How Masa Narita/ILM Lead Modeler modeled high detailed Millennium Falcon for Solo: A Star Wars Story
By Juntaro Nabe
――I believe this is your third film (The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and SOLO) to work on the Millennium Falcon. How did you feel when you were first assigned to work on the Falcon?
Masa:I was very emotional, thinking “Really? I’m going to work on THE Millennium Falcon?” I was excited yet conflicted at the same time, wondering if I had the skills to work on such an iconic spaceship of our time.
In truth, I did not join ILM in order to work on the Star Wars series; I was just trying to find a job to make a living. At that time, I lost my previous job at Digital Domain when I finished Iron Man 3. They went bankrupt due to changes in the VFX industry when jobs went to Canada and England who has Tax Credit Initiative.
Many other VFX companies either went out of business or downsized, and only ILM was still in good shape because it is the world’s largest VFX company. After I got laid off at Digital Domain, it was very hard to find a place to work in Hollywood, and so I applied to ILM out of desperation. Unexpectedly, I got a callback and was assigned a theme park ride show as a 1.5 month project-based freelance contract.
After a month and a half, I finished working on the theme park project and started helping with the Transformer 4 project. At that time, ILM started staffing for The Force Awakens. I wasn’t expecting anything since I thought that ILM was a company for experienced veterans and it was only my fourth year in the field. I was happy knowing that I was a part of such a prestigious company for even a short period of time.
Masa Narita – Industrial Light & Magic / Senior Hard-Surface Modeler
Luckily, my supervisor Dave Fogler for the ride project was also in charge of The Force Awakens project. He picked me as one of four modeling artists. Consequently, I got an extension on my contract and became a full-time employee after six months.
On the first day of the project, Dave came to my desk and gave me a completed plastic model kit of the Falcon. My first assignment was to model the Millennium Falcon!
The concept was that “It should be 30 years later from Episode 6. No change for the basic shape and design, just upgrade the details(mainly greebles on the side trench and inside access hatches) of the Falcon.” My job was to build the very first CGI Falcon.
Since there was no concept art, all I could use for reference was a bunch of photos of the five-foot Falcon model which was built for Episode 4. I was in charge of imagining how Han and Chewie would have upgraded the Falcon in the thirty years after Episode 6.
At the same time, a life-size production Falcon set was being built at the Pinewood Studios in London. I received these photos in addition to the five-foot model pictures as a reference. Our basic modeling guideline was to stick with the five-foot Falcon model, not to match the set in Pinewood Studios since the detail was far from the 5 foot model. I brought only look & feel from the set into the model.
“I drew rough ideas in my note, then started modeling”（Photo by Narita）
Masa:When I finished to model for side trench details, top back access hatch details, bottom front access hatch details, ramp, landing gears, cockpit and gun room interior, the other modeler Jay Machado took over the falcon modeling. I moved on Star Destroyer Finalizer, Tie Fighter Special Force, Kylo Ren Command Shuttle and Storm Trooper.
By the way, when I was told I was going to work for The Force Awakens, I started listening to the soundtrack from The New Hope while I was working. As the last score came on, tears started to well up in my eyes.
Before all of this, I used to be a Japanese businessman. It was only my fourth year in the VFX industry when I had just turned 50 years old. I made the decision to go into the industry at the age of 45. I ended my 23 years at a brokerage firm in the financial industry to move to Hollywood where I attended a CGI school.
When I was a junior high school kid, I saw the New Hope at a movie theater in Japan. I remember thinking to myself, “Someday, I’ll work in Hollywood too!” I was overwhelmed with emotions as I came to the realization that my childhood dream had become a reality.
―― The Falcon model in SOLO is dated 10 years before Episode 4. How is the design different from other versions of the Falcon in the Star Wars timeline?
Masa:The Falcon from the trilogy series is the fastest ship in the galaxy but is kind of old, rugged, and full of junk. In SOLO, the owner of the Falcon is Lando and not Solo. So the design concept of the Falcon should represent the owner’s personality, which is the complete opposite of Han. That meant that the Lando Falcon would be the most beautiful spaceship in the galaxy, with cool blue stripes on a sleek body.
Mr. Narita with Bandai scale model kits that were built and painted by himself
Masa:The Lando Falcon was designed by Lucasfilm Design Supervisor James Clyne. He built a concept maquette along with other concept arts. He used an MPC 1/72 scale plastic model kit as a start.
In the trilogy series, there are two different Falcon models. The first five-foot model was created for Episode 4, and the other three-foot model for Episode 5. Because the five-foot model was too big for use in the live action stage shoot, they made a three-foot model in the sequel.
But these two models were not the same in proportion. The five-foot model, specifically the curvature of the dish that makes the main body of the spaceship, is thicker than the three-foot model. Generally speaking, when we talk about the Falcon, it is referring to the five-foot model. So in Episode 7, we decided to make a CGI Falcon based on the five-foot model. However, the MPC model was designed based on the three-foot model.
We needed to physically put the Han Falcon into the Lando Falcon. Because the Lando Falcon concept maquette was based off the MPC model, it was too thin, making it difficult to put the thicker Han Falcon inside. Since the directors really liked the slim Falcon concept, I adjusted the Lando Falcon shape by making it a little bit thicker, and also made the episode 7 CGI Falcon smaller in height. It really worked – we were able to create a Lando Falcon with a sleek design.
――I heard that they prepared several different levels of “damage stages” of the Falcon in SOLO. How many damage stages were created?
© 2018 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
Masa:In the Kessel Run, the surface panels of the Lando Falcon are removed, revealing the Han Falcon that we are familiar with in the trilogy. To make this effect, we prepared 8 different damage stages of the Falcon model.
The Lando Falcon ended up having three million polygons with 12,000 parts. The Han Falcon which was modified using the Episode 7 CGI model had six million polygons and 21,000 parts.
The Han Falcon: 6million polygons with 21,000 parts.
© 2018 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
© 2018 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
Masa:In addition, I prepared 17,000 parts as for transition, and by turning the visibility on and off the eight-stage damaging levels were created. I spent approximately 120 days for this entire modeling process.
The biggest challenge was the management of this visibility control. I had to manage these 50,000 parts’ visibility manually. The major problem that arose was the numerous overlapping of parts. The overlapping did not show in the Maya software which I mainly use for modeling and only showed in a render.
It was a long trial and error process since we had to work back and forth between numerous renders. We would change one part and render it, then new errors would pop up with each new render. It also takes a while to render a part (about a whole day) making it impossible to check and fix an error right away.
――In SOLO, there are many close up shots of the Falcon. I believe these shots need to be prepared using a high-resolution model. In which shots did you use a high-res model?
Masa:The modeling process takes place in the early stages of the VFX work process. Most of the time, we don’t really know how the models will be used in the actual shot. So, we build models assuming that it will be shot from a medium distance. Once we learn that it will need some close-up shots, we start adding more details.
But we can’t keep updating the model since it needs to be passed on to other departments for texturing, lookdev, and rigging. We have to stop modeling and complete the asset at the right time. We usually adopt a tag structure to solve these issues. We complete the main asset early and add the tag asset later. We set the on/off control of the tag and manage what details should be loaded in the shot. In SOLO, this technique can be seen in close-up shots of gun, spoilers and landing gear. The modeling supervisor Russell Paul added fantastic details to the engine thrust flap. I couldn’t finish to model this iconic Falcon without his sound guidance.
――What did you particularly focus on for the Falcon modeling in this film? Which parts did you specifically put an emphasis on (curve, shape, detail, etc.)?
Masa:What I spent most of the time on was the mechanical greebles inside the Han Falcon. The Lando Falcon is covered by panels one foot above the Han Falcon. It would be weird to have panels covering the Episode 7 Falcon when it already has panels. So we decided to remove the panels from the Episode 7 Falcon and put mechanics inside.
As the panels of the Lando Falcon are lost in the Kessel Run, you can see the mechanical greebles underneath. When the Falcon arrives at Savareen, the panels are completely stripped off and show the whole greebles inside. Afterward, Han and Chewie put new panels onto this stripped Falcon (the Han Falcon) and it eventually becomes the Episode 4 Falcon.
The concept of the base structure was designed by James Clyne. I then added tons of greebles onto it while keeping his design guideline.
As for the number of landing gears. You will see the three leg Falcon at the end of the film, with the Falcon flying from the green planet into the Galaxy. If you watch carefully, you will notice some panels added to the bottom front section of the Falcon. There are five landing gears on the Falcon in Episode 5. But there were only three legs in Episode 4 without the front two legs.
The Lando Falcon had five landing gears, but two were lost in the Kessel Run. Before Han took the Falcon from Lando, Lando fixed some areas of the Falcon and completely removed the front two landing gears and added covers. This is the story behind the scene.
There are only three landing gears on the Episode 4 Falcon
―― I heard that the Falcon in the Star Wars trilogy (Episode 4,5,6) was built using retail plastic scale model kit parts such as TAMIYA. Did you use any photos from the original plastic model kits as a reference? Or did you try to completely “reproduce” the models from the original series?
Masa:CG technology was nonexistent when the trilogy series was made in the 70’s and the 80’s; all Falcons in the films were physical miniature maquettes. These physical models were built with a specific technique – called “kitbashing.” First, they build a base shape from scratch, then utilize retail commercial plastic scale model kit parts for detailing.
With this technique, the Falcon doesn’t have any parts which were designed specifically for the Falcon but utilizes parts that were made for other purposes such as cars, tanks, battleships, or warplanes etc. By using parts of automobiles and such that exist in our “reality”, they avoided alienating the audience by incorporating a feeling of familiarity. This gave the Falcon the desired look of a “junk” spaceship, and more importantly, it allowed the Falcon to fit into the Star Wars universe while immersing the audience.
So we utilized the same technique in SOLO – we called it “CGI kitbashing.” First, Russell collected old plastic model kits which were actually used for the creation of the five-foot model in Episode 4. Russell selected parts and we digitally scanned plastic model sprue and reproduced them as digital parts.
For SOLO, we added 300 new digital parts for our Star Wars Digital Model Library. Originally this Library was made for Episode 7, and there were already 700 parts in the Library. Rogue One was the first project to use reproduction of plastic model kit parts. Before that, Jay Machado and I modeled parts by referencing photos of Star Wars spaceships. Many of them were for Star Destroyer Finalizer which I created from scratch.
I actually used some parts from the TAMIYA Battleship Yamato (from WWII) plastic model kit for the Lando Falcon and the Star Destroyer Finalizer.
It is well known that the back grill of TAMIYA’s Panther kit and Bandai’s Jagdpanther body were used for the five foot Falcon model. In SOLO, I used digital parts from TAMIYA’s M41 Bulldog turret and Nitto’s Half Truck Rocket Launcher body for the Han Falcon interior.
――Once your modeling is completed, your model is sent to the texturing, look dev, rigging, animation, and rendering teams to make the final model of the Falcon. Although you are not necessarily involved in these processes, how did each team interact with each other to achieve the final product?
Masa:As I mentioned before, one of the most challenging tasks for me was the controlling/management of the 50,000 parts in the damage stages. Look Dev Supervisor David Meny helped me a lot to find these overlap issues. In addition, the on/off control was built by Chris Havreberg and Steve Walton, the Texture Supervisor, did a tremendous job texturing all 50,000 parts. Our strong teamwork could only make such an epoch-making effect shot.
――You mentioned using Maya for modeling. What functions do you use often, and what is your favorite tool in Maya for your general work? Also are there any convenient modeling tools in the latest version of Maya? I think that many students and/or digital modelers would be interested in this question.
Masa:I usually only use the basic functions of Maya and not much of the special tools. I think Multicut in the Modeling Tool Kit is really handy. Also, our in-house tools are really convenient, such as the renaming tool and edge selection tool for OpenSubDiv crease modeling. The first project we used OpenSubdiv officially in ILM was The Force Awakens. It would’ve been impossible for me to build the Star Destroyer Finalizer without the OpenSubDiv technology from Pixar. I’m really satisfied with the recent version of Maya because it doesn’t crash as it did before when I changed the topology of models.
――What was the polygon number of the heaviest Falcon Model in SOLO?
Masa:Including the entire Falcon damage stages, the Falcon ends up having 18 million polygons and 50,000 parts. But my personal record in hard-surface modeling was the Star Destroyer Finalizer for The Force Awakens, which got 20 million polygons and 25,000 parts. So that means that the Falcon model in SOLO was the second largest of all time in terms of polygon numbers, but first in parts numbers.
――This is for people who did not watch SOLO yet. Are there any particular shots that you would like them to focus on?
Masa:I would like them to check out the shot when the Falcon landed on Savareen, where you can see the wholly stripped down Han Falcon with all the damaged parts and greebles shown clearly. Also, I would like them to focus on the back front section of the Han Falcon as it flies into the galaxy at the last scene.
© 2018 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.