How ‘Rogue One’ Brought Back Familiar Faces

Warning: This article contains spoilers about “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.”

Making a new “Star Wars” movie can be like gaining access to a toy collection that has been amassed over four decades. For the creators of “Rogue One,” a film designed as a narrative lead-in to the original “Star Wars,” it was a chance to play with characters, vehicles and locations sacred to this series.

But as they revisited the 1977 George Lucas movie that started the “Star Wars” franchise, and gave fresh screen time to some lesser-known heroes and villains, the staffs of Lucasfilm and Industrial Light & Magic faced artistic and technological hurdles: most prominently, using a combination of live action and digital effects to bring back the character Grand Moff Tarkin. This nefarious ally of Darth Vader and commander of the Death Star was played by Peter Cushing, the horror-film actor, who died in 1994.

In doing so, they also waded into a postmodern debate about the ethics of prolonging the life span of a character and his likeness beyond that of the actor who originated the role.

The effects experts and storytellers behind “Rogue One” (which was directed by Gareth Edwards and written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy) say they have given careful thought to these issues and were guided by their reverence for this interstellar epic.

“A lot of us got into the industry because of ‘Star Wars,’ and we all have this love of the original source material,” said John Knoll, the chief creative officer at Industrial Light & Magic and a visual effects supervisor on “Rogue One” who shares story credit on the film with Gary Whitta. In his view, the character effects are “in the spirit of what a lot of ‘Star Wars’ has done in the past.”

Some vintage “Rogue One” characters were easier to conjure than others. General Dodonna, a rebel officer from the original “Star Wars” was simply recast; he was played by Alex McCrindle in the first film and Ian McElhinney in the new one.

Jimmy Smits, who played the galactic Senator Bail Organa in the “Star Wars” prequels, returned in that role. And Genevieve O’Reilly, who played the rebellion leader Mon Mothma in “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith,” only to have her footage cut from the film, finally got to appear as that character in “Rogue One.” (The role was originated by Caroline Blakiston in “Return of the Jedi.”)

Tarkin presented considerably greater difficulties, but the filmmakers said it would be just as hard to omit him from a narrative that prominently features the fearsome Death Star — the battle station he refuses to evacuate amid the rebels’ all-out assault in “Star Wars.”

“If he’s not in the movie, we’re going to have to explain why he’s not in the movie,” said Kiri Hart, a Lucasfilm story development executive and “Rogue One” co-producer. “This is kind of his thing.”

For principal photography, the filmmakers cast the English actor Guy Henry (“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”), who has a build and stature like Cushing’s and could speak in a similar manner.

Throughout filming, Mr. Henry wore motion-capture materials on his head, so that his face could be replaced with a digital re-creation of Cushing’s piercing visage.

Mr. Knoll described the process as “a super high-tech and labor-intensive version of doing makeup.”

“We’re transforming the actor’s appearance to look like another character, but just using digital technology,” he said.

In striving…