Modernizing 20th Century VFX Techniques, Lighting Hyperspace with a Giant LED Screen, and Returning to the Holochess Table

Solo: A Star Wars Story is the ninth Star Wars film to receive an Oscar nomination for best visual effects. Set in the years prior to the first film, which was released in 1977, the Han Solo [Alden Ehrenreich] origin story sends the smuggler on an adventurous quest to steal the hyperfuel Coaxium. Along the way, he wins the Millennium Falcon from fellow smuggler Lando Calrissian [Donald Glover], and meets and teams up with Chewbacca [Joonas Suotamo], who becomes his co-pilot.

Directors Christopher Miller and Phil Lord (now of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse fame) began the project; later, two-time Oscar winner Ron Howard took the helm and received sole director credit. IMDb has the budget at $275 million and world-wide box office receipts at $393 million. Movie-review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes calculated an overall approval rating from critics at 70 percent.

The Disney/LucasFilm feature has received an Oscar nomination for best visual effects and three Visual Effects Society (VES) nominations — for environment (Vandor Planet), model (Millennium Falcon), and outstanding visual effects. The Oscar nominees are: Creature and Make-up Effects Creative Supervisor Neal Scanlan, Special Effects Supervisor Dominic Tuohy, Co-Producer and VFX Supervisor Rob Bredow, and VFX supervisor [ILM] Patrick Tubach. Industrial Light & Magic led the visual effects work on this film as it has on the previous Star Wars films.

We spoke with co-producer and visual effects supervisor Rob Bredow about the film. This is Bredow’s first Oscar nomination and first VES nomination for supervising visual effects in a live-action film. (He also has four VES nominations and an Annie nomination for supervising visual effects in animated films.) Formerly ILM’s VP of new media and head of Lucasfilm’s Advanced Development Group, where he helped launch ILMxLAB, and formerly Lucasfilm CTO, Bredow now serves as SVP, executive creative director and head of ILM.

We’ve interviewed all five Oscar-nominated VFX supervisors. Click here to read the rest of the Q&As.

Train Heist from <i>Solo</i>

Copious aerial photography of the Dolomites in northeastern Italy by the VFX unit helped ILM assemble the train heist.

StudioDaily: Why do you think your peers voted to give an Oscar nomination for best visual effects to Solo: A Star Wars Story?

Rob Bredow: I think people walked away thinking about the in-camera finals we achieved. I think they thought [the robot] L3 was a digitally animated character and didn’t realize it was Phoebe’s [Waller-Bridge] performance on set. And in the Coaxium [hyperfuel] explosion at the end of the train heist, the practical and digital bit resonates. It’s old effects inspired by a 70s film, modernized.

The Millennium Falcon jumps into hyperspace

The film’s hyperspace effects were displayed on a 50-foot screen on set, where the actors could see them.

Nine Star Wars feature films have now received Oscar nominations, including this one. That’s quite a tradition. What’s different about Solo?

When we started the film, one of the tenets of the visual effects process was to make it feel like it had been shot in the years leading up to the original [1977] Star Wars. [Special Effects Supervisor] Dominic Tuohy built real 650-horsepower speeders that we raced around a real location. We had a real, 25-ton train car that could flip on its side in under three seconds and was safe enough to put the cast on it.

Rear projection is one of the first visual effects techniques [in film history] — projecting a photograph and then re-photographing it. We had more minutes in the cockpit in this film than ever before. When I realized that from the script, I saw it was a good opportunity to use the latest technology. ILM generated over 20 minutes of final quality footage at 8K resolution to fill a 40- to 50-foot tall, 40- to 50-foot diameter screen. The rear projection material was custom made. It was basically a semi-opaque, slightly translucent material pulled tight. Then we had five 4K projectors placed around the back. So before we shot the Kessel Run [a hyperspace smuggler’s route], we created 20 minutes of footage. [Director Ron Howard] could roll film from the beginning — the tunnel on the star destroyer, to asteroids hitting them, to the space monster, all the way to a gravity well.

On the set of <i>Solo</i>

The giant-screen set-up allowed for some real-time VFX cinematography, as effects helped light the scene or were reflected in characters’ eyes.
Courtesy Industrial Light & Magic

That must have been exciting to watch on set.

On the first day on set, we hadn’t told the actors about the rear projection. We only had stars and static on the screen. Phoebe [Waller-Bridge] and Don Glover were in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon. They pushed the lever to go into hyperspace. I cued the graphics on screen. Dominic Tuohy shook the cockpit. I was listening on my headphones and they screamed, “We’re going into hyperspace for real.” After, Don leaned over and said, quietly, “This is the coolest thing I’ve ever done.”

And then Ron Howard surprised us by asking if we could do it again with 120 interactive cues so he could make changes on the fly and do it in one continuous take.

How did you do that?

We had an 8K wide, 4K tall, custom playback engine, so we could make dynamic changes. We could push the right half down, left half up, and do simple darkening. We had pre-rendered elements we could layer on top and interactive pieces — blaster fire, lightning flashes — that we could layer on in real time any time we wanted. Also, we had loop points, so if we weren’t sure how long a scene would last, we could seamlessly loop back to give the actors a playground.

On set, we would interactively add extra elements. We had cards to give a glint on the eye. The DP liked lighting with the screen. Ron gave us cues for storytelling. It was like a live visual effects show.

L3-37 in the Millennium Falcon's cockpit.

L3-37 in the Millennium Falcon’s cockpit.

Do these in-camera shots count as visual effects shots?

Yeah, for sure. They are like the old school visual effects tricks honored by the academy in the old days. The way I understand it, all the in-camera tricks are considered part of the work. But most of these shots also had other visual effects in them, as well. One I really like is the shot where we first put the cast into hyperspace and the camera shoots over Lando [Glover] and L3 [Waller-Bridge]. In most movies, that’s where the shot ends. In this movie, we saw how cool it looked with streaks lighting up the cockpit in a great way. The camera operator pushed in a little on Lando and L3 and then panned over and caught Han. You could see the glow of hyperspace in his eye. We could have done that in post, but we probably wouldn’t have thought of shooting it that way. It was because we had the elements and they all came together. In post, we painted out Phoebe [Waller-Bridge] and put in L3 and color-corrected hyperspace. The direct photography was almost right but not perfect.

Which studios worked on this film?

All four ILM studios — San Francisco, Vancouver, London, and Singapore — had major contributions. We divided it mostly by sequence and the expertise we had in the various locations. London did the train heist. Vancouver, the speeder chase. San Francisco did Rio and led the development on L3 before sending that to Hybride. San Francisco did the Kessel Run. Singapore handled shots on the muddy, foggy planet. Each studio did other work as well. Hybride in Montreal did a lot of the L3 shots and helped with the Kessel planet extensions as well. And Phil Tippett and his team helped with the [hologram] chess table.

Tippett Studios created stop-motion animation for the holochess table?

Phil Tippett and his team helped with the chess table with stop motion using some of the original puppets, which was super fun for all of us. He pitched the sequence early on. In the sequence Chewie gets frustrated and slams the table hard. Phil said that when he first designed it for George [Lucas] to see, he had used 10 chess pieces. George came, looked through the camera, and said, “Too many. Take a couple away.” So, all Star Wars movies to date had the eight characters George liked. But this movie takes place earlier in the timeline. Phil thought that maybe Chewie could break a couple pieces when he hit the table so hard and we’d never see them again. We thought the fans would like seeing new chess pieces.

Does having such a large and ardent fan base constrain you in any way?

All of us are Star Wars fans. For most of us, it’s the reason we’re in the industry. When I was growing up watching Star Wars, I wanted to know how they did it. For many at ILM, that’s true. We’re real fans. We watched the movies. We care about continuity. We care about the things fans care about.

Other than the holochess table, did you have any other cool continuity things?

Many people know the Millennium Falcon in Episode IV had only three landing gears, but in Episode V [The Empire Strikes Back], it had five. The reason is a practical one. For Empire, the [practical] model needed five landing gears to hold it up. We had this great idea that during the Kessel Run we could transform the Millennium Falcon into the one we know and love in Episode IV. Maybe we could come up with a way to rip off the first two landing gears. Then for V, someone would have come up with a way to add them back. For this film, we built 10 Millennium Falcons for the Kessel Run in various stages of damage.

The Millennium Falcon

The Millennium Falcon. You know — the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.

What was the hardest part about this film?

To make sure that what was happening in the Kessel Run was clear. Ron [Howard] had the goal of making it feel like it was shot on a first-person perspective. He also wanted incredible action. They were shortcutting through areas they never should go; we wanted that to resonate clearly. We did so with a combination of making the photography in the cockpit as visceral as possible, which we achieved by doing the graphics in advance and getting the natural reaction on the actors, and by really lighting them. Then we worked with the great designers and artists at ILM. It was a whole lot of fun.

The best part of making this film?

One of my first moments on the movie was walking into the stage at Pinewood that had the Falcon interior on it. I walked down that hallway and sat in that driver’s seat and I thought I can’t believe I’m going to be shooting a movie inside the Millennium Falcon. I’m sitting on the real deal. I could touch every button. Then, getting invited to be part of the creative process was a real honor. I pitched ideas and lines that didn’t have anything to do with the visual effects, but that worked for the film.

You are credited as co-producer on the film …

It happened at the end. Kathy [Kennedy] called me and told me. She said, “You earned that spot.”

That credit was given to me and a couple other people for our contributions in a creative capacity. I was fortunate to be included. Ron [Howard] pulled me aside and said, “I know you’re busy with the visual effects, but I’d love to have you in editorial.” I’d been living the movie for the last couple of years and he had to get up to speed in a couple weeks. He was really gracious giving me and others the opportunity to collaborate. He invited people who he saw were invested in the movie to help with the visual storytelling, and with logistical help. It was a pleasure to learn from him and I was honored when he gave me the co-producer credit.

You’ve been a visual effects supervisor on animated films in the past, but for your first stint as a visual effects supervisor on a big live action film, you took on a Star Wars feature and ended up with a co-producer credit and an Oscar nomination.

I’ve done smaller films and served on set where there were other visual effects supervisors, but, yes, this is the biggest live action film I’ve done end to end. It couldn’t be any better.

In a way, maybe it could. You’ve become the head of ILM. Will you supervise any films personally now?

Right now, I am focused fully on running the studio and interacting with clients. But, fortunately, I get to be involved with the other creative supervisors, often very early in the process, building on top of things we’ve done, working closely with amazing filmmakers. That’s a fun part of the job. Looking for creative challenges and opportunities for new technology. Right now, we have a portfolio of … depends on which ones we’ve just finished … 12 to 15 shows at a time. And we had a fantastic year. We have visual effects Oscar nominees on three of the five nominated films.

I saw the video you posted of you and your family reacting to your Oscar nomination. Did you all really get up early and set up a camera? Or did you recreate the moment later?

The Academy had sent an email the day before [asking potential nominees to film themselves reacting to the nominations and to post the videos online]. At first, I didn’t think I wanted a camera pointed at me, whichever way it went. And then I thought, “I guess it doesn’t hurt anything.” I’m glad I did. It was a fun moment. The whole family was up. This movie was a big thing in our life. The whole family moved to London for a year and our oldest daughter missed her freshman year of high school. It wasn’t an easy decision to make. At our first family meeting she said she kinda didn’t want to go. And then, she decided that a few years from now she’d regret it if she didn’t. So she made that decision. I don’t think she regrets it.

She must be especially excited about the Oscar nomination.

I think she feels an appropriate amount of ownership.