Explore something from the past, and turn it into something new.
That was the entire premise of Solo: A Star Wars Story, imagining the galactic smuggler’s origin long before his fateful encounter in that Tatooine cantina, and it’s also one of the concepts that helped the movie’s VFX team an Academy Award nomination.
One of Solo’s most groundbreaking sequences, the Kessel Run escape through a raging galactic storm of black holes, energy bursts, and giant tentacle monsters, actually put a new spin on a very old technique — rear projection.
You’ve no doubt seen it countless times since it became popularly used in 1930, most frequently when an actor steers a stationary car in a studio soundstage while a thin screen behind the vehicle is blasted with footage of the shifting background.
But you’ve never seen it like it plays out in Solo’s Kessel Run.
Visual effects supervisor Rob Bredow of Industrial Light & Magic explained to EW how his team reimagined the practice of rear projection to send the actors on this long, strange trip:
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: In recent years, how would you have done the Kessel Run? With a green screen, mapping in the visual effects afterward?
ROB BREDOW: That’s exactly right. We’ve done pretty much all the Star Warsmovies that way up until this year. But then for Solo, we did this rear projection, which basically makes an amusement park ride for the actors and for the cameras. Everybody is seeing all this live, in-camera at the same time. What you see on set is what you get in the final result.
Can you explain the advantage of doing it this way?
I think it makes it feel like those actors are really in that giant sequence. We have it all there live on the day, we can actually do the entire Kessel Run from the very first minute all the way to the very end. Not only do the actors like it, because they can see what their character is supposed to be seeing, but the camera departments love it because they can compose their shot differently and better when they know what the [footage] is.
When you’re creating this forward-moving footage venturing through the maelstrom and these illuminated clouds, you don’t have to recreate that on the actor’s face after-the-fact?
Yes, and Bradford Young, the director of photography on this film, relied heavily on it. The screen probably provided 80 or 90 percent of the lighting for the entire Kessel Run.
What was the experience like for Alden Ehrenreich, Donald Glover, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Joonas Suotamo, and Emilia Clarke?
The very first time we put the actors in the cockpit, we didn’t actually explain to them everything, every detail of what was going to happen. They walked in and we had a static starfield on the screen. The very last thing that happened in the scene was Donald and Phoebe, who are playing Lando and L3, grabbed the hyperspace levers and pushed them forward. When they did that, I cued the hyperspace on the screen and it ripped into hyperspace.
How did that go over?
The stars streaked by and they went into that familiar blue tunnel. Our special effects department shook the Millennium Falcon cockpit and they all freaked out. The cast was like, “No way! I can’t believe that just happened! Is this thing real? Are we going somewhere?” [Laughs]
I guess you’d have to use take two! The characters wouldn’t be that mindblown by hyperspace.
Exactly. Luckily that was on an early rehearsal, not on the real take. When everybody calmed down, Donald Glover — who was legitimately the coolest guy on set — quietly said to himself, and I heard it over his microphone: “This is the coolest thing I have ever done.” So the cast had some fun. It’s like getting to go on a amusement park ride for the entire Kessel Run.
What else went into the visual effects on Solo that you would say contributed to the Oscar nomination?
We had a real big action sequence early in the movie, it’s over 10 minutes long and takes place on top of this giant train—
That sequence was fairly complicated to pull off. We shot [backgrounds] in the Italian Dolomites, and built a real 30-ton train car that could tilt 90 degrees over on its side in two and a half seconds, while still keeping people safe. We had a giant explosion at the end of the sequence, which we achieved by setting off a tiny little charge inside a fish tank, basically. We shot that at super high speed, at 25,000 transfer seconds so we could see all the detail. It explodes out and then collapses back in on itself and then the smoke blows out.
It looks like a pulsing energy bubble that slowly builds and burns away the mountain.
We were looking for a unique way to end the sequence with a giant explosion like you’ve never seen before. I found some reference online, somebody who’d set this underwater charge. I’m like, “Ah, that would be unique. To see that as the coaxium explosion.” So that’s what we did.
Literally anything is possible with digital animation, but you’re still blowing up real charges in containers of water to create raw footage, and only using the digital side to blend the material together.
One of my favorite things to do is to figure out something real to base it on and then enhance it from there. But you always have that original contact point. With the droid L3, she’s played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, we knew from the design of the droid that it wasn’t going to be something we could fully build practically. But Phoebe is a fantastic actress and we didn’t just want her voice in the movie, we wanted her in the movie.
So she is. She’s the raw material, and you just erased her from the blocky droid components, right?
Most of the exterior of L3 is done practically with the suit that the costume department built. But all of the interior pieces, wires, and of course erasing Phoebe so she’s not there, that was all done with visual effects. Hopefully there’s no way to tell the difference. You never doubt the authenticity in the final film.
Bredow shares the visual effects Oscar nomination with fellow VFX supervisors Dominic Tuohy, Patrick Tubach, and creature designer Neal Scanlan.