Episode 219 — Head of ILM Rob Bredow
Episode 219 — Head of ILM Rob Bredow
Welcome to Episode 219! I’m speaking with the Head of ILM, as well as a VFX Sup and Executive Co-Producer on Solo: A Star Wars Story Rob Bredow. Rob also has many, many amazing credentials to his name. We also talk about the opening of ILM in Sydney, Australia.
This one I’m exceptionally excited for! Looking back at my career when I was obsessing about VFX (before VFX was a mainstream thing), I would obsess over films like Star Wars, Jurassic Park and Terminator. And all of that passion was ignited by ILM. I’ve interviewed people like ILM Sup Ben Snow (www.allanmckay.com/101) and many other people from ILM. But this guest — Rob Bredow — has so many amazing insights to share! This has been a great opportunity to speak to Rob.
Let’s dive in!
FIRST THINGS FIRST:
[01:02] Have you ever sent in your reel and wondered why you didn’t get the callback or what the reason was you didn’t get the job? Over the past 20 years of working for studios like ILM, Blur Studio, Ubisoft, I’ve built hundreds of teams and hired hundreds of artists — and reviewed thousands of reels! That’s why I decided to write The Ultimate Demo Reel Guide from the perspective of someone who actually does the hiring. You can get this book for free right now at www.allanmckay.com/myreel!
[04:08] I have a free City Destruction Course out right now. It’s not going to be around for much longer. It’s 10 videos on how to create a high end shot from start to finish. Go to www.VFXCourse.com and you can download it all there!
[40:38] One of the biggest problems we face as artists is figuring out how much we’re worth. I’ve put together a website. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com! This is a chance for you to put in your level of experience, your discipline, your location — and it will give you an accurate idea what you and everyone else in your discipline should be charging. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com!
INTERVIEW WITH ROB BREDOW
Rob Bredow is a strategic and visionary leader with a unique understanding of how media and innovation can join forces to tell great stories and create groundbreaking experiences. As SVP, Executive Creative Director and Head of Industrial Light & Magic, he is responsible for the company’s overall creative strategy and global operations
Most recently Bredow was the Visual Effects Supervisor and Co-Producer on Solo: A Star Wars Story. He served as a creative partner to the filmmakers throughout the production, from the earliest story meetings to the final frames of visual effects. He leveraged his background in innovative technology to help tell the story of the film, creating grounded images with a unique shooting style designed for the movie.
In his former role as Lucasfilm Chief Technology Officer, Bredow oversaw all technology development for Lucasfilm and ILM. Bredow joined Lucasfilm in 2014 as Vice President of New Media and Head of Lucasfilm’s Advanced Development Group. He helped launch ILMxLAB in 2015 and co-wrote and directed Trials on Tatooine, a story-based virtual reality experiment created in collaboration with Lucasfilm’s Story Group, ILMxLAB and Skywalker Sound.
Previously, Bredow was CTO and Visual Effects Supervisor at Sony Pictures Imageworks. He has contributed as a supervisor on films such as Independence Day, Godzilla, Stuart Little, Cast Away, Surf’s Up, Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs, and others.
Bredow is a member of the VFX Branch of Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences and the AMPAS Science and Technology Council. *
In this Podcast Allan McKay interviews SVP, Executive Creative Director and Head of Industrial Light & Magic Rob Bredow about his career in as a VFX Artist and Supervisor and his experience with launching the ILM location in Sydney, Australia.
* Bio by www.ILM.com
Rob Bredow’s Bio: https://www.ilm.com/people/rob-bredow/
Rob Bredow on IMDb: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0106650/
Rob Bredow on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/robbredow
Rob Bredow on Twitter: https://twitter.com/rbredow
ILM, Sydney: https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/behind-screen/lucasfilms-ilm-open-sydney-studio-1224109
ILM, Sydney, Job Postings: https://jobs.jobvite.com/lucascompanies/job/oeixafwX
Rob Bredow’s Making of Solo Book: https://www.starwars.com/news/rob-bredow-making-solo-book-interview
[04:52] Allan: Again, Rob, thank you for taking the time to chat! Do you want to quickly introduce yourself?
Rob: Yes, I am Rob Bredow. I’m the Executive Creative Director and Head of Industrial Light and Magic.
[05:02] Allan: Do you ever get tired of saying that title?
Rob: It’s a pretty cool job! I get to work with really cool people and get to focus on creating at a place like Industrial Light and Magic is an amazing, amazing opportunity!
[05:16] Allan: That’s so cool! When you were growing up, did you always want to work in the film industry?
Rob: As soon as I realized that there were people who were using computers and these technical processes that I really liked — and made art with in, in form of these pictures — that was all I could think of! Even as I was growing up, I was doing computer graphics on my Omega. I was editing people’s wedding videos or anything else people would pay me for, to edit; or to tape and lay graphics over something; and experiment with these kinds of things. I’ve never not been involved with these things. So yeah, I really wanted to do this my whole life!
[06:01] Allan: That’s so cool! For me, whenever there was a video game with a voice or a full motion video on a computer, it was always such a big deal. These days, everyone takes it for granted.
[06:22] Allan: How did you get your first break in this industry?
Rob: I was working down at an Omega store down in Los Angeles. A customer came in to buy an Omega from us and I overheard that he had a couple of silicon workstations at his office. So I said, “Is there any way, I could get any time on one of those workstations? Of course, I would work for you for free! I could do an internship!” I ended up working for that guy for over 10 years at a small company called VisionArt Design & Animation. So I started out on cable tv spots for auto, for people selling cars and ended up working on Independence Day and Godzilla. and I wrote a bunch of software where I got to make a bunch of visual effects for it. I got to learn the artistic and the technical aspects of the job [while], from talented people that worked at this small company. When I started, there were 5 people there. It was a small operation.
[07:16] Allan: Just curious, with VisionArt, did they have any affiliation with Volker Engel and Roland Emmerich? What was the relationship between VisionArt and them?
Rob: Yeah, so on Independence Day, there was a team…
[07:39] Allan: Volker is a good guy! He’s such a fascinating guy, has plenty of stories to tell!
Rob: Back on Independence Day, they were mostly through the schedule of the movie. But the movie was so ambitious especially when you think about the era when it was made! There was a need for a lot of VFX. A trailer for the movie came out during Super Bowl. We called and said, “Congratulations! The film looks amazing.” And they were like, “What are you working on right now?” And we told them we had some availability and they were like, “Okay!” We worked out where they could rent the whole studio at VisionArt. There was no time to divide shots. They just rented us for a few month. I was in charge of the alien attack and the dog fight simulations. I wrote software to do that, passed off the elements to people at VisionArt and other companies. (I keep meeting people who worked on those shots throughout my career!) And then I helped blow up the mothership with one other person.
[09:10] Allan: I remember nerding out over the making of the Independence Day, and I’m talking the F-15 and the dog battles; and the custom code. I’m sure it was you I watch talking about it.
Rob: That was my custom code! It was really fun. I’ve been a fan of those procedural animation systems my whole life. Our system ended getting more sophisticated with airplanes and particles that would either blow up or trigger a shield animation. All that was done with expressions! It wasn’t particularly sophisticated by today’s standards, but it was web of those expressions. That was a pretty fun experience!
[10:12] Allan: That’s so cool! I think these days, people don’t appreciate how clunky things were. We take it for granted if we don’t have IPR or rendering viewport. We didn’t even have shaded viewport.
Rob: That was the fun of working in Sparky which was a proprietary thing we built. I saw a demo of it for animation but it wasn’t going to be out for 6 months. I thought, “I can just write it!” I started writing it. That was Sparky. It wouldn’t at 20 frames per second but it played at several frames per second. You could see the starships and the particles, and you could set up your expressions to drive everything and hit play, burn it out like a playblast. At that time, not everyone had those tools. It was fun… Of course, it wasn’t fun at [2:00] in the morning, when it was crashing. It’s 35,000 lines of code and there is a bug somewhere and we have to find it! That wasn’t quite as fun! I remember thinking I bit off more than I could chew at times.
[11:24] Allan: What was it like to be responsible for shots as well as the back end of it as well? You have to pull yourself out of being an artist or an operator, and still have the pressure of knowing that as soon as you fix it — you have to go back in and start working miracles.
Rob: Well, I guess that’s the thing about this industry. You really get to have your hands in both sides of it. It’s very technical: What will take to make it work? This arm is too heavy and it’s stopping too slowly. You can go, “There is no way to change the weight of that arm that’s holding the camera, so how are we going to fix it creatively?” Then you can put your other hat on and maybe we can make it a sloppy ending. [12:16] If you can wear both hats, if you get the opportunity to problem solve, it’s one of the few places where you get to design and build as you go along. And there’s something really fun about that!
[12:29] Allan: That’s so awesome! I think that’s really amazing. Knowing what you know now, what are your thoughts on those guys’ acquiring a studio to run temporarily? Volker has had a reputation for doing that with Uncharted Territory. He’d open a studio for a production and then close it back down. He’s done it multiple times now. What is your take on that?
Rob: I think it was pretty smart given the fact they knew they had a lot of work to get through, but there wasn’t the same formality around the process. There are advantages and disadvantages of that. You’re on the same team trying to get the work done and there is no discussion other than, “How much to we have left and what do we need to do?” That’s not the most mature way! I wouldn’t recommend that to a business starting up today. But at that stage of the lifetime of VisionArt, from my perspective as an artist, it was an amazing experience on this huge film! And we could deal with the challenges, it would end up in the film. And if we couldn’t, they probably had a plan B somewhere. At VisionArt, there were 20 of us at that time. [The number] grew to 50 or 60 later. That team of 25 people, we probably did half of the computer graphics in the movie, in the last 3-4 months. You know how that works: We were firing on all cylinders. We were really motivated to find the final shots to end up in the movie, and we were in the right place at the right time. We had great artists there, and we were scrappy and used to working fast in television with shows like Star Trek. We were used to 2-3 weeks to make a shot; so 3-4 months seems forever! We were naive at how fast we could go!
[14:50] Allan: Looking at that now, what’s your opinion on people coming in from working in tv or commercials. I always recommend that people start in commercials first. You’ll build a reel really quickly and you’ll get exposed to more challenges. You’ll be focused on less of getting an elegant solution — instead you’ll be focused on getting things done.
Rob: I definitely benefited from that. [15:22] When I meet an artist who has a background as a generalist — as someone who’s had to do everything, model and texture, and render — even if we’re hiring that artist at ILM, those artists tend to be really great at what they’ve chosen to specialize in. Because they’ve gotten a chance to do it all. They know what they like, they know what they’re the most passionate about. And understanding the workflow is so valuable as an artist! [It’s a great skill] to be able to contribute when problem solving a shot. Just like when you’re on set and trying to figure out a technical solution versus a creative one, those artists with those backgrounds [help us get it done] in half the time. I really love the way artists approach their work holistically, at ILM.
[16:20] Allan: Yeah, I love that! I have to ask you about Megiddo! I swear I’m the only person on the planet who knows about that film.
Rob: Have you seen Megiddo?!
[16:31] Allan: I’ve seen a bit of it! I finally rented it when it came out on VHS. I was a kid in Australia, obsessed with CGI. I couldn’t even explain to people what CGI was, at the time! I interviewed Ben Snow a while back (www.allanmckay.com/101). I was obsessing about The Mummy when it came out. So, Megiddo had an insane amount of effects. When I finally saw the film, it was… an interesting film. I’m sure it has a cult following somewhere!
Rob: I’ve met the cult following, or parts of it!
[17:18] Allan: From what I recall, it was a million dollar post-production budget. I’m not sure how many studios were involved in it. I swear I’ve met someone else on the Podcast who’ve worked on it! You wouldn’t imagine so many people would be a part of it. It was pretty ambitious for its time.
Rob: It was ambitious. It was less than a 20 million dollar movie. It had hundreds of visual effect shots! It was a follow-up to The Omega Code which was a pretty successful independent movie. It was really a fantastic experience for me, even though the work wasn’t uniformly of high quality. Let’s just say that! But it was the first show I’ve done a production Supervisor job on, from beginning to end. I had spent some at Sony Imageworks, I’d worked on some pretty high end films. And it was naturally years before I could be a Supervisor at a place like Sony. A producer gave me a call and asked if I’d want to jump in. And I did! And I learned so much! I remember the first day on set walking up to the gaffer and ask who would help me to get those green screens up. And he was like, “Oh, visual effects department handles that!” He thought he would break in this new kid who didn’t know what he was doing. After a few days of my struggling to put those up with some PA’s, finally a grip comes over and says, “We’ll take care of it!” And a few seconds later, a beautiful green screen was hung! I got all that hazing out of the way, early in my career. I got to work with some really big vendors. Cinesite worked on it and I got to know some people there. And then, there was some ambitious work that wouldn’t be on anyone’s demo reel today.
[19:22] Allan: Maybe just for memories’ sake. I remember there being tanks and jets, and people breathing flies similar to The Mummy.
Rob: It was a fantastic experience. We shot in Italy and then back in LA. I drove by that production office [recently] on a way to a meeting and looked at it fondly.
[19:50] Allan: Jumping ahead to ILM, what was your experience like? At that time, there weren’t that many studios all over the world. There were 5 key studios around. What was it like to go from Sony to Lucasfilm?
Rob: Getting to join the team at Lucasfilm at ILM was amazing for me! I had been at Sony for 15 years, I had gotten to VFX supervise two shows there. I had been a CTO there for the last few years, getting to run their technology teams. John Knoll was one of the people who interviewed me. I was already satisfied that I got to have lunch with John Knoll and talk with him. He and I have known each other from before, from [places like] SIGGRAPH…
[20:44] Allan: Was he still wearing white shoes back then?
Rob: I don’t know if he was in his white shoe phase. I don’t remember. As we were talking about things, he had a bunch of shows coming up and he had a few ideas about what I could do at ILM. And he said, “If you want to VFX supervise one of the Star Wars movies, let me know because that could steer things in the right direction!” And right there, on the spot, I thought, “If that’s even a possibility — I’m in!” I started as a VFX Supervisor and quickly got pulled into other things on the technology side. I helped form ILM X LAB with Vicki Dobbs Beck who’s running it today. Then Solo came up and Chris Miller and Phil Lord were directing. They were friends of mine, we worked together on Cloudy and I loved working with them. They asked if I could supervise the show. I dove in, moved to London for a year with the family and got to make the way. It’s been a really amazing experience to do one ambitious things after another at the company.
[22:01] Allan: I bet! Just to talk about ILM X LAB, what were the initial concepts? How did it come out to be this way? Did they start wanting to do VR or was it from doing realtime rendering in the background? What were the thoughts behind it?
Rob: The real drive wasn’t so much about VR. It was truly about how the realtime technology reinvents entertainment, and the way it’s going to change the way we do everything, both from a production perspective and the way entertainment is experienced in the world. We had done some prototypes in our development team (which is still at Lucasfilm) and ILM pointed the way and stood in between our research and production teams. Our Advanced Development is a small team. Once we had developed a few prototypes (our first experience was called Trials on Tatooine that I wrote and directed), it was an immersive story. It helped kick us off with building immersive experiences with people; and ILM X LAB has had the fortune of being extremely booked since those first experiences. We’ve done experiences you could do through the VOID, which you can go in and experience with your friends. You can go into Star Wars or Wreck-It Ralph. You just wear the headsets and this backpack and you see these Storm Troopers. All these experiences were build through ILM X LAB.
[24:04] Allan: That’s great! I haven’t checked out The VOID yet. I’m interviewing the Art Director soon. One day, I’ll check it out.
Rob: It’s definitely worth giving a try!
[24:16] Allan: Yeah! With that, what was it like working on Solo? Most people, when I ask them what got them into VFX, say it was Jurassic Park, or The Terminator or Star Wars. For you, what was it like to go work on a project that probably held a lot of clout back in the day?
Rob: For sure! It’s a little bit intimidating to walk in as a VFX Sup of Star Wars because the bar is set pretty high. I remember having a conversation with John Knoll because my resume showed that I supervised some animated and some live action movies. But never something this big! So I had a conversation with him, “You do know I haven’t done anything on this scale before?” And John said something really great, “Before I’d done Episode 1, I haven’t done that many shots either. And I’m going to be around when you have questions, just give me a call!” And that was the kind of support I had going in. And it ended up being an amazing experience! Really designing the movie and there was an incredible collaboration between departments. The production designer and the Lucasfilm designer, and DP and department heads — we all saw eye to eye how this film should feel. This movie has a unique look that I’m really proud of today!
[26:02] Allan: That’s so cool! What were some of the biggest challenges around that?
Rob: We were looking to get as much in-camera as possible. So that meant doing as much as possible for real. So we scouted real locations. When we did the explosion, for example, at the end of the train heist sequence that takes out half a mountain, we actually set up real charges that helped create that explosion. We did a small charge under water against a 3D printed buck that we created from a 3D model of a mountain. A lot of those elements were practical in shots like that. We also shot almost all of the footage inside the Falcon. That was done with a wrap-around projection screen so we could capture the look of hyper space all in camera. And not only was it something you could photograph, it was also providing all the lighting on the actors’ faces. So you got all the activity we were really hoping to get in this film!
[27:11] Allan: I think that’s so great that you were able to get that lighting and interaction for free; rather than having there to be some sort of a disconnect that the mainstream audience can’t put their finger on. Do you thing that’s going to be the future of filming, to build a panoramic video stage?
Rob: I do! Getting that high degree of interactivity is hugely important. In fact, since we’ve made Solo, we continued to innovate in that space, even using that technique amplified for a show that Jon Favreau is producing, The Mandalorian. [27:58] We continue to press the limits of possible in real time and in interactivity, on a set, and capturing things in camera in a way that is really exciting! It definitely points to the future and continues to raise the bar on what’s possible; and yet, you can do it in an efficient and responsible way!
[28:17] Allan: With the coaxium explosion, you shot that in 25,000 frames per second, correct?
Rob: It was a very high speed camera.
[28:29] Allan: What was that camera? Phantom cameras usually cap out at 1,000 frames…
Rob: It was actually was a Phantom camera. I don’t remember its model number. At that speed, it shoots 720 P and it was 8-Bit and not a particularly high dynamic range. But this even was happening in less than one hundredth of a second. Without that frame rate, we could never capture the details that we wanted. It was important to have that frame rate even though we sacrificed other pieces. We overcame that by shooting a lot of the variety elements. And then, of course, we did enhance the explosion with additional detail in CG, mapping it on and tracking it in.
[29:31] Allan: And when you’re talking about bracketing it, was it through multiple takes or just multiple cameras of the same shot?
Rob: We did it with one camera but multiple takes. It only took one hundredth of a second to set off the charge, so it was really easy to get hours of footage.
[29:47] Allan: I feel bad for any model makers!
Rob: The little maquette of the mountain, it held up multiple times. We only had 3 of them. The actually mountain falling in on itself, we did that afterwards.
[30:09] Allan: I guess with that, you ended up putting together a book. What gave you that idea?
Rob: That was a really fun experience! I love taking photos, and, as you know, being a VFX Sup means taking photos as a reference for the team back at the office. I had the camera with me. And then I was seeing all those amazing things. And oftentimes, I was the only person in the room with the camera. I was taking work related photos but also taking photos to capture a moment I liked, for composition or for telling the story later. Originally, it was for myself. But then, I realized I had quite a collection. I was sitting on the side of a set looking at my iPad when Kathleen Kennedy was nearby. She runs Lucasfilm. I told her I wanted to do a book for the crew. And she said, “If you want to do a book, why don’t I connect you with the publishing department at ILM?” That would be cool! Then I started really collecting the photos. Turns out: Delivering a book on the same deadline as delivering visual effects for a movie is not recommended! But I had this wonderful memento of my experience.
[31:54] Allan: That’s so great! It’s powerful to be able to capture those moments. With ILM, you’ve branched out into doing tv. What are your thoughts with deciding to move into that, with the budgets that are starting to happen on shows and the high quality work that’s being expected?
Rob: That’s exactly it! We were looking at the work that was being done in tv and realizing it was some of the most innovative work and we wanted to be really be a part of that! We were fortunate to have a team of experienced executives in London join us. Because we knew that if we approached the shows the same way we approached our movies, that wouldn’t be the right formula. Even though we have amazing artists, we needed to approach it as a specialty. Opening the tv branch with experienced executives who understood that work with a lot of success under their belts — I have to say it’s been really fantastic! The quality and the innovation that’s happening in the tv space! And the opportunity to work on hours of episodes! It’s a faster pace and a good solid execution [of an idea] usually makes it in. It’s been great for us and it’s been an area of tremendous growth.
[33:57] Allan: I love it! It’s mind blowing in some ways. I was doing a round table discussion with some of the guys at Cinesite (which you mentioned earlier) about tv vs feature films. Now with 4K delivery, it’s more challenging for some people. The process is starting to become more like features.
Rob: I would say the quality bar is very, very high in tv and streaming. Which is the thing that attracted us to tv because we love doing high quality work! And then sometimes, you do get that volume and repeatability, once you figure out a character. So you can get some efficiencies there.
[34:50] Allan: And what about ILM in Sydney? Can you talk about the decision to open a new location?
Rob: Yeah, we’re really excited about Sydney! We were looking strategically for the next place to expand because we have quite a lot of work. And there seemed to be no better place in the world to open than Sydney, in terms of the talent that’s already there. That combined with the federal and local incentives made it one of the better places and more attractive to film producers. So the combination was unbeatable!
[35:45] Allan: I remember when you were shooting Star Wars 2, Rob Coleman was talking about his daughter not understanding the distance between Australia and the U.S.
Rob: Yes, it’s a bit of a long flight but I like the overlap of timezones. That’s nice for the West Coast office.
[36:23] Allan: That’s so cool! What the first project you’re doing? It’s Rise of Skywalker, right?
Rob: That’s right. We have some artists starting very soon.
[36:45] Allan: How many people are you looking to bring onboard for that?
Rob: For the first show, it’s a relatively low number. It’s been a bit of a race since the decision to get the doors opened. We’re building it up from there. We plan for it to be a major studio for us. I wouldn’t be surprised if it grows up to 300-500 artists. It’s pretty substantial!
[37:18] Allan: That’s pretty exciting! I’m sure you’re going to have a lot of resumes!
Rob: We did have a lot resumes come in on the first day. So don’t lose hope if you haven’t heard back from us yet! There were just a lot of people that reached out. And there was interest from our existing ILM studios: San Francisco, Vancouver, London and Singapore. It’s really great for everyone for ILM. We’re spoiled with locations. I love going to all of them because they’re in pretty desirable spots!
[38:19] Allan: Absolutely! With that, you’re going to be putting some training programs, I imagine.
Rob: Yes, we have a training program we use at other locations but we’re putting together one for Sydney now. It’s called the Jedi Masters Training Program. We’re still working it out, but we’ve done it in several locations. For a place like Sydney with so much talent, it’s probably won’t be a 6-months training. It will be more compact. We will take people who have experience in VFX but want to learn in the way we approach the problems and tackle challenges, and about our ILM pipeline. I think it will be a great thing!
[39:14] Allan: I will make sure to link to your website, so you can get more resumes. I want to thank you for taking the time to chat. It’s been really great!
Rob: It’s been fun! Thanks!
I hope you enjoyed this Episode and got a lot from it. I want to thank Rob for taking the time to do this Podcast. This was really fun to nerd out about so much cool stuff!
If you could take a moment to share this valuable Episode, I would be so grateful.
Next Episode, I will be interviewing the Director of the next Doom feature film Tonny Giglio and the leading star of it Nina Bergman. I’m looking forward to this!
Until next week —
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