Rogue One has two prominent CGI characters based on real life characters who are either dead (Peter Cushing) or who were older than their character’s age when the movie was being filmed (Carrie Fisher) as well as creative reuse of unused footage of X-Wing pilots from 1977.
So it seems to me that the franchise is still pushing the limits of special effects, but in new and creative ways that don’t end up with the CGI mess the prequel films were.
Did the franchise abandon this element, post-Lucas merely because
they'd lost one of the very few, true visionary innovators in the
medium? Did they abandon this element because it's not worth the
budget risk when they can just recycle ideas? Is it merely that
effects are now so advanced, it's functionally difficult to push the
First, I haven’t seen Rogue One (2016) yet, but based on what I have read in reviews and pretty much everywhere points to the Star Wars films not abandoning special effects innovation at all.
In fact the idea that a dead actor’s likeness (Peter Cushing) was used to “revive” Grand Moff Tarkin and that similar CGI magic was used to bring a young Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) into a movie made in 2016 points to special effects boundaries still being pushed.
Heck, they used old—and unused—footage of Red Leader (Drewe Henley) and Gold Leader (Angus MacInnes) from Star Wars (1977) in Rogue One so it gives further proof that special effects limits are still being pushed by the Star Wars franchise.
That said, the debate as to whether CGI effects enhance or detract from the movie going experience is still up for debate.
There is a video called “The WETA Effect, or, Why Special Effects Peaked in the 90’s” that is pretty spot on. And the whole gist of the it basically can be summed up as follows: CGI special effects work well to enhance scenes and footage filmed in the real world. But the second CGI special effects overwhelm the scene—and take over the whole environment—things start to look “fake.”
A simple example I can think of is Yoda from The Empire Strikes Back (1980) who was mainly a puppet but in at least one scene played by a physically small actor in a costume. Compare the way Yoda’s overall performance/presence feels in that film compared to the CGI Yoda that appears in the sequels; most people prefer the puppet Yoda to the CGI Yoda.
In The Sydney Morning Herald—in an article that expands on The WETA Effect, or, Why Special Effects Peaked in the 90’s—there is a great quote from Mark Lycette from RMIT University which states:
“CGI now is too perfect. Even if the films are grimy, it’s not really real. A human knows what real dirt is and it’s very easy to see fakery.”
Which is to say, with Disney—and not George Lucas—in control of the Star Wars franchise nowadays, the goal seems to be to shake off the bad taste of the badly used special effects in the prequels and see how they can adapt the franchise to modern film-making techniques that use special effects but don’t overwhelm the viewer with nonsense. Quotes from LucasFilm president Kathleen Kennedy—when asked about the production process for The Force Awakens (2015) back this up:
“We have an amazing team at ILM, who can create fantastic effects, but if we don’t have a great story and characters, the effects mean nothing.”
And regarding integrating real locations with special effects:
“It’s a conversation we’re having all the time in the development of Episode VII. Looking at all the Star Wars movies and getting a feel for what even some of the early films did, combining real locations and special effects - that’s something we’re looking very seriously at.”
So at the end of the day it seems that Disney/LucasFilm has decided it will still push the boundaries of special effects in subtle ways—such as with CGI Tarkin and Leia as well as using old footage of Red Leader and Gold Leader in new/cool ways—but they will be extremely careful about it.