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Making The Mandalorian

To bring the world of Star Wars to TV, visual effects artists created a whole new way to make alien worlds

Lucasfilm Ltd./Disney

The Mandalorian, played by Pedro Pascal, in a scene on the high-tech set

Lucasfilm Ltd./Disney

Tatooine, a desert planet with two suns, is Luke Skywalker’s home. It has been a central location in Star Wars since 1977. Film teams for seven movies headed to North Africa to film in a desert in Tunisia to make the alien world as real as possible.

The Mandalorian, a TV show streaming on Disney+, is the most recent Star Wars tale to visit Tattoine. It follows a bounty hunter who travels the galaxy tracking his next assignment. The second season debuted on October 30.

But the cast of The Mandalorian didn’t film in a desert. They didn’t even film outside! The film crew built a large hemispherical room called the Volume in a studio in Southern California. Every wall and even the ceiling of the Volume is covered in LED screens.

As the actors move within the space, the images on the screens shift to create the illusion that they are on an alien planet. It’s an entirely new way of doing special effects, which brings out-of-this-world locations to life before the actors’ and film crew’s eyes. “That’s what Star Wars is, it’s these other worlds,” says visual effects expert Richard Bluff, who works for Industrial Light and Magic (ILM). ILM is the visual effects company that works on all live-action Star Wars movies and TV shows. “We always have to convince actors and camera crews that what they’re shooting against is real,” he says.

Tatooine has been an important location in Star Wars movies since 1977. The desert planet with two suns is Luke Skywalker’s home. The alien world appeared in seven movies. It was filmed in a desert in Tunisia in North Africa to make it as real as possible.

The Mandalorian is a TV show streaming on Disney+. Parts of it also take place on Tattooine. The show follows a bounty hunter who travels the galaxy. The second season came out on October 30.

But the cast of The Mandalorian didn’t film in a desert. They didn’t even film outside! The film crew built a large room in a studio in Southern California. The room, called the Volume, is shaped like half a sphere. The walls and ceiling of the Volume are covered in LED screens.

As the actors move within the space, the images on the screens shift. This creates the illusion that they are on an alien planet. It’s an entirely new way of doing special effects. Out-of-this-world locations appear before the actors’ and film crew’s eyes. “That’s what Star Wars is, it’s these other worlds,” says Richard Bluff. He’s a visual effects expert who works for Industrial Light and Magic (ILM). ILM is the visual effects company that works on all live-action Star Wars movies and TV shows. “We always have to convince actors and camera crews that what they’re shooting against is real,” he says.

Setting Scenes

The Mandalorian is the first live-action Star Wars TV series. But franchise creator George Lucas and the experts at ILM have been dreaming up how to make such a show happen for decades. The biggest hurdle they faced was re-creating the fantastic worlds of the movie with the smaller budget and time frame of producing a TV show.

The team had only three stages to film on—not enough to create the dozens of environments they’d need for the show. In the first season, the Mandalorian and his companions visited five planets and multiple space stations. If the filmmakers relied entirely on green screen technology, which adds backgrounds after filming is finished, they wouldn’t be able to compose their shots as thoughtfully. That’s why the team created the Volume and covered it with 2,200 LED screens. The circular digital set is 70 feet in diameter and 20 feet tall.

“You don’t have to store lots and lots of physical sets,” says Bluff. “You can store them in the computer. We can return to the same environments over and over again.”

The Mandalorian is the first live-action Star Wars TV series. But George Lucas, who created Star Wars, has wanted to make one for a long time. He and the experts at ILM have talked about it for decades. But there was a problem: TV shows have a smaller budget than movies. They also have to be filmed more quickly. That made it harder to re-create the fantastic worlds of the films.

The team had only three stages to film on. That wasn’t enough to create the dozens of environments they’d need for the show. In the first season, the Mandalorian and his companions visited five planets and multiple space stations. The filmmakers could have used green screen technology to add backgrounds after filming was finished. But then they wouldn’t be able to compose their shots as thoughtfully. That’s why the team created the Volume and covered it with 2,200 LED screens. The digital set is 70 feet in diameter and 20 feet tall.

“You don’t have to store lots and lots of physical sets,” says Bluff. “You can store them in the computer. We can return to the same environments over and over again.”

Lucasfilm Ltd./Disney

1. The walls of the giant set, called the Volume, are made up of 2,200 LED screens, that almost completely enclose the space.

2. This spaceship is a traditionally built set piece . . . it’s really there!

3. The background is designed on a computer and displayed on the LED screens.

Real Reflections

To understand how much time this saves, all you have to do is look at the Mandalorian himself. His metallic armor reflects the lighting around him. If the show were filmed using green screens, the director and camera crews wouldn’t know what light sources are in the shot’s background. Visual effects teams would need to carefully add in every single little reflection to blend reality with digital fiction.

But by using the Volume and LED screens, the team knows exactly what lights are bouncing off the Mandalorian’s helmet—because they’re really there. The LED screens cast light on the actors, just as if they were standing in the deserts of Tunisia.

“If the actors and the filmmakers feel immersed in an environment, they’re not questioning where they are,” says Bluff. “They’re in the moment a lot more. You’ll get a better performance, a better frame, and a better show.”

How much time does this save? To understand, all you have to do is look at the Mandalorian himself. His metallic armor reflects the lighting around him. If the show were filmed using green screens, the director and camera crews wouldn’t know what the light in the digital background was like. Visual effects teams would need to carefully add every single reflection to the armor.

Using the Volume and LED screens is different. The team knows exactly what lights are bouncing off the Mandalorian’s helmet—because they’re really there. The LED screens cast light on the actors. It’s just as if they were standing in the deserts of Tunisia.

“If the actors and the filmmakers feel immersed in an environment, they’re in the moment a lot more,” says Bluff. “You’ll get a better performance, a better frame, and a better show.”

Lucasfilm Ltd./Disney

The Mandalorian’s armor reflects the real light cast by the LED screens.

Virtual Worlds

Lucasfilm/Disney/Kobal/Shutterstock

Surrounding the actors and film crew with visuals is only part of the job, however. To really create immersive worlds, Bluff and his team of artists and engineers had to create images that would respond to the camera’s movement. They couldn’t just display flat images, like photographs or illustrations, on the LED screens.

To make responsive worlds, the team turned to video game engines. A video game engine is a type of computer software used to create digital worlds and environments. When used in video games, players can interact with these environments. They can look up at the sky or down at the ground and move closer to or farther from objects or landmarks.

Each alien world shown in the backgrounds of The Mandalorian is built in a video game engine to be just as responsive. Artists use photographs of real places, like a mountain range or a desert, as a starting point. They even create physical, three-dimensional models of things like spaceships or buildings that are then scanned into the game engine to capture as much detail as possible.

When these worlds are shown on the Volume, the camera’s motion causes the image on screen to change too. The shot in the camera’s viewfinder is complete with lighting and background because of the Volume.

“Once you put the image on the screen, and you’ve really finessed it the last 5 percent, that screen will blend away,” says Bluff. “You’d think the people could walk off into the distance when they’d really just walk into a wall.”

Surrounding the actors with visuals is only part of the job, however. Bluff and his team of artists and engineers had to create images in a particular way. The LED backgrounds needed to respond to the movement of the camera. Flat images, like photographs or illustrations, wouldn’t look real.

To make more realistic worlds, the team turned to video game engines. A video game engine is a type of computer software used to create digital environments. In video games, players can interact with these environments. They can look up at the sky or down at the ground. They can move closer to or farther from objects or landmarks.

Each alien world shown in the background of The Mandalorian is built in a video game engine. It’s designed to be responsive, just like it would in a game. Artists start with photographs of real places, like mountains or deserts. They even create physical models of things like spaceships or buildings that will appear in the background. Then they scan the models into the game engine to capture as much detail as possible.

During filming, these worlds are shown on the Volume. As the camera moves, it causes the images on the Volume to change too. Filmmakers get a shot that doesn’t need as much editing later. The lighting and background are already right because of the Volume.

The end result is backgrounds that look extremely realistic, says Bluff. Viewers don’t even notice that they’re made up of LED screens. “You’d think the people [in the scene] could walk off into the distance,” says Bluff. “They’d really just walk into a wall.”

Use the coordinate plane at right to plot the locations of objects and landmarks used while creating digital worlds for The Mandalorian. Record your work and answers on our answer sheet.

Use the coordinate plane at right to plot the locations of objects and landmarks used while creating digital worlds for The Mandalorian. Record your work and answers on our answer sheet.

A. While designing an environment for Tatooine, a visual effects designer puts one of the planet’s two suns at Point B. What coordinate pair represents this sun?

A. While designing an environment for Tatooine, a visual effects designer puts one of the planet’s two suns at Point B. What coordinate pair represents this sun?

B. Tatooine’s second sun is placed 2 units to the left and 1 unit down from the first sun. Mark the second sun as Point C.

B. Tatooine’s second sun is placed 2 units to the left and 1 unit down from the first sun. Mark the second sun as Point C.

C. What coordinate pair represents Tatooine’s second sun at Point C?

C. What coordinate pair represents Tatooine’s second sun at Point C?

A. A house is visible in the background at Point D. What coordinate pair represents the house?

A. A house is visible in the background at Point D. What coordinate pair represents the house?

B. A droid is 5 units to the right and 1 unit up from the house. Mark it as Point E. What coordinates represent the droid?

B. A droid is 5 units to the right and 1 unit up from the house. Mark it as Point E. What coordinates represent the droid?

A. The designer wants a spaceship to travel through the sky. The spaceship’s flight path starts at Point F. What coordinate pair represents the spaceship’s starting point?

A. The designer wants a spaceship to travel through the sky. The spaceship’s flight path starts at Point F. What coordinate pair represents the spaceship’s starting point?

B. How many units horizontally—and in which direction—will the spaceship need to travel to have the same x-coordinate as Point D?

B. How many units horizontally—and in which direction—will the spaceship need to travel to have the same x-coordinate as Point D?

C. How many units vertically—and in which direction—will the spaceship need to travel to have the same y-coordinate as Point D?

C. How many units vertically—and in which direction—will the spaceship need to travel to have the same y-coordinate as Point D?

Which point is closest to the origin? Explain.

Which point is closest to the origin? Explain.

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