Lucasfilm’s Rob Bredow talks about plans for virtual reality ‘Star Wars’

Disney-owned Lucasfilm shocked the world on Friday morning with the announcement of ILMxLAB, a cutting-edge research and development unit that will change how we experience movies.

The big takeaway from the announcement is that Industrial Light & Magic—the special-effects powerhouse responsible for nearly every cinematic effect that has blown your mind over the last 40 years—wants to let people step inside a fully interactive virtual-reality Star Wars world. That’s a dream that many fans have had since they saw their first Star Wars movie. But ILMxLAB is doing much more than building VR games, as the Daily Dot learned when we spoke to Rob Bredow, ILM Visual Effects Supervisor and Vice President of New Media.

In a phone interview today shortly after ILMxLAB was announced, Bredow explained how the lab is helping filmmakers step inside worlds they’re still building. They’re also working with Disney’s theme-park designers as they prepare new Star Wars attractions and exploring ways to bring fans of massive entertainment franchises into those worlds at malls, movie theaters, and other locations.

Of course, when you’ll be able to visit your local multiplex for a Saturday afternoon stroll in the Star Wars universe is still up in the air. Contrary to this morning’s USA Today story, Bredow said that ILMxLAB isn’t ready to announce availability for the first VR products. So don’t get your hopes up about buying something later this year.

Where did the impetus to do this come from?

It’s been a combination of things. We’ve been working in the area of how we can reinvent both the way films are made and the way you experience films with real-time graphics—we’ve been working on that for several years. As you may know, [in] Lucasfilm’s history, we have had both ILM and … LucasArts, this world-class gaming company, both working hand-in-hand. And we saw a lot of overlap between the way the real-time graphics could inform the filmmaking process and the kinds of ways films are experienced.

We’ve had this advanced development group working on this project for the past several years. Then when the headsets started to come down into a price range where you could imagine them in the hands of lots of consumers, the collaboration between the technology that we’ve been working on for years and this opportunity to have these new, immersive theaters that you could imagine having in everybody’s homes was too wonderful of an opportunity to pass up. [It was] just an amazing opportunity to get to experiment with immersive filmmaking, or immersive world-building.

That was the impetus. It was kind of, in some ways, the payoff of a strategy that was started many, many years ago with the establishment of all these companies: ILM, LucasArts, Skywalker Sound, and what it’s actually turned into today.

Tell me about the Lucasfilm Advanced Development Group. How does the ILMxLAB work with that group and with the Lucasfilm Story Group [which coordinates all Star Wars storytelling]?

The Advanced Development Group is kind of our black-ops team. It’s made up of experts from Industrial Light & Magic and people who previously were focused exclusively on games. These are world-class engineers and artists who have been looking at how we reinvent entertainment with these new techniques, with these real-time tools. The mission is really about the highest quality visuals and the highest quality storytelling tools. The Advanced Development Group is an amazing team, and one of the things that made me most excited about joining this team of people. Because they’ve got this great background, where you have these real-time experts right next to people who are just finished working on the biggest blockbuster movies in the world. It’s about trying to crack this really challenging and fun problem.

People are focusing a lot on the virtual reality aspect of this new lab. But there are also filmmaking and theme-park applications. How does the ILMxLab hope to change those entertainment experiences?

You can imagine, once you can reach a certain level of fidelity of these images, and you can do it in 20 milliseconds, which is the time that we have between frames at 24 frames [per] second, or 11 milliseconds, if you’re trying to do something at 90 frames [per] second for these headsets—if you can go that fast and generate images that quickly, think of the creative iteration and the creative flexibility that can give you, if you can present that information to a director, let’s say when they’re on set, or early in the stages of making these movies.

In addition to the kinds of things we’re talking about now with ILMxLAB, in terms of experiences that other people are going to be able to experience, we’ve actually been building these tools for our filmmakers for years. That’s everything from motion-capture with real-time [previsualization] with characters, like you’re going to see this weekend in Jurassic World; we’re doing that all the time now in production. And these real-time tools feed that filmmaking process and give our filmmakers a much more interactive experience when they’re creating these worlds that tend to be heavily virtual now.

And there’s also a theme park component. Disney CEO Bob Iger has said that the Disney parks will be getting Star Wars additions. What is ILMxLAB’s role in that process?

Well, we work really closely with [Walt Disney Imagineering, the theme-park development unit], and we love those guys. They’re cut from the same cloth that we are. They’re all about storytelling and world-building and getting emotional resonance from these stories. And then they do that on the foundation of this really innovative technology. That’s been one of the most amazing things about getting to work so closely [with them] and being part of Disney: finding these kindred spirits throughout the organization who are approaching the problems the same way we are and are thinking in an innovative way. So we’re really excited about that collaboration with WDI.

The USA Today exclusive says there are going to be Star Wars-related ILMxLAB products coming later this year. Can you say anything about what those will be?

We actually don’t yet have anything to announce about product availability or what kind of products we’re going to be shipping and when. In fact, the specificity that’s in that USA Today article, I’m not sure exactly where that may have come from. We have some prototypes here, which you can see in that video, that demonstrate the kinds of things that we’re thinking about, the kinds of immersive experiences that you could experience—whether it’s in virtual reality, and some examples, like you saw, riding a speeder bike in VR, or on an iPad, exploring a world in 3D that is immersive and all around you and telling you a story. Those are the kinds of prototypes we have built, but in terms of the first products and when is going to be the right time to launch what and on what platform, that actually is not yet announced and not quite ready to.

I see. So we shouldn’t take it as confirmed that products are shipping later this year?

That’s absolutely right.

Are there other franchises that you want to develop this new technology for? Indiana Jones is already under the Lucasfilm umbrella, and there are lots of others out there. How do you want to take this beyond Star Wars?

Star Wars is an amazing calling card, and of course an amazing world that we want to explore. And we’re doing a lot of work with that now. We’re also working with some of the other filmmakers that we regularly work with. The one that is actually available now—if you go to a Best Buy, you can actually try out the Jurassic World experience, it’s in the gear VR right now. You can actually see a dinosaur in virtual reality and have it walk right up to you.

That’s a pretty exciting collaboration. It’s the kind of example of what we expect to do a lot with ILMxLAB, which is—we already are building these worlds, we already have, in many cases, a very close relationship with the filmmakers and the core creatives, who are creating that intellectual property that has this huge investment in it to make a movie. And then, in many cases, we can come along and suggest something that could be built at the same time the main story is being built, a story that can be told with the filmmakers that are making that feature film, and [can] spin off a complementary experience at the same time.

You can imagine, with Industrial Light & Magic’s slate of 10 or 20 huge movies a year, those opportunities are really … every time we turn around, there’s another opportunity.

How does your team work with the Story Group to brainstorm new settings, events, and storylines that would make a good VR experience?

It’s incredible, actually, because Lucasfilm is this production engine right now, putting out all these movies, and [it] has amazing story folks that are co-located here. We’re right next to the Advanced Development Group, right next to ILM and SkySound. We have several of these team meetings a week, where we’re showing the latest technology at one part of the meeting, and then we’re talking about the latest opportunity, whether it’s for something like a Jurassic World, or something within Star Wars. And then the same folks who are crafting these master stories for the arc of Star Wars or these other films are able to brainstorm and create new experiences in VR or augmented reality or maybe a whole new immersive experience.

I think you probably saw, in that video, we have multiple projectors forming 3D pixels on multiple walls, so it’s a completely immersive environment. [That’s] useful for a filmmaking tool, but it’s also really interesting, if you think about places where you can install that and make interactive experiences that nobody has seen before.

That’s another question I wanted to ask. Are there any plans to put VR or AR installations in malls, or hold special promotional events tying into upcoming movie releases?

Yeah, that’s a really good point. A lot of the opportunities today … because there aren’t millions of VR headsets out in consumers’ hands today, a lot of the opportunities that exist right now are exactly those kinds of opportunities: places where people are looking to do something novel to give their fans an experience that they can’t get any other way. Those location-based things—where you might go into a series of movie theaters or you might go into a mall with a premier experience like that—those are exactly the kinds of things that we are planning to build next.


So where will you be able to see ILMxLAB’s work besides the demo video? An ILM spokesman confirmed that ILMxLAB team members would be at summer conventions, including E3 and San Diego Comic-Con, but he added, “We have nothing to announce at this time with regard to demos.”

Screengrab via ILMVisualFX/YouTube

Eric Geller

Eric Geller

Eric Geller is a politics reporter who focuses on cybersecurity, surveillance, encryption, and privacy. A former staff writer at the Daily Dot, Geller joined Politico in June 2016, where he's focused on policymaking at the White House, the Justice Department, the State Department, and the Commerce Department.