VFX Supervisor Patrick Tubach on Designing the Creatures and Worlds of ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’

We’ve all wondered what the Kessel Run would look like, but Patrick Tubach finally brought it into a reality.

Solo A Star Wars Story
Lucasfilm

We all know the trivia. The Millennium Falcon is the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs. The hunk of junk on first sight may not have impressed Luke Skywalker, but that bit of bluster achieved boyish respect for the smug pirate behind the wheel. Although, what the hell does that actually mean? Isn’t a parsec a measure of distance and not time? How can you travel A to B in a shorter amount of space? New York and California don’t get closer or farther apart from each other.

That quibble was one of many off-hand comments that Solo: A Star Wars Story was determined to address, and visual effects supervisor Patrick Tubach was one of many brains charged with explaining the impossible. In a lot of ways, that is a thankless task. Fanboys have spent lifetimes considering these problems and your solutions will certainly not match with each and every one of their solutions. Tubach was happy for the challenge and took great delight in realizing the Star Wars backstory.

I spoke to Tubach over the phone shortly before the physical media release of Solo: A Star Wars Story. We discussed the long process of bringing various aliens, planets, and vehicles into reality. We chat at great length about the design of the mud planet Mimban, and the Chicken Walkers that terrorize the trenches. We dig into the question of parsecs and the necessary inclusion of that treacherous space squid. Tubach even explains how the exit of Phil Lord and Chris Miller affected his experience, and why Ron Howard was essential to keeping the ship afloat.

Here is our conversation in full:

On Solo, you’re going back in time in the franchise, and to a time period that fans are very familiar with. How did that work differ from designing the effects on something like The Force Awakens?

Well, it’s really interesting because you have to think a little more about iteration and less about completing, or necessarily creating everything out of whole cloth. And the good thing about a spinoff movie is there are things, or characters, or vehicles and things that we haven’t seen before, aspects of the universe that we can create wholly. There are things like Tie Fighters which people do have an idea of what those look like and they know that you’re trying to fit in between episodes three and four and so it’s hard to kind of find ways of iterating on vehicles and making it feel like you’re not breaking the cannon timeline, if I’m making sense.

Sure.

And trying to feel like you want to contribute something in terms of making a cool new vehicle or changing something in some significant way, but you need to keep it on a path.

What does that process look like for you? Are you handed designs and then you get to work? What’s your input on that process?

Oh yeah, it’s great because a lot of times they know that ILM and the artists at ILM are real experts when it comes to the details of things. So it might start with a design that comes from the production art team that is working with filmmakers early on. We have a lead designer called James Clyne who works not only with the production, but he starts the day they start conceptualizing things, he’s there. He works all through that pre-production process and then he also comes back and works at ILM and sits with us. And I always make sure that our art directors and everybody is just an office away so that they can be giving input on things as we start to build it. We’ll start to build something, then we’ll give that to James and he’ll make some suggestions and do some paint over of things that we’re working on. That’s a really collaborative ongoing process as we build vehicles because sometimes things look great on conceptual pieces and then we start to build it and you go “Oh, this isn’t really going to work.” So you need to keep that process fluid.

How early on in the pre-production process are your working on a film like Solo?

Early. Once we feel like we know how something is going to be used in the film, we can ask for turnover of that particular asset. A good example would be the new AT-DT Chicken Walkers that are used on Mimban. Those were really fun to work on because we knew what we were referencing. We’ve all seen Chicken Walkers in this universe before, but we loved the thought of doing this, the World War One style, and more artillery cannon. That design sort of evolved as we worked on it because as when we got our Animation Supervisor Matt Shumway onboard, I was talking to Matt “Wouldn’t this be cool if when you fired these things, it was like you were firing some sort of Howitzer cannon and it actually stumbled a little bit?”

Some of these may have ended up in the deleted scenes that are on the Blu-Ray, but when you fired the cannon, it was supposed to be like it was such a tremendous impact that they actually stumbled back on its legs a little bit, which is just a fun idea. Probably not the most practical weapon design, but it was a cool thing that you were able to translate sort of the power of the gun and the old feeling of being a World War One weapon into something that is as familiar as Star Wars’ two-legged AT-DT design.

Loved all the World War One stuff. The mud, the trenches, the helmets.

What’s cool about it is that of course every war is horrible, but World War One had that trench warfare and that panic you see on Han’s face, “I don’t know how I got here and how I’m going to survive this.” That feeling you get and I think that that very much translates to the everyday experience of a lot of people in that war.

Do you have a particular favorite sequence that you worked on within Solo?

I feel like I really enjoyed working on the Kessel Run. There are many different aspects of the Kessel Run. But that sort of process of figuring out particularly when they exit. There’s the entrance to the corkscrew tunnel, as we called it, that gets you to Kessel, and then there is the exit from the planet all the way to Savareen. I really enjoyed that process of figuring out what that run looked like because we heard about it so many times, but nobody’s really mapped it out, nobody really knew what happened. And so I liked discovering that. I feel like as we go through this, we’re helping to develop that story and I like discovering that as a fan as we were working on it. I love the moment where Han makes the decision, that fateful decision to turn into the storm and he’s just like “I got a great feeling about this,” and he just turns right into the storm. That seems like a very Han thing to do. And the total bravado of feeling “I can make it, yeah, no one’s ever done it but I can make it”. That was a very fun sequence to be involved in.

That’s a sequence that thousands, millions of Star Wars fans have been anticipating. Here you are finally working on it. That’s got to be pretty surreal.

Yeah, you could say that. I think everybody had their theory about what went on. We were having an opportunity to get the inside scoop on something because Han is such a talker. When he first meets Luke in the bar and he’s like “Oh, I did the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs.” First of all, what does that mean? That makes no sense. And then to be able to explain oh, it’s because there was a shortcut. It’s cool to take these things that people think might be throwaway lines and turn them into something much more meaningful. I really enjoyed meeting the space monster at the end of the sequence because it was the perfect sort of crazy climax to an already wild ride.

That was quite a surprise in Solo, meeting that thing. Can you talk a little bit about realizing that a Lovecraftian beast in a Star Wars setting?

Yeah, it’s interesting. It started fairly early on. We were looking for ideas of what kinds of creatures you might encounter and we tried different things, which there’s no way I’ll go into all of them. But we tried many different things and one sketch that James actually made was of a jellyfish head and he drew the Falcon just sort of puncturing the jelly part of the jellyfish’s head and that sort of got everybody thinking about “Oh, well, the jellyfish would be kind of cool because you could have tentacles and you could have them flying through the tentacles and there could be electricity and there could be lightning. It eventually evolved a little bit more into and I think you can thank Ron a lot for pushing us towards this stuff because he really loved the idea of the space monster. But it evolved to more of an ancient creature. So we eventually made the skin and it went away from a jellyfish into a much harder skinned creature that still had tentacles and it still involved lightning. It was a little bit like a sleeping giant that you encounter this thing and it just sits there until it’s provoked and then it becomes this menacing beast. And Ron was really into that idea as well because he felt like you need to cap off the sequence with something just spectacular like that. A really fantastic account there.

How do you know when a design of a creature works or when it doesn’t?

Oh, that’s an interesting question. I think you have to ask yourself if it’s functional to the story and if it evokes the right emotion when you see it. There’s a cool moment actually in the film where when Summa-Verminoth, the space monster turns around and actually starts to chase the Falcon and we have this shot where you get to see all the teeth, and we did this under-lighting, this very monster under-light on it and it looks like a really terrifying creature at that moment. I think the cool thing was that we wanted to have that feeling of a somewhat being scary. Obviously, these movies are for families and for kids as well, but kids don’t mind those brief moments of “Okay, that’s a little scary.” That one shot. But pretty soon you’re onto the next thing and it doesn’t overwhelm you with horror. It is a really terrifying creature. I think we got that really good balance of having a very scary looking creature, but at the same time, it wasn’t horrific in some ways.

How did the transition from Phil Lord and Chris Miller to Ron Howard affect your job on the film?

Well, I mean it was all pretty above board. As they said, it was just creative differences that led to Ron coming on the film and the cool thing was that he came in with the attitude of “I just want to be helpful and I want to help you make this movie.” He’s got this balanced enthusiasm as a person and as a filmmaker that translates down to the rest of the crew really quickly and everybody that works with him instantly can kind of pick up on that vibe. He’s a very positive person and he gives you really good, honest, emotional feedback when he sees your stuff. So in terms of visual effects artists, when we’re presenting Ron stuff, you can hear in his voice how he feels about what you’re working on and when he sees something he likes, he’s just like “Yeah, that’s it.” That makes us feel great. It really charges you up for taking on whatever challenges and even whatever is going to end up getting cut of changed or omitted or whatever, we were all behind his new ideas and that new enthusiasm really helped us get into his leadership.

It sounds like he still had a tremendous influence on design. It wasn’t like all these things were set in stone, or in the computer before he came onboard.

No, absolutely. Just from that story I was telling you earlier, you can tell that design is something that, with all these films, because visual effects are so powerful and can change, he has the ability to sort of make suggestions all along the way and nothing is ever completely locked down until you really have the shot down. So we have the opportunity to iterate on things and add to things and change them as we go. And that’s one of the great things about visual effects now. It gives the filmmakers the power. It frees them up; it frees their imagination to be able to make things better as they need to.


Solo: A Star Wars Story is now available on DVD and Blu-ray as well as Digital HD and VOD.

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Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.