Industrial Light & Magic employs its traditional hybrid approach to combining practical and CG effects for grounded performances.
When it came to animating Solo: A Star Wars Story, Industrial Light & Magic continued its hybrid approach for the franchise by combining CG with practical elements in the most grounded, and indistinguishable, possible way. And with director Ron Howard replacing Chris Miller and Phil Lord late in production last year, there were still opportunities for Howard to make certain adjustments to design, animation, and performance. Howard would also dynamically act out a scene all the way through or loop over different sections if he wanted to do pickups.
The three main animated characters were Rio Durant, the crusty, old, six-limbed pilot (voiced by Jon Favreau and performed on set by acrobat Katy Kartwheel); the rebellious, self-made pilot droid and companion to Lando Cairissian (Donald Glover), L3-37 (performed via mocap by Phoebe Waller-Bridge); and a squid-like CG space creature featured during the infamous Kessel Run.
Making Rio Different From Rocket
For Rio, the initial plan with Lord and Miller was to do a puppeted character with an augmented CG face and sometimes replacing his two extra arms. “And Ron came on and wanted to explore doing more robust CG work on him,” explained ILM animation supervisor Matt Shumway. “In the end, we still had a performer on set, Katy Kartwheel, who was in full Rio costume, and they cut out a hole in the mask so she could see. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t, but it gave the actors wonderful performances to play off of.”
In some cases, they retained Kartwheel’s body performances, but then replaced the head and added a couple of arms in the back. Other times they did a complete CG version informed by Favreau’s performance, which was directed by Howard.
In terms of the design, Howard had the animators chop off his hair and make him older and more grizzled. He took the cuteness out of him and gave him battle scars. “We didn’t want him to be a copy of Rocket [from Guardians of the Galaxy],” added Shumway. “He’s relaxed and funny and when he needs to get serious, he gets serious. And in the animation, his right eye is a little more squinty than his left eye, and he can’t talk as well out of the left side of his mouth.”
L3, the Hybrid Droid
Unlike Rio, there was very little animation done to the snarky pilot droid. Instead, they went the Ex Machina hybrid route, at the directive of Rob Bredow, the co-producer and VFX supervisor, who last month was promoted from chief technology officer of Lucasfilm to SVP, executive creative director and head of ILM. They had Waller-Bridge on set in a green mocap tracking suit, wearing costume pieces attached to her head, chest, arms, hips, and legs. Then they digitally replaced her head and the green suit and added CG wires and other connecting parts.
“There were only a few cases where animation needed to jump in and do some tweaks,” said Shumway. “The arm and leg pieces were hit and miss, depending on how well they held up. But all of the performance was based on what Phoebe did. There was no interpretive performance at all. She’s just another good hybrid of CG elements and live-action prop pieces. And, hopefully, you can’t tell which is which.”
A Last Minute Space Monster
Without a doubt, the highlight of Solo was The Kessel Run action sequence: the infamous record-setting mission that made legends of Han (Alden Ehrenreich) and the Millennium Falcon, as he amazingly piloted through the hazardous hyperspace smuggling route in less than 12 parsecs. Yet it wasn’t enough that they encountered an Imperial blockade, a gravity well, and a treacherous storm with carbon bergs. Howard added a space monster to up the danger as well. ILM previously toyed with the idea of adding a creature somewhere in the movie, but it was abandoned early on.
However, when the space monster was a definite go late in production, there wasn’t time for the usual amount of iterations. A series of basic concepts were presented to Howard and he chose the ones he liked best. Designer James Clyne called it a “Space-o-pus,” which goes after the Falcon when it’s awakened from a slumber. Han cleverly fools the creature and it gets sucked into the gravity well.
“Ron liked the head from one creature and the tail from another,” said Shumway. “They combined them to make the space creature, with nearly 50 tentacles. It wasn’t the easiest character for our animation team, but they pushed through on it. Being pulled by the gravity well provided some creative license in terms of physics.”
Instead of traditional eye blinks, though, which looked very cartoony, ILM went with the rolling motion of shark eyes. The layers of teeth they got from snapping turtles. “It was like a good combination of all the scariest elements of the ocean,” explained Shumway.
The final selling point was how Lando’s sleek and sporty Falcon gets battered and shattered on its way to becoming Han’s more familiar junk heap. This occurred primarily as a result of the carbon bergs being hurled at the Falcon. Shumway enjoyed animating the Falcon and its interaction with the space monster.
“The exciting moment for me was when Han releases that escape pod on top of the Falcon to lure the space monster away,” said Shumway. “We had a dynamic shot of the Falcon way back in camera getting away from the space monster, and that’s the first time we see the Falcon the way we remember it. We wanted to have a little moment there where you get to enjoy it.”