THE MANDALORIAN’s Virtual Sets Are Wild

The Mandalorian quickly rose in our collective fan hearts with its look, its action, and its tiniest bounty. It just right away felt like Star Wars, and a lot of that was down to how gorgeous and seamless the settings looked. We believed Mando was on a desert planet fighting Jawas, or collecting a bounty on a bleak, barren tundra. But those planets don’t exist, not really. However, they almost do. As a new video from Industrial Light & Magic discloses, the “sets” for The Mandalorian were about as real as they could get. Without actually heading to a galaxy some indeterminate distance away.


As creator Jon Favreau explains, The Mandalorian wasn’t just real to us at home; the locations were there for the actors and crew, too. ILM worked with Epic Games on this project. Using “game engine, real-time render, and video wall technology” they projected whatever backdrop they wanted in a 360-degree, virtual set. LED screens right the way ’round. The set moved when the actors or camera moved so it always appeared in the proper dimensions. It all came together in a massive room on a soundstage, but it looked like a million locations.

Unlike most CGI or bluescreen-heavy productions, which add in the effects and cool knickknacks after the fact, Favreau and ILM made the environments “live” and basically interactable. The camera picks up the actors in physical space and the virtual, real-time background at the same time. And the backgrounds can be ready for projection 24 hours after finalization. That makes something like a television series go so much faster, and it’s why we can have a second season of the effects-heavy show ready by the end of this year.

This cave from The Mandalorian was just an LED screen. Amazing.


It’s truly mind-boggling, the scale of it all. They’d use the virtual environment to light the actors and props, and if the shot didn’t look right, they’d just pivot the environment. Werner Herzog‘s office was a virtual set! It looked perfectly seamless. Eventually, Favreau explained, they would start designing environments that would look best with the engine. For example, the interior of the space station from “ Chapter 6: The Prisoner,” in which they built part of Mando’s ship but everything else was virtual. Ming-Na Wen sitting on a rock in the desert an episode prior? Yep, virtual. They didn’t go to the desert at all.

This is a true game-changer for sci-fi and fantasy storytelling. While there’s absolutely something magical about a real location, moving production to remote places on Earth is very tough. So instead, why not take full 360-degree shots of those locations, like Iceland for example, so they’re “real” but then project them when it comes time to actually film? It’s a very controlled way to make things, but it also ensures the director gets the exact shot they want while the actors have real things to act against.

The Mandalorian is now somehow even more impressive than it was before. Not only just a great piece of action storytelling but an innovating way to make art in the digital age. And we can’t wait to see what new worlds we see in The Mandalorian season two, hitting Disney+ this fall.

Header Image: Lucasfilm/ILM

Kyle Anderson is the Senior Editor for Nerdist. You can find his film and TV reviews here. Follow him on Twitter!

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