Andor is proof Lucasfilm needs to re-think Star Wars’ approach to The Volume

Andor isn’t even halfway through its first season, yet it’s already distinguished itself from Lucasfilm’s other live-action Disney+ original series. Showrunner Tony Gilroy and his cast and crew have achieved this in several ways, big and small. Andor’s tone is grittier than that of The Mandalorian, The Book of Boba Fett, and Obi-Wan Kenobi. It also emphasises characterization and slow-burn pacing over action sequences and stars new or underutilized characters instead of familiar favourites. And unlike its predecessors, not a single scene in Andor was filmed on The Volume.

It’s impossible to overstate how much Gilroy’s decision not to shoot on this innovative soundstage has influenced Andor’s overall look and feel. While The Volume’s StageCraft technology – which uses floor-to-ceiling high-definition video screens to project real-time CG backdrops around a partial set – is undeniably revolutionary, as Andor proves, it can’t quite capture the verisimilitude of large sets and actual location shooting. Gilroy and the visual effects artists at ILM also use CG to artificially extend or embellish Andor’s alien environments, however, the results often look far more convincing.

That’s a big deal, as a major part of Star Wars’ appeal is making viewers believe that the fantastical worlds on screen are as real as the one outside their window. Indeed, the obvious superiority of Andor’s overall aesthetic makes a compelling case that it’s time for Lucasfilm to re-think its approach to The Volume.

Don’t take this as a polite way of me saying “Lucasfilm should scrap The Volume”. On the contrary, I’m a huge fan of StageCraft technology – when it’s used effectively. For shots where the actors stand or sit near each other in the foreground, the camera moves and angles aren’t too extreme, and the lighting is perfectly calibrated, The Volume works great.

It’s at least as good as using a greenscreen and looks enough like actual location shooting to fool 99% of viewers. Heck, the on-set effect is sometimes so realistic that the actors themselves forget they’re on a soundstage and not, say, the desert plains of Tatooine. Obi-Wan Kenobi star Ewan McGregor is one of many performers to rave about The Volume for this very reason, comparing his experience on the Disney+ series favourably to the Star Wars prequels’ blue and greenscreen-heavy shoot.

Eliminating greenscreens cuts down on the overall amount of visual effects shots ILM has to crank out during post-production, too. The Volume’s screens can display star fields, planets, and even interstellar dogfights just as well as cityscapes and natural vistas, which means that crews can capture these elements in-camera rather than adding them after the fact, as they would on a “normal” production. It’s how Jon Favreau and his team handled the effects in some (if not all) of the scenes shot inside the Razor Crest’s cockpit in The Mandalorian.

All this in-camera effects work speeds up production; it also makes things cheaper. Sure, there’s the cost involved with creating The Volume’s CG backdrops and practical sets – and nobody is saying that Lucasfilm’s other live-action Star Wars shows didn’t cost a pretty penny (because they certainly did). But compared to the cost of building an entire faux-city block or flying the entire cast and crew across to Tunisia, The Volume is the decidedly more economically friendly option.  

So, if The Volume makes things quicker, easier, and cheaper, what’s the catch? There are several, as it turns out.

For starters (and as I alluded to earlier) StageCraft technology only really works when specific conditions are met. For the virtual environments to blend seamlessly with the live-action elements in front of them, the actors can’t be spread too far apart, and the lighting has to be very bright or very dark. If that’s not the case, ironically, the finished shot tends to suffer from the same hallmarks as poorly composited greenscreen footage: the background looks flat, while everything in the foreground (including the actors) looks like it was pasted on top.

Then there are restrictions surrounding cinematography to consider. The Volume is a soundstage – a big soundstage, but a soundstage, nonetheless. This means that the number of camera moves and angles available to directors and cinematographers is limited by the physical space they’re operating within.

Filming on an actual sand dune or mountainside, they might have chosen a sweeping crane shot or even deployed a drone. Within The Volume’s four walls? Not so much. Because of this, the live-action Star Wars series pre-Andor have largely favoured mid-shots and close-ups. What wide shots we do get are either all-CG establishing shots or medium-long shots which combine footage shot on The Volume with CG, exposing the shortcomings of both.

Some actors have also noted that shooting on The Volume’s soundstage gives them vertigo, due to the disorienting effect of the CG backdrops reorientating themselves in real time. The Mandalorian star Bill Burr is among those who have complained about this phenomenon, although he added that it helped his performance by forcing him to block out his surroundings and focus on his co-stars.

At this point, the way forward for Lucasfilm’s live-action Star Wars shows probably looks pretty straightforward: use The Volume for some scenes, and conventional techniques for others. Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple, according to Tony Gilroy. The Andor showrunner revealed that he would’ve liked to adopt a hybrid approach for the Disney+ series, however, Lucasfilm explained that the workflow involved means productions must shoot either entirely on The Volume or entirely on sets and on location.

Interestingly, the same doesn’t seem to apply to other, non-Lucasfilm movies and TV shows that employ StageCraft technology. For example, 2022’s The Batman combined footage shot on The Volume with material filmed in Chicago and throughout the UK to dazzling effect. So, from an admittedly armchair perspective, it seems like a hybrid approach to The Volume is possible – it’s just harder to pull off logistically or financially (or both). Perhaps the truth of the matter is that only movies have big enough budgets and long enough production cycles to achieve the best of both worlds, for now at least.

Yet The Volume is itself a testament to ILM’s ability to make the impossible possible. If any VFX house can find a way to marry traditional and StageCraft-powered filmmaking techniques together in a more cost-effective, less up-front-intensive fashion, it’s ILM. All they need is Lucasfilm’s backing to focus on bridging the gap between the two approaches, not just on the current siloed way of working used by streaming series. This will only happen if Lucasfilm accepts that its “The Volume only” policy is holding its live-action Star Wars shows back – so let’s hope those in charge are hearing that feedback loud and clear.

Update: Following the publication of this article, Andor VFX producer TJ Falls revealed that the series did use Stagecraft technology to augment one of its practical sets (although no footage was shot on The Volume set itself).

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