ILMxLAB’s Mark Miller on Rogue One: Recon and Putting Fans in X-wings

The ILMxLAB executive creative producer discusses a new immersive 360 experience connected to Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Ever wonder if any Rebels had discovered the not-yet-revealed Death Star? Now we know, and you’re actually part of the story.

Lucasfilm and ILMxLAB’s Rogue One: Recon, an immersive 360 experience set before Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, debuted last week in Verizon stores and was released today on the official Star Wars YouTube channel. Concepted, written, and directed by John Knoll — the legendary visual effects innovator who dreamed up Rogue One — it follows two Rebel pilots that stumble upon some Imperial chatter, leading them to a very, very big space station. (The one that would later be mistaken for a small moon.) But here’s where things get innovative. Through it all, you control the lead pilot’s POV. Look right and see your squadmate. Look left and see the stars. Look up and see a massive Star Destroyer overhead, so dangerously close you’ll slink in your seat. It’s a thrilling way to experience visual storytelling, and is a sign that storytelling is changing thanks to minds like those at ILMxLAB. StarWars.com e-mailed with Mark Miller, ILMxLAB executive creative producer, to discuss the making of Rogue One: Recon.

StarWars.com: Rogue One: Recon represents something of a new form — visual storytelling but with immersive 360 degree interaction from the viewer. You still have to tell a story with pacing and drama, but at the same time, take advantage of the 360 technology. What was the creative process in accomplishing that?

Mark Miller: We talked quite a bit early on with the ILMxLAB team and the Lucasfilm Story Group about what is most effective in this format and what kind of a stories relating to Rogue One would best take advantage of the 360 view. John Knoll, chief creative officer for ILM, then sat down and came up with an idea and a script that perfectly addressed the challenge. The first-person angle of the story and the active nature of piloting an X-wing are great for this format — even when you’re hovering in space, the character is monitoring screens in your cockpit, switching controls and staying active. Sometimes it’s hard to know what will be successful in these relatively new art forms like 360 until you go ahead and try. Once you get going, it’s trial and error. For example, we recorded quite a lot of alternate dialogue lines for a relatively short story, but that gave us a ton of options to play with and plug in as the animation came together.

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StarWars.com: There are lots of great moments, like flying right underneath the Star Destroyer, that really do take advantage of the immersive 360 experience. How hard were those moments to pull off? How did you know when something felt right?

Mark Miller: Moments like scraping right underneath a Star Destroyer are what really add to this experience — and why we were so lucky to have John Knoll at the helm, plus a lot of his crew from Rogue One on the animation and rendering team. We always start with lower resolution scenes where we can do multiple, quick takes to define the best flight paths for all the ships. After a lot of tweaking to get the right levels of excitement, we lock in the basic animation, and the lighting and rendering teams take over. This group knew exactly where we needed to add more detail to the ship, where we needed to up-res the textures a bit — everything to add realism to those moments. It’s a very back-and-forth process, all the way through the subtle animation tweaks on the ships and the pilot, to the final compositing where the laser blasts, explosions and interactive lighting are all balanced to achieve the finished look. We’re also doing temp versions of the soundtrack all throughout the process, tweaking the dialogue and sound effects so everything feels real. John was very collaborative with his entire crew, so knowing when it felt right was a group process, with John, of course, making the final call.

StarWars.com: This story is actually a pretty important one in the overall struggle between the Rebellion and the Empire. Why do you think this medium is the right one to tell it?

Mark Miller: To me, this story helps to expand the idea that, even prior to Episode IV and Rogue One, the Rebels are out there — fighting the good fight, looking for clues about what the Empire is up to and how to disrupt it. To see a part of this continuing struggle through the eyes, from the literal POV, of one of these pilots, seemed like an effective new way to tell it. This medium, especially if you’re able to view it in a headset, provides a unique, immersive view that I think more effectively conveys that one pilot’s experience. It also doesn’t hurt that our pilots (voiced by Sam Witwer and Emily O’Brien) do a great job of selling the “just an everyday Rebel scout team on a routine mission” setup and escalating to “WHAT THE????” with their performances. Special thanks to Dave Filoni for his dialogue directing help.

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StarWars.com: It actually ends on kind of a somber cliffhanger. What can you tell us about how you came to this ending?

Mark Miller: Spoiler alert! This mission is a one-way ticket. We actually talked quite a bit about the ending. John Knoll and the Lucasfilm Story Group were adamant that, if our mission preceded the Rogue One timeframe and we saw the Death Star, we could not make it out alive. There was a bit of worry about how the viewer would react as we put the whole thing together. When we started showing people, the overwhelming response of going down in flames at the end was “Cool!” I think people like it because they don’t expect it. There’s enough engagement with the character and the situation that most of us figure, “We’ll find a way out,” so, it’s a bit of a surprise when we don’t. I think that also makes it more believable. What’s nice is when you get to that moment, you get the surprise, and then you just hit re-start and do the whole thing again — looking at it from different angle this time, getting a different perspective. But, with the same, inevitable ending. The story doesn’t change but there’s a ton to discover from every angle and that makes it awesome to watch over and over again.

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StarWars.com: What do you hope fans get from Rogue One: Recon?

Mark Miller: Fun. We just want them to get ready, hit play, and then enjoy the ride. Look up, down, and behind you. Check it all out. Then repeat.

Dan Brooks is Lucasfilm’s senior content writer and editor of the StarWars.com blog. He loves Star Wars, ELO, and the New York Rangers, Jets, and Yankees. Follow him on Twitter @dan_brooks where he rants about all these things.

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