Patrick Tubach has been at Industrial Light and Magic for almost 20 years, helping to chart the company's growth and the visual effects industry's dramatic changes during those years.
Now a visual effects supervisor, he joined ILM in 1999, working as a compositor on The Perfect Storm. He moved on through various jobs and productions until he got the chance to supervise the visual effects for the most recent installment of the Star Wars saga, Ron Howard's Solo: A Star Wars Story. SYFY WIRE talked with him about his career at ILM, how things have changed over the last two decades, and the unique ways Solo pushed the envelope in that signature ILM style.
Solo isn’t your first Star Wars movie. Going back, your first was actually Attack of the Clones. How has your job changed since then, and how has the technology changed since then?
Things have changed a lot.
It's interesting when you think back to Attack of the Clones. First of all, George [Lucas] being involved was awesome, that was a dream come true to work with him. But I think visual effects work at that time was a lot more manual, meaning there was a lot of things that we take for granted today that we had to do somewhat by hand back then, or there weren't great software tools to help us with certain things.
In terms of building environments say, during the time of the time of Attack of the Clones, you’d either have to choose something to be a matte painting or CG in the traditional CGI sense. Whereas today, we have projection techniques and we have ways of procedurally growing environments and things that really make it hard to discern the real environment from the extended environment.
I think that the fact that we have these incredibly powerful tools now means we can focus more on telling stories and wowing audiences with cool shots and spend less time as artists sitting in front of our boxes and manually moving things frame by frame around in order to produce the result. So, it's really nice to be able to have the technology to catch up to our imaginations in some ways so that we're able to produce this great work.
With Solo, a lot of the work that would traditionally be seen as post-production got done before production so that you could actually use it on the set. How does that change things for you?
It was a different way of thinking about things in that we were going back to some of what you could call “old school” techniques, things that had been around a long time like rear projection — or front projection — and using those old techniques with new technology in order to produce better results. It felt great to be able to do that. It allowed us to actually project to these images to, say, outside the Falcon cockpit. Then we could get some of these shots in camera on the day that we shot it.
We didn't expect to get everything and we did add to things later, but there were shots that we got in camera and it was an amazing feeling to be able to come to set with some real content based on what we knew the storyline was and project that in front of the actors and have them react to something that's actually real, right in front of them. When the actors were sitting in the cockpit and they’d go to hyperspace and they actually looked like they were going into hyperspace.
It brings a different energy to the set. A lot of actors are fantastic acting against a green screen and they've gotten used to it, but I think it really surprised everybody to have the opportunity to visualize what they were supposed to be acting with and that was a really exciting part of working on this film.
Was that challenging? You go back and look through the history of Star Wars and, infamously, on the Star Wars deleted scenes rear projection did not look that great. Is that part of the ethos of ILM, to just keep pushing forward even with stuff that maybe had been discarded?
I think it's to look at what does work about that technique and then what needs to be improved. The cool thing is we were able to use brand new 4K projectors — side-by-side or stacked in some cases — and we were able to get a sharp enough, high-quality image out of projectors that throw enough light that we can actually film with them. That's something that before we had the technology of today — and literally some of these projections were just coming out — until we had that, we couldn't have done this. It felt really good to not reject the technique based on the fact that maybe your tool wasn't exactly right for the time, but now that we’ve hit that point of technology where we can go, "Okay that idea coupled with that technology is actually gonna be really successful.” And that was what we did in this case.
And I think ILM does have a history with that. George put us on that path of always questioning. He was famous for always just saying, “I wanna be able to do this and if nothing exists to do X, then it should. I'm gonna make it.”
And so, we sort of have that same sort of vibe in the entire company, we always feel that way. It's like “We wanna do this. Why shouldn't we be able to do this?”
Famously, going back to the Attack of the Clones, there was that one shot of Yoda that went through many, many rounds of work before the final shot was approved. For Solo, what was that shot, the one hardest to nail down from a VFX perspective?
Maybe it was not one specific shot but there was that series of shots where you might remember. It's not actually the very last shot of the maw sequence, but when we get to the maw and Summa, the space monster, is finally starting to get sucked into the maw. We have that really long sort of one-shot where you come around in the ship, the Falcon gets turned around and Summa starts to get sucked into the maw.
That was really difficult because it was such a long shot. You have tentacles going everywhere. There are huge effects going on in the background, with rock flying in from all over screen and the biting of the escape pod and all of that coming together in that really long dramatic moment. There was nowhere to hide on that shot and everything has to be perfectly timed out and lit realistically and paced properly. That was one of the hardest shots probably to come together and came together late at the very end. It was very hard.
The Millennium Falcon is a ship that's been in just about every Star Wars movie that's come out in this new era. I know for Force Awakens they built the model so that you could keep using it. How did you go about adding it to make Lando’s Falcon and then what was the process of destroying it completely as Han goes through in the film?
It was a really interesting process. James Clyne, who is our lead designer on the film at ILM, started work very early on on the project and one of his first challenges was, “What does Lando’s version of the Falcon look like?” And so, we sort of thought of it like that. What is Lando’s version? We know what Han’s version is. What are the differences that Lando’s has that fit his personality? So obviously the ship is very clean, it looks really fancy, and it's really nice. He hasn't been in a whole bunch of scuffles like Han has. It has the escape pod on it that Lando added.
So we started there, we started with that design, we built that. Then we looked at the end design. And Han’s ship really does exist inside of Lando's model. If you pulled apart all the armor pieces, you get to Han’s ship underneath there. And we then set a goal for ourselves, of finding the milestones in the Kessel Run about where these big moments of damage happen. We had some moments where we have big carbonbergs hitting and tearing off guns. We had the carbonberg slide moment where we tear off a bunch of the landing gear. The space monster slaps the top and pulls off a bunch of panels.
We went through and we marked all of those milestones, we need artwork for each of those milestones, and then we made specific models for each of those points so that everybody would know as we go through, "Here's where you're switching to the next version.” There were a lot of versions along the way, so we finally get to that. Really, the beat-up version that you see on Savareen is actually even one version different than Han’s because it still has some exposed pieces that eventually get sort of patched over.
Part of this is the visual effects guys get to make up a little story. Our little story that after Lando took the ship back he did a little bit of repair work, just what he needed to do to get the ship functional again. He repaired a few of the panels and that's what you finally see in Episode IV. It was a real journey and it took a lot of careful planning to get from one version of the ship to the other.
With L3-37, having the costume there and on Phoebe Waller-Bridge, did that cause more problems removing it? Or would it have been easier to be more like Alan Tudyk with K-2SO? What unique challenges did the way you went about creating L3 present?
It was actually really helpful to have her be in the suit because they were able to track those harder geometric pieces that she was wearing. It also gave her some sense of where she was in space because if she doesn't have that, then I don't think she's able to really physically understand where L3 would fit. For instance, getting L3 into the co-pilot seat of the Falcon is a challenge and we needed her to feel what that challenge felt like or it wasn't gonna feel like an authentic version of L3 stepping in there.
So, it was great to have it physical and then we were able to track those pieces. Where things got tricky was that, because she's a human, she would often bump up against things or somewhat crush the pieces of the suit. In those cases, we would remove those pieces that were being unfortunately bent or manipulated in some way that felt not droid-like. We would remove those pieces and replaced those with a CG version. All in all, I think it was amazing to have her be in the suit and actually embodying that character on screen and existing in physical space that she needed to be in. And it really made our jobs easier.
Solo: A Star Wars Story is currently available in digital formats. It comes out on Sept. 25 in physical media.