Inside ILM: Layout Artist Megan Dolman Talks Kylo Ren Vs. Luke Skywalker and More

The VFX pro discusses her path to ILM, working on Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and turning 2D into 3D.

Inside ILM is a feature in which talks to the gifted folks — many unsung — at Lucasfilm’s legendary visual effects house Industrial Light & Magic. Here, we’ll discuss their career paths, experience, and unique contributions to a galaxy far, far away and film in general. Note: Interviewees often refer to films as “shows.” That’s how we talk in the biz! 

A California native, Megan Dolman grew up with a love of the outdoors but also, more importantly, with a love of Star Wars. As a child, her prized possession was a VHS box set of the original Star Wars trilogy. Dolman and her sister would watch the movies so much during their summers off from school that they were able to recite them to each other in their room at night. After returning to the Bay Area in 2013, Dolman has spent four years working at Industrial Light & Magic as a layout artist, translating and staging 2D storyboards and scenes into a 3D environment so that visual effects can be added. This past year, Dolman was finally able to realize her dream of working on a Star Wars film. sat down with Dolman to discuss her journey to ILM, her work on Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and what it takes to translate the real world into a digital one. Can you walk us through how you got to working in visual effects and then working at ILM?

Megan Dolman: I had kind of a longer journey than most. My journey was definitely one of discovery. I went to film school in Colorado and there I was introduced to editing. They had just got an AVID editing system and I really took to it, so that was kind of the beginning of it. Then I worked as an editor after I graduated and that’s when I really decided I wanted to do film. So, I came back to California and went to The Academy of Art here in San Francisco. That was amazing and that got me that Fine Arts background that I really needed for modeling, sculpture, and drawing. The next step was learning 3D, so I took some Maya courses and that was really very cool. From there I moved down to LA and I worked in a couple of commercial houses and then I worked at Digital Domain. My first job there was working on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which was so cool. That was a big one and it was really like jumping into the deep end, a very big learning experience. I was at Digital Domain for quite a few years and then I got a call from a friend saying that ILM was hiring. I sent in my portfolio and believe it or not, I got a call back, which I was really amazed at. I had an interview and then they offered me the job and I was able to move and come back to San Francisco. It was really unexpected but really cool, and we were happy to come back up to the Bay Area.

Layout artist Megan Dolman. What did you study in school before you went to The Academy of Art?

Megan Dolman: When I was in Colorado I studied Broadcast Production Management and I was a minor in Film. It was firstly journalism, but then I got to do a lot with shooting actual film and working with cameras. That taught me a lot because I got to do a lot of hands on work and actually physically edit the film. I really got drawn to the computer side of it accidentally. That’s what going to The Academy of Art was about, it was more I really wanted to do visual effects and I wanted to work on Hollywood films. What was your position when you started working with ILM?

Megan Dolman: It was in the Layout Department for one of the Transformers films. I do have a background in animation, which really carries over really well into layout, especially when you’re dealing with match animation and a lot of characters interacting with each other and understanding where they are in space. Having an animation background really helps. For someone who doesn’t know a lot about the film process, what does being a layout artist entail? What’s your day-to-day job look like?

Megan Dolman: Layout is really a special position here at ILM because you’re dealing with the information that comes straight from set. You’re really at the beginning of the pipeline. You’ve probably seen those “before visual effects” and “after” photos, and the “before,” that’s what we get. That’s what we see and then, basically, your job is to recreate what was happening on set. So it could be the camera movement or characters. Mostly it starts with cameras but you could have to recreate environments as well, and then the cool part is once you recreate it, you get to add even more environments and characters and explosions, and shields, or spaceships, or even just trees. You’re starting that puzzle, so you’re kind of that first piece. Layout gets to be the beginning of that process of adding all those visual effects pieces together. Do you take into account the motion in the scene or is it mostly static?

Megan Dolman: It’s almost all motion. We get something called a plate, so it will be a certain number of frames long, it could be 100 to 1,000. We’re dealing with that camera motion and then knowing if there were characters on set in front of a green screen, knowing where that camera is in relationship to them and in relationship to that green screen so we can recreate in 3D what happened on set. Then you can start to add all the additional elements. If they’re standing next to an alien, you want to make sure that alien looks like it’s in the same space, so you have to know all the right information from set and recreate it in 3D. We get to do a little bit of everything. It’s actually a really interesting job and you never do the same thing twice.

Early artistic renderings from Star Wars: The Last Jedi layout artist Megan Dolman.

Finn and Rose ride a fathier on the beach. What other teams in the pipeline do you work with mostly? Who do you get the information from and who do you send it to?

Megan Dolman: We get the information from a database or from the people who were on set, and then we also work with editorial sometimes. Primarily we’re sending it off to Animation and also to Compositing. Sometimes stuff gets sent back to us and we need to tweak things, occasionally the animators will let us know if there’s something we need to add or tell us that they need to know where this guy would be standing or where the car would be so they can understand how to animate something around that. We work directly with animation more than anyone else. When you started here, the very first film you worked on was Transformers: Age of Extinction. How was that? Was the environment at ILM different than the other places you had worked?

Megan Dolman: ILM is just so big. Where I worked before, people were very professional and good at what they do but here everyone is so amazing at their jobs and they’re very humble for being so amazingly talented. I’ve learned so much. The proprietary software was probably the biggest difference, because it’s kind of like speaking a new language. You really just have to dive in and start with what you know and keep learning every single day, there’s so many things to learn. So that and learning the pipeline was probably the biggest sort of challenge and I’m still learning! [Laughs] But you have so many people around you who are so knowledgeable. There are people here who have been here for 40 years. It’s amazing and having that resource around was great and people are very giving with their knowledge. So Star Wars: The Last Jedi is the first Star Wars film that you worked on. How did it feel to be able to do that after being at ILM for a while?

Megan Dolman: It was definitely one of the films that influenced me to continue on into film, and storytelling, and visual effects. It was awesome when they asked me, I was so happy. [Laughs] It was definitely a bucket-list item. I had been here for a little while and I’d worked on other shows while a couple of Star Wars had come and gone, but I was so happy to be able to work on this. I got to work under John Levin, who is just a really awesome supervisor. I can finally say I worked on Star Wars — woohoo! Is the environment working on Star Wars different than the environment than that of other films you’ve worked on?

Megan Dolman: Absolutely. I think there are different personalities with every show, but with Star Wars, you can say you’re coming home. For me, I was sort of the new kid but I loved working with people who had been there for such a long time. Also, you feel like this is ours and this is so important to everyone to do justice and to really enjoy it because we’re fans, too. You get to geek out and then get your work done and then geek out again. And get to say, “I worked with lightsabers today.”

Kylo Ren computer rendering discussed by Layout artist Megan Dolman.

Kylo Ren holds a lightsaber. So what did you work on in The Last Jedi?

Megan Dolman: I worked on a lot of the Kylo Ren stuff, where he’s dueling with Luke. That was so, so cool. Adding in some of the environments there, where the AT-M6s are, and in front of the mine. It was very expansive and it was a very large environment to work with. It was actually really interesting because it’s pretty sparse, but to see the finished product and how beautiful it looks with the lighting is awesome. We also worked on the fathier sequence, it was really amazing. It was a big challenge to try and integrate all of those elements. On set, obviously, the actors and animals weren’t actually running through all this space, so they’d be on top an apparatus bouncing around and used a gimbal to help capture it all. And then it would be our job to take that information and put it into an environment where they’re actually running these long distances and make it look like they’re actually on top of this animal. They would be moving around 50 or 60 miles an hour at some points. That was a lot of work but it was great. It was fun to do it from the beginning to the end of the scene so there was kind of a conclusion to it. It’s always nice to work on a good portion of a sequence from beginning to end. Do you work with directors at all on laying out the shots?

Megan Dolman: I actually did sort of recently. I got a chance to work on the Battlefront II commercial and I got to sit down with the VFX supervisor, Hayden Landis, and we got to go over the blocking of the shots. Even though they’re shot on green screen or there’s something practical that we’re using, it’s being placed in this larger environment, so you get to decide what’s going to be framed in the background. So you help to translate the storyboarding into a 3D environment.

Megan Dolman: Exactly, we work almost exclusively in 3D, so taking that 2D element and placing it in a 3D environment and then having all these pieces come in and work together. As a layout artist, what are some big hurdles you’ve had to overcome in the job with new technology? Any project that was hard to figure out or you had to find a new way of doing things?

Megan Dolman: It seems like every show is doing something new each time. The facial capture is really exciting and it changes and gets better with every show. When you’re dealing with so many different cameras, things have to be just right and then be interpreted correctly onto the model and to the rigger asset, that can be kind of challenging. You’re working with a lot of information.

I recently got to work on Ready Player One, which was really cool, and that was really challenging because it was a whole new way of doing something I had only done a little bit in the past with facial capture. It was a whole new approach to it. So you get the actor’s face, and what do you do exactly with it?

Megan Dolman: It depends on the show and the shot. Mostly what it is, is taking the information from the raw data, the raw actor with the marks on his face and basically applying it to your asset, and there’s so many different ways to do it. It’s a lot and it takes a lot of people and so many teams, and not just obviously here in San Francisco, but [at ILM] in Vancouver and Singapore and London working together. When you guys break up a scene, are there specific parts everyone works on or is it overlapping?

Megan Dolman: Usually our manager, coordinator, or supervisor will take care of assigning shots. I’ve worked on shows where they’ve assigned you shots in a sequential order so you understand what you’re doing. A lot of times, it’s just sort of what’s available. Sometimes you can work on a shot simultaneously with someone else but they’re working on a different aspect of that shot. It’s a very organic procedure and we’ll get shots back after we’ve worked on them to update or change something. Often times there will be feedback to help improve it. Going back to the Battlefront II commercial, can you talk a little bit more about what that was like?

Megan Dolman: We had the actors on set in front of a green screen. I worked mostly on the second half of that, but it was really neat to sit down with Hayden because it was at the very beginning and I hadn’t worked on commercials yet here at ILM. Commercials are very quick and so you’re turning things over at such a fast pace. That was one of the nice things — to get to sit down with the the supervisor because we just went over his idea and where everyone should be, and that definitely changed as assets were added in and adjusted. That was great because I got to work on 12 shots and laying all of those out and really understanding the beginning to end. A lot of times when working on a feature-length film, you’ve very compartmentalized. You don’t get to see a lot of what’s happening before and after whatever shot you’re working on. A lot of times I’ll go watch a movie in the theater that I’ve worked on and it’s like the first time I’ve seen the whole thing. What are some good skills you think someone who’s interested in layout should have?

Megan Dolman: I think if you’re interested in layout specifically, any kind of knowledge of camera work would be helpful. Take a photography class and learn about how the camera works and with film, learn camera moves and how they appear on screen. The quicker you can tell what kind of camera or at what speed it was shot, the easier you’re going to make your life. Any traditional art, sketching, drawing, or even sculpting in 3D helps you to understand things spatially. That, I think, is really really helpful, especially because we work almost exclusively in 3D. That would be the biggest thing, camera work and learning spatial awareness. Do you have a favorite film or shot that you’ve worked on while at Lucasfilm?

Megan Dolman: I’d have to say, I got to work on a [Last Jedi] shot that had the Millennium Falcon in it and that was amazing. Also Kylo Ren with his lightsaber was really neat. There are a couple of Marvel shots that have been pretty epic. In Capitan America: Civil War, when they’re at the airport, laying those shots out and working with Ant-Man, that was probably the most fun because it was really challenging to know who was where and to keep track of all of that. It was fun to have that come all together. I got a chance to work on putting that airport together; it was like a huge puzzle and I got to learn the ins and outs of that airport really well. It was really neat to get to know how that big fight was coordinated and to help translate it into 3D.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is available now on Digital and via Movies Anywhere, and comes to 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, and On-Demand on March 27.

Photos by Chris Hawkinson.

Anina Walas is an operations and production coordinator with the Star Wars online team. She loves pretty much everything Disney, great weather, making/eating really good food, and of course, Star Wars. You can follow her on Twitter @aninaden, but beware, she’s terribly inconsistent about tweeting things.

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