Believe it or not, Star Wars' live action TV shows are about as practical as a space Western filled with aliens can get. While CGI is obviously still a major part of everything related to Star Wars, a big part of why the shows have been so successful so far is that the production teams are doing everything in their power to make the actors look and feel like they're actually in the fictional worlds they're supposed to be in. Some of the production supervisors from The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett gathered on stage at Star Wars Celebration 2022 to talk about the effects behind the series, starting with something called a volume.
Instead of putting the actors in front of green screens, they act in front of large curved screens that are showing pictures — often created via miniatures — of the background that would otherwise be added by CGI. The invention of this technique was crucial to The Mandalorian ever existing in the first place, or at least to it looking good.
As the team explained, the challenge was always to make it look like the characters were really on an alien planet, especially when a whole lot of characters were wearing helmets and metal armor. As Janet Lewin, SVP of Industrial Light and Magic, explained, Din (Pedro Pascal) would have essentially had to wear a CGI helmet in order to avoid all of the reflections that would come from a green screen. It all resulted in a gorgeous, expansive, and grounded visual masterpiece, which was then sort of overshadowed by a tiny little frog-eating alien puppet.
Grogu was originally going to be CGI for all the close-ups, with Jon Favreau doing motion capture to create the facial expressions. But as Legacy effects supervisor John Rosengrant explained, they decided they needed to come up with something more real.
"If we could have that little child be there and be real and have actors really looking at it, just maybe we can make this thing work," he remembered thinking.
They started building a puppet that actually moved, with all his parts connected to wires and rods as a test, and once Favreau saw it, Grogu became a whole lot more alive. Actor Werner Herzog was so taken by the puppet that he became concerned when it was turned off when it wasn't on screen. "He thought it was very real, and it added a lot to his performance," Rosengrant said.
Lewin recalled the moment George Lucas first held Grogu, aka Baby Yoda, and treated it like a real baby. "You can't resist cradling the baby, bouncing the baby. ... It's a puppet!"
Sound supervisors Bonnie Wild and Matthew Wood talked about finding the sound of Grogu, since he's a baby but he's also 50 years old. They used a combination of human sounds and recordings of a kinkajou, and wanted to make sure he didn't sound "super young," but also not sounding old.
Rosengrant also said that they created Grogu to feel very real and "fleshy" thanks to custom silicone. He went through several different designs before he arrived at the "mesmerizing" baby we see today — as indicated by the way the panel and the room kept getting distracted by photos of the baby on screen. Rosengrant also revealed that Grogu does have feet, but Favreau hates his feet, so we will likely never see them.
Another feat undertaken on both The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett involved the return of Luke Skywalker, who was quite a bit younger during that time than Mark Hamill is now. They ended up casting two young actors, as the effect evolved over the course of shooting both shows. In The Mandalorian, Hamill's performance was merged with actor Max Lloyd-Jones, but for The Book of Boba Fett, Graham Hamilton was cast.
Effects supervisor Richard Bluff explained that because Luke's role was expanded on The Book of Boba Fett, they had to do more than just mimic Hamill's performance. There were huge amounts of dialogue to pull off, and originally, they thought of using deep fake technology, but the resolution was never quite good enough for the show.
The visual effects team ended up joining the casting department in creating a fake secret project to cast someone who needed to be able to "perform like Luke."
"You could tell he'd been trying to be this character during his rise through acting, and you could just see it in his performance," Bluff said, calling the actor "spectacular" from his looks to his performance.
When Hamilton found out what he'd actually be doing — working with Mark Hamill and Baby Yoda — he was "gobsmacked" and filled with emotion.
The panel couldn't share anything about what the next big surprise on The Mandalorian will be, but young Luke is certainly going to be hard to top.
The Mandalorian returns for Season 3 in February 2023.