Author’s Note: Tackling the brilliant crafts of Disney Plus’ The Mandalorian was not an easy task. Every craft is painstakingly rendered to both remain faithful to the original series and also to create something new and innovative for demanding 21st century audiences. This is a large story, but I hope you’ll find the experience as compelling as I did. While writing it, I adopted the same Yoda-spoken mantra the beloved and Emmy-nominated crafts persons likely followed when creating the series: “Try not! Do, or do not. There is no try.”
The nominations for the 2020 Emmy Awards brought multiple surprises last July, but few were as eye-brow raising as the nomination for Disney Plus’s The Mandalorian in the Drama Series race. Set in the Star Wars universe between the events of Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, The Mandalorian beat out several high profile contenders — Apple’s The Morning Show for example — for one of the coveted eight slots.
Perhaps, though, we shouldn’t have been that surprised. Long time Oscar watchers will tell you that Best Picture contenders are built brick by brick with robust below the line support, so maybe the same holds true for the Emmy race. Few (if any) 2020 Emmy-contending series boast the uniform below-the-line excellence as Disney’s The Mandalorian.
To fully appreciate its crafts, I discovered that you have to understand two things about The Mandalorian.
First, meet Stagecraft by Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), a revolutionary virtual filmmaking environment. Standing 20 feet tall, 75 feet across, and 270 degrees around, Stagecraft eschews traditional green screens in favor of a series of LED walls used to project a photorealistic environment which moves and shifts with the actors. It also reduced the number of stages typically required for a project of this size from 12-15 to just 3.
“The interesting thing about that process was that it forced a collaboration between all departments the likes of which I’ve never seen before,” remarked production designer Andrew L. Jones. “Through necessity, you have to have a very close relationship between VFX, props, set dec, etc.”
That ingenuity replicated itself in each and every Emmy-nominated craft for The Mandalorian. Ironically, such revolutionary technology became a critical component in creating a fully immersive experience for the dilapidated and worn-down Star Wars universe. High tech rendering low tech. Only in Star Wars.
Which leads us to the second thing you need to know about the crafts of The Mandalorian. Series creator and show runner Jon Favreau shepherded the crafts with a major directive: build a revolutionary series with new perspectives on the material while simultaneously remaining faithful to the original classic series. Embrace technology, but remember the very specific look and feel of Star Wars. Viewers would never be satisfied with a Mandalorian that visually departed from its original inspiration. This mandate became a unifying mantra for all below-the-line departments from production design all the way to prosthetics.
Don’t Mess Up
As with all members of the craft departments on The Mandalorian, production designer Andrew L. Jones’s personal connection to the Star Wars universe drove a passion for perfection.
“That particular universe is a favorite of mine anyway, so it’s something I just didn’t want to mess up. It’s something I’ve loved right from the very first movie,” gushed Jones. “When [Star Wars] came out, I went to see it with my mother when I was little and just loved it. It’s a strong aesthetic, riffing on Westerns and Samurai movies. We’re trying to stick with that in The Mandalorian.”
Jones relied on the style vocabulary created within the first trilogy to drive a new interpretation of the same universe, giving viewers something fresh yet familiar. Some objects and environments have been faithfully recreated, including the famed cantina. Yet, the series also takes viewers on a journey across previously unseen galaxies and planets.
Much of Jones’s production design stems from techniques used on the original Star Wars. For example, both projects relied on “repurposed” or “found” objects. Things you could find in hardware stores or prop shops that could be reimagined as a Star Wars asset. It adheres to the original’s sense of grimy realism, more lived-in and worn materials over the modern and pristine look of other sci-fi projects (think Star Trek).
Jones also worked hand-in-hand with the Stagecraft VFX team to ensure items he’d created for real-world filming would also be recreated in the LED-projected background sets.
Using the Best Technique for the Job
Visual effects supervisor Richard Bluff also shares a life-long passion for Star Wars, one that led him directly to a job at ILM thanks to his fascination with their bleeding edge technology. However, just because The Mandalorian had advanced technology at its fingertips, it doesn’t mean the VFX team always used it to create realistic effects. Remember, the original Star Wars film featured special effects created on what would be seen as exceedingly low-tech today.
And that’s part of its bucket-of-bolts charm.
“What’s interesting with any visual effects work, particularly when you work at a company like ILM with people who have been around for decades, is that there is a true appreciation for the best techniques for the job,” Bluff shared. “It doesn’t always have to be full computer graphics.”
While the majority of The Mandalorian‘s environments and creatures were built using CGI, Bluff and team used a whole range of other techniques to remain faithful to the look and feel of the original trilogy. Original matte paintings used for A New Hope were reshot and repurposed for the Disney Plus series. Many buildings, environments, and creatures were built using miniature models or stop-motion animation figurines.
But the innovation of Stagecraft, which was designed in-house at ILM, proved irresistible to Favreau. The technology was pioneered on Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, but Favreau urged Bluff and team to push the technology forward and use it in new and creative ways akin to gaming technology. Using Stagecraft on The Mandalorian meant much of the work traditionally done in post-production had to be done up front. It also meant that the collaboration between Bluff and Jones’s production design team had to be accomplished nearly in hyperspace.
“If you compare how many hours of material we needed to generate for the show, between four and four-and-a-half hours for the season, to that needed for a movie of a similar scale, they would likely have 10, 12, or 14 stages. [With Stagecraft], we had three. The entire season was shot over three stages and a parking lot.”
That efficient, yet immersive, environment was another goal of Favreau’s. Executing his overall vision for bringing this virtual set extension to life proved one of the major challenges of the series for Bluff and team. It was one they have already revisited and improved upon for the upcoming second season.
Shooting On Both Sides of the Galaxy In a Single Day
The Stagecraft environment’s LED projection technology rendered so vividly that cinematographer Baz Idoine lensed the series just as he would a standard location shoot. The ease of shifting locations through technology meant that radically different Mandalorian locations could be quickly established within the same day. For example, the Mandalorian could hold a breakfast meeting on Nevarro and still have time for afternoon tea on forest planet Sorgan.
Or something like that.
Idoine isn’t a stranger to working on the Star Wars universe. He also served as second unit cinematographer on Rogue One: A Star Wars Story or, as he calls it, his “first adult realization of me working in the Star Wars universe with The Mandalorian as the icing on the cake.” He relied on the same principles used to guide filming on both projects: honor the treasured memories and experiences of those raised on the original trilogy.
“We knew that it was widescreen. It was epic. It was a massive sense of scale with human drama,” Idoine remarked.
To capture the scope and size of the project, Idoine and team used the Arri Alexa LF camera in addition to custom lenses made by Panavision. Among other benefits, these lenses facilitated shooting of the anamorphic widescreen picture. Coupled with additional color tinting by Steve Scott who worked on the original trilogy’s re-release, Idoine and team’s choices all help orient the viewer in a familiar and, in some ways, comforting galaxy far, far away.
Avoid Artistic Masturbation
Head Makeup Artist Brian Sipe also shared a life-long passion for all things Star Wars. He fondly recalls seeing the original film at the Westgate Theater in Beaverton, Oregon, which boasts a record 76-week engagement of the original Star Wars. That early exposure followed by a near-religious replay of early Star Wars LPs eventually paid off with Sipe’s work on The Mandalorian.
Sipe recreated the famed Star Wars creature looks faithfully while taking on new prosthetic visuals thanks to guidance from a famed Star Wars expert.
“Our best tool and asset was Dave Filoni. He’s very attuned to what the feel of Star Wars might be versus a Star Trek or a Firefly,” Sipe explained. “We would show him designs, and he would point out what worked and what wouldn’t fit. That’s how we were able to create new things that we could do efficiently for shooting as well as adhere to legacy looks.”
Sipe’s Emmy-nominated episode, “Chapter 6: The Prisoner,” features extensive work that recreates a little seen, but extremely well known, species originally hailing from Return of the Jedi: the Twi’lek. Then, there’s Burg, the horned distant cousin (visually anyway) of Hellboy. But not all of Sipe’s work on the series required elaborate, otherworldly prosthetics. Other episodes used prosthetics to orient the viewer in the socio-political environment of this post-Empire universe.
“The Empire’s already gone through the universe and has laid waste. So, the people that we see now are the product of that,” Sipe explained. “They’re people still trying to get back on their feet. They had scars or other visible markings of war or other damage.”
One unifying theme of Sipe’s makeup on the series is that it uniformly feels extremely authentic to the old-school work done in the original series. Filoni was key to helping bridge the decades, but Sipe and team held back from over designing the work. The paint schemes and skin textures used could remain simplistic as they completely aligned with the flavor of the original Star Wars.
“We don’t need to overwork it. We don’t need to overpaint something to make it look incredible. It’s just artistic masturbation by that point.”
Editing It All Together To Form a Cohesive — and uniquely Star Wars –– Experience
The Mandalorian boasts three Emmy nominations in the Single-Camera Picture Editing for a Drama Series category, each nomination for a different editor. The team of editors, as well as the directors guiding each episode, hailed from unique backgrounds not necessarily anchored within a sci-fi world. That was by design, according to Andrew S. Eisen, ACE (“Chapter 2: The Child”), because show runners Favreau and Filoni wanted to give the series a sense of uniqueness that remained faithful to the overall Star Wars universe.
Despite their cinematic diversity, all four editors collaborated to ensure cohesiveness in the finished product.
“All eight episodes of the show were edited using previsualization, which is more or less a blueprint as to what the episode will look like and more or less how each episode would be shot. So when I joined the team, I sat and watched each episode’s previz cut,” explained Dana E. Glauberman, ACE (editor on “Chapter 4: Sanctuary”). “But at the end of the day, each director had their own style, which was very much encouraged by Favreau and Filoni, and thus resulted in a series that proves that visual continuity or cutting style is not necessarily key in telling a good story or keeping the audience interested.”
The celebrated unique style of each director and editor helped The Mandalorian emerge as a unique product. One that both honors the legacy of and stands on its own outside of the Star Wars universe. However, the team of editors still had an enviable bag of Star Wars editing tricks to pull from to please life-long fans.
“There were lots of conversations about ‘making it more Star Wars‘ by not letting the camera do things that George Lucas wasn’t able to do in 1977. To limit the use of steadicam and cranes and make sure the shots would always be something an actual camera could shoot,” Jeff Seibenick (“Chapter 8: Redemption”) shared. “Sometimes we bent those rules, but mostly we adhered to a style of shooting and editing that was established by the original films.”
That means wipes. Lots and lots of wipes.
“We were given quite a lot of leeway in terms of using wipes. The original Star Wars films employed them quite liberally to transition from scene to scene and so we did the same,” Eisen added. “If it felt right, we added them and I don’t think any of us received a single note on how we used them in our episodes. The mere use of them is inherently Star Wars.”
Also inherently Star Wars is the love and obsession paid to the presence of The Child. One of 2019’s most widely used GIFs was that of The Child sipping a cup of soup following a particularly intense scene of hand-to-hand combat. It was one of those moments the editing team picked up on immediately in dailies.
Even then, they had no idea of the impact it would have.
“We thought it was adorable and a great break after this intense hand-to-hand combat, but we had no idea it would take off the way it did,” Dylan Firshein (additional editor on “Chapter 4: Sanctuary”) remarked. “It’s been an absolute pleasure to be a part of something that has brought so much joy to people around the world. Seeing the Twitter-sphere light up each week really gave us an energy boost as we continued to finalize and deliver the remaining episodes.”
Scoring With an Oscar-winning Composer… No, Not THAT Oscar-winning Composer
Oscar-winner Ludwig Göransson (Black Panther) received his first Emmy nomination for his work on The Mandalorian (“Chapter 8: Redemption”). He credits the original Star Wars film as his gateway into film scoring. Rather, it was fellow Oscar-winner John Williams’ iconic score that brought him into the Star Wars universe. Who could imagine the film without that soundtrack? What other film series is so closely wedded to its accompanying score?
But that incredibly close association of composer to project didn’t prevent Göransson’s experimentation with a new sound for the updated series.
“It was pretty obvious from the very get-go that Jon [Favreau] was looking for something different. He was looking to experiment,” Göransson recalled. “That, for me, was an incredible challenge but also a relief not to be tied to anything. We still had to keep in mind that we’re working on Star Wars, so I went back and tried to remember how the music made me feel as a child and try to project those emotions into the music I was writing for The Mandalorian.”
Channeling that inner child and returning to those original emotions elicited by first exposure to Star Wars, Göransson stepped away from the computer and more modern approaches of approaching film scoring. Instead, he surrounded himself with instrumentation he would have had access to as a child: recorders, guitars, pianos, drum sets, bass, and a 1970s-era synthesizer. He found the analog experience incredibly liberating as a composer. When it came time to align those early scores to the finished product, Göransson assembled more modern production elements, including a 70-piece orchestra.
That was the easy part.
The most challenging aspect to the score was to find a sound for The Child. His inherent cuteness initially stumped Göransson who first thought of a similarly cute score, something storybook or magical. Realizing that The Child and the events of the series are seen through the Mandalorian’s eyes shifted his scoring inspirations.
“That was the challenge for me, the music is basically the face of the Mandalorian. You never see his facial reactions or his eyes,” Göransson said. “So, the music had to be the facial expressions of the Mandalorian.”
Reaching Back To Their Inner Child (Silently Grasping a Cup of Soup)
Aside from the drive for perfection, the Emmy-nominated crafts team members working on The Mandalorian all share a deep, abiding love for the Star Wars universe. In every case, this love started when they saw the first film as children and held them in its grasp for decades since. In some ways, the crafts persons working on The Mandalorian are wide-eyed children themselves, imaginations flourishing in the world George Lucas created nearly 50 years ago.
So, what exactly would they share with their younger selves if they were given the opportunity to go back in time?
For production designer Andrew L. Jones, it’s an easy question to answer: he would gush to his younger self about building The Mandalorian‘s take on the legendary Sandcrawler. Cinematographer Baz Idoine fondly recalls filming The Child using the Force for the first time. Head makeup artist Brian Sipe would just tell that child to sit back and wait for the great opportunities to come his way.
But composer Ludwig Göransson likely would not relay any of his future exploits to his younger self. While so heavily inspired by John Williams’s legendary score, he would want his younger self to remain open to the opportunities and experiences yet unknown in his life’s journey. VFX supervisor Richard Bluff expressed similar sentiments.
“The path that I’ve gone down to get to where I am was equal parts luck and equal parts hard work. I would be fearful that anything I would say would change the path that I’d found myself on.”
Spoken like a true Jedi Master.