the real world and at what point do we need CG to step in and take this somewhere which is, in a sense, expected by the audience? The sophisticated audience of today.

In The Rise of Skywalker specifically, just as much as any of the new Star Wars movies, there is a ton of practical stuff, which I love, because I've been a fan of it my whole life. And you can tell the difference. I believe that firmly. It adds something to these movies. Is there one particular effect, or creature, or some practical thing in the movie that you're most proud of?

Neal Scanlan: I think I'm proud of several different characters, different visuals, for different reasons. I think if you take something, in particular in The Rise of Skywalker, say Babu Frik, for instance. I love that he is absolutely in the tradition of Yoda. We never wanted people to feel that this was CG. We wanted people to know that it wasn't. We used CG heavily to alter it, because there was a tremendous amount of puppetry and rod removal. I think that executing BB-8 was something that, again, was a partnership between ourselves and CG. But I think when you add performance and personality to what is essentially a ball, I'm very proud of BB-8 as a character. It can stand shoulders with someone like C-3PO or R2-D2.

Just generally I'm proud of the larger, sort of crazy things that we did. The serpent. The big sea cow. These sort of larger creatures that would have been very difficult to bring to the screen a couple of decades ago because, I think in that time, the trend was to build immensely complicated, hydraulically-driven creatures. We found a new way of doing things in Star Wars and I'm proud that by approaching them in somewhat more of a simplistic way, building them in incredibly lightweight sort of ways, we've broken out of that tradition. We've been able to get them on the screen.

So this particular movie was interesting because Colin Trevorrow was originally on board to direct, and then J.J. came on a bit later. Were you on board the whole time? And if you were how did things change once J.J. got involved?

Neal Scanlan: It's interesting because we were on Jurassic [World: Fallen Kingdom] at the time, and so we were working with Colin... We never got too involved. Colin was writing at that time. We hadn't then, as a team of people, or as a production, into physically starting to work on the movie. The art department was sort of looking at the broad scope, the feel of it. We had only had some casual conversations with Colin. So by the time that we finished working on Jurassic and we got ready to start working on The Rise of Skywalker, J.J. had already started. Literally the timing was perfect. So we just started the movie as a crew with J.J.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is available now on Digital HD and on Blu-ray/DVD and 4K Ultra HD on March 31 from Disney.

Ryan Scott at Movieweb
Ryan Scott