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Special-Effects Legend John Knoll on Copying the Cosmos in ‘Star Wars,’ ‘Star Trek,’ ‘Super 8,’ and More

The Oscar-winning innovator behind the looks of ‘Rogue One,’ ‘Pacific Rim,’ ‘Avatar,’ and other sci-fi spectacles explains how he sneaks real-life science onto our screens

John Knoll in front of a space-themed background Getty Images/Lucasfilm/Ringer illustration

Outer space is everywhere: Not only are we physically surrounded by it, but we’re inundated with images of it, both real and fictional. NASA’s long-lived Cassini mission is ending this week, just after its even longer-lived Voyager mission marked its 40th anniversary. SpaceX is about to launch the most powerful operational rocket in the world. Star Trek is returning to TV, The Martian author Andy Weir is returning to bookshelves, and Destiny 2 and a new Metroid release are bringing gamers back to the stars. Please join us at The Ringer as we celebrate and explore the cultural resonance and science of space all week long.

John Knoll is the chief creative officer and senior visual effects supervisor of Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), the company that George Lucas created to design the special effects for Star Wars, a movie that mesmerized a 14-year-old Knoll in the summer of 1977. A child of the Apollo era and the son of a nuclear-engineering professor who consulted for NASA, Knoll was predisposed to becoming a lifelong science-fiction fan, space-program aficionado, and astronomy nerd. As a 6-year-old, he watched the Apollo 11 landing on his dad’s extra-large TV—a whole 19 inches—which first got him hooked. Today, he owns an 8-inch reflector telescope, which he operates at his home in Lucas Valley, California, a secluded spot that’s protected enough from light pollution for Knoll to admire the Milky Way at night and play the “spot the satellite” game during hours when Earth is in shadow but the band around the planet is illuminated enough for its human-made satellites to sparkle in the sun.

Unlike most astronomy nerds, though, Knoll has actually influenced the way space has looked in some of its most high-profile appearances on the big screen. In the years since Star Wars, ILM has gone on to do effects for hundreds of movies, and Knoll, now 54, has worked on dozens of them, including sci-fi/space flicks such as The Abyss, Star Trek: First Contact, the Star Wars special editions and prequels (in which he made a couple of cameos), Mission to Mars, Avatar, Super 8, Pacific Rim, Tomorrowland, and Rogue One (which he also helped write and executive-produce). He’s been nominated for six Academy Awards and won one (for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest). On top of all that, he cocreated Photoshop.

Knoll’s career spans more than three decades, which means that our understanding of the science of space, and what distant celestial bodies actually look like, has significantly progressed since he started trying to replicate space on screen. Last week, The Ringer talked to him about how that advancement in knowledge has changed his job, how he tries (and sometimes fails) to persuade directors to pursue scientific accuracy, and the times that he and ILM have sneaked real phenomena into famous fictional films.

We now have high-resolution images from various missions and surveys that have given us great looks at objects whose appearances we previously would have had to speculate about. How does your job differ today because of those discoveries?

There’s a vast treasure trove of beautiful imagery that’s come back from all sorts of scientific investigation missions. That's all publicly available for browsing and use as references, and sometimes you can use these things even directly. All the work that we do, we're trying to at least create a feeling of realism and believability, even when often we're kind of deliberately stylizing things. Of course that varies a bit per client to what extent you're trying to make something super-realistic or you’re trying to make something that's more of a fantasy thing. But in the end, most of the time we’re trying to make something that still looks fairly real. And the first place we go on anything—even fantasy things—is, well, what reference can we find that's applicable to what we're doing.

A good example of that: My last project was Rogue One, and even though that’s space fantasy, it's hard science fiction. I went to some effort to try and make sure that things like planets from orbit looked realistic and that we were trying to depict some phenomena that you see in NASA photography. In the third act, there's a moment where the Death Star arrives on the scene and it's coming up over the horizon of the planet Scarif to confront all our heroes. And I wanted that shot to look like some photography I’d seen from the International Space Station, beautiful and amazing long-lens photography of the moon coming up over the Earth's horizon. And something that struck me as being really cool and beautiful was the atmospheric lensing, the distortion and the color shifts that happen as the image of the moon is being refracted by the atmosphere. And I thought, “Oh, I really want to get that into the shot of the Death Star coming over the horizon.” So I went and found a bunch of still images and some video that some of our astronauts had shot from the International Space Station, and that was very direct reference. I was absolutely trying to copy that look in the shot.

The moon Expedition 13 Crew/International Space Station/NASA
GIF of the moon from ‘Rogue One’ Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

So do you think that shot probably would have been done differently if you had been making that movie 20 years earlier?

Probably, yeah. But now that I've got this spectacular image to look at, I went, “All right, this is what really happens when you're looking through all those layers of atmosphere,” and you can see density gradients in there and how it attenuates different frequencies of light depending on how much atmosphere you’re going through. I've got this great reference to copy. I went, “All right. I want it to look like that.” So yeah, absolutely. We draw inspiration from the real thing all the time.

When you're doing a space movie or a space show, at what point do you look outside for assistance to make sure that you're getting everything as accurate as you're trying to?

Usually that’s done by the production. And I can think of a recent example on J.J. Abrams's Star Trek, the first Star Trek movie he did in 2009. There’s a scene where the Enterprise is on its way to Earth and hides in the clouds of the upper atmosphere of Titan. And for depicting Titan and Saturn and the other moons around there, I know that the production hired Carolyn Porco, who's a sort of famous space scientist who'd been part of the Cassini imaging team for years, as a consultant. She came to ILM and worked with us on the Saturn and Titan imagery. So that was a priority for the director, too: “Well, let's get it right.” If we’re going to show Saturn, we have instruments out there taking these amazing photographs of Saturn. Let’s do it right.

Have there been any notable instances where you were involved in a production that knowingly did something that was not entirely accurate, in service of the story or for budgetary reasons?

Yeah, that happens. I come from a whole family of scientists, engineers, and medical professionals, so I care about science and try to get it right where I can. But ultimately we're a service organization, so if your client wants something different, then you do what your client wants you to do. A bunch of years ago, I worked on a movie called Mission to Mars, and it was for a director, Brian De Palma, that I'd worked for previously on the first Mission: Impossible movie. And some of what I'd heard when I started on the project was, “We're going to go for a [2001: A Space Odyssey] level of realism. We have all these NASA advisers on the show, and we want to transport you to Mars, so you really feel like you've been there.” I thought, “Well, sign me up.”

And the more research that I did on, “All right, what would it really look like if you were on Mars,” there's a couple of philosophies for how you deal with depicting [that]. Some photographers try to re-create someone's subjective experience, like what would it look like to you if you were there. And there's a subtle variation of that, which is what would it look like if you took a camera down there and shot it? And partly what's different between those two is color-temperature differences in lights. Incandescent lights are very orange compared to sunlight that's a more blue-white color. But when you're outside during the day you're getting used to sunlight and it looks white to you, and then when you go indoors at night and you're looking at something under incandescent light, that looks white to you as well. But a camera wouldn't see it that way. If you were to bring cameras down to Mars and photograph the surface—and I think the imagery would have been the same from [Mars rover missions] Spirit and Opportunity and Curiosity—my understanding is those are fairly faithful representations of what your eye would see and reasonably close to what a standard camera would photograph. But at the time that we did Mission to Mars, the most recent imagery that we had was through the Viking imagery from the ’70s, and then there was Pathfinder from 1997.

And those images, the ones that got released on the net, [had] very stylized color treatment. They were very, very oversaturated orange. But as part of the research I was doing, if you color-correct the images based on looking at the color charts that you can see in the images, you get a very different result, more like what you're seeing in the published images now for Spirit and Opportunity and Curiosity. I would show things like that to the director. And he felt like that was boring, and he pushed us further in the direction of this very stylized red-orange color than probably if I hadn't said anything in the first place. So in a way I felt like I was my own worst enemy.

I would say things like, “Because the atmosphere of Mars is largely carbon dioxide, it scatters light differently than on the Earth and the sunsets are blue.” And I thought, “That is so cool. It's weird and exotic and spooky.” And I would find pictures like that, and I'd show them to Brian and say, “Look how cool this is!” And he’d go, “Oh no no, we’ve got to do something way more dramatic than that!” It was all his choice, but I am of the belief that the reality is often cooler than the fiction. And I would rather be going toward the more authentic look.

Since you care about the science and a given director may not place as high an importance on it as you do, have you developed any strategies for selling a director on scientific accuracy?

Different directors feel more strongly about it. I worked a little bit on Avatar, and James Cameron, he really cares about getting the science right and to try and depict realistic physics. I never had to convince him of, “Oh, we should do this because it would be more realistic.” That’s absolutely where he wanted to go all the time. And that was really a joy to work on in that respect. I’ve done a number of movies for Gore Verbinski. The first three Pirates movies. He’s very easy to convince that way as well because, like me, he feels like even if an audience can't pinpoint what it is that is wrong with a shot, if you do something that is nonphysical, they might not be able to say specifically what it is—“Oh, that object is not following a ballistic trajectory or whatever it is, gravity looks wrong on that.” They’ll just look at it and say it doesn't look right.

As you mentioned, we now have a much more accurate sense of what things look like on Mars, for instance, because of the missions that have gone there. Do you think that that has changed the audience expectation, the demands of your job, the scrutiny that is placed on these images? Thirty years ago, you could just decide what you wanted Mars to look like, and no one could really tell you, “That's not accurate,” because nobody had seen it the way we have now.


And now those images are out there, so you have a pressure to conform to them.

I think you’re exactly right. I think the ubiquity of these really high-quality images from Mars, as an example, means you can't get away with the level of stylization that was in Mission to Mars. I think audiences are sophisticated, and they demand better. The Martian is a good example of a far more realistic depiction that I think squares much better with the imagery that people have seen.

And do you look at that as a positive development?

Yes. I do.

In a way it's limiting—it restricts your creativity a little bit.

I don’t know. I think that good art needs to be questioned and challenged, and that ends up being good for the art, to be held to a higher standard.

And if you get a star field wrong or something, you know that Neil deGrasse Tyson will be tweeting about it, right?

[Laughs.] Yup.

So is there more importance placed on that by people involved in the production? Whereas in the past they would have said, “Hey, make it look good,” now it's more, “Hey, make it look right”?

Maybe. I don’t know if anybody really cares about that stuff, but I'll tell you one anecdote. We did a movie for J.J. Abrams called Super 8, and toward the end of the production, one of the shots that I was working on, I was putting stars into the background. And so just as an exercise I looked up, so what time is this supposed to take place? It was the second half of May, and it was supposed to be 1982, or I forget what it was. But I found out when this was supposed to be, what direction the camera was supposed to be facing, it was supposed to be facing south. And then it's probably about 9 o’clock at night. And I have one of these astronomy programs, Starry Night, and so I called up that time and date and location looking in that direction, and I generated a star field in Starry Night that I used in that shot. So it’s technically accurate; those are the stars you’d actually see if you were there on that day and time and looked in that direction.

So if this had been a pre-Starry Night era, you would have just had generic—

—random dots. Yeah.

Is that more work for you than it was in the past, when you could kinda wing it a little more?

Nobody was asking me to do that. I was amusing myself by doing that. But if you’re using a high-quality star-field generator like that, it's only two minutes’ more work to figure out, well, if I can generate any star field at any time in any direction, I will want to make it the one that's technically accurate for what we’re saying it is.

Sometimes it's just doing a little Google searching and trying to identify the right people. I'll tell you another anecdote: I supervised a space battle in Star Wars: Episode II that takes place in an asteroid field, and the film came out in 2002, so we were doing the work in 2001, and we had a probe that was orbiting around [the asteroid] Eros. And that probe had a laser altimeter instrument. And I had seen a story on the web of photographs of Eros, and that they had a 3-D model of Eros that they had generated from the laser altimeter data. And I looked this up and got ahold of one of the research scientists who had published that paper, and I asked, “Hey, is there any way I can get your 3-D model of Eros? ’Cause I wanna put it in a movie.” So he sent me the data, and it’s in Episode II. It's the battle between Jango Fett and Obi-Wan. So the first asteroid you see get blown up by a [seismic charge] is Eros.

Eros John Hopkins University/Applied Physics Laboratory/NASA
GIF of a clip from ‘Star Wars Episode II’ 20th Century Fox

Wow. Is there anything else you can think of from your body of work that falls into that same category of basing it on a particular image you had seen or a certain mission in real life?

I worked on Star Trek: First Contact, and one of the first shots you see of the Enterprise E in space, it’s against a giant nebula. That was inspired by the Pillars of Creation image that had been making the rounds a few years before that.

Right, from Hubble.

It's just an amazing and spectacular image, and so we kind of did our own version of that.

Pillars Jeff Hester and Paul Scowen (Arizona State University)/NASA/ESA
GIF from ‘Star Trek: First Contact’ Paramount Pictures

Are there movies that you didn't work on that you especially admired for their attention to detail or scientific accuracy?

Yeah, I like The Martian a lot. I think that, in terms of the look, Gravity was really amazing and spectacular. I have some nitpicks with the physics. For a movie that is going to great lengths to try and be ultrarealistic, there's a few things that are just really, glaringly wrong in it that bug me, but it looked amazing.

Anything specific?

Oh, it’s things like what force is pulling George Clooney away from Sandra Bullock. Like, why can’t she just give him a little tug and just pull him—what's pulling him away? There is no force that does that. And that the Hubble and the ISS and the Chinese Space Station are in really, really different orbits of altitude and velocity. There’s no way that suit jets could get you from the Hubble to the ISS. Things like, why is the Chinese space station reentering? What possible damage could happen that would make something reenter? It's not like it’s a B-17 that's been hit by flak and is going down, but that’s sort of how it was treated in the movie.

2001 was always a favorite of mine. That’s a long time ago now, but it was just so superbly done. Just great design work, and it was a milestone in high-quality, realistic depiction of space travel.

There are only so many high-profile space movies from year to year. Will you file away certain shots or techniques in a movie that you think were done well, and if a similar situation arises on something you're working on, take some instruction from that?

Oh yeah, I’m sure that happens, but I'm a strong advocate of “don’t copy other movies.” I like to go to primary references. Go look at the closest real thing that you can find photography of and see what you can learn from that. This is something that [ILM’s] Dennis Muren also feels pretty strongly about, and one of the things he’s said is, there’s a danger when people start referencing other movies. It becomes a copy of a copy of a copy. An example he’ll use is when he was working on Jurassic Park, there were no other dinosaur movies to copy, and so what they copied is elephants and ostriches and Komodo dragons and lizards and birds, and that was their primary reference. And later, when other people were doing dinosaur movies, they would look at Jurassic Park, and so they were sort of copying the stylizations in Jurassic Park. If you just refer to other movies, those are always approximations anyway, so you're making an approximation of an approximation.