“Today, We Can Mostly Achieve Anything Someone Can Imagine,” says Academy Award-Nominated VFX Supervisor Rob Bredow

Film Companion chats with the head of innovation at Lucasfilm and Industrial Light & Magic about the company’s creative process and the future of visual effects.
“Today, We Can Mostly Achieve Anything Someone Can Imagine,” says Academy Award-Nominated VFX Supervisor Rob Bredow

Legacy production company Lucasfilm — named after its founder George Lucas, prolific filmmaker and creator of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises — has a VFX arm called Industrial Light & Magic. This 50-year-old company has pioneered visual effects for hundreds of iconic films and shows, from the Jurassic Park series to Disney’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians. Film Companion spoke with Academy Award-nominated VFX Supervisor Rob Bredow, Senior Vice President of Creative Innovation at Lucasfilm and Chief Creative Officer at Industrial Light & Magic.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

How have your creative sensibilities changed with the evolution of technology?

If you look at some of those first shots that were in the very first Star Wars, and the innovations they did between the first Star Wars (1977) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980), a lot of the same creative drivers are still driving us today. It comes back to core design principles, and really good visual storytelling. We had Dennis Muren, who was one of the people who worked on the very first Star Wars. He still consults with us, and he does masterclasses for all of our supervisors to make sure we’re keeping in mind what’s really important about making great shots. The technology has changed a lot from models to digital, but we sometimes lean into those old-school techniques because they’re actually really good techniques. So we still sometimes shoot models and miniatures — not as much, but a little bit, because it can bring something creative to the process. 

I think for me personally, when I started, I spent a lot of time thinking about how we were going to achieve a certain illusion, like, “How would we do this?” Maybe thinking about the technical processes, maybe thinking a lot about the way we would photograph it to make it possible. And now with the improvement in the technology and the increased abilities that our artists have around the world, the technical proficiency is so high and the teams are so good that our supervisors spend a little less time focused on the technical things, and more focused on the visual storytelling — how to work alongside the filmmakers to make sure their vision gets on the screen in the best way possible, and, of course, making sure it’s as efficient as possible. 

A still from The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
A still from The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Is the storytelling sometimes limited by the capabilities of technology at a given point?

Today, we can mostly achieve anything someone can imagine. So that’s very freeing, I think, for writers. But we do sometimes get calls from people while they’re writing or developing a project, or maybe they’ve written something and they realise it’s going to be really hard to photograph, or it’s very different from things that have been done before. So then we do get that call — and we love it when we get that call, because that’s some of the most fun projects to dive into, when we’re not quite sure how to do it. How do we complement the storytelling process and the filmmaking process? So those are really fun calls, and we do get those from time to time. 

Is there a difference in how you approach visual effects in live-action films versus animated films?

In general, there’s a lot of elements that are in common, but when you’re creating everything in the scene in an animated feature for the entire duration of the movie, there are a lot of special processes for that: To keep track of everything, to make sure everything is designed together consistently. If there’s a cup on the table, someone has to design that: Draw it, stylise it, model it in 3D, and then texture it. A lot of those individual processes are the same in a live-action film and an animated film. But in the animated film, it has a whole layer of stylisation and a different look put on it. And there’s just a lot more because of every prop, every set, every character, every variation and costume for the entire film. So that can be one of the fun challenges of an animated feature. 

A still from Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009)
A still from Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009)

Do you prefer working on one over the other? 

I like both. My recent work has all been focused on live-action. I really enjoyed working on the animated features that I got to work on. [Bredow has worked on animated classics like Stuart Little and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs] I think today I’d prefer live-action. I really like the energy and the dynamic of a live set and the shoot, working live in the moment with the actors, where the only chance you have to get that shot is there, and trying to make all the elements come together on the day. And sometimes those can be visual effects elements, but sometimes there are all the other departments’ elements. I've really enjoyed that challenge and collaborating with a bunch of filmmakers who are aligned on that challenge.

You were the Visual Effects Supervisor and also a co-producer on the Academy Award-nominated film Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018). Did you find yourself caught between the responsibilities of those two roles?

I think it’s one of our superpowers at Lucasfilm and ILM that people get to wear multiple hats. And every supervisor at ILM works on a film or a TV series, not just in the role of what we can do for visual effects, but how we can best serve the movie. Directors are very surprised when we get in the room with the other heads of department and we say, “We don’t think Visual Effects should do this. We think Special Effects should physically make an explosion, or the art department should make the real set instead of using a blue screen.” And they’re like, “Aren’t you the visual effects person? Shouldn’t you be saying you should do it in visual effects?” But sometimes the right answer for the film is to achieve an illusion with a practical effect or with a real set. So the role I had on Solo got broadened. I was grateful that they gave me the credit of co-producer because they saw me as a partner to the filmmaker. Ron Howard had me in the room in the edit bay, and I was able to contribute in areas that weren’t directly related to visual effects. 

A still from Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)
A still from Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

To what extent do you think technology enhances the creative process? Can there be too much of a good thing when it comes to technology and visual effects?

Yeah, I think that really ties into what we were just talking about in terms of making sure we’re always picking the best tool for the job. That is, for me, the most important thing about making sure the technology is in support of the creative storytelling, and that’s what our supervisors really lean into. In fact, we kind of default to, “If you can do it for real, you should.” But then we want the technology to be seamlessly supportive, so no one even knows what is done in which way. Hopefully, you get fooled by the work. 

What do you think the future of visual effects looks like, especially with the advent of text-to-video models like Sora? Do you see AI as a challenge, or do you hope to work alongside it? 

We always want to keep an eye on the latest technology and how we can bring that to our artists to use in support of filmmakers, to support the visual storytelling. So we’re keeping an eye on all of these new technologies, especially in the area of AI, because we do see these new high-tech paintbrushes coming to help our artists, to help them be more creative, to help them be more efficient, and hopefully make some of the easier jobs, or some of the more mundane jobs, more streamlined so we can focus more of our efforts on the creative work for our clients.

What is the most memorable VFX moment that you’ve had in your career? What was it like to conceptualise that and bring it to life? 

It’s a great question. There’s a moment in Solo, where there’s this very unique explosion. In the story, there’s this thing, Coaxium, that everyone’s chasing, and if it gets a big jolt, it’s going to make a huge explosion. And what the script said was “an explosion like one you’ve never seen before.” But there had been a lot of beautiful explosions in the Star Wars movies before. So I was trying to figure out what this explosion could look like. And in that movie, we wanted to do things as practically as possible. So I was looking for some reference. I found an interesting explosion, which was a very small charge, like a little firecracker underwater in a small aquarium. And it made this beautiful explosion that went out. It was an air bubble underwater, and then it collapsed on itself from the pressure of the water, and had a secondary explosion where it made kind of a pyroclastic cloud. It happens in about a 100th of a second. So in order to see this, you have to photograph it with a very special camera that can shoot at 25,000 frames per second, because it’s over like that [snaps]. But with that camera, you can see this amazing thing happening. I found some guys on YouTube who had photographed this, and we thought we could do something like that.

The explosion in Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)
The explosion in Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

So we set up a small aquarium, some special lights, and a very, very fast camera to be able to capture that and use that in the actual movie. And then our visual effects artists used that as one element — that was the explosion element. Then we did all the rest of the work of destroying the mountain, all the snow that would fall off the mountain, even the explosive ring from the sonic boom that would be created by such a large explosion. They put all of that digitally into a photographic plate that we had shot in the Italian Dolomites.

What are your top three films that you think have the best VFX? 

Well, of all time, I have to put Star Wars at the top of the list. The movie that most inspired me in terms of visual effects is The Empire Strikes Back. The work is so beautifully done. And I just remember a shot, a still photo of Phil Tippett, who animated the AT-ATs on that show — he worked with Dennis Muren and some of the other legends of our industry. And I remember watching that movie — I was pretty young when the movie came out, and I loved it. I watched it as many times as I could, and I really had no idea how it was made. And then I saw one behind-the-scenes photo of that snowy field with the AT-ATs, the giant walkers coming across the snow, and they were frozen, and what looked like snow, there was a door that flapped open, and Phil Tippett was posing the next frame of the attic because they were animating it frame by frame with stop-motion. And I just remember having that moment of realising, “Oh. People made that.” That’s one of the things that inspired me to get into this business. So The Empire Strikes Back is a favourite.

What are some others? There’s so many brilliant shows this year. I really did enjoy, well, all of our films. We had four films that were nominated for Best Academy Award, including The Creator.

A still from The Creator (2023)
A still from The Creator (2023)

What did you think of Godzilla Minus Ones Oscar victory?

I’m a little biased. I wanted The Creator to win because of my friends from ILM who were nominated. And I also think that it was an amazing achievement in visual effects, not just because we did it for less money, but I think that the work in The Creator artistically is some of the highest quality work we’ve ever done. I was very proud of it. So I would have liked The Creator to have won, but I understand and respect why Godzilla Minus One took the award. It’s so well-done and the storytelling was lovely. And I thought the stylisation of the work, the choices they made, were very complementary to the storytelling. 

Third feature — I don’t think most people would think of it as a visual effects movie, but I actually think the visual storytelling of the original Spider-Verse movie, both of them, is incredible. I think there was a lot of new ground broken there. So I’d definitely put that on my top list as well.

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