The head of ILM takes us behind the scenes of his new book, featuring never-before-seen images from the set of the film.
On the set for Solo: A Star Wars Story, the production team worked together to create a visual and visceral spectacle to put the motley crew of Han Solo, Lando Calrissian, and the rest of the characters inside the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon.
Hydraulics helped create the feel of turbulence and liftoff, while a wraparound screen added visuals to immerse the actors in the moment and help filmmakers capture just the right trick of light. But no one told the actors what they were in for.
“The first time we put the cast into hyperspace was really fun,” says Rob Bredow, the VFX supervisor and coproducer on the film who documented his experience on set in the new book, Industrial Light & Magic Presents: Making Solo: A Star Wars Story. “We made this big wraparound screen and we had pre-made the entire Kessel Run in visual effects, but when we were bringing the cast in it just had stars on it. The special effects team was standing by to shake the Falcon, and I had talked to the visual effects team and we were ready to cue hyperspace. We didn’t tell the actors. I think it might have been Ron’s idea to do it this way.”
They ran the scene like any other, a dry run-through played more for the choreography. But as Donald Glover and Phoebe Waller-Bridge leaned over to push the hyperspace levers, the cockpit began to shake, and the stars began rapidly streaking by. The reaction was priceless. “They were transported,” Bredow says. “After everybody quieted down, Donald Glover, who is probably the coolest guy on set, he just says to himself, 'This is. The coolest thing. I have ever done.'”
Impressing Lando himself remains one of Bredow’s favorite memories from making the film. In Industrial Light & Magic Presents: Making Solo: A Star Wars Story, which is available next week with a limited number of copies on sale at Star Wars Celebration Chicago beginning today, Bredow captures an intimate portrait of the filmmaking process steeped in reality, from treacherous pre-production location scouting trips scaling literal mountains, to moments like this on set, and all the way through creating down-to-the-wire post-production visual effects at ILM. Through candid behind-the-scenes images and personal anecdotes, Bredow invites fans to stand beside him and experience what it felt like to be there. From troubleshooting the best ways to create thrilling effects in challenging sequences like the Kessel Run and the train heist, or sitting beside director Ron Howard as he asks if a particular element of the live shot can be fixed in post-production, this book puts you truly behind the scenes making a Star Wars film.
'It goes bright, we cut'
Placing the actors in an environment where they can respond to the visuals that audiences will also be seeing on screen is a new way of using a very old technique to create movie magic and a perfect example of the way Solo’s behind-the-scenes crew collaborated. “It was innovative to do it this way, taking an old technique, rear-projection, and modernizing it with the latest technology,” Bredow says. “It was raising the bar of what the actors could bring because they had all this interactive experience. It was like going on a ride everyday. And then of course it helped the camera department, too. It was really all the teams coming together.”
Practical effects, like the projections on the screens, help ground the scene, and gave filmmakers some details they wouldn’t have otherwise envisioned. “If you look at any of the other Star Wars movies that have been done, when you push those levers into hyperspace, as soon as the stars streak and it goes bright, we cut. In this movie, as soon as we go to hyperspace, it got really interesting and the camera operator, who in this case was Sylvaine Dufaux, she panned over and found Han’s face." She could see the reflection of hyperspace caught in his eye, "like the perfect poetic way to illustrate the hopeful story point," Bredow says. "And we never would have thought of that shot had we not had that rear-projection screen wrapped around the cockpit.”
Bredow’s book highlights these serendipitous moments as well as learning experiences that come with pushing the envelope and sometimes failing. “I think it’s easy for us to forget that we learn more from things that don’t work than we learn from our successes,” Bredow says. “Going through here and documenting some of the stuff that we tried visually and we ruled out, I think that’s something that everybody benefits from. We figured out ways to solve all of these problems, so all of these learning processes are really fun to share. It’s also fun to tell these stories of where you thought for sure that would be the solution and it turns out it wasn’t and then you have to find another way around it.”
For instance, the book details the many iterations of shooting the train heist, including full-speed stunt testing to mimic how people would really react to being on the top of a fast-moving train. Ultimately, those shots were done on a soundstage, but the experience of putting stunt doubles out on the road was invaluable. “It was so complicated to set up that we would have gotten one shot a day,” Bredow says. “But we did learn how much wind we needed. We had a visual reference for what we were going for. We saw how the actors moved when they were really nervous at 50 miles per hour on an outdoor vehicle, so we could show that reference to the actors when they were in a controlled environment. Even though we decided not to shoot the sequence on a runway for practical reasons, we proved that we could duplicate that on a soundstage. It was a huge win.”
Science and schedules
They also incorporated science, math, and physics into the artistry, including a real underwater reaction to capture the effect of the massive coaxium explosion.
“The coaxium explosion is a real underwater explosion that we shot at high speed at 25,000 frames per second,” Bredow says. “That’s a camera that’s running about 1,000 times faster than your average camera. We set off a tiny little charge underwater. If you just looked at it with your eye, it looked like a white flash. But captured at very, very high speeds, you get this wonderful sphere that grows and then sucks back in and collapses on itself. Then you get the secondary flash and all the smoke that builds out. And we were really interested in capturing that and using that as the foundation for the coaxium explosion at the end of the train heist sequence.”
And Bredow’s book conveys the pressure of the post-production crew’s compressed schedule, when ILM staffers in four offices around the world were working around-the-clock to finish 20 shots per day as the deadline neared. “That is a lot of people working at the same time. Hundreds of artists working around the globe… One hundred shots a week is a pretty good clip. It’s a lot because it’s not just about making every pixel perfect, but it’s also making sure we’re telling the story in the clearest possible way for the audience.”
For the crew
Bredow didn’t actually set out to write a book about the filmmaking process.
Part of his job as VFX supervisor is to document behind-the-scenes details, lighting, and textures, so the artists at ILM can understand the scene and seamlessly replicate those aspects in CG later on. That was why he had his camera on set in the first place. “But I noticed very early on, often I was the only one in the room with a camera. And I’m watching these things that are happening around me and I thought, ‘I’ve got to document this. It’s too much fun.’”
The photos were intended for his personal edification, a way to celebrate the work of being embedded in the film for over a year. Then he hatched the idea of using the images to create a book for the crew. But when he mentioned it to Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy, she encouraged him to instead pursue writing a book for everyone, the crew and the fans. Mike Siglain, creative director of Lucasfilm Publishing, helped Bredow shape the idea further, with a personal departure from the typical “making of” story.
“We’ve done other ‘making of’ books, but not with somebody who was on the film from the very first day of pre-production to the very last day of post-production and actually telling that person’s view into the story,” Bredow says. “And it’s such an interesting story.”
Instead of the typical retrospective approach, Bredow took advantage of down time between takes to take out his iPhone and capture a quick 20-minute interview with a fellow crew member. He didn’t just want the book to be a step-by-step look at the process of making the movie. He wanted the story to have the heart of the hundreds of filmmakers who worked on this show.
As he wrote the book, he stuck a note on the corner of his computer screen. “Tell stories,” it said simply. “It’s really useful, because it’s very easy when you’re trying to explain what’s happening in a photo to tell somebody what the process is. And I do some of that in the book -- document how we get from point A to point B. But it’s way more interesting to tell a story.” Vignettes capture his family’s experience as extras and memories from crew members across several teams and departments, lending a unique vantage point to many aspects of the film’s creation. Kennedy shared a touching story about the late producer Allison Shearmur, who kept working on the film even after she was diagnosed with cancer.
At one point, Bredow found himself sitting at a table on Ron Howard’s birthday, sharing in a loaf of bread that Jon Favreau had made from scratch as a gift, as they went over Favreau’s recording script for Rio. “We’re all sitting around the table talking about the lines and eating this wonderful sourdough bread that Jon Favreau had baked for Ron Howard.” Bredow just kept thinking, “'I cannot believe I’m sitting in this spot.' And that’s exactly what I was trying to capture here. Just getting to stand with these people, you feel very fortunate.”
Howard invited Bredow and the rest of the team into the creative process as collaborators, leading with humility and allowing them to make their childhood dreams a reality. “Ron Howard is a great leader in that he knows how to get the best from all of his people and he invited everybody in,” Bredow says. “He listens to all the ideas and then he says, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ And he also has tons of ideas of his own. He’s got the confidence and experience to know he’s going to figure out the best way with all the input.
“I think the most fun was getting to work through all the details of the storytelling of the Kessel Run. Some of it’s just geeky stuff like how to make the parsec story something that makes sense by giving this really long circuitous route on the way in and having a dangerous route that’s shorter on the way out. You should definitely not go there and, of course, Han’s going to take us that way. So that’s really fun. But also figuring out how to shoot it in a different way is a great challenge.”
Star Wars was the most important film of Bredow’s childhood and he hopes that young fans poring over the pages of his book might be enticed by the same sense of wonder and excitement.
After all, as a child, it was an image of Dennis Muren photographing a stop-motion AT-AT that set Bredow on course for his career in special effects. “My dream is that like that picture of Dennis and those AT-ATs in The Empire Strikes Back inspired me to want to make this my career, I hope people look through the book and there might be an image that will inspire them to go out and make something,” he says. “Or maybe some of them want to get into visual effects because they see the way the magic is made.”
You can get your copy of Industrial Light & Magic Presents: Making Solo: A Star Wars Story starting today at Star Wars Celebration Chicago or when it hits shelves next Tuesday. Pre-order your copy here.
Associate Editor Kristin Baver is a writer and all-around sci-fi nerd who always has just one more question in an inexhaustible list of curiosities. Sometimes she blurts out “It’s a trap!” even when it’s not. Do you know a fan who’s most impressive? Hop on Twitter and tell @KristinBaver all about them.