Exploring the Visual Effects of the Mandalorian Season 1 with Goran BackmanSeptember 16, 2020
The Lucasfilm name carries with it the weight of stunning visual arts – both practical and special. With the original Star Wars trilogy, the company cemented its legacy in effects development. The studio continues to dazzle fans and advance the depths of special effects with all of its properties, including the Disney+ gem, The Mandalorian.
The first season’s VFX Supervisor, Goran Backman of visual effects company Pixomondo, answered some of our questions about the series, what it’s like to work with Lucasfilm and its connected properties, and how technology continues to allow storytellers to enchant its audiences.
For a project like the Mandalorian, and being a Star Wars property, how do the visual effects coexist with practical effects?
We always must pay special attention to how our work blends or fits with anything practical, be it an environment or a special effect. This comes down to replicating the same lighting scenario, casting the correct shadows, and placing our work at the footage’s correct depth. We had a few shots where we were asked to create Mando’s flamethrower, highlighting a situation where visual and practical effects had to exist next to each other while portraying the same thing. They had already created a practical flamethrower used on set and gave us plenty of references showing this. It would not just need to be any flamethrower; it had to be matching turbulence, colour and overall behaviour of theirs.
How does production deem what will be a practical effect versus what will be a visual effect?
This comes down to where technology is in both areas. Certain things are much harder to pull off in CG. For instance, water is one of the hardest things to fully sell in CG, and the larger the water mass, the trickier it gets. As a filmmaker, you could then choose to shoot miniatures. There are many questions to ask yourself while making choices like this. What are the requirements of the effect? Does it need to be interacted with? What would the cost be to try to do this practically, and how often will we see this effect? On Mandalorian, there was also an additional fact to consider. Many of the effects were practical in the original movies, and keeping true to the existing Star Wars material played a part in this decision making.
In your experience, how do the visual effects build on the established storyline in the first season?
Firstly, it was exciting to be able to be part of extending the Star Wars universe and the overarching story with this show. We are always looking for inspiration from the content already out there, and this was something Richard Bluff, ILM VFX Supervisor, kept reiterating to us. This was particularly true when we sat down with Richard and Design Supervisor Doug Chiang, to create the Dewback. They showed us old concept designs, took us through Dewback designs from the movies and even games. From there, we discussed what aspects of the creature’s design were successful and what we’d like to push further in the Dewback created by Pixomondo.
When are visual effects added, is it just in post-production?
VFX has historically been a post-production process as we rely on final footage cut into an edit and shots. Having said that, ILM developed a new way of filmmaking with The Mandalorian, which involves shooting footage against large LED panels that show real-time CG environments. This will change the way we plan projects. Now VFX will also be part of pre-production and create content for what will be shot during filming.
Hopefully as few things as possible. It is part of our job to keep unexpected things from not happening, but that is also close impossible as there are so many moving cogs in the large projects we undertake. The most common unexpected thing that we have come to expect is changes to edits. As we submit early versions of our shots to editorial, it becomes clearer for a director to see what should get cut shorter, what shots should get extended, or even what should get cut. There are many other reasons why an edit will change. There may be a feeling the full episode is too long, or a sequence does not have the right pace. This is just a part of the creative process.
What have you learned in this position from doing the Mandalorian, from the broad scope of your career?
By far, the biggest takeaway for me was how immensely useful shooting against ILM’s large array of LED panels can be. This is a game-changer for our industry – especially now with the added concern of running productions safely during a pandemic.
How are challenges met for projects concerning visual effects?
Careful planning and communication are of utmost importance. This goes as far as realizing what should be practical and what should be created in post long before even setting foot on set. If it’s decided something is best done in post, one also has to ensure shooting for VFX is done correctly. Richard always made sure we got the full context of our tasks and enough information at the starting point for us to execute.
Are there ever instances of when something was intended for a practical effect that was then changed to visual effect? Vice versa?
This does happen for sure, but it is rare. Most of the time, it is a practical effect that needs changing to a visual instead of the other way around. It’s much harder to go back to filming while in post-production than just deciding to turn a practical effect into a visual while being on set. Sometimes a practical effect might not turn out as expected, and that’s when that can turn into a task for us in post. Often there is an effort to enhance a practical effect as opposed to replacing. This can lead to great results as you are now basing your work on something real that has been shot through a real lens.
Do you have a favorite VFX?
I do. Creature work is something we all love at Pixomondo. It is a challenging and rewarding task and allows us to really dive into the task at hand. On a more personal note, I appreciate projects that also have a wide range of tasks. On The Mandalorian we got to do all of the above. The fact that it was also Star Wars was icing on the cake.