Rob Bredow on the set of Solo: A Star Wars Story

In Conversation with: Rob Bredow

2019-10-03 | 10 min. read

On October 4th and 5th, Vancouver Wash. will host Design Vancouver, a conference that celebrates design in all of its forms. In support of Vancouver’s first design conference, The Section Magazine will feature “In Conversation with…” (a series of interviews with Design Vancouver speakers). 

Rob Bredow, the executive creative director and head of George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic talks to The Section Magazine about what it felt like to work with Ron Howard on Solo: A Star Wars Story, for which Rob Bredow was nominated for an Academy Award. 

The Section Magazine: Where did your creative passion come from? 

Rob Bredow: For me it started when I was in high school when I had an internship with a small company called Vision Art Design and Animation. I ended up getting a job working there for almost 10 years where I worked on TV shows like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and films like Independence Day and Godzilla. I had a really good experience going from knowing a little bit about how polygons were used to represent 3D geometry all the way to simulating aliens on Independence Day, so I got to really hone my skills both artistically and technically.

Growing up did you have an interest in arts and technology?

Yes I really did. I had an Omega computer in my house which isn’t much of a computer by today's standards, where we have a phone in our pocket that is a thousand times faster and has a thousand times more memory than the Omega. It was a computer that was really focused on being able to do graphics and sound, and I was really interested in what I could create with it.

Where did you learn to create those graphics?

I really did learn on the job. I have a computer science background, which ended up being really useful but then that whole combination of being technical and artistic came from working and being around people in the business and learning from them.

What originally made this industry so compelling to you?

The fact that we were using the latest techniques and innovation. Storytelling is a really compelling thing for me. The fact that you can create an image that has never been seen before is really fun. 

How do you create images that have never been seen before?

It really is different every time. One example from when I was working on Solo was there was a line in the script that said “The coaxium explodes in a giant fireball like an explosion we've never seen before.” I was like “oh there's that line in the script” because it means we get to invent a whole new explosion. I'm a lifelong Star Wars fan and Star Wars has some pretty amazing explosions so the bar is already set really high. In this case the scene for all of our visual effects in Star Wars and Solo was to try to make them feel as grounded and as if we had shot them with 1970s technology. We really wanted to make it feel like the movie was shot in the years leading up to the original Star Wars episode.  

I was literally just googling around trying to find unique-looking explosions and I came across this website, The Slow Mo Guys, where these guys do high-speed photography and they had lit off a firecracker under water in a small aquarium and when the firecracker blew up it expanded and it collapsed in on itself and then the soot and everything went into the water and it made this really unique-looking explosion. I ended up building a similar rig for Solo and we shot an explosion against a tiny little model of the mountain that we were going to use in the film and we used that element for starting the visual effects in the film. So that is one example of where a scene of the movie dictated a certain approach and then we used that to come up with something that would be unique but still feel grounded and sit in the look of the film.

It is amazing how much time goes into creating one scene in a movie

That’s right. It goes by quickly when you watch it in a film but I worked on Solo for two and half  years and there are people who worked longer. There were hundreds of people in the visual effects department who worked on all of the visual effects on that movie. So one shot might have had four weeks or six weeks of artists working to get those details right. We spend a lot of time getting all the details exactly right. 

Given how many people are on the visual effects team how do you manage them?

One of the ways we organize ourselves is that we have different teams in part to find the best artistic talent in the world. We are set up in San Francisco, Vancouver, BC, Singapore, London and we [just opened] an office in Sydney. Each of those teams might have a couple hundred people working on a show like Solo. So we have large teams in each of those locations but it does break down into a team with a supervisor and a team of artists. So that makes it a little bit more manageable. Although it does make things a little more complicated because you always have someone working on your show 24 hours a day so as the supervisor with a globally dispersed team you end being pretty busy all of the time. 

You are always answering emails! 

Exactly. And thousands and thousands of reviews always. Looking at the shots in the various stages of development and then we also organize ourselves into departments. So we have a department that will lay the shots out, which means to work out where the camera is and get the shot ready and creatively block in what is happening in the shot. Another team will be doing animation and another team will be doing lighting effects. So there are teams of artists who work on each step of the production process and so very quickly you build up a large team.

You have always been a big fan of Star Wars. What did if feel like to be able to work on the Solo project?

It was a dream come true. I remember the first day I walked into one of the sound stages and the Millennium Falcon was sitting there and you could walk all the way through the Falcon and up to the cockpit and sit down in that chair and you could literally look over and pull the hyperspace lever. It was a pretty amazing feeling. It was also somewhat intimidating because only fantastic visual effects supervisors have worked on these films—legendary people like Dennis Muren, who still works at ILM today, and other supervisors who I have really looked up to for my entire career. Now here I was getting to supervise one of these films. It was a little intimidating but also really exciting. 

What did your working relationship with Solo director Ron Howard look like?

I worked very close with Ron Howard. In general the visual effects supervisor works straight for the director and our job is to make sure that their vision makes it out on the screen. Ron Howard is an absolute pleasure to work for. He is a very talented and experienced director. He really knows what he is doing and he is a real collaborator. When there is a good idea from anyone on the crew, he is interested in hearing it. He wants to mine for good ideas. In my role I had a lot of opportunities to pitch ideas for the movie and many of which made it in the movie and I am really proud of my contribution. I had a long audience with him because I started the day he started all of the way to the last day in post production, I got to be in the room helping him put the movie together. It was a great opportunity. 

What idea of yours were you most excited to see come to life on the screen?

There are a bunch of them. One of the things that was fun was when we planned out the kessel run. When you read the script for Solo almost 20 pages of it take place inside the Millennium Falcon cockpit. it is a relatively small place and we have been there in other Star Wars movies but you don’t usually stay there for that many minutes. So 20 minutes of the movie take place in the cockpit so we had a lot of brainstorming early on to figure out the most natural way to photograph that and get as much on screen even though we were going to be in that compact area. So we decided that instead of just building a traditional blue screen around the cockpit we actually created the content or the media for the kessel run, all 20 minutes of it, that full resolution as if we were making a ride for the actors and then we made a wrap around screen that wrapped around the cockpit and multiple projectors that projected that media on very high quality with plenty of brightness. Then the director of photography and the visual effects team worked hand-on-hand to synchronize all of that media and play it back for the actors so they would actually see the kessel run and the space monster and all of the atmosphere and lighting and blasts of fire all around them. We could directly photograph it so what you saw on the cockpit is what you got on the final film. It was also used for the actors which was amazing because the cockpit really came alive in a completely new way. So that was a really fun experience for us. 

It must have felt magical for the actors.

It was great. The very first time we put them in the cockpit and they did their first rehearsal and Donald Glover and Phoebe Waller-Bridge they were both sitting in the front seat and they pushed the hyperspace lever to push them into hyperspace and I queued hyperspace over the radio and the special effects team shakes the cockpit and Phoebe Waller-Bridge screams out “are we really flying somewhere? This is incredible.” They weren’t expecting it and then when everyone stopped yelling and calmed down, Donald Glover said “this is the coolest thing I have ever done.” It was pretty awesome because he is a cool guy. You can really see the excitement on the actors faces in that sequence. It really changes the level of energy and of course the way it actually looks and photographs. It was consistent and called back to our theme. 

So much of what we watch now is on streaming devices in our homes. Where do you see the industry going? 

There are still a lot of people who value the cinematic experience. It is a combination of you, the huge screen and the great sound system combined with the social experience of seeing it with a bunch of people and you are seeing and hearing their reactions. Which is something that the cinema can offer in a way that is different than what you can get in your house. I certainly have a good TV at home and we still go to the movie theater on opening weekend for the big movies. I am actually quite pleased that there are a whole bunch of things that we can stream at home that would never work in a movie theater. There are different kinds of entertainment that can work in a movie theater that people are going to come out and see and the movie really benefits from that cinema experience. There are other projects that I am glad to see exist and they exist because you can find that there are creatives that are excited about working in these new platforms.

I do miss the fact that we don’t quite have the same variety of films in the theater. We do have a lot of big blockbusters and of course those are the kinds of movies that we like to work on ILM and I certainly enjoy seeing those but I also enjoy seeing other types of movies in the theaters and we are seeing fewer of those now. But at least we have a wide variety to choose from at home on various streaming services. 

You were nominated for an Academy Award for Solo. Did you have an inclination before the nominations came out that you were going to be nominated? 

Well, there is a narrowing process for the academy in the visual effects area where all of the eligible films, and there maybe 200 or more films, are narrowed down to 20 that they consider from the long list.  Then they narrow it down to ten which is the short list and we made both of those lists. And then all of the members on the short list travel down to Beverly Hills to the Academy and we have a meeting that is streamed around the world to the visual effects members of the Academy. In that meeting all ten films are looked at and there is a bit of a conversation, and a Q&A about what visuals effects went into the films. You are looking at the ten best movies in visual effects for the year and you are wondering if out of those ten will you be in the five that get nominated. So the morning that they made the announcement—they make it early in the morning at 5 or 5:30 am—we were all sitting around the T.V. watching the live stream to see if I was going to be nominated for an Oscar. That was a pretty exciting morning. I actually have a recording of the reaction of me and my family sitting on the couch waiting to see if we were nominated. It was pretty great to get to watch the Oscars from the ground floor. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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