VFX supervisor Goran Backman details the studio’s creature and environment work on Jon Favreau, Lucasfilm and Disney+’s VES and Emmy Award-winning hit space-adventure series.
Leading design company Pixomondo has just shared with AWN a VFX breakdown reel of their work on Jon Favreau, Lucasfilm and Disney+’s hit VES Award-winning space-adventure series, The Mandalorian, the which just took home five Creative Arts Emmy Awards, including one for Outstanding Special Visual Effects for the episode, “Chapter 2: The Child.”
Launched last November 12 as the first ever Star Wars live-action series, The Mandalorian is set five years after the events of Return of the Jedi, and tells the story of a deadly Mandalorian bounty hunter, Din Djarin, with questionable morals, as he is thrust a quest to reunite a “foundling” we know as baby Yoda to its kin. The show stars Pedro Pascal (Narcos), Gina Carano (Deadpool), Giancarlo Esposito (Breaking Bad), Emily Swallow (Supernatural), Carl Weathers (Predator), Omid Abtahi (American Gods), Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man) and Nick Nolte (Affliction).
As one of a number of VFX vendors ILM brought in on the show, Pixomondo, led by VFX supervisor Goran Backman, delivered close to 500 shots, with roughly 400 staff in total working over a span of 12 months. According to Backman, much of their work focused on creatures and characters: Blurrgs, the two-legged beasts of burden; Dewbacks, the four-legged thick skinned beasts of burden; Reptavians, the flying creatures attacking our heroes in the dark; a Qartuum, a creature seen in one shot only in a nod to classic Star Wars establisher shots using creatures for mood; a Gorvin Snu, a lizard creature; and a pit droid, built from ILM-provided geometry. PXO also created a handful of the exploded IG-11 assassin droids seen lying on the back of a Blurrg; they were provided the IG-11 model, which was used to create a damaged bundle of droids.
On the environment front, Backman says the studio built the full model of Mos Eisley seen from afar and inside, as well as recreated a classic shot seen from outside the cantina. “For Arvala environments, we built one Jawa camp establisher shot, Mando’s landing site, Quill’s ranch and a range of more general environments seen throughout our heroes’ travels… and a Tatooine Dune Sea environment.” he adds.
“We started early on the show, as our work involved providing on-set data for some of the Blurrg sequences in the form of animation cycles sequences to drive practical representations,” the VFX supervisor goes on to share. “Of the large number of longer sequences we worked on, here are descriptions of some of the more complex ones.”
The Blurrg Attack Sequence
“Two wild Blurrgs attack Mando at the Razorcrest landing environment. For the show as a whole we established the wider look of this environment; in this sequence we also had to add two Blurrgs charging at our hero. This involved painting out a Blurrg stunt standin, replacing Mando's arm as it was grabbed onto, enhancing Blurrg interaction with actor and ground, animating, rendering and compositing all shots. We also helped develop the rifle scope view, rendered and composited the Razorcrest (an ILM provided asset) into all shots, and developed a flamethrower asset for Mando's arm seen here in a few shots.”
Blurrg Mount Sequence
“Here we tell the story of Mando taming a Blurrg at Kuiil's pen. This was shot against bluescreen on a backlot. Our work involved creating Kuiil's home and surrounding tools and gadgetry, replacing fence if needed, extending ground into the distance, adding dirt kick up FX, creating a mountain range and ensuring all creature work held up at close distance. This sequence had the most interaction between Mando and Blurrg, ranging from petting its forehead to riding the creature. Some shots showed such demanding action we had to create a full CG Mando riding the Blurrg.”
Reptavian Attack Sequence
“In another creature-heavy sequence, we created the Reptavian creature specifically for this sequence, and took care in building it to hold up well enough for the most challenging shot - a shot of Mando getting dragged on the ground by the winged beast. We also created rifle bolts firing and together with [overall VFX supervisor] Richard Bluff, ensured the timing of the fight worked in an edit. This sequence shows a handful of full CG shots of the Blurrgs getting attacked by the Reptavians, while the latter was being fired at by our heroes. We shot steel wool lit on fire and retimed this for the holes in the Reptavian's wings left by the rifle bolts. The last few shots also feature our CG flamethrower pushing the attackers away.”
“This was a sequence showing Mando and Toro Calican approaching a Dewback dragging a downed bounty hunter. We built a full CG sand dune environment for the approach, animated, rendered and integrated the Dewback, and added marks in the sand for where the Dewback had dragged the bounty hunter. This was another sequence shot against bluescreen on a backlot, so it involved extending the environment in the vast majority of the shots.”
Nevarro Landing Sequence
“We were tasked with adding three Blurrgs to the traveling party of three (Mando, Kuiil and Cara Dune). We extended the environment where greenscreen had been put up, added the Razorcrest, animated, rendered and integrated a CG pram for Baby Yoda and the tree Blurrgs.”
Attack at Arvala Badlands Canyon
“This was a sequence showing our Gorvin Snu lizard-like creature. We helped design Mando's rifle FX, enhanced the fight sequence between Mando and the Trandoshans as well as animate, render and integrate all Gorvin Snu creatures. We also enhanced the Trandoshans' eyes to match the established look in the Star Wars universe.”
“We also animated, rendered and integrated sequences with the pit droid, as well as many others.”
For Backman and his PXO team, the biggest challenge was creating content good enough to hold up alongside existing Star Wars features while being produced on a TV schedule. “ILM VFX supervisor Richard Bluff always ensured we had as good a starting point as possible to achieve this, as well as a constant support of his time throughout the project,” he says.
“On a more specific level, the creation and handling of the Blurrg was our largest challenge,” he adds. “We had to create our CG Blurrg to match the proportions of a small cut of a practical on-set Blurrg representation. This on-set Blurrg was driven by a motion base, which is itself driven by a set of pistons. We re-created this motion base in CG and attached it to our CG Blurrg. This way our animators could see the pistons expand and contract, causing the motion base to move and rotate, while they worked on the Blurrg performances. They could also see warnings in our motion base rig so that we'd know when our animations would not be able to get replicated on-set. After having been approved by [ILM animation supervisor] Hal Hickel, we submitted our animations, which then drove the motion base while shooting the sequence. Once an edit had been approved, ILM provided the in and out frame cuts of our animations; we cut our own animations up accordingly and saw the footage perfectly line up with our animations.”
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.