Dork Side caught up with visual effects supervisor Goran Backman, who told us how some of The Mandalorian’s VFX came together.
The Mandalorian is the live-action Star Wars series that took the world by storm. Recently, the show received 15 Emmy nominations, and ahead of Sunday’s show, the series nabbed five of those creative Emmys already.
People who love Star Wars know that so much work goes into creating these films and (now) live-action TV shows — especially on the visual effects side. So just how do some of those effects come together? We spoke to VFX Supervisor Goran Backman, who works at PIXOMONDO, a studio that collaborates with clients like those on The Mandalorian to bring the show to life.
As Backman describes his company’s role on The Mandalorian: “We had around 400 staff at PIXOMONDO working on close to 500 shots for this show… We created a handful of the creatures, the Blurrg, Dewback, Reptavian, Quartuum, Gorvin Snu, as well as the pit droids. We also built plenty of environments: Mos Eisley, which includes the full city and the recreation of a classic shot where you see the Mandalorian going into the cantina. We created some environments around Arvala and Kuiil’s ranch, a wide shot showing the Jawa camp, a sand dune landscape, lava fields etc.”
Backman has always been a lifelong Star Wars fan. For instance, he recalled how he and his first roommate were both “Star Wars nerds,” and that roommate was such a fan that he even had a Death Star tattoo on his shoulder. So, needless to say, Backman was well qualified to take on The Mandalorian job. Read on below PIXOMONDO’s VFX reel to see how it all came together!
Dork Side: Tell me about your role as a visual effects supervisor!
Goran Backman: Being a VFX supervisor, we are the step between the client’s VFX supervisor and our own staff. This means we are responsible for the creative and technical support to our own staff, and ultimately it is our job to ensure we can achieve the director and client’s VFX supervisor’s vision through our work.
I watched the reel you all released showing off the effects. So what’s the difference or benefit of filming on something like the Volume versus green screen?
The Volume has almost nothing but advantages, so there’s no surprise this technology is taking off as well as it is right now. For starters, directors and DPs, they can just look through the lens and see the final shot right away while shooting. And… traditionally, if you have a green screen, they would kind of have to imagine what that’s going to look like. Replacing a green screen in post means there will be a lot of people that a task is going to trickle through before it comes back to the director. And he or she will either approve it or request changes, and it will again go back through that whole feedback loop. But with the Volume, this is now practically gone.
Then you have other things like location, getting a crew out to an exotic location is a costly process, not to mention the time that takes… you also have what we call “golden hour,” which is that moment when the sun sets and everything looks rosy and dramatic. With the Volume, you can shoot golden hour for as long as you’d want! So there’s just a massive range of benefits to this technology. And we still have the option to throw up a green screen against the Volume as well. So if it comes to the point where someone has an idea on set — something they hadn’t thought about before — you can just throw up a green screen with the press of a button and now that shot can be tackled in the normal, traditional, way.
In this whole process, what was your favorite part of working on The Mandalorian?
It was very exciting to be part of this new technology that ILM developed for starters. Our work was largely a traditional post workflow, but it was amazing to see what Richard Bluff (the ILM VFX supervisor who was spearheading this) had come up with and learn about this new way of movie-making.
But generally speaking, creature work is something that we really enjoy. All departments get to hone their craft when it comes to creature work. It’s a fun challenge for animation, for assets, lighting, and for all departments, so it’s great to get opportunities to really push ourselves.
And what was the most challenging part for you all?
The most challenging thing, as mentioned, was the creatures. In particular, the Blurrgs, which are the two-legged creatures. The reason why this particular creature was such a challenge is we had actors riding it. You always have to pay extra attention with interactions between actors and anything CG, and here we had the actors actually riding it. On set, they used what they called a “buck,” which sort of looks like a mechanical rodeo bull.
Yeah, it really looked like they were trying to kick Mando off this thing! (Laughs.) The more correct term for this setup is a “motion base”, and in this case, it had a practical upper back section of a Blurrg for actors to ride on.
This motion base is driven by a set of pistons, which you can drive through various sets of animations, and it is what we did for this show. We had the full motion base setup replicated in our animation software, Maya, and attached it to our CG Blurrg. So now when we animated the Blurrg we could see how the buck would move if we were to use this animation on set. We could see the pistons stretching out and how compressed they’d get as well as their speed and acceleration, which was essential to this workflow because now we had a way to see if we were pushing the buck beyond its limits… It was a little bit of back and forth with Richard and Hal Hickel (ILM animation supervisor) to make sure it worked for them creatively while also being practically possible. Once approved we sent ILM our animations, they used the data on set, and when footage came back we could see our animations line up perfectly with the practical buck.
Ultimately this was a great solution to a common problem – how to sell heavy interaction between actors and CG creatures. From there, there’s of course plenty of work left to integrate everything, and to add little bells and whistles like dirt kicked up under the creature’s feet, light the creature correctly, ensure shadows are a perfect match, get the skin looking great, etc.
I know there was this whole discussion about The Child (or Baby Yoda), like, do we make him a puppet or do we do a hybrid of both puppet and visual effects? Were you a part of any discussions as far as creating visual effects for Baby Yoda?
I can tell you read up on this topic because you’re calling it The Child! But no, we were not. That was a decision taken before shooting. There’s a funny little anecdote involving Werner Herzog here. Apparently he made a comment while they were shooting “clean plates,” which is the process of shooting a shot twice, once with everything in it and a second time without any elements you are considering replacing, in this case, Baby Yoda/The Child. This way you have a better starting point in post. But as they were shooting the clean plates he said “You’re cowards, leave it!”, and they did. Generally speaking, they were going with practical as much as they could either way I believe as Jon [Favreau] has a love for the puppet work that Star Wars has.
Sometimes we did have to paint out wires or cables leading up to the Baby Yoda puppet, but it was very minor clean up work all in all.
And I’m curious, was it hard for you to keep the Baby Yoda secret?
This might sound weird, but not really. But it was something that, you know, you had to be very careful to not tell anybody about. We’re used to keeping secrets for the people we work with, so it’s normal. But this one was bigger than other secrets we’ve had to keep!
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