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Solo Effort: Rob Bredow talks about “Solo: A Star Wars Story”


By Trevor Hogg


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Date Added: 11th July 2018

Executive creative director and head of Industrial Light & Magic, Rob Bredow, talks about the extensive work created for "Solo: A Star Wars Story”...


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A favorite character for screenwriter/director Lawrence Kasdan who scripted The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi is the rogue space smuggler originally played by Harrison Ford; collaborating with his son Jonathan, Kasdan penned Solo: A Star Wars Story which explores the origins of Han Solo portrayed by Alden Ehrenreich. In keeping with the Star Wars franchise, Industrial Light and Magic was responsible for the digital wizardry with SVP, executive creative director and head of ILM Rob Bredow serving as the production visual effects supervisor.

Overcoming hiccups

Trouble in the galaxy far, far away occurred when 21 Jump Street filmmakers Chris Miller and Phil Lord were fired midway through the production of Solo: A Star Wars Story and replaced by Oscar-winner Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind). "I was lucky to have a great relationship with Chris Miller and Phil Lord, and when Ron Howard came on he immediately trusted his various heads of departments,” reveals Rob Bredow. "Different directors have varying approaches. We were far along with certain sequences when Ron joined and he had some ideas on how to amp up scenes and put his own stamp on things.”

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Extensive reshoots were conducted over a period of four months. "The post-production time on the show was one of the shorter schedules for any of the Star Wars films before the reshoots were added,” notes Bredow. "I was fortunate to have all four of Industrial Light and Magic studios in London, Vancouver, San Francisco, and Singapore engaged on the project so we could do a lot of high quality work in a limited amount of time.”

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International collaboration

1,200 artists worked on 2,000 shots with London focused on the Train Heist, Singapore looked after Mimban, Vancouver was responsible for Corellia, and San Francisco dealt with the Kessel Run and major environmental work. "Our teams at ILM work in one unified pipeline so sharing assets and design work even sometimes working on the same shot in multiple locations is a smooth process. Late in the production Pietro Scalia, the editor, noticed that he had used a plate for half of the shot that had one of the actors moving their lips, and they weren't suppose to be acting in that scene. Singapore did the first half of the work, gave it to San Francisco which did the second half, and then we handed it back to production in a 16-hour total turnover!”

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Matching aesthetics

Due to the cinematic timeline it was important to respect the aesthetic of the original trilogy while still making use of technological advances. "We were trying to give this film a classic Star Wars look with the basic concept that this was a movie shot a few years before A New Hope, Episode IV,” observes Bredow. "The idea was to leverage the techniques as much as possible that honored that time period, which meant real locations, getting as much in-camera as possible, and lots of leaning on Industrial Light and Magic for effects.

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Those speeders you see on Corellia are real 500-horsepower cars that raced around an abandoned powerplant an hour and a half outside of London with some set dressing added by the art department. A lot of the location ended up being built digitally because there was no way to build it practically when you're covering that much distance. The speed we were able to run those vehicles is the actual speed seen in the movie, and the maneuvers that they do were based on the stunt references that was shot.”

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Vehicles

The digital model kit-bashing library created for Rogue One was also utilized for the new ships and vehicles featured in Solo. "James Clyne, who was a Lucasfilm design supervisor on the show, was familiar with that kit of parts and was able to leverage that in early concepts all the way through to the construction of the physical sets,” explains Bredow. "We were able to take visual effects that have been traditionally done in postproduction and bring them to life in a practical way. When you look inside the coaxium tubes that is actually an iPad with an element that I had shot at high speed of ferrofluid.”

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"ILM made it a looping animation and did some digital enhancements. We played that back onset on an iPad behind a specially made lens so it would look like a tube of coaxium inside this cannister. A bigger example was the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon which we put inside a 180-degree wraparound projection screen that was 30 feet tall. When the actors got into the cockpit and looked out the window they saw a starfield. We had 20 minutes of content to generate for the coolest motion simulator ride in the world at a high enough resolution that the ALEXA cameras couldn't tell the difference between that rear projection screen and reality.”

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Real-time

All of the rear projection screen footage was cued up in real-time. "We had a real-time playback engine that enabled us to listen to Ron's cues,” reveals Bredow. "He would say, ‘I want to go back to this scene.' We recued up the prerendered material on the fly so Ron could direct in the order that was the easiest for him. When you're working in such a small enclosed space like the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon, it's nice to be able to do all of the coverage in one direction and then turn around to do all of the coverage in the other direction. Ron is an efficient director so he had his plan mapped out for the day. Because these sequences were long this gave him the ability to shoot in series.”

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Working on the Millennium was a dream come true especially when imagining the saucier and cleaner looking ship owned by Lando Calrissian. "It was a huge design challenge to make sure that we honored the story of the Millennium Falcon but also create an interesting backstory for the ship that goes through a huge evolution and is a character unto itself. The Falcon more or less follows the flight characteristics that we see Han exhibit later (in the original trilogy).”

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Trademark droids

Droids are a trademark of Star Wars and L3-37 portrayed by Phoebe Waller-Bridge carries on the tradition. "L3-37 is a fantastic character in this film,” enthuses Bredow. L3-37 was primarily designed by the costume department. The chest plate, hips, legs, and head were all from the real costume that we photographed onset with Phoebe in it. There was a lot of work for the artists to do digitally where all of the inner surfaces were replaced. All of the connecting bits were created and animated precisely to Phoebe's movements so the performance that you see there is 100-percent her performance.”

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Wear and tear on the costume required digital augmentation. "The practical costume evolved for practical reasons such as actor comfort and range of motion. The digital L3-37 had to match precisely to what Phoebe was doing, so we had to make subtle variations to our costume and because we shot out of continuity there ended up being quite a lot of variations to keep track of.”

CG characterization & animatronics

"Rio Durant is one of my favorite characters in the film who is digital from the chest up and entirely CG in some shots,” states Bredow. "Rio was written to be this old gangster who had seen a few battles and scrimmages but he's a smaller guy. Rio has got these whiskers and if you look closely you can see scars and other details that help to tell the story of somebody who has pulled off a few heists. Rio is acted by Jon Favreau who gave us not only a fantastic voice for the character but was happy to give us some fantastic reference as he was recording those lines. Then the artists at Industrial Light and Magic in tandem with the art department developed the final look of the character that was kicked off by Neal Scanlan in the creature effects department to hit the look that Ron was looking for.”

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Animatronics were used extensively for the various alien species. "Lady Proxima (voiced by Linda Hunt) appears early in the film as one of the first people in Han's life and he's ready to get out from underneath her thumb,” remarks Bredow. "That creature was created primarily practically and puppeteered. It had a long pole arm that would position it, different puppeteers moving the arms with rods, and then we digitally replaced any of the arms that needed to be moving that couldn't be done practically, and painted out everything that was supporting it. Lady Proxima's face was animated with a lot of amazing servos that gave a lot of great animation onset. But by the time we were looking at the final film, some of the lip sync and eyes needed a little extra life, so we accomplished that digitally.”

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A tour de four for animatronics is the Sabacc card game scene where Han Solo meets Lando Calrissan (Donald Glover) for the first time, which only required some digital clean-up of rigging. "Sitting next to Han at the Sabacc table is Six Eyes which is an amazing puppet that Neal and the creature effects team brought to life,” states Bredow. "It has many dozens of servos to bring those eyes to life and has so many individual controls that you wouldn't be able to puppet them all in real-time. The engineer who designed Six Eyes placed an IMU sensor in the head combined with a bunch of custom hardware to have a simple interface; he had a joystick and some extra controls that could puppet one eye and put extra animation on top of what had already been preprogrammed. It was a combination of two puppeteers: one inside the suit and one on the joystick.”

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Building worlds

World building is a major part of the storytelling with Corellia, the industrial ship building home planet of Han Solo making an appearance. "James Clyne and (production designer) Neil Lamont worked closely together to create Corellia. The practical sets were substantial and some of them like the Space Port filled the 007 stage in London. Then some of the sets are heavily digital like when the speeders are racing through the city and between different islands where the construction takes place. We were able to find practical locations like the Fawley Power Station that had exactly the right feel, and needed a little bit of dressing that we did practically. Then digitally we added some pieces of TIE fighters being assembled so you get a sense of what they build there.”

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In a moment of desperation to escape from Corellia, Han Solo joins the Imperial forces and ends up fighting on an inhospitable mud planet called Mimban. "Our touchpoint was looking at World War I films and the kind of fighting that takes place in those environments,” explains Bredow. "We started that sequence by shooting elements on that same giant 007 stage, so what you see there on Mimban are indoor explosions coming from the special effects team (led by Dominic Tuohy). Then we digitally added behind that front layer extensions to the background, the AT-APs in the background with that single giant canon on the front, and all of the other background explosions to add some depth and bring that sequence to life.” Atmospherics and simulations were quite heavy for the sequence. "You could only see about 50-feet across the stage when it was properly fogged up for shooting.”

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Heists

A train heist takes place on the snowy and mountainous planet of Vandor. "We shot real mountains in the Italian Dolomites,” reveals Bredow. "I got to supervise a multiple day aerial shoot that we used to photograph background plates for the train heist sequence and the surrounding scenes. We shot tens of thousands of photographs that we put together into 3D photo models of 250 square miles of mountain ranges so we could use a combination of traditional plate photography and digital 3D plates, which could be put directly into the film. It allowed us to make new shots when we were in post-production without any computer lighting because of photo modeling.” On Vandor is Fort Ypso where the Sabacc game takes place. "The interior of the lodge was heavily practical with some digital touch-ups while the exterior was designed and built digitally.”

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Kessel is a mining planet known for the rare fuel matter known as coaxium. "We journey in and see the correct route you're supposed to use to get to there,” remarks Bredow. On the planet itself a huge heist takes place and that required extensive digital extensions. There's a firefight that takes place there with lots of explosions and blaster fire. Then we leave Kessel and get to see the famous Kessel run which is an adventure that has multiple steps and gets more intense as it goes on.” The desert planet of Savareen was shot in Fuerteventura which is one of the Canary Islands. "The art department built a huge set on that location so many of the buildings that you see on Savareen are practical; however, some needed to be digital because they were too big to build on location.”

Planning pays off

Extensive previs was produced by ILM and The Third Floor for the two big set pieces involving the train heist and Kessel run. "Both of those sequences had their fun creative and technical challenges,” notes Bredow. "The train heist plays some important emotional and story beats in the film plus it's a huge action sequence. There's a big explosion at the end of the train heist that I'm particularly happy with how it worked having grown-up enjoying Star Wars films.”

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A futuristic train needed to be incorporated into the landscape. "In order to pull that look off we had done a lot of planning to resolve the train speed and the actual location of the track through the mountains based on high resolution models that we had made from our early scouts. The sequence itself has hundreds of shots in it with over one-hundred of them being photographic plates. James Clyne did a fantastic job with the design of the concept of that train. We were looking for something that felt monolithic and large but felt grounded. The concept was in order for the train to go fast enough through these mountains around these sharp turns it would need to tilt so not to come off of the monorail track; that sets up a fun action sequence when you've got guys on the outside of the train trying to pull off a heist.”

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Career highlight

The Kessel run is a career highlight for Rob Bredow where Han Solo takes a treacherous shortcut. "Many of the ideas that artists at Industrial Light and Magic and I came up with ended up in the final Kessel run,” reveals Bredow. "It started out with some ideas in the script that were developed visually over the course of the film. One of the most important components was being hyper aware of the story beats that were going to have the important emotional resonance and continually raising the stakes for the characters as they go through this adventure. The Kessel run starts on a big note. They encounter an Imperial blockade and have to take a route that isn't the prescribed route out of Kessel. It keeps escalating from there getting into more tension which helps to make the Kessel run work as a story.”

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Holochess makes a cameo. "It was fantastic and we were able to go to Phil Tippett and his crew to animate that in the same method that we did originally in the first Star Wars film,” remarks Bredow. "Phil Tippett and his team did it in stop-motion animation. This was more than one or two shots and is enjoyable in the way in which the characters interact with it. There's a subtle homage or little story hidden in there for the fans that are paying extra attention, which was pitched by Phil Tippett.” The two standout sequences are the train heist and Kessel run. "It was fun to watch that with an audience to see their reactions and all of the care that was taken by the artists that really shows up the screen.”

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Enjoyable experience

"We had such a great team that even though the schedule was challenging they came through,” observes Bredow. "Because Ron Howard had a lot of clear ideas that were story driven, we were able to deliver this on time in a way that didn't include that craziness that often comes with shows on short schedules. The later changes that came in on the Kessel run were some of the things that challenged us the most. We added a huge digital character so that required getting some of our most talented designers on it to make sure that we executed it to a high degree of quality.” The production turmoil did not dampen the spirits of the visual effects team. Solo ended up being something that was a lot of fun for those of us who worked on it.”

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