No question, the Kessel Run action sequence marks the VFX highlight of “Solo.” The infamous record-setting mission made legends of Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) and the Millennium Falcon, as he expertly piloted through the hazardous hyperspace smuggling route in less than 12 parsecs. For director Ron Howard (who took over for Phil Lord and Chris Miller), it was an opportunity to partner with Industrial Light & Magic to dramatize the thrilling moment.
Yet it wasn’t enough that during Han’s crazy shortcut they encountered an Imperial blockade with tie fighters, a black-hole-like gravity well, and a treacherous storm with carbon bergs. Howard added a space creature to the mix as well. “The biggest change that Ron brought, but had been discussed early, was the giant space monster,” said Rob Bredow, the co-producer and VFX supervisor, who last month was promoted from chief technology officer of Lucasfilm to SVP, executive creative director and head of ILM.
“It was an idea that got some early development, and ILM had done some previs on six different variations of the kind of sequences that would include such a character,” added Bredow. But the character was abandoned until Howard decided the sequence needed greater danger. “The big obstacle was always the gravity well and the [storm],” he added, “and then they combined that with the creature. Ron really helped elevate the sequence and keep it building until the end.”
But since the addition of the creature came late in production, there wasn’t time for the usual amount of iterations. A series of basic concepts were presented to Howard and he chose the ones he liked best. Designer James Clyne called it a Space-o-pus, which goes after the Falcon when it’s awakened from its slumber. Han cleverly fools the creature and it gets sucked into the gravity well.
“Ron liked the head from one creature and the tail from another,” said Matt Shumway, ILM’s animation supervisor. “They combined them to make the space creature, with nearly 50 tentacles. It wasn’t the easiest character for our animation team, but they pushed through on it. Being pulled by the gravity well provided some creative license in terms of physics.”
Instead of traditional eye blinks, though, which looked very cartoony, ILM went with the rolling motion of shark eyes. The layers of teeth they got from snapping turtles. “It was like a good combination of all the scariest elements of the ocean,” Shumway said.
For atmospherics, the animation and VFX teams collaborated on an assortment of extreme weather conditions, beginning with ominous clouds and bursts of lightning flashes, and then adding planet-size chunks of carbon bergs, which were like icebergs.
Bredow developed an interactive approach to shooting sequences such as The Kessel Run inside the Falcon like a theme park ride (wrapping ILM-rendered media footage around curved rear screen projection). This included clouds and blaster fire coming from the tie fighters.
“If you pointed the camera above the actors, you would’ve normally gotten a visual effects shot with blue screen,” Bredow said. “But we were doing it all in real time, all in camera, going into hyper space. And then when you turned the camera around, that same screen was used to light the actors. So, the light had nice interactive detail and consistency.”
The final selling point during The Kessel Run was how the sleek and sporty Falcon (owned by Donald Glover’s Lando) gets battered and shattered on its way to becoming Han’s more familiar junk heap. This occurred as a result of the carbon bergs being hurled at the Falcon and slamming against the treacherous, canyon-like terrain.
“The exciting moment for me was when Han releases that escape pod on top of the Falcon to lure the space monster away,” said Shumway. “We had a dynamic shot of the Falcon way back in camera getting away from the space monster, and that’s the first time we see the Falcon the way we remember it. We wanted to have a little moment there where you get to enjoy it.”