“Solo” – A Fusion of Creativity and Technology

by Graham Edwards

Rob Bredow behind the controls of the Millennium Falcon

As senior vice president, executive creative director and head of Industrial Light & Magic, Rob Bredow gets involved with every project that passes through ILM’s doors. During his keynote presentation at VIEW Conference 2018 today, he shared his experiences as visual effects supervisor and co-producer of Solo: A Star Wars Story. Cinefex sat down with Rob in the Turin sunshine after his presentation to talk more about his adventure in a galaxy far, far away.

CINEFEX: Rob, in your presentation on Solo, you explained that creative solutions are driven by theme. In the case of Solo, the theme was “let’s imagine we’re making this movie in the early ‘70s.”

ROB BREDOW: Exactly. We wanted to make it feel organic and grounded, and tried to apply that to everything we did from the very beginning, to make things feel as believable as possible.

CINEFEX: So where did that theme come from in the first place?

ROB BREDOW: That was an aesthetic choice that Chris Miller and Phil Lord wanted to make from the very beginning. They felt like the movie belonged in that era. Of course, we wanted to achieve things that wouldn’t have been achievable if we had done it in, say, 1968 or 1971, but we wanted it to feel as if we could have. With the train heist, for example, the idea of constraining the camera only to places a camera could really belong on a train that was going 60 miles per hour on the side of a mountain – that was really important to me. I wanted us to religiously obey that rule, and we pretty much did. We did the same thing throughout the whole movie, using methods that honored the methods of the past, even if they couldn’t literally be the same methods. I actually think that, in a world where you can do anything, constraining yourself helps to pull the thing together.

CINEFEX: And constraints can actually encourage creativity, right?

ROB BREDOW: Yes, totally. In fact, I had a whole other section of the talk I did today that I didn’t have time for, about how the creativity really is born out of the constraints. One of my favourite stories on the subject was told to me by the director Ash Brannon, who I worked with on Surf’s Up. Ash was an animator on Toy Story, and he told me they didn’t have enough money to finish rigging the green army men, and they were ready to cut them out of the film. So they pitched the idea that they didn’t have to be fully articulated characters. Those guys basically bark orders, so they just needed the ability to do a simple “eeh” and and “ooh” shape, and they could just move around with their feet tied together. That walk they do is one of the most memorable things in the film, and it may not have happened if it wasn’t for the restrictions.

CINEFEX: Thinking back over the history of movie effects, creativity has always gone hand in hand with technology. If you’re going to excel in this craft, do you need those two sides of the brain working together, the right and the left?

ROB BREDOW: Yeah. I think the more you have them both in one person, or across everybody on the team, the better. You can certainly have people who have strengths of one side over the other, but I think the most fun thing about this industry is getting to combine the very technical and the very artistic together. Especially being able to figure out things on the spot, where you’ve got to figure out some way to achieve this illusion.

CINEFEX: In Solo, your solution to the Millennium Falcon cockpit shots was a highly technical one – wraparound rear projections screens running prerendered final backgrounds. But the end result was super-organic, like the shot where the camera pans from the hyperspace jump onto Han’s face. You said was captured by the first camera operator, Sylvaine Dufaux, kind of on instinct?

ROB BREDOW: Right. One of the great things about real-time effects is that they are much more in the moment than what we can do in postproduction. There’s a place for both, but there really was something great to those shooting days on the Falcon. For the Kessel Run sequence, we had around 125 cues – lighting changes on the walls, or different media clips on the screen, or different blaster fire. I would stand next to Ron Howard as he was directing the actors, and sometimes he would take them back to redo a moment, or sometimes he would take them forward. I’d try to read his mind and work out where he was going next, so the screens would be ready and cued up. And then, sometimes, our DOP Bradford Young would catch my eye and give me a hand signal to add some more blaster fire, because he wanted to amp up the lighting. We were making changes in kind of a dance, live on the set.

CINEFEX: Solo certainly seems to be a great example of how the role of production visual effects supervisor has changed over, say, the last 10 years – you’re more creatively enmeshed than ever with the rest of the production.

ROB BREDOW: That’s been my experience, yeah. Our supervisors at ILM who work production-side find themselves very integrated, not only in how they’re going to achieve something, but also in why and what the creative storytelling opportunity is. That varies in its methodology from show to show. Sometimes you’re answering a lot of questions in previs. Sometimes you’re collaborating directly with either the writers or the director. On Solo, I got a co-producer credit in large part because I was working things out with Ron Howard and Jon Kasdan every day on set. There are lines that Han Solo says in this movie that I pitched to Jon, and he would say, “That’s a great idea, we’re going to have him do that right now!” If Ron liked it, he put it in the film. It was just a huge honour and a big opportunity to be involved creatively in the whole movie from beginning to end.

CINEFEX: Industrial Light & Magic has been doing Star Wars for over 40 years now, and earlier this year you took on the role of senior vice president, executive creative director and head of ILM. When you walk through the door each morning, do you sense the presence of that lineage?

ROB BREDOW: Yeah, definitely. Walking into ILM, you’ll see one of the original optical printers in the hallway, there’s original stormtrooper costumes around. You really do get a sense of the history of the place.

CINEFEX: Is that exciting, or intimidating?

ROB BREDOW: Well, it’s a bit like when I started on Solo. I first thought, “Okay, I have to be really careful. I’m walking on hallowed ground.” Then, a few months into the show, I realised it’s a movie, I’m going to break stuff along the way, I’m not going to make every decision perfectly, and I’ve got to figure out how to make it better and better as we go along. I’m actually having that same experience again in this role as head of ILM. My original thought was, “This is ILM! It’s the company that I’ve looked up to for my entire career. So getting to lead it is an incredible honour.” Then you dive in and realise you have this amazing place with fantastic people but – like anything – it’s not perfect. It’s a great honour, and then at the same time I have a responsibility to say, “Oh, this part’s messy, we’ve got to go in and get our hands dirty.” And that’s the culture of a great company that is reinventing itself, which I really like being a part of.

CINEFEX: How does the ILM lineage come to bear on the films you’re working on now, like Solo?

ROB BREDOW: Well, we’re lucky at ILM to still have some of the people who worked on the original Star Wars films. Dennis Muren was at the office every day looking at previs and dailies, weighing in on the sequences. I can attribute the design of a number of shots to his notes. On some early versions of the train heist sequence, for example, we had very few down-shots, or else the down-shots had gotten cut for various story reasons. Dennis would say, “Where’s that sense of peril?” and we would add those down-shots back in. It’s great having people like that, who aren’t working on the show every single day but are looking at the big picture.

CINEFEX: Do you enjoy that kind of overview yourself now, in your new role?

ROB BREDOW: You know, we have incredibly experienced supervisors in all the departments at ILM, and they certainly don’t need me to tell them how to do their jobs. But I do find that, because I am seeing all the projects going on, and looking at things from a different perspective, once in a while I’ll be able to provide support in some way, or make a suggestion that somebody might find useful. That’s a really nice place to be, for sure.

CINEFEX: Let’s round up with a quick peek into your crystal ball. What do you personally see as the next frontier in visual effects?

ROB BREDOW: One of the things that I’m excited about right now is the use of real-time visual effects on set. We did a lot of that with projection surfaces on Solo, and we’re working on new projects right now where we’re taking that to the next level, doing a lot more real-time and a much higher degree of interactivity. We’re creating in-camera visual effects that I think are going to be pretty surprising to people. The number of cases where we can leverage this has surprised even me – and I’m an optimist about these things. The real-time world of videogames and the postprocessing world of visual effects haven’t completely converged, but we are starting to see some of the best of both worlds come together, and we’re getting a lot of real benefit from that. We’re also doing a bunch of new things in the area of face work. Of course, that’s an area where, if you get it one percent wrong, it’s 99 percent wrong! But we did some really interesting work on Rogue One, and working on some projects that are very encouraging.

CINEFEX: Rob, thanks for your time!

View Conference 2018

Read our 22-page Solo: A Star Wars Story article in Cinefex 160, available from our online store. VIEW Conference 2018 takes place  at the Officine Grandi Riparazioni (OGR) in Torino, Italy, October 22 to 26, 2018. Check out the full program and register for talks, workshops, panels, and masterclasses at the VIEW Conference website.

Photograph copyright © 2018 by Industrial Light & Magic.