Industrial Light & Magic legend John Knoll’s visual effects resume already includes the Star Wars prequels, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and The Mandalorian. But working on a Star Wars: Squadrons computer generated (CG) short was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.
“I really admired cinematics from older Star Wars games. I think they’re wonderful stories,” Knoll tells StarWars.com. “It was kind of irresistible to have been offered to work on a standalone short. I felt like we had to do it.”
Squadrons arrives October 2 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, and virtual reality, promising to bring classic Star Wars dogfights to new interactive heights. And to mark its pending arrival, Knoll and ILM collaborated with Electronic Arts and Motive Studios to craft a thrilling CG short, “Hunted.” “If you’re going to tell a Star Wars story, there’s really nowhere you can go that’s better than ILM to bring that world to life,” says EA’s Neel Upadhye, director of “Hunted.” “We were just so lucky that they were as enthusiastic as we were about doing this.”
When the hunter becomes the “Hunted”
“Hunted” tells the story of Imperial pilot Varko Grey in the wake of another failed mission after the destruction of the second Death Star. It’s one of the few pieces of linear Star Wars storytelling that’s told from the Empire’s point of view and makes the audience feel strangely sympathetic for Varko, as the pilot risks his own life to save a squadmate, finds himself left behind by his commander, and leads his enemy through canyons on a never-before-seen planet, Var-Shaa, in an effort to survive. In the single player story of the game, you’ll fly alongside him as part of Titan Squadron.
“The power dynamic has flipped on its head,” Upadhye says. “And to do that, it felt like putting yourself in the shoes of an Imperial pilot would be an interesting way to flesh out that perspective.” The opening of “Hunted” illustrates this poetically, as a massive Star Destroyer passes by overhead, a la the famous shot from Star Wars: A New Hope. Only here, the Star Destroyer blows up.
“Even in the development of the game story, I think we all felt like this was going to be something incredibly tricky to pull off,” says James Waugh, vice president, franchise content and strategy at Lucasfilm. “The reason I say that is, we all want to make sure our characters are rich and dynamic and humanized, and approach every villain as the hero of their own story. But the Empire are the bad guys — this fascist order hellbent on total domination via oppression and subjugation. It’s hard to even paint them in a way there they’re sympathetic. That said, they have a point of view, regardless of how misguided or sinister they might be.” The teams behind the game and “Hunted” treaded carefully.
“We wanted to make sure that we didn’t make the Empire something they’re not,” Waugh continues. “In the short, Varko is still a committed idealist and someone who you think is probably a pretty dangerous individual and has done some terrible things. But his entire galaxy has just flipped on its head. All context of order and what will come next is suddenly in chaos and shambles. Seeing that, and seeing that flip, and seeing his reaction to the fact that what he cherished and believed in may be lost, is as human an experience as you can get. It’s part of the power of the storytelling of the game and the short.”
“While you can’t necessarily respect the reasons the Empire is fighting this war, the pilots themselves have each other’s back. And you can respect that,” adds Upadhye. “That’s what we tried to pull into this story with Varko.”
Breaking the mold
Work on “Hunted” began in March 2020, the result of a TIE fighter-sized itch Upadhye wanted to scratch. “As we were getting closer to launch, we felt like we could benefit from doing something big and exciting that would just remind Star Wars fans out there how awesome it is to fly around in an X-wing and an A-wing, and reignite the love for the dogfight fantasy again,” Upadhye says. He pitched the concept of a “dogfight movie” to Ian Frazier, creative director of Squadrons, Jo Berry, senior writer of Squadrons, along with others at EA, and then the Lucasfilm Games team and the Lucasfilm Story Group. Everyone loved it.
“I think we’ve always been powerful believers in the intersection of media,” says Waugh. “More than ever, there’s a sort of porous ecosystem where different media types enhance each other when we’re constructing them holistically. And I truly think that’s one of the strengths of the Star Wars franchise these days. You can experience storytelling in limitless ways, and it all connects, and it all resonates. There’s a moment in this short where an event happens that will be referred to in the game. And I think that sort of enchants the game. If you’ve seen these things collectively, the aggregate effect will be that much more powerful.”
Perhaps the reason that “Hunted” is so effective is that it feels like Star Wars. The movement of the fighters, the radio chatter, and an overall cinematic flair. Even the look of Var-Shaa, with its just-other-worldly-enough landscape of flat mountain tops, seems right at home in the galaxy far, far away. How did Upadhye make sure he captured the essence of Star Wars?
“The answer to that question,” he says, “is you partner with the people who live and breathe this stuff every single day, and can help you find that corner of the galaxy to paint with your new brushes and still fit the overall palette.”
As Knoll tells it, however, “Hunted” allowed ILM to break the mold in places.
“When we’re working on the feature films, there’s a style book. A kind of shot-design grammar that we need to adhere to because it’s part of a franchise and you want a consistency there,” Knoll says. “There was an opportunity on this to depart a bit from that. To do shot designs that wouldn’t really fit into the cinematic design of the feature films. Go-Pro mounts and that kind of thing. It was really fun to get into.”
One standout moment is when Varko, left behind by his commander and with his ship damaged, hides among wreckage as an X-wing slowly stalks. It’s a tense sequence that shifts the breakneck pace of “Hunted,” which opens with chases and explosions, to a slower gear.
“I was inspired by World War II submarine movies for that. This idea that you’re so outnumbered that being quiet is the best course of action,” Upadhye says. “The way that allowed us to sculpt the arc of the film by being really quiet for a moment, and every creak is going to expose you… The claustrophobia that the sound design brings out in that sequence was really, really fun. Not to mention that that scene highlights a big ‘what if’ in the Star Wars universe that we haven’t really explored before, which is, what happens if you’re the last TIE fighter on the battlefield?”
So, while it feels like a classic Star Wars dogfight tale, there’s lots of newness at play. Waugh sums it up succinctly.
“It’s just such a fresh take on a TIE fighter battle, frankly.”
“A fun October”
Fans will soon step into cockpits themselves — on both the Imperial and New Republic side — when Squadrons brings Star Wars flight combat to a new generation of gamers. And “Hunted” serves as a promise of what they can expect to experience themselves.
“What I really think we achieved in this is the character perspective,” Waugh says. “Those ideals that are universal between both the New Republic and the Empire in this campaign and in this time are that they do believe in something. And we are at crux point where one of these two ideologies is going to last, and one won’t.”
“Hopefully, it’s reminding us that flying in an X-wing or a TIE fighter is pretty much the coolest thing you could possibly do,” Upadhye says. “It’s gonna be a fun October.”
And for his part, Knoll is as excited as any Star Wars gamer.
“I was a big fan of the original X-Wing video game. I loved that game,” Knoll says. “And I’ve been longing for years to be able to see something with newer graphics and network gameplay, and to revisit that.”
Come October 2, he will.
Star Wars: Squadrons arrives October 2 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC, and is available for pre-order now.
For more on Star Wars: Squadrons, check out StarWars.com’s in-depth coverage:
- Explore the Star Wars: Squadrons game page
- Read the full Star Wars: Squadrons announce
- Go inside the making of the game with Ian Frazier, creative director at Motive, and Lucasfilm’s Orion Kellogg
- Discover highlights from the Star Wars: Squadrons reveal trailer and gameplay trailer
- Buckle up and meet the characters of Star Wars: Squadrons in the StarWars.com Databank
- Learn 7 things about the game from Ian Frazier
Dan Brooks is Lucasfilm’s senior content strategist of online, the editor of StarWars.com, and a writer. 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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