Living on the Edge
Issue: April-May-June 2021

Living on the Edge

Have you ever dreamed of traveling to a galaxy far, far away to experience your own adventures? Now you can, thanks to ILMxLAB, Lucasfilm's immersive entertainment studio. With the year-end 2020 release of Star Wars: Tales from the Galaxy's Edge, players don VR headsets and travel to the planet Batuu, where they can interact with classic and brand-new Star Wars characters and villains, and explore familiar areas as well as never-before-seen regions.

Set between the events of Star Wars: The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker, Tales is an Oculus Quest adventure where a person plays as a droid repair technician operating near Batuu before things go awry and the player escapes, crashing on the planet. "You get to explore some of the worlds that connect with the themed areas of Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge from the parks, but we're not duplicating what exists there," says Michael Koperwas, mixed-reality supervisor at ILMxLAB and lead character artist on Tales. "That [park area] acts as a starting point to Tales, allowing you to explore and jump into new adventures that take you to far-off locations."

Koperwas, who has worked at ILM for approximately two decades in visual effects, explains that the ILMxLAB team - comprising talent from a number of areas, including film and gaming - uses some of the same processes from those genres for its interactive projects, including Tales. That includes the writing of a narrative script, previs, story-boarding, and motion capture, along with the game element of grayboxing, whereby interactivity is mapped out.

The content-creation pipeline also is similar to that used for a film or high-end game, with the process for Tales leaning more toward game creation. " Tales is much more of an open world than Vader Immortal, and it's a lot more open to wandering and exploring," says Koperwas, referring to the three-part Oculus/PlayStation VR series ILMxLAB first debuted in 2019. "However, there is still a story at its heart, with narrative beats."

For Tales, the artists relied heavily on Autodesk's Maya for modeling and Adobe's Substance for texturing, as well as other traditional DCC software used across films and games. After the characters, environments, and assets were built, the group ported them over to a "heavily customized" Epic Games Unreal Engine, where the majority of the experience was developed and the remainder of the work occurred.

"We used many tools that we also use on the VFX side, but then use Sim Stream, which we developed for some previous projects that enables us to compress data from our capture pipeline for facial capture and cloth simulation, and make it playable and consumable on a platform like the Quest," explains Koperwas. The result is more natural movement for the characters.

Tales from the Galaxy's Edge
Tales from the Galaxy’s Edge is ILMxLAB’s latest at-home VR experience.

On Batuu

One of the project's challenges was working within all the technical constraints and fitting as many detailed characters and assets into the experience as possible. This required balancing the number of polygons and triangles that can be on the screen at one time, the density of the environment, the intensity of the lighting, as well as the number of visual effects (explosions, blaster fire, and so on) that can occur simultaneously - so players feel as though they are in a very dense world. "We don't want to overwhelm the audience, but want everything to look as phenomenal as possible," says Koperwas.

In the world, there are numerous characters, both new and recognizable, including R2-D2, C-3PO, and the owner of Black Spire Outpost's Droid Depot, Mubo. One of the more difficult to create, according to Koperwas, was Seezelslak, a six-eyed Azumel bartender who runs his own cantina on Batuu and has a penchant for storytelling. Despite his unusual and hulking appearance, he is particularly approachable, and his multiple faces are important in how he presents.

Another challenging character: Yoda. "We wanted to do a great service for such an important character to the series. We wanted to treat him with care and finesse, to make sure he came across well on-screen," Koperwas explains.

ILMxLAB incorporates a lot of motion capture into its production process - from previs to animation, where animators push mocap to new heights, adding nuances and "that extra bit of weight so these alien characters feel visceral and real," says Koperwas.

Creating the locales proved challenging, too. There are seven major environments, along with numerous sub-environments, including the unexplored wilds of Batuu, Mubo's workshop, and Seezelslak's cantina, where the adventure kicks off. From a window in the cantina, visitors get a virtual view into Black Spire Outpost, as depicted in Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge, the immersive lands at Disneyland and Walt Disney World, which also feature the location-based entertainment (LBE) multi-ride system experience Rise of the Resistance. The team wanted to treat Seezelslak's cantina space with particular care to make it feel as if it is an actual bar that people can hang out in. There's lots to do here and lots to see, with packs of porgs wandering about.

"We wanted [Tales] to feel like a large, open world with lots of paths you can explore, one where the player has more freedom to explore and more ownership of the adventure," notes Koperwas. But, there were technical limitations with the Oculus platform to consider when creating the experience - the Quest doesn't have the firepower of a high-spec gaming PC or an LBE experience.

As a result, the group worked closely with Oculus on where it could push and eke out as much image quality and horsepower as possible. "I know it's a cliché, but we tried to not look at [the issues] as constraints, but as opportunities to be clever," says Koperwas.

With an LBE experience where the hardware technology is more controllable, the content constraints are more of a physical nature - the location of the walls and other metrics that the group must adhere to. In those, the experience is crafted for a specific space where everything comes to the player. Whereas with Tales, ILMxLAB was able to craft an experience with far more open space, resulting in something much more explorable, making scale and the incorporation of epic moments an important focus.

Living the Life

Tales is just the latest example of what ILMxLAB is trying to achieve in terms of "story-living," whereby visitors can feel as if they are living through a cinematic experience (see "X-cellence" on page 14).

"With Tales from the Galaxy's Edge, we wanted to experiment in a lot of different areas while creating esoteric moments - playing repulsor darts at the cantina or selecting music on the jukebox; things that are fun to do and experience, but also play a part in the story - as opposed to simply exploring the world. "We're trying to push against the boundaries of that type of experience, like we did for Star Wars: Project Porg (a mixed-reality experience for the Magic Leap platform) and Avengers: Damage Control (an LBE experience)."

In all, close to 40 artists spent nearly a year and a half developing Tales, whose total content exceeds that of a feature film as opposed to a short. Although difficult to quantify the exact length due to the playable aspects, some people navigate the space more quickly, while others take their time. "It's so rich. You can find all these great locations to just sit and watch the characters," says Koperwas, pointing to one of his favorites areas in the experience, a spot called Dead Root Refuge, where players can enjoy a large vista with the sun setting in the distance, touching off the rocks and setting them aflame in the light.

Like all of ILMxLAB's projects, Tales advances the group's storyliving to new level. But there is one obstacle the group had to overcome that was very unexpected: the pivots resulting from the COVID-19 shutdown as the artists adapted to the resulting new workflow. In Koperwas's opinion, those measures will likely portend how "we'll want to work together in the future." He adds, "We learned a lot of positive things that resulted from that situation."