Every time an episode of Disney Gallery: Star Wars The Mandalorian lands, Fantha Tracks give their responses, and here’s our thoughts on the fourth episode, Technology. Beware of spoilerific elements in here.
DISNEY GALLERY: THE MANDALORIAN is an eight-episode documentary series that pulls back the curtain on The Mandalorian. Each chapter explores a different facet of the first live-action Star Wars television show through interviews, behind the scenes footage, and roundtable conversations hosted by Jon Favreau.
Jon Favreau and his team devised a new method of filmmaking by expanding upon technology previously developed for projects like The Jungle Book and The Lion King. The roundtable discusses how they created an immersive shooting stage that utilizes video walls and game engine software in an unprecedented way.
“George’s Garage“; now there’s a great alternate title for this episode which focuses on the technology of The Mandalorian, and as we bask in the satisfying, game-changing glow of LFL and ILM smashing through the ceiling of technology and adding a whole new dimension to the possibilities of film and TV (a line between which is now all but gone) it’s ILM1976 again as motion control is founded, or 1992 as digital dinosaurs spark a new era for VFX. It’s a good time to be a lover of all things Lucasian, and this groundbreaking 8 chapter Disney Plus original is right at the forefront of that love.
This episode brings back all the key players from previous episodes, dipping in to their round tables as the topics are chewed over, and while a feast for the eyes, the discussion of technology could potentially be somewhat dry. Not a chance, as Jon Favreau opens up proceedings with a run back through his own history with VFX and ILM that started with Iron Man in 2008, through The Jungle Book and The Lion King and on to The Mandalorian. He’s a big presence at that table, occasionally cutting into others as they speak but his enthusiasm is palpable, his knowledge clearly admired by these digital wizards; to take Star Wars forward needs a charismatic character like Favreau leading it, a man honed by years of experience both behind and in front of the camera. And hey, watching them explain to us the options and capabilities of StageCraft and the wonders of the Volume (it’ll always be the Grady Ranch to me) is like watching Dennis Muren run that camcorder through a forest of empty toilet rolls as animatics became a part of Return of the Jedi. This isn’t just an evolution of technology, it’s ground zero for an entirely new way of making magic.
For me to go into the technical side of the process would be frankly ridiculous – I don’t know how my kettle works, let alone a system like this, but the technology is laid out in (as near as they can get) layman’s terms, more than clearly enough to get across the bullet points. This tech is incredible, its applications limitless and the finessing has only just begun (be sure to tune in to this Tuesday’s episode of Making Tracks for the first part of our extensive chat with ILM’s Hal Hickel, who you see again in this episode) and the options are delicious.
Not to be overlooked is the effect it has on the actors, and to hear Carl Weathers articulate that is eye-opening. You can only imagine the green-eyed envy the prequel cast must be watching this with, and the anticipation Ewan McGregor must feel for his own return to the GFFA in Kenobi. This is a tech dream for sure, the leading edge of technology but it’s also (perhaps by accident more than design) a dream scenario for the cast.
And a final point; to see George Lucas on set not only gave me the buzz it always does, but it’s the completion of a dream he had well over a decade ago. Kathleen Kennedy alluded to the unbuilt volume he hoped to build at the bottom of the hill at Skywalker Ranch (the aforementioned Grady Ranch. Google it for a satisfying belly laugh of a story), but to see him inside the Volume…well, if the opportunities of this technology aren’t enough to tempt him back into filmmaking then nothing is.
Yet another fine episode in an increasingly essential series.
When George Lucas created Industrial Light & Magic out of necessity back in the 1970s his accomplishments changed not only his vision for Star Wars, but so many movies that followed it. Without ILM, visual effects for our beloved franchise – and others such as Jurassic Park – wouldn’t be half as convincing as those we’ve come to know and respect.
I have always marvelled at the quality of blue and green screen possibilities. Yes, there have undoubtedly been leaps in the technology over the years, but it has always had its limitations. So, largely thanks to Jon Favreau, a real game-changer has been developed. A filming system has been developed that not only puts the actor in an accurate representation of the finished scene, but it also provides the lighting. The Volume is essentially a stage with real elements blending seamlessly with the LED encrusted walls and ceiling. The effect is so true that the cast actually feel transported to the location.
The actors are immersed in the action and it all helps for a more accurate reaction to what are fictitious environments. It has all helped Dave Filoni with his transition from animation to live action. Many backdrops are now essentially animated backgrounds and that is something he appreciates wholeheartedly.
“We could change The Volume within the half hour to be a completely different set,” says Dave. “If we weren’t shooting the ground we didn’t need to change it, ‘cause you’d still get depth and parallax on the screen and the reflection needed.”
Reflections. What had once been a nightmare for the filmmaking industry can now be embraced. In the future we can expect to see the shiniest of R2 domes and C-3PO costumes. It all adds to the realism in leaps and bounds.
Giancarlo Esposito enthuses about The Volume and how it helped him play Moff Gideon. “I can climb up on top of my TIE fighter and see the horizon,” says Giancarlo. “It’s interactive. I can now feel the power of that sun coming up. I have something concrete and physical to look at and feel and touch. Wow, what a difference.”
Carl Weathers is equally impressed. He describes the lava tunnel from the final episode of the season, with the Volume providing a realism unlike any other visual effects system. Raving about the sensation of motion in that scene – even though the actors were motionless – he goes on to explain: “I found it as liberating as anything I’ve ever worked on. As soon as you accepted it, you were in the environment. You didn’t have to pretend anymore.”
Bryce Dallas Howard recalls George Lucas commenting on effects some 20 years ago. At the time, George said one day we will be ale to produce all this from the comfort of your garage at home. The first time she stepped into The Volume it was as though George’s vision had been realised.
Star Wars fans will love seeing how The Mandalorian was realised, but filmmakers in general will gasp at the possibilities this quantum leap provides them with. The Volume is an incredible development and perhaps its true potential and significance is yet to be discovered.
The directors of The Mandalorian season one have helped to develop the use of this new technology as the show was crafted and Jon Favreau is keen that they take the technology into any forthcoming projects. As Yoda once said: “Pass on what you have learned”.
In a similar vein to Star Wars’ creator George Lucas, Jon Favreau, executive producer and writer of The Mandalorian, believes in pushing limits to technically enhance storytelling.
And because he did, there is The Volume—a 75-foot diameter circle of video walls and ceiling that is a collection of LED panels offering a finer pixel pitch. It is the brainchild of a think tank of visual effects experts, from various companies including Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), that found a more affordable and nimble way to create a living filming environment making use of a real-time game-rendering engine.
Favreau references the past—including “King Kong” from 1933 and Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”—before he explains, “The Mandalorian is the first production ever to use real-time rendering and video wall in camera set extensions and effects.” This is a game-changer and something that should allow even more live-action Star Wars series to see the light of day on Disney+.
The technological advances used to capture The Mandalorian allowed for a look and feel that allowed directors and actors to immerse themselves in the environment and for the storytellers to adapt on-the-fly within the 360-degree digital world surrounding the production.
Lucas didn’t get the opportunity to build his own The Volume “down the hill at Skywalker Ranch” as Kathleen Kennedy mentions he wanted, but there is no doubt The Maker is excited to see that Star Wars is still pushing the envelope on storytelling.
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