VFX in Solo: A Star Wars Story
Linda Romanello
September 3, 2018

VFX in Solo: A Star Wars Story

With the return of one of cinema’s most beloved heroes, Han Solo, in his own origins story,  Solo: A Star Wars Story , Disney and Lucasfilm give audiences a look at the iconic character’s early life in the criminal underground world, his initial meeting with future co-pilot Chewbacca, and first encounters with the gambler Lando Calrissian.

To create the unique look of the film, Ron Howard was brought on to helm the project as director, and was supported by a stellar team that includes special creature effects legend Neal Scanlan and visual effects super-visor Rob Bredow (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Independence Day, Godzilla, The Amazing Spider Man and Men in Black 3), among others.

“This film is charged with youthful energy – and cool. While it had to be true to the aesthetic and sensibility of Star Wars, we also wanted to push the envelope to make it work for young audiences, so it would feel more relatable than nostalgic. And yet, in a way, this is the first real character study in the galaxy so far for fans,” says Howard. “The story very much reflects the spirit of the original movies in the combination of playfulness, thematic focus, mixed with great action, and a universe that is fascinating, inviting, entertaining, and a little bit thought-provoking.”

To tie together the work of set designers, costume designers, Scanlan’s creature work, the photography, and more was the visual effects efforts of Industrial Light & Magic, headed up by Bredow, the newly named SVP, executive creative director, and head of ILM. Bredow oversaw the 2,000-plus visual effects shots for the film, created by a team of more than 1,200 artists worldwide and additional contributions from outside vendors, including the Montreal-based Hybride, with which ILM has partnered on a number of previous projects. 

Effects work pretty much spanned the full gamut, including CG characters and objects, digi-doubles, set extensions, matte paintings, greenscreens, and more to create vehicles, character performances, otherworldly environments, and spacecraft unique to the Star Wars universe. From the speeder chase and train heist to the infamous Kessel Run, the VFX team had an immense challenge in creating the over 90 minutes of visual effects required for the film.

A New Classic

Bredow says, “This movie had a particular aesthetic that we were going for, which was inspired by the 1970s’ way of making the film. We leveraged a lot of the older, original visual effects techniques and then updated them for modern technology.” The teams combined “some of the best old-school techniques with cutting-edge technology” to pull it all off, resulting in Solo’s unique look and feel. Bredow and ILM collaborated closely with the special effects team, led by supervisor Dominic Tuohy, as well as Scanlan, to bring Howard’s vision to the screen.

“I think we pulled out every trick in the book on this film, and developed a few new ones of our own,” explains Bredow. “We took some of the oldest visual effects techniques, such as front- and rear-screen projection, and updated them with the latest technology. This allowed us to film 360-degree environments on the stunning Dryden’s Yacht set. We also used the latest laser projection technology to surround the Falcon cockpit with screens.”

Bredow acknowledges that rear projection is not a new technique. In fact, it’s been done for probably a hundred years, where you place a projector behind a screen and photograph that projector with something else going on in the foreground. “We did a really nice version of that for this film for several different scenes, including the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon,” he says. 

Here, Bredow describes that work. “We made a 30-foot-tall screen that wrapped 180 degrees around the cockpit, and then we put seven 4K laser projectors around the back, which would project on the back of that screen. When you got into the cockpit and looked out the window, you actually saw the stars that were out there, or whatever environment we were going to next. And then when you pushed the levers on the Millennium Falcon and pushed it into hyperspace, you would actually see the stars stretch and go into hyperspace for real, in-camera. Not only did it create a really convincing look for the camera, but it looked just like we had done it with bluescreen, or even better, because the light coming off of the screen was lighting the actors and the set in such a way that everything looked integrated. 

“So, that’s a fun example of taking something that’s been done before in Star Wars and improving the quality of it because of the greater interactivity between the lights and the cockpit, and also being very efficient with the way we were able to do the work,” Bredow continues. “We had a very compressed postproduction schedule, so in that case, we were able to get some shots right in-camera that were going into the film.”

Bredow adds that the effect also immersed the cast into hyperspace, so they were “actually experiencing it like you would on a simulator ride, only at feature-film quality that worked in-camera.”

Cast of Characters

The team also combined rod puppets and creature costumes with state-of-the-art digital effects to introduce new characters, such as the droid L3-37 and Rio to the Star Wars universe.

“We made every effort to capture as much in-camera as possible, not only for the creatures and environments, but also the incredible vehicles in the film,” says Bredow. “Those are real 550 horsepower speeders, where VFX removed the wheels and enhanced the world around it,” he says.

As for the L3-37 and Rio characters, there was a bit more involved that proved slightly more of a challenge.

“Some of the work that I’m most happy with in the film revolved around the techniques that we chose, and it did require really careful execution to make sure it looked seamless,” says Bredow. “One of the characters that I particularly like is L3; she plays kind of Lando’s right-hand person, and she’s played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who is a hilarious actress. She was very into this idea of performing in a physical droid suit. But the design of the droid was such that there was no way to make a fully-practically suit — with L3, you can see all of her innards, and there’s no way to hide a person in there. So, we collaborated closely with the costume department to make an amazing L3 costume for the character, and that included what you see around her hips, chest plate, and the outside of her legs and arms, as well as the top of her head. Then we actually used all of that from the original photography, and we removed Phoebe from inside of it and put back in with CG all the inner surfaces, connectors, and wires. It required a very tight integration between the live-action photography and the digital additions.” 

Once the crew had the technique all worked out, “the character was just incredibly believable because it really was Phoebe in a suit on set interacting with the actors,” Bredow continues. “Because she is so great at improv, and her ability to puppet and be this character, you get this amazing performance. Then in visual effects, the work was very detail-oriented, to make sure everything matched perfectly and to bring the character to life.”

The team leveraged a wide variety of tools for Solo, including rendering primarily in Pixar’s RenderMan and compositing with Foundry’s Nuke, while most of the animation was done in Autodesk’s Maya. Some of the more articulate character builds were completed in ILM’s proprietary BlockParty procedural rigging system, enabling the artists to create realistic and digitally-animated characters such as Rio. 

Eye on Storytelling

Bredow points out that all the visual effects decisions stem from the creative storytelling perspective and are simply a result of what the story demands. He points to the train heist sequence, which takes place on the planet of Vandor, with its snowy mountains and steep valleys as an example. While there were multiple ways to approach that, the group choose one that suited the storytelling of this film: to actually go out to a real location. They collected various background photography from the Italian Dolmites. 

“We took those plates and also about 40,000 photos, more than a hundred square miles of these mountains, and we used that to photo-model all of those mountains. We took all those photos at the right time of day, which not only gave us the shape of the mountains for our photo-modeling, but also the texture, the actual lighting that we wanted to capture. Then we enhanced that in a couple of places with computer-generated mountains, too, but we were really using the plate photography and the photo-modeled mountains as the primary sources from which to draw,” Bredow explains. 

The whole goal, Bredow says, was to make the sequence feel as grounded and believable as possible, as if it had been shot in the ’70s. So when you see helicopter shots – even though they were shooting with a gyro-stabilizer chopper that was very modern, and using very high tech and a very high-quality camera – they also shot with vintage lenses and added a camera shake inspired by the camera mounts used in Apocalypse Now. “That was the kind of era that we were going for,” he adds. “We, of course, pulled that off using the latest software, the latest innovations, but were able to get the creative feel we were looking for.”

In all, Bredow spent around two and a half years working on Solo, at first in London, prepping for photography and doing photography, and the rest of the time in San Francisco and LA — going back and forth. 

While he’s worked on some big movies in the past, Bredow says, “there’s nothing bigger than working as the visual effects supervisor on Star Wars. When the team asked me to come on, there was some trepidation because of the scale of the work and the quality bar that Star Wars has consistently hit over the years. I definitely walked in very excited and looking forward to it, but also very aware that I was working on a Star Wars movie and wanting to maintain that high bar and push the envelope in terms of innovation and quality.”

He adds: “It was such a privilege to take fans into the Star Wars universe and visit a point in time which, while familiar, will be wholly new to them. We endeavored to utilize the best combination of modern technology and a 1970s filmmaking aesthetic. It’s one of the things that makes Solo so unique.”