Here’s how Industrial Light & Magic orchestrated Luthen’s ‘lightsaber’ ship in ‘Andor’

Plus, behind the scenes on ship builds to replicate the ‘miniatures look’, Ferrix’s shipyard, and Coruscant’s cityscapes.

If there was one stand-out moment in the first season of Tony Gilroy and Disney+’s Andor–and there were several–it surely must have been the moment that Luthen Rael (Stellan Skarsgård) deploys the side-mounted laser beam projectors, almost lightsaber-like, as he spins his Fondor Haulcraft to evade an Imperial patrol.

That sequence was just one crafted in visual effects by the team at Industrial Light & Magic, under visual effects supervisor Scott Pritchard, who worked with production VFX supervisor Mohen Leo and production VFX producer TJ Falls on the series.

Here, Pritchard breaks down the ‘Luthen escapes’ moment, as well as other key scenes set in Ferrix and Coruscant. He also discusses what was involved in approaching the visual effects to match the New Hope and Rogue One era of ship designs, as well as giving Andor its own look and feel.

The unique style of Andor

b&a: In several ways, Andor felt a little different to the Star Wars movies and the other streaming shows. How would you say that side of the show was discussed in terms of VFX?

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Scott Pritchard: When I was first told about it, it was all about that it’s not a big visual effects series. It was not going to have big, flashy visual effects. It’s predominantly an environment show, which I thought, brilliant, because I particularly like doing environments, that’s my kind of thing.

Mohen Leo was the HOD supe for the show, and I’ve worked with Mohen before, as an ILM supe on previous shows. Talking with Mohen, and with Tony Gilroy being such a strong writer, story was the key. It was all about what function do the visual effects play in driving the story forward?

It was funny, actually. I was watching an interview you and Hugo Guerra did with Craig Barron. It was something he said about: design, composition, execution. That was the trifecta, and what we always kept in mind for this show. It had to be well designed, and it had to be well designed from a filmmaking point of view as well. Where is the eye trace of the viewer? What are they looking at? How does it work from shot to shot in the cut? Is it well composed? Is it an interesting shot to look at?

We would block things in, and really take a step back from the goal of super fine details that we can fall into in visual effects sometimes, and try to evaluate it as a filmmaker, as a cinematographer.

One of the tricks that Mohen frequently used was, he would look at a shot and squint, and effectively blur the shot. I did this a couple of times in Nuke, I would just take the comp into Nuke, and blur it or defocus it. I’d ask, ‘Are there any glaring dark points, really bright points? Does it resolve tonally? It was a good way to check if the shot was ‘working’.

Finding a look in the Star Wars timeline

b&a: This show exists at a certain time in the Star Wars timeline. I talked to ILM at the time Rogue One came out about matching the ‘style’ of the effects work done in the 70s and 80s. What conversations came up about whether Andor needed to look ‘A New Hope era’?

Scott Pritchard: Tony Gilroy placed Mohen and Luke Hull, the production designer, very much in the center of the brains trust, and it needed to have a Star Wars feel. So, they were absolutely in lock-step, and there was a huge amount of trust between Tony and Mohen and Luke. That filtered down to us, so all of that was already in a good place when we picked it up.

One of the joys of working at ILM is you’ve got over 45 years of history, and people that have worked on the very first films who are still here and you can talk to them. Also, there are new generations of people who are really amazing Star Wars fans.

I’ll give you an example. I have a book here, which I’ve had since I was about 17 and it’s all about the Star Wars models. I would always reference this book for moments like the Death Star sequence at the end of Andor. When we were actually dialing the details of the Death Star in, we would be poring over books like this and looking at the miniatures, and the details of the miniatures and things like how they used red oxide paint for some of the sub-structure details.

One of the artists working on the Death star shots, Timothee Maron, he actually put in some details in the very background of one of the shots, that were these little blocks which were cast modular pieces from the original Death Star trench run. He never told me about it, and then I saw it in dailies. I was like, ‘Is that…’. He was like, ‘Yeah. That is.’ That was one of the best moments in the entire show, when you know people are really bought into it, and you get ideas just bubbling up from the artists.

b&a: Now, did you call them greeblies or greebles or something else? Apparently there’s some big debate with all of this…

Scott Pritchard: [laughs] I would call them greebles. My first job in the industry was a miniature model maker. I’m definitely on the greebles camp, but I think I’m happy with either.

All that work that they did on Rogue One to make the Star Destroyers and the Death Star look more like miniatures rather than full size CG ships–we basically took all that information and used it to really dial in the look for that particular sequence.

Real locations

b&a: We’re talking about the visual effects, but also there seemed to be so much location photography here. That must have offered a great base for VFX shots.

Scott Pritchard: Yes, I think that was one of the big things early on when we were discussing what the scope of the work is. They said, ‘We’re going to shoot as much on location as we can. Our work was really to expand the scale of the plates. For instance, there was a sequence shot in The Barbican, which is a well-known architectural landscape, or landmark, in London, with some really interesting brutalist architecture. Then we basically integrated that and brought the rest of Coruscant around that. We used as much of the plate as we possibly could, because the plates were amazing, and then just augmented it and increased the scale and just brought it into the world of Coruscant.

Another example would be, there was a landing pad for spaceships, basically a metro station, where they had these huge spaceships landing, and that was filmed at the McLaren factory in Woking. It’s this amazing, really cool futuristic looking building. It also had this huge water feature outside, this enormous pond, with the sunlight bouncing off of it back into the building, and you got these amazing caustic reflections, just beautiful rippling caustic reflections across all of the interior, because the walls are all glass.

What we did, then, was increase the height of the building. We were putting it many, many stories up from the ground, because a spaceship had to land right outside. And then I was thinking, ‘It’d be a real shame to paint all these caustic reflections out because they’re so beautiful.’ So, we actually designed a little moat that ran along the edge of the building, and just used the water from the plate and justified the caustics that way.

Making that Luthen escapes moment

b&a: When it came to the Luthen escapes moment, where did that start?

Scott Pritchard: It was heavily previs’d. One of the amazing things about Andor was the strength of the editorial team. They figured out so much in advance. The edit was incredibly stable as well. We had very few omits and things going on hold. It’s so much easier to work on, because you can really get into the idea when you know it’s not going to be dramatically changed.

With the Luthen escape, they knew the beats and the timings and where things should be–where Luthen should be firing, when the tie fighters should be firing. We already had a great head start on that when we got it. In fact, one of our animators, Desirée Meduri, had worked on the previs and then joined ILM, and worked on the actual shots as an animator as well.

We also had the Cantwell-Class Arrestor Cruiser asset already from Solo. Again, one the great things about ILM is we’ve got this amazing digital backlog of assets that we can go and rummage around in and just find stuff. The Arrestor Cruiser was one of those. It was used for a very small sequence in Solo, I think it just appeared on a screen somewhere and then disappeared. I’m a massive fan of Colin Cantwell’s concept work, so it was a real privilege to actually bring it to the screen properly, and then to have it named after him was really special

Then we also had the Fondor Haulcraft, Luthen’s ship, from previous episodes. Originally, the sequence as previs’d was actually up in space, so it was much higher up. I think it was similar altitude to the Battle of Scarif, that was the idea. It was still low-ish orbit, but then as we started to work on it, Mohen had the idea of bringing that right down, so you could actually see the planet surface quite a lot.

There was that opening shot of Ad Astra, with Brad Pitt, and he’s hanging off a ladder, and it’s really low atmosphere and you get these really interesting silhouettes much more as a shape, because you’ve got this elevated higher atmosphere values. So, you have another tool to play with, when you’re actually blocking these shots out. We used that idea and obviously Segra-Milo, which is the planet that this takes place over, was quite a bright planet. It was a creamy color as well, with almost Venusian features.

b&a: We talked about going back to New Hope era and Rogue One. I love that Cantwell-class ship, the Arrester, because it really did ‘feel’ like a miniature, and it had the shadows and the sort of harsh sunlight feel to it. How did you impart those things onto the CG model?

Scott Pritchard: Yes, one of the things that we found about miniature shoots is that you get an incredible amount of bounce light, because the model might be six feet long or 12 feet long, but you’re shooting on a stage and there’s a lot of bounce light just there on set lighting this relatively small thing. So, we overplayed the amount of bounce light hitting these things, compared to what we would do normally for something that is physically hundreds of meters long.

Another thing was to push the way the focus falls off, just pushing that ever so slightly more, not to the extent that you would actually suddenly start looking like tilt shift photography, but just allowing it to pull ever so slightly out of focus and then allowing the highlights to bloom a little bit as well. Those kinds of things really helped when it came to making it feel like a miniature of a spaceship, and it gave it that feeling of the older films and of Rogue One.

b&a: What went into the environment for that space sequence?

Scott Pritchard: We had these beautiful swirling cloud patterns which we used to show different weather systems clashing into each other. That was actually quite a strong graphic element as well, as a background, which meant you could see the shadow of the clouds on the land itself.

Then being in this really high atmosphere–it’s more in the stratosphere than outside of the atmosphere–you get these light blue tones in the background, which again, you’re not used to seeing Star Destroyers and Star Wars ships in these locations. It gave us a nice opportunity to have a nice ramp off of those whiter, light blue tones, and then you get the nice ramp to darker tones at the top of frame.

b&a: What plates did you receive? Was Stellan, for example, shot in some sort of cockpit partial set, or was there any kind of virtual production side of this?

Scott Pritchard: Not for this particular sequence, no. Luthen was shot in the Fondor cockpit set, and then for the guys on the bridge, they built a bridge set. We augmented that with views of the Conning Tower outside. We just dialed that in just ever so slightly, just to try and cheat that in, just to give it a little sense of context.

b&a: The key moment in this sequence is, of course, when Luthen fires those laser beams outside of his ship. Not only were you choreographing some quite frenetic action, you really are showing something pretty cool with these light saber-y type things. Tell me a bit more about that part of the visual effects.

Scott Pritchard: When I initially saw the previs for this particular moment, I was like, ‘Oh man, that’s going to be so cool.’ Then it was, ‘Okay, how do we do this?’ The biggest challenge was actually the design of the Haulcraft, in that we had to figure out a way of getting the wings to fold up, and then the cannon to come out. This went through a lot of iterations. I always loved in the film Troy, they had a design where the Trojans had this spear or shield where there was a notch out of the shield and they laid their spear through the notch. I always thought that would just look really cool. I thought maybe we could do something similar.

In fact, the Haulcraft wings had to do several things. When he lands for the first time on Ferrix, in episode three, there’s a moment where the wings basically go up over the top of the Haulcraft, in a scarab beetle kind of way. We had to figure out a way for that to work, allowing enough clearance for the wings not to hit the fuselage. Then they also had to rotate to a degree where the cannon could come out through the wings. So, we had to figure out, how do we actually make it mechanically plausible as much as possible, but also not have it obvious that this thing is armed to the teeth?

I’m glad somebody pointed out on Twitter, it’s like the James Bond Aston Martin DB5 of Star Wars. It looks perfectly normal, because that’s the whole point. It’s supposed to be a normal Haulcraft, just with all these countermeasures and amazing weapons tucked away.

We had these barrels which were under the wing, and we had the idea of having the cannon housed in these barrels, then the sides of the barrels would retract. The wings would come up, the sides of the barrels would retract, and this thing would come out and rotate into position. I had one of our modelers, Lee Tibbitts–I knew that he was the guy that would make it work, in terms of getting all the mechanics and actually figuring that out. So, we had Lee develop all this stuff and work out how this was all going to actually work.

b&a: What were the discussions that you had about what those lasers would look like? Should they look like lightsabers, should they look like laser beams?

Scott Pritchard: The discussion was, ‘it’s a lightsaber ship’, but what does that mean? One thing is, it’s not a lightsaber, it is not supposed to be a lightsaber. It’s meant to be just this incredible secret weapon that only Luthen seems to have. There were the LAAT-series gunships from the prequels, which had ion repeaters which fire off into infinity, and that was kind of the idea that we took.

One of the main challenges was getting them to read against the background. We had this high atmosphere battle where the strong red light energy effect suddenly starts to look pink. So we built in a lot of texture into it that just breaks it all up.

b&a: Did you have similar lengthy conversations about explosions, seeing as this is in low earth orbit?

Scott Pritchard: Very much so. Actually in particular, there was one shot that became very much more particulate and smoke, and less fireball. It was much more a physical object disintegrating and not exploding in a huge fireball, which again is as much driven by the show’s aesthetics as anything else. It’s not a show where you get huge fireballs and really saturated oranges. So, we dialed that a little bit further down and actually focused on the rigid body stuff, where you just get lots of bits and pieces that would come out.

There was another shot with three TIE fighters and one TIE Boarding Craft, and the boarding craft is one where the actual cabin is pressurized, because we had to dig back into our Star Wars lore for this one and try and figure out what was going on. It’s not the TIE/sa bomber, it’s the TIE Boarding Craft with a twin fuselage (seen also at the end of Rogue One). That’s the first one that Luthen blows up. What we did was, because the cabin is pressurized, we had it implode slightly before exploding.

b&a: I should also ask you about the approach to disintegrating the tractor beam dish, because that’s not really missiles shooting it, it’s debris and shrapnel, isn’t it?

Scott Pritchard: Absolutely. They were always supposed to be just shrapnel. The whole idea is, it just shreds this radar dish to pieces. Our FX artist, Luca Vitali, did an amazing job. There’s so many layers of things going on, and it was all very, very, heavily choreographed, in that the initial impacts start to affect it in little pockets around the dish’s surface. You start to reveal the dishes internal structures, but it doesn’t all happen all at the same time across the entire dish. There are small pockets that start to develop, and then enlarge, and then as they keep firing in, bits of the dish start to break off and fragment and fracture and float away, and then the dish starts to malfunction.

The shipyards of Ferrix

b&a: How did ILM approach its Ferrix work?

Scott Pritchard: Ferrix was split between Hybride and ILM. Hybride did the town itself, based on the built set, which was extended out to be the larger city. Then ILM did what we called the north side big yard, which was where these enormous ships were being dismantled. Then we did all the surrounding areas as well. We put an incredible amount of work on actually building up the architecture of Ferrix as well, and getting a design language for that as well.

So, you had stuff where there were these brick built chimneys, which would’ve been older than more modern metal industrial tanks with loads of pipes and things coming out of them. But I mean, Ferrix was already… They already had a pretty well fleshed out concept idea of what they wanted these things to look at. They’d done a reccie to a place called Able Seaton Port, which is a place up in the north of England where they dismantle oil rigs.

One of the things that really came from that reccie was, it was quite a misty day up there, and they got these amazing silhouettes. You just see these things hulking through the mist, you get a real sense of how enormous they are.

Production put together a pretty big practical set on the backlot in Pinewood and filmed the sequences for Ferrix there. Then it was up to us to extend that and make it this busy bustling place with loads of workers, always with welding sparks. We had haulers hauling stuff around, and walker cranes as well. There was always something moving in the background in the distance just to suggest this was an environment with lots of stuff going on all the time.

b&a: To fill that up with ships and pieces of machinery and bits and pieces, are you generally modeling everything, or are you going into the Lucasfilm or ILM libraries?

Scott Pritchard: For the ships, we started off with some ships from the archive. There was a Pelta-class frigate and there was a Corellian transport ship. We took those and started carving bits out of them with the idea of having interesting silhouettes. You want to make interesting silhouettes and tell the story of these things being dismantled. The Corellian transport ship with the iconic engines at the back was always going to be an interesting shape to put up there, and actually have the engines jutting out over the side of the cliff. Then we were punching holes through and adding detail inside the ships as well. We thought, if you started to take the external panels off this ship, what would you see?

b&a: When I was watching it, it reminded me of when some ships have sunk in the ocean, and they get salvaged and then get sawn in half under the ocean, or brought up somewhere and then sawn in half somewhere else, dry dock or elsewhere.

Scott Pritchard: I’m so glad you said that because that was actually one of our key references. It was this film about a coastal area in India, this beach where they take ships apart. There was this incredible shot where they’d finished using welders to cut through a section of ship and it just fell off–we really wanted that for the opening shot, where you just see this piece of spaceship just fall off and land on the ground.

Coming back to Coruscant

b&a: How did you, overall, approach Coruscant scenes? I mean, we’ve been to the planet a few times but I really, really felt we saw something different this time around.

Scott Pritchard: That’s what we were going for–what can we do here to make Coruscant recognizable as the center of the Empire and the galaxy, but also bring a sense of where we were shooting all these different locations.

Mon Mothma’s household, the Chandrilian Embassy, for instance, that was an ILMStageCraft shoot with a big LED screen. We built the LED screens around the set of the embassy, and then just a little further down, just below what we call the surface layer, which was where Luthen’s gallery was.

Then as we go further down, we have areas where Syril’s mum’s apartment is, which is a little bit more oppressive. You don’t see quite so much daylight, and we used that idea to tell the story of Syril’s downfall. He was always hoping he would go back to success. You had this moment where you got a little glint of sunlight that reflected off a building and into his bedroom, and illuminated his bedroom and then went away again as a cloud covered it. So, poor old Syril, we were pretty mean to him actually. But we were able to use the environment to again tell that story and enrich the character.

Then as we travel further down, we go to lower Coruscant, where Luthen meets Jung, and he has that amazing monologue. That was filmed in this water treatment plant and then we basically removed the floor and made part of the floor like a walkway in and just continued it on down.

One of the continuing themes of course is ‘verticality’, this idea that we there’s hundreds and hundreds of floors below us in Coruscant space, before we actually hit the surface of the planet itself. This was especially for the night shots, where we’re able to get light projecting up from below and filling out these little pockets of atmosphere. That was a really good tool for just helping sell the idea of just a ridiculous amount of floors below us.

b&a: How did ILM ‘build’ the buildings for Coruscant?

Scott Pritchard: We started off by modeling various key buildings that we could then use as towers. We were mainly using 1920s New York architecture as reference, this idea of stone rather than metal. Then we could dress in little metallic elements for glints and things which would just flash occasionally and add these little details. We ended up modeling a bunch of key buildings that we could use to populate the landscape and get this nice sense of groups of towers together. Then we procedurally modeled the surface layer, which was then basically rooftops of the next set down. Then we carved channels into that layer, which we then lit from below to get that classic Coruscant look of these lit streets, or trenches as we called them.

b&a: There was one Coruscant shot of the ISB Central Office that I loved so much, which had reflections of the flying traffic in the glass panels of the building.

Scott Pritchard: That was a fully CG shot. We loved the idea of playing on the reflection a little bit more. So, we had a few shots where we actually start on a reflection, say when Mon’s airspeeder was approaching Luthen’s gallery, we start seeing the reflection of Mon’s limo in some windows, and then we pan off the windows to see the limo itself.

Then, for the ISB Central Office, just having the idea of that really dark glass, was this really black obsidian like glass, and then that was broken up into different panels, which were given ever so slight variations in rotations. You just get a little skip as the reflection travels from one shot to the other. Then a very, very slight wobble in the surface just to allow that ripple effect. Then some subtle layers of dirt as well on top of that, to break up the reflection so it’s not completely polished.

b&a: I have to tell you, while we were watching it, I said to my partner, ‘Oh, I really wish there were Coruscant Apple TV screensavers available.’ I don’t know if you ever watched the screensavers scenes on Apple TV? Like those slow helicopter shots over Dubai or LAX or LA.

Scott Pritchard: It’s funny you mentioned that because, again, that was a key source of reference for us on those. Those 4K YouTube drone shots or helicopter shots of Chicago or New York or Tokyo which really helped show us how light behaves when it’s reflecting off buildings. Or, the sheer amount of variation in material as well. Stone was our primary building material, but then you had all these different variations, so you didn’t want everything to be one color. It had to have this richness of material difference.

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