Production VFX supervisor Mohen Leo and Production VFX producer T.J. Falls picked up where they left off on Gareth Edward’s 2016 ‘Rogue One,’ helping deliver a whopping 3,843 visual effects shots, including the daring oceanic planet Narkina V prison escape, the Eye of Aldhani meteor shower, and the Fondor Haulcraft’s encounters with Fury-class Imperial interceptors, on the inaugural season of Lucasfilm and Disney+’s hit prequel series – nominated for an Outstanding Visual Effects Emmy.
The 2016 release of director Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One: A Star Wars Story expanded the Star Wars cinematic universe by revealing how plans for the original Death Star were stolen. Taking that backstory even further is the Lucasfilm and Disney+ series Andor, which revolves around how Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) became involved in the Rebel Alliance and the events leading up to his spearheading the fateful espionage mission. Overseeing the project is creator and showrunner Tony Gilroy, currently producing the second 12-episode season of the show (production has been halted by the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strike) with the assistance of Visual Effects Supervisor Mohen Leo and Visual Effects Producer T.J. Falls, both of whom were involved in the original film. The series has been nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Special Visual Effects in a Season or a Movie.
Gilroy’s familiarity with this Star Wars storyline was extensive; he wrote the original film and directed extensive reshoots. “The first thing that made it much easier on this show was that Tony Gilroy had been heavily involved in Rogue One and was the showrunner of this show right from start,” notes Leo. “Having known him for four or five years, there was an instant trust and shorthand. It was also much easier him knowing where he could give us a free reign and go, ‘Here is what I want it to feel like. Now go ahead and start prevising.’ He would have the confidence that we were going in the direction that he wanted because we had worked with him before. Aesthetically, we took some of the things we did on Rogue One and went one step further, trying to be even more grounded and in the world of ordinary people within Star Wars.”
There was also another Gilroy involved with the project. “We also had John Gilroy, who had cut Rogue One and has been as the supervising editor for Andor,” Falls shares. “We had a built-in trust and a way of working. From day one, it was continuing off from the movie, which was a nice and unique experience. But it also provided interesting situations with Tony where because we had that shorthand, he would shortcut his descriptions, ‘You’ll see this, and it’ll be great. You’ll make it look beautiful. Just make it feel like ‘x’.’ Mohen and I would have to go away and ask each other, ‘What did he mean?’ We would come up with a design or idea to take back to him and then riff off each other and make it work.”
A good example of the collaboration was when the Fondor Haulcraft, piloted by Luthen Rael (Stellan Skarsgård), encounters Fury-class Imperial Interceptors. “Tony was looking for inspiration and ideas so taking not only what we knew from our experience from Rogue One but also Mohen and I have done a lot with Star Wars projects,” Falls explains. “We were able to leverage a lot of that innate knowledge of past assets and ships that perhaps had been created and touched on. That’s where the idea of the Interceptor cruiser had come into the Fondor space beat. It was a ship actually designed for Solo: A Star Wars Story that didn’t get much exposure in the movie.”
The Fondor Haulcraft has been nicknamed the “lightsaber” ship because of its innovative way of escaping. “The lightsaber was not the primary inspiration,” laughs Leo. “Early on Tony likened the ship to James Bond’s Aston Martin. It should look like an ordinary ship to the naked eye but then it has all these cool spy things and countermeasures built into it. When we were playing around with ideas, I asked myself, ‘What things does the Aston Martin have? Oil slicks. Blades that come out of the side of the tires. What if we do a weapon that can take things out which are to the side rather than ahead of him?’ Also, a shoutout to Ben Snow [Senior VFX Supervisor, ILM] on Iron Man 2 where there is a cool moment of Tony Stark activating a laser beam in the Japanese garden that shoots out from the sides and cuts everyone around him in half. We went, ‘This is a cool idea but how do we do it in Star Wars? Will it break any rules?’ I did some research and checked with Pablo Hidalgo, who is the Star Wars canon master at Lucasfilm. He said, ‘As long as you make it something that has to charge up and fire once then it’s fine.’ That’s how we designed the sequence.”
Unlike on The Mandalorian, virtual production supplemented location and set shooting, rather than providing the principal photographic methodology. “The approach we typically take is to find the right solution for the challenge of our show,” states Falls. “In some of the other Star Wars shows it has been timely and useful to use the virtual production technology in order to accomplish what they need. For our show, in particular, we had so many areas that we wanted to explore and have an immersive impact. We wanted to have our characters go through and also live in these environments. It made a lot more sense to be in the location. We found good locations through our location manager, Richard Hill, and Mohen and I spent a lot of time with Tony Gilroy and our production designer, Luke Hull, to make sure that we were maximizing what it is we needed from the location with what we were trying to accomplish for Andor.”
StageCraft was specifically utilized for the scenes in the Chandrilan Embassy where Senator Mon Mothma lives with her family on Coruscant. “Early on we looked at various sequences and that one stood out for having on the order of 11 different scenes in there at different time of day,” explains Leo. “It made sense to consider a LED approach for that. Working with the StageCraft and ILM teams, we built out the skyline of Coruscant that is seen outside the windows in a variety of lighting scenarios and weather conditions. We able to do those scenes entirely in camera and well over 95 percent of those shots went through and a handful required fixes like edges.”
Escaping from the Imperial prison on oceanic planet Narkina V was something Kino Loy (Andy Serkis) could not do because of the huge drop to the water below. According to Leo, “I get it! I’ve gotten up on high diving boards and then walked back down because I didn’t want to jump. That one was basically a stage set. We had built that at different levels. One for the corridor where people could run the length of it. Then there was a repeated shorter section that was 12 feet up in the air with stuntmen and cardboard boxes. Scanline VFX did the exterior. We did digital doubles for a couple of prisoners you see fall all the way down.”
He continues, “As for the machine parts being manufactured at the prison, there is no definitive answer. The most important aspect for Tony was that the prisoners were in this endless cycle of making the widget. The idea for the mid-credit scene in the final episode came relatively early on, but not so early that we shot the prison scene. We didn’t know yet how to fit this into the construction of a Death Star. Luke Hull did a lot of scale exploration because they make a thing 6’x12’ and the Death Star is miles across.”
In the show, the funeral procession for Maarva Andor (Fiona Shaw) on the planet Ferrix. becomes the venue to ignite a revolt against the Imperial Empire. “We had a wonderful backlot set that the art department built that had buildings built up to one or sometimes two levels,” remarks Falls. “We had a great basis of an environment that the actors could play within, and we would then be able to extend and make sure that we had the world built. But beyond that we had our guy on the bell tower; we had a separate set for that which was just behind the roads so we could get our proper perspective and be able to shoot him. We also had an orchestra which would be marching down the street playing music. We had to build the hologram of Maarva, which was a technical exercise given that the scale of her hologram is much different from her person. It was similar to Leia’s message in A New Hope where you are actually recording something to instigate the crowd and provide that emotional attachment.”
Techvis and previs were essential as Shaw would be shot separately. “In conjunction with that we were working with for creature effects, we had B2EMO there showing the hologram,” says Falls. “We have to make sure that we’ve got a part of the droid which can project the hologram of what it would be. Creature effects came up with a few different slots and actions that B2 does including the little piece on top that spins around so we could get the hologram projection going. It was fun being able to work with all these departments simultaneously to make everything happen for what will eventually in post-production become the final result of the project. We had to make sure that everything was visually seamless and still worked with music and sound in terms of the entirety of the feeling.”
Getting to do a heist within the Star Wars universe was fun for Leo. “Visual effects work the best when you manage to mix things between practical and digital in ways that keeps you from noticing that something is not real,” he observes. “One thing that helped to ground that sequence is the whole first part where they’re approaching the base from the outside. That was shot in the Scottish Highlands at this wonderful location. It starts off with you believing it’s a real place. The shootout was at Pinewood where we had a full-sized ship and a large part of the hanger practically built. We did lots of special effects and numerous shots of smoke. By the time you get into the flight part you’ve bought into it that something real is going on. Then, obviously the meteor shower was a huge development task with Scanline VFX that took well over a year from initial tests to finally finding the look that everyone liked.”
The meteor shower had to be frightening for anyone within it and spectacular for those witnessing from afar. “To try to come up with something that is terrifying and yet beautiful was a real challenge,” reveals Falls. “From the beginning we all knew that the Eye of Aldhani was going to be the look challenge that took us the longest. Tony gave us artwork of various ideas. Sometimes it was clear what he had in mind while other times graphics would be sent over and we’d ask, ‘What does that mean? How do we work that into what the look is?’ That process took a lot of pre-production. For the cockpit work everybody needed to know what we are looking at outside the windows so there was time pressure prior to the shoot to inform our DP what we were lighting for before going into post-production.”
Andor was shot during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. “Crowd scenes were quite challenging because you could get nowhere near the number of people needed,” remarks Leo. “Within the funeral, half of the shots ended up being tiling elements. Shooting the lower level of the plaza. Fill that for the plates where the hologram played. That along with a bunch of other things added even more complications.” Falls concurs with his ILM colleague. “It was tiles, 2D elements, a lot of element shoots where we would have the orchestra marching or crowd standing. We did a lot of it as 2D. Almost nothing was digital crowd replication. We tried to keep it grounded. With the elements we were able to shoot to populate the streets and areas, we couldn’t have the actual physical numbers on the day due to the restrictions.”
3,853 visual effects shots were created for Season 1. “Movies typically have under 2,500 visual effects shots, so it’s at least a movie and a half,” notes Falls. “It feels like when we’re doing it with 12 episodes, there were four movies worth between everything we did.” Leo is proud of the moody visual aesthetic of Andor, concluding, “Ultimately, what I’m most happy with is being able to find spots within the Star Wars universe that feel like a real grimy dirty place.”