State-of-the-art special effects combined with a compelling story makes Star Wars spin-off The Mandalorian viewing to be savoured on Disney+
3 February 2021
Created by Jon Favreau
WHEN George Lucas set out to create Star Wars, he wanted to use special effects that had never been seen before. Over the course of the franchise’s history, that dream has been pursued relentlessly with mixed results.
The original Star Wars trilogy was brought to life by Lucas’s visual effects company Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) through a groundbreaking combination of blue screens, miniatures, puppets and camera trickery. The prequel films (released between 1999 and 2005) were ambitious too, pioneering the use of digital film and fully computer-generated characters, but relied heavily on digital effects that didn’t always stand up to scrutiny. Since 2015, the latest Star Wars films have showcased some stunning effects, but it is now in TV show The Mandalorian that the series’ most exciting technological developments are taking place.
Set five years after Return of the Jedi, The Mandalorian follows a bounty hunter tasked with finding The Child (a pointy-eared alien better known to fans as Baby Yoda). Unable to surrender the infant to his nefarious client, the Mandalorian is forced to traverse the galaxy to protect his charge from remnants of the Empire.
So far, so Star Wars. Yet what makes The Mandalorian so special is how it builds on the successes and failures of every story in the franchise, especially when it comes to technology. Though you wouldn’t know it, the many alien worlds it features aren’t filmed in deserts and tundras around the world, but are instead realised by ILM on just one stage in Los Angeles, nicknamed “the Volume”.
“The many alien worlds of The Mandalorian are realised on a single stage in Los Angeles called ‘the Volume’”
This cavernous set is encircled by LED panels on its 6-metre walls and ceiling. Instead of shooting actors against green screens and adding a virtual background later, environments – Tattooine’s desert plains, say – are projected onto the walls during filming, blending seamlessly with practical props.
The advantages of this approach are manifold. While shooting with green screens means lighting and reflections have to be tweaked in post-production – a difficult task and part of why the prequel trilogy was so maligned – the Volume accurately lights a scene while it is being filmed, so every world our hero steps onto (in his gleaming beskar armour, no less) feels like a real location.
Those alien planets can be edited on set, so the crew can quite literally move mountains. ILM also uses Unreal Engine from Epic Games, the firm behind Fortnite, to create 3D environments in real time in the Volume. The screens respond to positional data from a camera, so as it moves, the setting shifts to provide realistic changes in perspective.
Beyond the Volume, the show builds on the techniques of its predecessors, using puppetry and animatronics alongside actors to create believable aliens. You only have to look at fans’ reactions to The Child and to “Frog Lady”, season two’s amphibious breakout star, to see how successfully they have been realised. Even old-school miniatures are used.
The Mandalorian represents the next generation of technology in Star Wars, which is fitting for a brand so obsessed with lineage. That doesn’t mean it should be judged on this alone. It is also a compelling story about fatherhood and duty, albeit one with meandering side quests that sometimes divide viewers. Yet with a universe this beautifully realised, who wouldn’t stop to take in the view from time to time?
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