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New Sheriff in Town: ILM’s Rob Bredow Talks ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’

From in-camera effects to the latest virtual production techniques, Industrial Light and Magic’s newly appointed head rounds up more than 1,800 VFX shots for the Star Wars stand-alone anthology space western.

‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’ directed by Ron Miller. All images © 2018 Lucasfilm.

Some call Solo: A Star Wars Story a space western, and it fits. Titled after the hero, Han Solo, the film finds the franchise’s beloved scoundrel in his early 20s, a decade before he meets Luke and Leia in A New Hope. In this film, the cynical outlaw partners with Chewbacca for the first time, and wins gambler Captain Lando Calrissian’s iconic Millennium Falcon. It’s the second installment in the Star Wars anthology of stand-alone films and it has chase scenes, romances, double-crosses, a heist, and yes, as in any good western, there is a train.

Jonathan Kasdan wrote Solo with his father Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back, was a co-writer on Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi, and helped develop The Force Awakens. Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, known for The LEGO Movie and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, directed the film from January to June 2017, and then Ron Howard helmed the ship to the end. Production wrapped in October. Howard has the director credit on the film; Lord and Miller have executive producer credits. Filming began at Pinewood Studios near London, with location shots in Fuerteventura on the Canary Islands in Spain and in the Italian Dolomites.

Alden Ehrenreich stars as Han, Joonas Suotamo is Chewbacca, Woody Harrelson is the career criminal Beckett who becomes Han’s mentor, Emilia Clarke is Han’s girlfriend and partner Qi’ra, Donald Glover is Lando Calrissian, Phoebe Waller-Bridge is Lando’s wisecracking droid L3-37, Paul Bettany is the mob boss Dryden Vos, and Jon Favreau voices the multi-limbed pilot Rio Durant.

Industrial Light & Magic’s four global studios provided the visual effects. ILM also supervised additional effects work by Hybride Technologies, Raynault, Virtous, Tippett, Jellyfish, Lola, Yannix, Exceptional Minds and Stereo D. The Third Floor provided some previs. Ncam and Nvizage provided virtual production systems.

We spoke with Rob Bredow, newly appointed senior vice president, executive creative director and head of ILM, who was overall visual effects supervisor and co-producer for the film. More than 1,200 artists in ILM’s four studios created over 1,800 shots. Because production was set up at Pinewood Studios, Bredow worked mainly out of ILM’s London studio.

AWN: What was the best thing about working on this film?

Rob Bredow: Getting to work on a movie that largely takes place on the Millennium Falcon is a dream come true. When I was first on set, I called my brother and said, “You’ll never guess where I’m sitting right now.”

In terms of the visual effects, using a combination of old-school techniques with today’s technology and ILM’s artists was a real joy. ILM was very involved in the pre-production and planning, and then during production we did a lot of in-camera techniques. I was welcomed in by Ron Howard and Jon Kasdan to participate in the storytelling and production. To be in editorial and be able to push for strong visuals was great. It was a dream team, and I was fortunate to be able to participate and to have Ron Howard give me a co-producer credit.

AWN: Tell us about the in-camera techniques used during filming.

RB: We built on technology we developed during Rogue One. In the case of Rogue One, the LEDs weren’t high enough quality to be final pixels, but they still served as a great source of interactive lighting. That inspired us to take the idea to high-resolution imagery. They used more LEDs on Rogue One, and we used more projectors. We did a lot of rear projection, front projection, and some LED lighting. In most cases, to get the final quality, we used rear projection or front projection. We had film quality assets on stage.

AWN: What did it look like on stage?

RB: We had seven 4K laser projectors oriented in portrait mode in a series around a 30-foot-tall screen.

AWN: How often do the images on those screens appear in the film?

RB: Without giving anything away, this movie has a couple really big sequences with the actors in the cockpit. It has more scripted pages in the cockpit than any other Star Wars film to date. So, for every one of those shots, we had full-quality images created and rendered in advance by ILM -- unless we didn’t have time. Ron had an idea that came up late in the film to have a giant tentacle creature, so we used previs quality animation for that. But, we lit it properly to get the proper lighting cues. The rest of the time the images were real on the day. When the camera is shooting over the shoulders of the actors, the images outside the cockpit were captured in camera and used. We only color corrected them later. Ninety to 100 percent of the lighting was driven by those screens.

AWN: What did it feel like seeing those huge images?

RB: It felt like you were in space. It felt like you were flying. The first time we showed it, the principal actors were in the cockpit of the Falcon. They were rehearsing a scene that starts in space, doing a quick read, and they were all mic’d. We had it set up in advance so that when Donald [Glover] pushed the lever forward to go into hyperspace, I gave a cue and in one second the special effects team triggered the Falcon to start shaking and we had stars streaking across the screen. I heard Donald say, “This is the coolest thing I have ever done.”

AWN: What is the impact of this technique on your post-production work?

RB: In every case, there’s a quality improvement. We got reflections and refractions and light from the screen onto the actors and the set without compositing. There can also be huge savings. Dryden’s office windows have a 360-degree view, and that view depends on the story. Traditionally, we might have done big, static paintings that would be inconvenient to change. But instead, we were able to keep the view outside moving. We had birds flying, ocean waves crashing, snow on the mountains, plus all those reflections and refractions.

AWN: Did you also use LEDs?

RB: We used LEDs for the speeder chase and some scenes like that when we wanted moving light sources. But when we’re directly photographing the scenes on the screens, we used projectors. LEDs are easier to fit on the stage and you don’t need space for the projectors, but you need a really fine pitch for the camera to see them as a solid image. The technology is almost there.

AWN: What digital characters did ILM create for this film?

RB: We did the normal digital doubles and face replacements on stunt doubles for difficult shots, we had a lot of background characters, and we created two main digital characters. The important ones are L3-37 and Rio. L3 is half practical and half digital. Phoebe Waller-Bridge who plays L3 is a tremendous, super funny actress, and she and Donald Glover have fantastic chemistry. We wanted to put her in the movie. So, the costume department created a robot suit that she wore. A chest piece, legs, arms, and a head piece as a hat. The outside surfaces are all practical. We replaced her innards using that practical suit to guide us. She’s a real character that we finished in visual effects.

Rio is a pilot with four arms and two legs, a scraggly beard, and scars on his face. He’s another great combination of practical and digital. Katy Kartwheel wore a Rio costume and moved around the set using her real arms and legs. She’s an acrobat. Then ILM did the top half of the characters; we added two additional arms and a digital face.

For Rio’s facial performance, we recorded Jon Favreau with multiple cameras when he did his ADR sessions. There isn’t a one to one correspondence between his face and Rio’s, so our animators artistically interpreted Jon’s performance.

AWN: You also mentioned a giant tentacled creature…

RB: The space monster. Although he doesn’t have a lot of lines of dialog, he’s definitely featured. He’s inspired by those creepy deep sea creatures that might be at the bottom of the ocean. The premise of the film is that we want to take you on a voyage into the unknown and it gets weirder and weirder the deeper you go off the straight path. There are a few places we don’t get to talk too much about before the film is out and this is one of them.

AWN: Did you re-use the Millennium Falcon from the last film?

RB: We started with the Millennium Falcon that Rey piloted, but it needed to look like the ship when Lando owned it. When we meet it, it’s sleeker and cleaner even than what we see in The New Hope. James Clyne [Lucasfilm Design Supervisor and ILM visual effects art director] was on the show from beginning to end and he helped us put on the racing stripes. It’s the Millennium Falcon with a proper outer shell. It also has a like-new interior that the art department rebuilt over the existing old Falcon. The first time I walked through the half-finished interior it seemed so white, it was crazy. But it does a great job of communicating Lando’s personality.

AWN: What about other ships?

RB: We have some less featured ships, Dryden’s ship, and the train. The train heist is a big action sequence. The train is both a vehicle and an environment. For that sequence we flew some of our crew to the Dolomites, an amazing environment with 7000-foot drops into canyons, and used footage from there for the backgrounds.

The train moves at a high rate of speed and covers a lot of territory, so we needed that photography to have it feel grounded and real. A lot of the backgrounds are real; aerial photo plates that I supervised in the Dolomites or what we call 3D plates, which we create from photo modeling those mountains. We added the monorail track, the train, and the characters on top. The wide shots are all CG. But we also had a full-scale train car at Pinewood Studios. The special effects team led by Dominic Tuohy built a hydraulic rig that could lift and tilt it so we could shoot stunts practically, and we shot for many days with that full-scale train car. Later we enhanced it at ILM and added the mirrored car. It was all planned out in advance so we knew what to shoot in Italy, we knew where the train would be. Most that tech vis was led by the Third Floor team in London. ILM designed the animation. The simulcam was handled by Ncam and NViz. We could see real-time onset previews – a live comp where the train was, the mountain was.

AWN: What about Dryden’s Ship?

RB: It’s also a vehicle and an environment. We find it on Vandor, the same place where the heist takes place. It’s 80 or 100 stories tall, large and unusually shaped. All the Star Wars designs have designs you can draw with a single shape. His is a tall triangle, a simple, classic Star Wars design. It’s all-digital except for an actual door; the interior is practical.

AWN: Any particularly interesting planetary environments?

RB: The train heist is the highlight in terms of half-digital, half real, but we also get to visit Kessel, a really disgusting mining planet. Fortunately, they had a big set on location, but as big and tall as it was, there was no way to do everything in camera. So, we did significant extensions and designed the triangular shaped mine. It was an extensive environment and very effects heavy. We have pools of bubbly liquid and steam. We made it look like an active mining encampment.

AWN: How did you create the “holo chess” game?

RB: Those scenes were really fun. It’s all stop motion. We had the good fortune to team up once again with our old friends at Tippett Studio who bought that scene to life. We had more holo chess shots than ever before. The team photographed the stop motion animated characters, digitally composited them into the plates, and added effects to get that final look, slightly refined. We had the original molds for the characters and based ours on the original designs. And, we went back into the archives to see how the characters were treated before. I won’t give anything away, but über fans will see a couple fun things if they pay special attention.

Ron [Howard] and Phil [Tippett] know each other, of course. So it was fun for them to interact. And what’s wonderful about stop motion is that after you do the blocking, you animate, and that’s what’s in the movie.

AWN: What was the hardest thing about making this movie?

RB: It was a long shoot. We really extended the principal photography when Ron came on; there was a lot of work to do. There were usually production meetings in the morning, long shooting days, and then after the production meetings, there were visual effects meetings where we were turning over work or preparing, and shots were coming in from all over the world. There was a phase where we had pre-production, production, and post-production taking place all at the same time. I worked as hard as I’ve ever worked in my life.

AWN: Did the change in directors have a big impact on post-production?

RB: It had a big effect on post-production. Extending the principal photography crunched our post-production, which was short already. But, ILM is well prepared to react creatively and Ron [Howard] is a fantastic collaborator. We had artists at all four ILM studios working on the film, doing quality work in a compressed schedule. I’d often see early versions of work that looked fantastic.

AWN: How did you divvy up the work among the four studios?

RB: As our post got compressed, we shifted some things around. The London studio worked primarily on the train heist and other sequences with heavy shot effects. Singapore had a big battle sequence with AT-DT walkers in the background, and a mud planet. The big headline work in Vancouver was for the speeder chase at the beginning of the movie with practical and digital speeders and a massive digital environment. And San Francisco did Rio, set up L3, and did a lot of heavy lifting on the Kessel Run.

AWN: Will you continue doing hands-on visual effects supervising now that you’ve moved into management as senior vice president, executive creative director, and head of ILM?

RB: Some of the fun of this job is that I still get to be around our team of creative directors in each studio, our world-class supervisors who mentor the other supervisors. I imagine that I could still get my feet wet. But, my main focus is on running the show.

I finished the last version of the DI [digital intermediate] and dropped straight into a meeting about what we’re building at ILM. We have steady work with Star Wars films that every year gets more ambitious. Plus, we have 12 to 15 other films each year and our immersive entertainment being done in our ILMxLAB division. So, there’s a lot of innovative work going through here, a lot of creative people wrangling these shows. We have such an incredible team of people here – supervisors, artists, production, execs – it’s really a pleasure to work with everyone. It’s an incredible honor to step into this role, leading the company, looking at the next five years, and helping guide where we’ll be going.