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Making of “Star Wars: Knights of Ren”

How a director/cinematographer and 3D/VFX artist created their 4K Star Wars fan trailer.

Originally posted on YouTube as a “leak,” the Star Wars fan film trailer “Knights of Ren” went viral earlier this year, sparking speculation about a new film. The brainchild of Director/Cinematographer Josiah Moore and 3D and VFX artist Jacob Dalton, the mock-trailer was a proof of concept fueled by a shared love of Star Wars.

Dalton, who is currently freelancing from his home in Oregon, was working in California at Video Copilot when Moore reached out with a motion design project. The collaboration led to a creative friendship with Dalton acting as VFX wingman on a range of personal and professional projects. 

We talked with Dalton about working with Moore, and how he used C4D and Redshift to create the trailer. 

Tell us about yourself and how you got into VFX.  

Dalton: I’ve been creating videos since middle school. VFX has always been a passion of mine, and I followed Video Copilot tutorials to develop the skills I needed to freelance. I was making and posting tutorials on my YouTube channel and one of them caught the eye of 3D/VFX artist Andrew Kramer.

He brought me on at Video Copilot, so I moved to California and worked on various projects, including the THX Deep Note Trailer. I made the jump back to freelancing when my wife and I were expecting our second kid. 

Jacob Dalton, left, and Josiah Moore teamed up to create “Knights of Ren.”

It was a really tough decision, but freelancing allowed me to move the family back to Oregon and work when it was convenient. It’s a great work/life balance, and for that I feel very lucky. 

How did you meet Josiah Moore, and what is your collaborative process like?

Dalton: Josiah reached out to me about six years ago via Twitter. He found me on YouTube, like a lot of my other clients, and wanted help with a 3D title for a music video he was creating. 

We’ve become close friends and have done numerous music videos and personal projects together. He’s a super creative guy and a total pro at handling every aspect of the production process. He trusts me to handle the VFX, and I rely heavily on his vision.

If he thinks something is going to be cool, I trust it will be. And when we’re working on our personal stuff, I get to experiment with tools, techniques and effects that I don’t often get the chance to do with client work. 

The “guerrilla approach” to getting a Sith to jump to another ship in the trailer.

One thing I particularly enjoyed on the “Knights of Ren” project was the guerrilla approach to the whole creative process. It's not often you get to see how far you can push some footage of a guy jumping off a trampoline in a cardboard mask! 

How did you carve up the work, and were some of the highlights?

 Dalton: It was a ton of fun to see this develop. Josiah wanted to create a scene where a Sith jumps from one ship to another to take it down out of the sky. We talked through ideas and what shots we thought would work well. 

Josiah created the costume, shot all the footage and edited the video together with music and sound. He also did the ending title treatment. I took care of all the visual effects, everything from tracking shots and sourcing to creating 3D assets, animating, compositing and rendering. I loved working on a Star Wars fan project that was about having fun and trying stuff out. 

It wasn’t until we were almost finished that we decided to release it as a hoax “Knights of Ren” trailer. The reaction was awesome. Star Wars fans went crazy, picking up on details, like the helmet that was inspired by the Witch King from “Lord of the Rings.” 

Dalton used Video Copilot’s free Star Wars Pack for some of the scenes.

They even commented on the sound effects and fighter models, which really helped us polish the extended HD version. We even had people saying they want to see it as a full-length movie. Now that would be cool.  

Can you talk us through your process a bit?

Dalton: Cinema 4D is at the core of all my work and Redshift is my favorite renderer, I’m a big fan of how Redshift handles everything from texturing, render settings, AOVs, tags and the Render View, which allows me to use LUTs.I can also render all my scenes and volumetrics quickly on my single GPU 2080 ti. 

I rely on Adobe’s Creative Suite, with After Effects for compositing and, when needed, I use Substance Painter and Designer to create custom materials. Most of the time, though, I get by with just the nodes Redshift provides for texturing.

I used ready 3D textures and models for this project where I could, which saved a lot of time. Video Copilot’s free Star Wars Pack comes with clean X-Wing, TIE Fighter, and light saber models, so that was ideal.

Dalton manually animated lights in the lava scenes to create a flicker effect.

I started with the rocky lava landscape, which features in both the opening and end scenes. And I gave myself time to focus on detail, using C4D to clone a disc matrix object to get the placement and balance of rocks and debris in the foreground.

Redshift gave me the ability to add extra details to the pre-created rocky ground texture that I grabbed online. 

Specifically, I was able to blend a lava material into the crevices and char out some edges to create a really nice landscape material. I Used AOVs to render different passes and composite them together in After Effects so I could stay flexible. 

I rendered the clouds separately in every scene to save time and keep me iterating quickly. Having a depth pass along with different puzzle mattes for specific background rocks made putting mist and cloud details into the background of the opening and ending shots quick and easy. 

What did you find challenging?

Dalton: Creating the damaged X-Wing would have been really tough due to the UV situation if it weren't for a combination of Substance Painter’s auto UV tool and Redshift’s ability to add little extra damage details with curvature and noise nodes. 

I was a bit limited by poly in that model but was able to refine the look, creating duplicate material in my node graph to push roughness and add black charring to crevices and edges, as well as displacement in spots.

Dalton used a clip of real lightning to create the effects in this scene. 

One of the most challenging things about this project was getting the lighting to feel dramatic and exciting, but still match our footage. There were moments where multiple renders were masked and feathered together to get the feeling we were after.  

One of my favorite effects is the slow-motion lighting in the middle of the jump shot where the Sith is flying toward the X-Wing. I pulled a clip of real lightning shot in slow motion and masked out the part I needed. 

When the lightning was at its brightest, I noted the frame in the sequence and went back to Cinema 4D and Redshift to render a separate pass of the X-Wing and Tie Fighter with a bright light shining underneath. Then, I could animate the opacity of that layer to match the brightness of the lightning to really bring the whole shot together.

What did you enjoy most about working on this trailer?

Dalton: I’ve learned a lot of fun techniques over the years, but this is the only project where I could put them all to good use. Color keying, building 3D scenes, custom textures, modeling textures – it had everything I like to do, so this was a good chapter marker for me. 

The final scene was the first thing Dalton worked on to get the landscape details right. 

I also got to experiment by iteration, which really sums up the spirit of the project for me. Having a loose plan was really cool, and letting the moment inspire me was a great way to experiment and develop skills and techniques. Ultimately, that’s what helps you develop your style and find your voice. 

Helena Swahn is a writer in the United Kingdom.