January 4, 2016

How 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' Used a Remote Island in Ireland for a Pivotal Scene

JJ Abrams Looking into Camera Skellig Island
If you've seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens, you'll know exactly which scene was shot at the beautiful Skellig Michael, part of the remote Skellig Islands off the coast of Ireland.

We won't spoil anything here if you haven't watched the film yet, but it's a pretty pivotal scene near the end of the film. Originally the site of a Christian monastery over a thousand years ago, Skellig Michael was a perfect fit for Star Wars based on its look, a location that felt alien and grounded at the same time. In this video from Discover Ireland, we get a little behind the scenes on this location and why J.J. Abrams and the team decided it would work for the film:

It will be interesting to see how much more we'll get to see of this island in future films. There have been some reports that the production won't be returning for future movies due to environmental reasons (in addition it's a UNESCO World Heritage site), but we have no official word yet. If you'd like to learn more about Skellig Michael and Little Skellig, he's a terrific video that goes into greater detail about the islands and the ecosystem, which has quite a bird population:

It's important as an industry that we consider our impact on a place before we shoot, especially if we're filming somewhere that's a piece of history. It's difficult to bring a whole film crew and not have any sort of impact on a location, so I'm sure that's something the filmmakers and Ireland considered for future filming there.     

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10 Comments

It's a great island for sure, I was really impressed by it in the film. Too bad it was the only location that felt real. TFA suffered poor world building at the hands of popcorn action.

January 4, 2016 at 11:07PM

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By far the most jaw dropping location. Hopefully much more to see in ep 8.

January 4, 2016 at 11:22PM

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Sean Voysey
Creative Director
330

I enjoyed the film for nostalgia reasons, and it's a stunning location, but I do wish that they hadn't gone through with shooting there. My better half is a seabird expert and won't see the film. They were advised not to shoot there by many people and managed to keep it all fairly secret and push it through against advice:

“The lack of transparency in this case is particularly galling,” said Dr Stephen Newton, senior seabird conservation officer with BirdWatch Ireland. “It simply isn’t acceptable that decisions that may adversely affect one of Europe’s most important seabird colonies have been made in such a secretive way, without consultation or discussion … Despite fierce objections from BirdWatch Ireland and other Irish NGOs, and concerns from UNESCO, filming took place there in July 2014 (for Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens) for two weeks during the seabird breeding season. ”
http://www.birdlife.org/europe-and-central-asia/news/dark-side-star-wars

So in your article when you say "It's important as an industry that we consider our impact on a place before we shoot" it doesn't sound like they did, it sounds more like they knew they would have an impact and ignored it.

When there's a project to be completed on a vast scale that tons of money and man hours are being poured into, I do understand that they just wanted to get the thing done at any cost and I doubt it was one person's call so pointing the finger is unnecessary. Considering it's on screen for a few minutes though, you've got to wonder if it's worth the possibility of damaging a place in that way.

I for one, would like large productions to fully engage with what they're doing rather than skirting around environmental issues like they take second place to profit, that's what has got us where we are today (not a good place). I really do hope that they might accept that they shouldn't return there to film anymore.

January 5, 2016 at 5:28AM

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Liam Martin
DP, editor, part time director
1059

Out of curiosity, does anyone know if there was a proven, negative impact on the Seabirds? I've seen a lot of "potential" long term impacts and some (what sounds) unconfirmed reports about drowning birds but nothing really concrete.

Just curious - it obviously may be too early to tell!

January 5, 2016 at 11:11AM

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I don't think there's any findings yet, but I suppose that's part of the problem is that it's all speculative so difficult to measure and as such hard to say what's right or wrong in these cases. I did work on an island that had shearwater burrows on it in 2013, and needless to say it's very easy to tread in the wrong place and fall through a burrow onto a young chick. Then again the problem they reckon was more to do with returning adults coming back from sea, if they're sufficiently spooked they can abandon nests to save themselves (if I understand correctly).

We can hope it didn't cause too bad an impact though.

January 5, 2016 at 1:10PM

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Liam Martin
DP, editor, part time director
1059

they had about 4 set ups on the island itself. there were no props, no sets, no modifications, no extras, no catering, etc. etc. etc. skellig gets about a hundred such visits every year, they know the risks and understand mitigation very well.

January 5, 2016 at 10:37PM

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But the shot(s) were aerial, likely helicopter as the 2 and 3D cameras are rather heavy, thus sailing around through the airspace, where birds travel! Seems disruptive to me.

January 7, 2016 at 1:47PM, Edited January 7, 1:47PM

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Bob Byars
247

No 3D cameras were used. It was all 35mm film, therefore all 2D. The 3D was all done in post-production. There were also only two aerial shots, the one flying up to the island, and the one pivoting around. And I could tell on repeated viewings that they used a fairly long telephoto lens to stay far away.

January 8, 2016 at 12:40AM

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Check out Werner Herzog's Heart of Glass to see these Isles in all their monky glory

January 5, 2016 at 6:09AM

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What amazes me is that they needed that long and that many people to get a couple shots of a girl walking up a hill.

January 8, 2016 at 1:07AM, Edited January 8, 1:07AM

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Ryan Gudmunson
Recreational Filmmaker
765