Interview: Visual Effects Supervisor Patrick Turbach talks Solo and the making of the Kessel Run

Earlier this year the latest Lucasfilm epic, Solo: A Star Wars Story hit the theatres around the world, and is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Academy Award-winning director, Ron Howard put a story into place about the beloved heroes Han Solo and Chewbacca. Packed with star-studded cast, and plenty of mind-blowing visual effects, the space adventure takes on an action-loaded heist and launches the audience deep into the backstory of the characters, and the galaxy.

Ahead of the movie’s DVD & Blu-Ray release, we got a chance to have an exclusive chat with Patrick Turbach, the Visual Effects Supervisor behind this blockbuster.

 

It would be fair to argue that the visuals of the film were, on the whole, darker and gritter than other Star Wars films; often this meant the special effects were quite subdued or less apparent. Were there any inherent challenges in working around this tone for the VFX team?

I think it is a fair assessment to say that it was darker and grittier. I think that is a style that Bradford Young, our DP, brought to the film, and he told us from the very beginning.

I remember the very first day I met him here at ILM before we ever started the film, and he said, “This movie is going to be dark.” I didn’t know exactly what he meant because I didn’t know him well at that time, but it turned out he just meant ‘I shoot with very little light’. What he’s able to do with very little light is just amazing. He’s got a real definitive style and we knew that going in.

As far as what challenges that brings up for us, I think it is a challenge in some cases because you might be struggling to sort of see some of the things that normally would light brightly, like a blue-screen or something, but at the same time I think it gave us the freedom to light very dramatically. That’s something we don’t always get to do. Sometimes you’re stuck with whatever the lighting was for the scene and you kind of have to match to that. If it’s bright and dramatic, sometimes you’re stuck with that.

In this case, we were given the opportunity to kind of adopt his style somewhat, and I think that dramatic lighting helps us tell this story in a unique way. It was really kind of a refreshing change for us.

We were introduced to some gritty, WWI-like sequences for Solo – were there any other films used as a reference for some of what you were doing there, as it’s not something we’d seen before, quite to that extent, in the Star Wars universe before?

Yeah, the WWI-sequence was I think a bit of an amalgamation. I’m not thinking of names right now, but there’re definitely some classic WWI trench warfare type films where we were trying to recreate that sense of confusion. You know, I think that it was supposed to look like he had no idea what he was getting into and when he got there, it was just complete madness. I think it sort of showed him what the empire was all about very early on, and that was meant to convey that in a really quick movement.

I think Mimban did that very well, and as far as the rest of the world, like what you might see on Vandor, I think that references more heavily on films like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, for instance. Just looking at classic westerns and thinking how would a movie like that take on something like a train heist, and just being able to pull influences from there in terms of visuals but also just kind of overall style. I think that was a heavily influential film on this movie.

From a VFX standpoint, it felt like the most challenging sequence would have been the Kessel Run – a scene which had been hotly debated in Star Wars folklore for generations! Firstly can you talk a little bit about the challenges of putting that scene together? How do you think the sequence was received and what are your thoughts on the final product?

One of the hardest things about the Kessel Run is typically when you’re creating environments. You sort of have some grounding in reality and there’s something to photograph that either you’re referencing or you’ve got even as a part of the scene. In this case we really didn’t have that because we were kind of in space, and not only space but we’re in these cloud heavy environments, which it’s really difficult.

You can look at reference of flying through hurricanes, for instance, or flying these storm chasing planes that go into really heavy storms, but I don’t think any of them convey exactly what we were doing which was flying through what is kind of like a meteor shower and a storm at the same time with the carbonoids. We were kind of stuck making a little of this up on our own and just trying to figure out visually what that looked like and what would it be like to fly through there, and how do we keep the action up but not confuse everyone as to what’s going on.

It was definitely a challenge to kind of work out the action beats of that moment. It was a careful collaboration between our effects department and our animation team. Then we had the moment where we first meet the space monster, where the space monster wakes up. Again, we spent a lot of time kind of detailing out the head of the space monster for that moment, working on the eye for the moment when the eye blinks open. Then once we’re past that moment which is really a lot about the monster and the unveiling of the monster, we get into the Maw (Cluster). The Maw is a challenge on its own in that it was a huge particle effect. It had to be repeated many times.

I’m sure people are aware that it takes a really long time to render CG particle effects, and when you have something as massive as the Maw, we were faced a real challenge just in terms of linear time of getting something like that rendered. Our effects team had this great procedural system, that they’re able to sort of repeat multiple times, that allowed us to render quickly and place that Maw in many, many shots with the space monster and the Falcon very quickly.

That’s what really allowed us to kind of get through what is a huge effects challenge that we saw coming down the pipe at us at the very start. All those things kind of came together to make that sequence super-duper really fun and just visually pop, I think in a way that not many things we’ve done in the past have done.

L3 was a remarkable character for the film. From a visual point of view, she was undistinguishable from the characters like R2D2 and C3PO, who you knew were actors in costume. I understand that Phoebe Waller-Bridge did have a costume on set, however, which contained some of the parts of the robot above a skin-tight green suit.

So how much of the “real” parts of the costume actually make it into the final rendering of the character, and how much was completely CG? Can you talk a bit about creating that character and working with that mix of real-footage and CG, and what it took to make her look as real and authentic as she did?

I think the tactic we took with L3 was that we really stuck with her performance. I think it’s very tempting in the world of computer effects to change things kind of because you can, and I think it’s to Ron’s credit that he recognised what a unique character he had or what he had with Phoebe as an actor and what she created for the character L3 on set, and really said and told us, “You know, this is the performance I want, what I type editorially is what I want to see on the screen.”

Knowing that, it gave us a lot of freedom to free ourselves from the idea that things were going to change all the time. That’s what tends to happen, new ideas come up and things change, and that really wasn’t the case here. Here we were able to look at her performance and really match it, and then concentrate on that look and lighting and rendering of her actual droid parts and just make them as real as possible. Once we’d done that, we knew we had something very special because it felt like Phoebe but it looked just like a droid that you’ve never seen before. It was really cool and really exciting to see.

Often surprising everyday items are used either as a reference point for a VFX or even as something we see on screen. Like an old car might become the backbone for the design of a spaceship… Do you have a favourite from Solo (if anything)?

That’s a good question. I’ve heard from this from our art team before. When we were looking at how to create a skull for the space monster, they were referencing things like real sheep skulls and bones, and I think we see that both in Enfys’ costume design which has some bone elements to it and in the skull of the space monster. They were looking at real reference of real bones for those things, which makes them kind of look cool and creepy. Then, knowing that, we looked at reference of, I can’t believe this is out there but there are videos of people kind of crushing bones and skulls and presses, like industrial presses, and that creates a very dramatic kind of cracking simulation to the pieces, and that’s kind of what we modelled when we wanted to crack a part of the space monster’s skull. That was one of the interesting, surprising references we found from real life.

Solo: A Star Wars Story is available on Blu-Ray, DVD and Digital now.

Parts of article written by Liv Toerkell and Simon Clark, Questions by Larry Heath.

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