The Characters You Thought Were All CGI in 'Solo' Were Actually Something Different
In this age of superhero and space-adventure blockbusters, you might think that most of the aliens and robots appearing in Ron Howard’s Solo were computer-generated. And for good reason; CG characters can be made to do anything, and can accommodate last-minute design changes. But savvy audiences have in recent times lamented the unfettered rise of CG, and yearned for the "old-school" days of practical effects.
Which is why the filmmakers behind Solo were determined to do something a little different. They combined the best of both worlds for several of the characters by capturing an actor's -- or even an acrobat's -- on-set performance, and by puppeteering practical creatures. Visual effects studio Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) and its partner studios would then add to or augment the performance digitally, but only where required.
Three of these hybrid creations in Solo were L3-37, Lando’s very close droid co-pilot; the four-limbed alien creature Rio Durant; and gang leader Lady Proxima. Thrillist asked Solo visual effects supervisor Rob Bredow how real performances and CG brought these characters to life.
Star Wars has done CG droids before; Rogue One featured K2-S0, which was voiced by Alan Tudyk but made completely digitally by ILM. L3-37, on the other hand, was a hybrid. Actress Phoebe Waller-Bridge was the voice of L3 and played the droid in a partial suit on set. She'd wear, say, just a head-piece, or have arm, chest, hip, and leg robot parts, while the rest of her body was covered in a green-screen stocking.
"We'd use that costume wherever we could," says Bredow, "and then replace the rest with a digital version of L3. It was just very careful paintwork and very careful 'matchmoving' work to follow exactly how Phoebe was moving. What you see in the final movie is a real combination between a practical suit and a digital character, and that performance is 100% Phoebe."
Even L3's slightly unusual walk came from a practical origin, in that the costume department built Waller-Bridge some tailor-made shoes to make the character taller. "Rather than doing that via tricks with digital animation," notes Bredow, "we thought, 'What if we could get Phoebe to do this?' We built special shoes so that she was actually standing on risers that were rounded on the bottom, and then she developed this walk that we did together."
Rio, voiced by actor and director Jon Favreau, is a skilled pilot with two sets of arms, which make him particularly dextrous at the controls. For that reason, the filmmakers looked to combine an alien designed by creature effects extraordinaire Neal Scanlan and his team with real-life circus acrobat Katy Kartwheel to get that "extra" performance on the set.
"Katy doesn't have an extra set of arms," jokes Bredow, "but in some cases, we did puppetry with an extra couple of performers to be her extra arms. All of the gymnastics inside the cockpit -- that's all done by Katy wearing the real suit. It was sometimes replaced completely digitally, or sometimes a half-and-half mix. The face was always brought to life by the animators at ILM, inspired by Jon Favreau's performance."
"In a couple cases," adds Bredow, "Ron Howard himself did a performance, not for the voice, but for the facial expressions that we put together. So it was a really fun collaboration between our animators and the various performers on the show."
Early on in Solo, Han gets a talking to from Lady Proxima (voiced by Linda Hunt), a giant worm-like creature that resides in a sewer pool. It might seem like the perfect candidate for a CG character, but again, a practical puppet was the starting point. Digital effects came into play to realize two of her lower arms when motors controlling the appendages during one day of the shoot weren't working, and for painting out the rig and puppeteers controlling Proxima on the set.
Digital also had a role to play when, late in post-production, it was decided to change some of Lady Proxima's dialogue. In other similar situations, a visual effects studio might build a complete CG version of the creature's face in 3-D to portray the new lines. But the filmmakers were incredibly happy with the way the practical puppet looked, so they had ILM make the dialogue changes simply by painting the different face shapes in 2-D onto the existing images.
"It is a big visual effects film with a lot of shots in it," acknowledges Bredow, "but we wanted it to feel as much as though we captured it all in-camera. We did a lot of things practically to that effect, and then we used a lot of unique approaches to try to make things feel as grounded as possible. Hopefully, if people feel like it didn't have a lot of visual effects in it, we accomplished our mission."