How big screens and small explosions shaped the VFX of Solo: A Star Wars Story

Ahead of the 91st Academy Awards on Sunday, our Oscar Effects series puts the spotlight on each of the five movies nominated for Best Visual Effects, looking at the amazing tricks filmmakers and their effects teams used to make each of these films stand out as visual spectacles.

Offering up an origin story for one of sci-fi cinema’s most iconic heroes is no small task, but that’s what Disney and Lucasfilm endeavored to do with Solo: A Star Wars Story, the May 2018 film that chronicled the early years of Han Solo, the shoot-first smuggler and pilot of the Millennium Falcon.

Set in the time before audiences were introduced to Harrison Ford’s portrayal of the character in 1977’s Star Wars: Episode IV – A New HopeSolo explores the events that led to Han becoming a smuggler, how he met his Wookiee best friend and co-pilot, Chewbacca, and how he won the ship that would become synonymous with the Star Wars franchise — a modified YT-1300 Corellian freighter known as the Millennium Falcon. Acclaimed director Ron Howard, who took over following the exit of Phil Lord and Chris Miller, worked with the visual effects team at Industrial Light and Magic to bring all of these adventures to life in a way that made old stories new again.

The film’s visual effects team was led by ILM’s Rob Bredow, who reimagined the way journeys through space are brought to the big screen, and used innovative methods for creating some of the film’s most memorable — and explosive — sequences.

Bredow and his team made their presence known early in the film with a memorable sequence that saw Han and a team of smugglers attempt to steal a shipment of a volatile resource on a fast-moving train, only to have their heist interrupted by a rival gang. The sequence culminated in a massive explosion that destroyed most of a large mountain in a slow-motion plume of fire and smoke.

Industrial Light and Magic

“When we started on the movie, and I read the line in the script about the coaxium explosion and the scale of it – ‘Bigger than anything we’ve seen before’ – I was like, ‘Oh man, how are we going to do this?’” Bredow told VFX Blog. “I’ve always in my own life referenced the Star Wars films in terms of having the coolest explosions ever, you know, back to Joe Viskocil’s explosions of the Death Star and the way those evolved over time. It was like, ‘How am I going to do something that’s different and unique in the Star Wars universe?’”

The answer to that burning question was found in an unlikely source for a film that debuted in 2018: The world of miniatures.

Perhaps somewhat less surprising in the modern era, Bredow reportedly took inspiration from The Slow Mo Guys, a YouTube channel featuring a variety of events filmed in extreme slow-motion using high-speed cameras. A segment in which the channel’s duo lit off firecrackers in a fish tank proved to be the experiment that would eventually shape the destruction of an entire mountain on an alien planet in Solo.

The visual effects team set up a large fish tank at Pinewood Studios where Solo was shot and created a 3D-printed replica of the mountain they intended to blow up in the scene. Various forms of firecrackers were used, with different colors and densities, and the explosions were filmed at 120,000 frames per second. The team shot more than 60 versions of the explosion, and what they found was that the bubble of the explosion perfectly contoured around the shape of the mountain, creating a truly unique image.

“Most people would think the mountain range is real and the explosion is CG, but it’s completely the other way around.”

“It’s quite funny … because when you look at that shot, most people would think the mountain range is real and the explosion is CG, but it’s completely the other way around,” explained ILM visual effects supervisor Julian Foddy. “The explosion elements are absolutely real and the mountains are all CG.”

The visual effects team took a similarly outside-the-box approach to creating one of the film’s other key sequences: The famous Kessel Run that has become one of the hallmark’s of Han’s reputation and the stuff of Star Wars legend.

Carrying a dangerous cargo stolen from the mining planet Kessel, and with only minimal help from the ship’s android navigator and co-pilot, Han is forced to pilot the Millennium Falcon through a dangerous and uncharted region of space — one in which he encounters more than a few unexpected threats. Instead of filming the scene against a green screen and adding the external images later, however, Bredow and his team put the actors in the Falcon’s cockpit and projected the exterior images on large screens all around them, allowing the actors to actually see the action.

Along with giving the cast a better idea of what’s going on visually around their characters, the technique allowed the camera team to adjust their own approach to the scene, given the abundance of light sources coming from all around the cast and the ability to see how a scene plays out in its entirety while it’s being shot. Last, but certainly not least, it was a lot of fun for the cast, according to Bredow.

Industrial Light and Magic

“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,” explained Bredow in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. “They walked in and we had a static starfield on the screen. The very last thing that happened in the scene was Donald [Glover] and Phoebe [Waller-Bridge], 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.”

“The stars streaked by and they went into that familiar blue tunnel,” he recalled. “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?'”

Beyond the simple fun of it, the decision to film the scene using footage projected on the exterior screens added a layer of authenticity that, according to Bredow, made the act of flying through space more personal in this installment of the saga.

Although rear-projection is a visual effect technique that fell out of favor years ago, Bredow found himself and his team coming up with new ways to update and improve the old tactic for a more modern filmmaking environment. To create the effect, the Falcon was surrounded by a massive screen that measured 30 feet in diameter and was wrapped 180 degrees around the ship’s cockpit. Five 4K projectors then displayed the necessary starfields and other imagery on the screens.

“When you see Han walk into the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon for the first time when they’re in space, the stars you see out the windows are actually all digitally projected and caught in camera,” Bredow told FX Guide. “Or when you see him sitting down in the cockpit with Lando and they take the jump to the hyperspace, that shot is all in camera with just a little color correction.”

In order to simulate the crew’s movements as the ship hurtled through space, the cockpit of the Falcon was built on a massive hydraulic gimbal controlled by the effects team. The end result was a sequence in which the actors could both feel and see what transpired along their journey, from near-collisions with errant asteroids to a frantic escape from the jaws — and tentacles —  of a mysterious, ship-killing creature in deep space.

solo a star wars story review
Industrial Light and Magic

However, despite all of the big explosions and wild chase sequences among the stars, it’s the subtle moments that Bredow is most proud of in Solo.

Discussing the moment Han, Chewbacca, and the rest of the ragtag crew make the jump to hyperspace for the first time, Bredow told ABC News it’s a brief shot of Han’s eye that he’ll remember fondly from his work on the film.

“You could actually see hyperspace reflected in his eye,” said Bredow. “It’s a really nice, simple storytelling moment in the film. I’m really proud of that shot, even though it’s not the most complicated.”

Solo: A Star Wars Story premiered May 25, 2018. The 91st Academy Awards ceremony kicks off at 8 p.m. ET on February 24 on ABC.

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