The keynote speaker this year at Siggraph is no stranger to the VFX industry. Rob Bredow (Senior Vice President, Executive Creative Director, and Head of Industrial Light & Magic) joined ILM back in 2014 as Vice President of New Media and Head of Lucasfilm’s Advanced Development Group. As Lucasfilm Chief Technology Officer, Rob oversaw all technology development for Lucasfilm and ILM and in 2015, he helped launch ILMxLAB, developing, creating, and releasing story-based immersive entertainment. Prior to joining ILM Rob was CTO and VFX Supervisor at Sony Pictures Imageworks for 13 years. Most recently he acted as VFX Supervisor and Co-Producer on Solo: A Star Wars Story.
Rob started his keynote speech talking about creativity, citing various ideas from photography to painting, coding to managing a business and managing people. Rob also mentioned John Knoll’s (Chief Creative Officer and VFX Supervisor) creative project to rebuild a working model of the legendary Dykstraflex. The overarching message is that we’re creative engines and we should go out and be creative, just get going! Even the art of learning is a creative thing which takes place throughout your whole life
Rob grew up watching the original Star Wars, in fact over one summer he and a friend watched it maybe three to four times a day. Years later when the call came asking if he’d like to be the VFX Supe on Solo: A Star Wars Story he could hardly believe it. He described it as an ‘awesome opportunity’ but also kind of ‘scary’. You don’t want to mess up Star Wars.
Rob then shifted back to the focus, creativity, asking the question how do you begin? The answer was focusing on the ‘theme’, letting that drive the creative process.
For Solo the theme was based around making the movie feel like the 1977 Star Wars, focusing on using state of the art VFX but giving the feel of old school 70’s style techniques. One example Rob talked about was the way they filmed the interior Millennium Falcon cockpit set. They could have easily setup a green or blue screen surround and added the backgrounds in Comp, however instead they chose a more in-camera method.
A 180 degree rear screen projection system was custom built, enabling multiple 4k digital images of the environment to be projected surrounding the cockpit. Not only did this provide the required background seen through the windows of the Falcon, but also the interactive contact lighting which carefully tied the actors and interiors into the outside environment.
Alongside these immediate benefits, it also enabled Cinematographer Bradford Young (Arrival, Selma, A Most Violent Year) to light the actors in a way would would have been almost impossible if utilizing a more conventional green or blue screen methodology. The back projected images were created by Industrial Light and Magic as 8k x 4k sequences, providing over 20 minutes of loop-able footage that Director Ron Howard (Rush, The Da Vinci Code, Apollo 13) could use.
When the actors were first brought onto the set they had no idea they would be acting against what would end up being the final background image to their space journey. In the words of Donald Glover, “It was the coolest thing he’d ever done”. They loved it, and having the environment there really helped them give an even better performance.
Rob then moved the focus from lighting and environments to explosions. The script called for ‘something new’, something that no-one had seen before. This of course can prove challenging. As Ron himself pointed out, Star Wars has a history of some pretty epic explosions over the years. This specific explosion would fit into the Train Heist sequence and would depict a section of a huge mountain, originally filmed in the Italian Dolomites, being destroyed.
To help create a CG version of the environment, ILM heavily utilized photogrammetry incorporating tens of thousands of photographs shot on location. Not only did this technique create an extremely detailed high resolution model but it could also be used for lighting purposes. The train itself was constructed in various pieces and in some cases mounted on hydraulic rigs to achieve a wide range of movements. One particular rig could rotate 90 degrees in around 3 seconds so extremely realistic movement was possible.
The explosion itself was inspired by a video Rob saw by the The Slow Mo Guys on YouTube (watch video). The Solo particle effects team created a model miniature of the section of the mountain the explosion was going to be detonated on. They used high-speed photography, with a Phantom camera running at 25,000 frames per second, to capture the explosion. The explosion lasted only 1/100 of a second in reality, but through the use of high-speed photography the beauty of the explosion was able to be captured.
At this point in the keynote, Rob moved away from talking about Solo and onto other areas. Firstly he touched on Disney’s Animal Kingdom and their requirement to build a rollercoaster in the park. Designed by Joe Rohde (Walt Disney Imagineering) the rollercoaster couldn’t just be a conventional track setup as it wouldn’t fit into the beautiful design and layout of the park. As a leader, Joe needed to help the creative process and to do this he took inspiration from the Himalayas. He created a huge mountain vista and then built the rollercoaster into that. The final design not only added a fantastic attraction to the park, but actually enhanced the park’s original design.
From here Rob moved on to talk about how constraints can enhance our creativity. He gave an insightful quote from Dennis Muren (Senior Visual Effects Supervisor and Creative Director, ILM). “Look at what’s right with the shot, not what’s wrong, and then tell me how to make it better.” Rob stressed the importance of approaching the work with the bigger picture in mind, along with how simplifying the approach can often be better than over-complicating things.
Finally Rob talked about the importance of sharing and being generous with what you’ve learnt, using some of your time to help teach others. He went on to talk about the code he’d been able to share with the VFX community for the fur shader used at Sony Pictures Imageworks for Stuart Little (view paper). As you teach others, you improve yourself and the community.
This was further demonstrated as Rob discussed the Academy Software Foundation (ASWF), which can be visited at www.aswf.io Their mission is to increase the quality and quantity of contributions to the content creation industry’s open source software base; to provide a neutral forum to coordinate cross-project efforts; to provide a common build and test infrastructure; and to provide individuals and organizations a clear path to participation in advancing our open source ecosystem. Already the community is being supported by a host of VFX companies including Animal Logic, Autodesk, Blue Sky Studios, Cisco, DNEG, Dreamworks, Foundry, Unreal Engine, Google Cloud, Intel, Side FX, The Walt Disney Studios (including ILM), Weta Digital, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Finally Rob shared the exciting news of a new book he has written called ‘Industrial Light & Magic Presents: Making Solo: A Star Wars Story’ which explores the making of Solo through the photography Rob took while working on the movie. The book is currently scheduled for release on Amazon in April 2019 — and can be pre-ordered on the US site.
Photo credit: Rob Bredow at Siggraph 2018 – photo by John Fujii © 2018 ACM SIGGRAPH