By CHRIS McGOWAN
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By CHRIS McGOWAN
For the follow-up to its acclaimed Vader Immortal: A Star Wars VR Series, ILMxLAB decided to go less linear and more interactive. Star Wars: Tales from the Galaxy’s Edge “has a much greater sense of freedom,” says director Jose Perez III, while “Vader Immortal was a rather scripted and linear experience. We really wanted to allow players more space to explore and soak up the world. This meant we had to build environments and objectives in a way that would allow players to opt into their desired activity.
“If they want to run off into the wilds and fight pirates, they can do that,” he explains. “If they would rather just hang out in the bar and listen to the six-eyed bartender Seezelslak crack jokes, that’s also an option.” Lead Animator Kishore Vijay adds that the Tales experience “has more branching narratives and side missions. It’s also more modular so we can build upon the breadth of the world and characters.”
Star Wars: Tales from the Galaxy’s Edge was produced by ILMxLAB in collaboration with Oculus Studios and launched last November on the Oculus Quest VR platform. The ILMxLAB team also included Steve Henricks (Visual Director), Jennifer Cha (Lead Animator), Alyssa Finley (Producer), Mark S. Miller (Executive Producer), and Ian Bowie and John Nguyen (Lead Experience Designers). It was written by Ross Beeley, with additional writing by Bryan Bishop. The experience melds an interactive narrative with multiple styles of gameplay and takes place on planet Batuu in the time between Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.
“We strive for cinematic-quality visuals but are limited by having to render everything in real-time. Every inch of the experience, both on our CPU and GPU, had to be finely tuned and optimized to get the most out of our experience. … So we couldn’t guarantee the player would be locked into a position or see the things we want them to see. This freedom motivates us to make the entire world rich.”
—Steve Henricks, Visual Director
The primary narrative features new and iconic Star Wars characters and is connected to the Black Spire Outpost, a prominent locale in the new Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge lands of Disneyland and Disney World. As the player, you are a droid repair technician whose ship is boarded by Guavian Death Gang pirates and their leader Tara Rashin (Debra Wilson). To save your skin, you must jettison a mysterious cargo and flee in an escape pod to Batuu. Once there, at the Black Spire Outpost, you interact with an Azumel barkeep named Seezelslak (voiced by SNL alum Bobby Moynihan), whose cantina is the main hub of the action, while you seek to recover the precious cargo – which happens to be old Star Wars stalwarts C-3PO and R2-D2. You can hang out with Seezelslak and toss Repulsor Darts, visit the Droid Depot owner Mudo, explore Batuu, or blast pirates and face off with Tara.
Also, via Seezelslak’s storytelling, you can immerse yourself in Temple of Darkness, a standalone story (called a “tale”) set hundreds of years ago. Ady Sun’Zee is a Jedi Padawan studying at a remote research facility on Batuu. As Ady, with lightsaber in hand, you must confront an evil relic with the help of Jedi Master Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz). It all takes place in the time of the High Republic, which is a new era for Star Wars storytelling. More narrative-driven tales for Tales are expected in successive DLC packs.
It was a challenge making Tales and moving the story forward while “giving the player more agency,” notes Cha. Early in the production, Perez made a conscious decision that they would not force the player to be still during any of the experience, including times when cinematic narrative scenes were playing out. “So,” outlines Henricks, “the challenge became how to draw the player toward these moments naturally. We paid close attention to the environment design and worked to make these moments the focal points of the scene. The detail and complexity of set dressing around or directly behind areas of interest was often increased to provide that extra point of interest for the player. Cinematic lighting and targeted sound design by Skywalker Sound also played a key role in making our cinematic moments when the player wouldn’t want to turn away.” Vijay adds, “Performance, audio, environment design and lighting all play a role.”
“We don’t really have cuts. The characters cannot really go off frame easily, so everything has to be animated to work from different viewpoints and distances. There are also technical considerations for interactivity and blending for branching cinematics and AI animation that the animators have to be cognizant of.”
—Kishore Vijay, Lead Animator
Maintaining high-quality animation was another challenge. The volume of work increased for several reasons, including branching animations and AI trees, as well as longer shots and the resulting heavy animation files, according to Vijay. “We don’t really have cuts,” he says. “The characters cannot really go off frame easily, so everything has to be animated to work from different viewpoints and distances. There are also technical considerations for interactivity and blending for branching cinematics and AI animation that the animators have to be cognizant of.”
“We strive for cinematic-quality visuals but are limited by having to render everything in real-time,” adds Henricks. “Every inch of the experience, both on our CPU and GPU, had to be finely tuned and optimized to get the most out of our experience.” Unlike Vader Immortal or a traditional film, Tales allows players to freely explore their environments, “so we couldn’t guarantee the player would be locked into a position or see the things we want them to see. This freedom motivates us to make the entire world rich.”
Tales sought to connect a consistent visual style that would be “a virtual extension of what you see in the Galaxy’s Edge areas of Disneyland and Disney World,” explains Henricks. “Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) was able to share their design bible and countless reference images of the park with us. This allowed me to understand the original intent of the park and the stories that are embedded within it. Star Wars: Tales from the Galaxy’s Edge was always a way for ILMxLAB to explore what was beyond Black Spire Outpost. And, with the guidance provided by WDI and the Lucasfilm Story Group, we were able to bring some newly imagined parts of the planet of Batuu to life while staying true to [the] Galaxy’s Edge conceptual vision.”
One aspect of sharing that vision was bringing over artists and assets from the Smugglers Run ride in the Galaxy’s Edge lands.
During the production of Tales, “several ILM and ADG artists who worked directly on the Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run attraction joined the team to help us faithfully reproduce Black Spire Outpost and some of our exterior vistas,” says Henricks. Assets from the attraction were optimized and transferred to real-time friendly assets for Tales. He adds, “Bringing the people and art over from Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run really helped us nail the feeling of Black Spire Outpost and the artistic influence of that art can be seen.”
“We really wanted to provide people with a glimpse into the vastness and variety of the planet Batuu. Whether you are seeing it from space in Mubo’s cargo ship, through Seezelslak’s cantina window, or experiencing the wilds, it all started with inspiring concept art. ILMxLAB utilizes artists from the amazing ILM and Lucasfilm art departments to conceptually develop the experiences we produce,” notes Henricks. Adds Cha, “We were lucky to have animators on our team who have worked on many of the Star Wars films, so we were drawing from a wealth of experience to create authenticity in our characters.”
“The animators crafted some really good animation building upon a foundation of fantastic performances from the actors and mocap artists,” adds Vijay. “Michael Beaulieu, our Animation Supervisor, had plenty of experience working on Star Wars features and helped us keep consistency and maintain quality for our marquee characters in the game. And several of our animators from ILM had already worked on the movies before.”
The motion capture was extensive, including even mocap of quadruped creatures. “This was necessary for us to be able to complete the volume of work on schedule. Even so, the mocap had a good deal of hand key work layered on depending on the character. Non-humanoid droids, notably R2-D2, were all hand keyed,” says Vijay.
Facial performances were captured to give the animators a solid base to work from, notes Vijay. “We captured Bobby Moynihan’s facial performance at the same time as his voice recording for the six-eyed bartender Seezelslak, which reflects in the final animation. We also took cues for Seezelslak’s performance, especially his face, from the animatronic puppet used for the ‘Six Eyes’ character from Solo: A Star Wars Story,” comments Vijay. “Yoda was animated with an effort to stay true to his appearances in the features. We looked at both the puppet and CG versions for reference.”
Scanned resource images and content are becoming an immensely powerful tool in the creation of realistic worlds and characters, notes Henricks, and on Tales a good number of scanned resources were used as the base for natural formations. “Scanned textures for rocks, cliffs, terrain and foliage all were all utilized as reference and combined with original art to build the majority of the ‘wilds.’ We also used scans of character costumes used in the films. Seezelslak began as a scan of the articulated costume used for the character Argus Panox in Solo. This scan gave us great 3D and texture reference used to model, sculpt and texture the final Seezelslak asset.”
“ILMxLAB utilizes artists from the amazing ILM and Lucasfilm art departments to conceptually develop the experiences we produce. We were lucky to have animators on our team who have worked on many of the Star Wars films, so we were drawing from a wealth of experience to create authenticity in our characters.”
—Jennifer Cha, Animation Lead
Tales utilized Epic Games’ Unreal Engine, as had Vader Immortal. “A large number of solid, optimized systems were engineered during the production of Vader Immortal, and we were able to utilize that tech as we upgraded our engine version, including the customizations made [by] our Advanced Development Group,” comments Henricks. For Tales, “more systems were engineered and optimized, including our brand-new custom AI system. Unreal’s power and flexibility allowed our tech art team to expand upon the tools that already existed within the engine. These upgraded tools allowed us to vastly expand the size of the environments in Tales.”
Concludes Perez, “It was important to us that we help put a little bit of joy into the world before the end of 2020. I’m proud of the fact that this team was able to build this entire project in less than a year, with the majority of production happening remote during a pandemic. That’s a Herculean effort, and it’s an honor to be a part of a team that can pull something like that off.”