Star Wars: Andor Must Avoid One Big Obi-Wan Kenobi Mistake
Can Star Wars: Andor address one of Obi-Wan Kenobi's biggest problems?
Looking back at the six-part Disney+ miniseries, Obi-Wan Kenobi was really successful in one key way. It told a satisfying story about old Ben’s life before A New Hope that also bridged the gap for a few other big Star Wars characters and provided closure for lingering Prequel Trilogy storylines. All this, while also introducing exciting new characters like Moses Ingram’s Reva and bringing deep cuts from the books and comics into the fold. For anyone who loves Star Wars lore, this Disney+ show was the biggest feast of worldbuilding yet served up on the streaming service.
But not everything about Obi-Wan Kenobi worked, especially when it came to its set design and VFX, which at times were criticized for looking “cheaper” than the more “cinematic” The Mandalorian. A common complaint from fans and critics throughout the series’ run was the show’s artificial-looking sets and its seeming overreliance on ILM’s StageCraft tech, the massive curved LED screen more commonly referred to as “The Volume,” which allows productions to create realistic backdrops for their actors without having to actually film on location. It’s how The Mandalorian can travel to Tatooine so often without filming in Tunisia or to water planets without flying to Croatia or sailing to an island off Ireland as the movies did.
In some ways, the Volume has become a more elegant solution for Star Wars‘ out-of-this-world locations than the often shoddy green screens employed by the Prequels — or even some modern blockbusters. When used effectively, the Volume can help deliver the big-budget look of The Mandalorian for a fraction of the cost. Yet, in Obi-Wan Kenobi‘s case, environments often looked smaller and more static, the Volume-centric soundstages a poor replacement for filming in the real world.
The sometimes meager practical sets didn’t help either. While a small village was erected in the UK for Obi-Wan’s first confrontation with Darth Vader in episode 3, and Daiyu’s cityscapes flexed some of the same visual muscles as The Mandalorian‘s Volume-enhanced worlds, many others really failed to enchant.
The rebel base on Jabiim, for example, didn’t do a very good job of hiding the artificial, styrofoam look of its cave system. Scenes of Obi-Wan’s rescue mission deep inside the Inquisitor stronghold were hard to dive into when it appeared that our Jedi hero was just running down the same hallway over and over. The final duel with Vader on a barren moon hardly hid the fact that it was all happening inside a soundstage, with nothing but a murky Volume backdrop, fog machines, and fake boulders to transport us to this new place.
This all raises a big existential question for the franchise. Does Star Wars always have to look “cinematic” to be great Star Wars? Absolutely not. While Disney+ shows have often strived to emulate the look and feel of big-budget movies (to varying degrees of success), made-for-TV productions should also be allowed to exist as just that. Maybe the Dave Filoni-directed “The Jedi” from The Mandalorian season 2 looks a lot more like an hour of television than the more ambitious “The Siege,” which sees Carl Weathers expertly recreate the exhilarating trench run from A New Hope, but I’d argue the Akira Kurosawa-inspired backdrops of the former make it the more visually interesting episode. And for what it’s worth, Filoni’s besieged city of Calodan also manages to be a far more dynamic setting than most of the environments featured on Obi-Wan Kenobi despite its own use of the Volume.
Obi-Wan Kenobi perhaps stands as a prime example of when too much of a great new VFX innovation is a bad thing. Maybe what Lucasfilm needs to learn here is that the Volume should be a complement to great sets, not the main feature. Of course there are also other factors to consider, like the fact that Obi-Wan Kenobi was filmed during a tumultuous time when productions were still dealing with the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, likely affecting the scale of certain scenes as well as the timing needed to build sets.
After the finale, production designer Todd Cherniawsky opened up about the breakneck pace at which sets had to be built and completed, with only “100 days of prep” in fall 2020 before shooting began in spring 2021: “On a 100-day shoot, you’ve probably got, at least on that Star Wars show, we had about 100+ sets. So that means every day, you have to design, build, paint, light, and finish a set.”
Sets built on soundstages instead of in the real world, with the Volume in place for more ambitious shots of alien backdrops, didn’t quite paint the best canvas for Obi-Wan Kenobi, so is another direction needed for the future Disney+ slate?
Upcoming Rogue One prequel series Andor is asking that exact question, imagining what life would be like for Star Wars Disney+ series without the Volume and with more practical sets and location shoots. As filming commenced on the show in late 2020, photos from the set quickly made their way online, including many images of star Diego Luna acting on hills, ports, and other locations around the UK instead of the usual Lucasfilm soundstages in California. Then, a few weeks ago, showrunner Tony Gilroy, the seasoned director and screenwriter who also helmed extensive reshoots for Rogue One, made headlines when he confirmed Andor abstained from using ILM’s LED tech.
“We’re old-school,” Gilroy told Empire. “We didn’t use StageCraft at all.”
Indeed, the trailers released for the series so far showcase more naturalistic environments than past Disney+ Star Wars offerings, including thick forests that make way for flowing rivers, and hills that sit on the outskirts of a mining town beyond a junkyard — a fictional place that, according to cast members, was brought to life as a practical set.
“They built an entire city for us. I got lost in it,” Adria Arjona, who plays new character Bix Caleen, revealed to Collider about the show’s central setting, a planet called Ferrix. “I remember the first day that I walked on set…and I was mind blown. It was an entire outdoor city that exists. Ferrix exists. It’s not in a studio. It’s not parts of a set that we filmed in studio. It is very much a city. I keep saying three to five city blocks. I could be wrong. And I also could be maybe under, I’m not sure, I’m not good with distances.”
Fiona Shaw, who plays Maarva, echoed this sentiment in her description of her favorite set.
“My character’s house is built from parts of old spaceships,” Shaw told Empire. “I used to go out and just stare at it. Breathtaking.”
The practical sets also offered more versatility for action sequences, according to Arjona, versus staging shots on soundstages with the Volume as the focal point.
“I had one scene where they were like, you got to run. And I was like, all, where do you want? And the directors [said] where do you want? Cause they could point the camera pretty much everywhere. And that was really cool.”
In other words, not just the sets but the action could look a bit more natural in Andor than in the often cramped spaces of Obi-Wan Kenobi, which in turn should lend what we’re watching on screen a bit more scope than its predecessor.
“As an actor, it’s beautiful,” Luna told Empire of the show’s sets. “Everything is mechanical. You’re interacting with real stuff.” Which sounds promising when you get into the more science fiction-y spaces featured in the trailers, such as an Imperial lab or the lavish rooms in the capital world of Coruscant (which of course will also feature plenty of CGI to boot, as demonstrated by the beautiful VFX shot of elevators ascending and descending the city’s incredibly tall skyscrapers).
Is this where Star Wars should be headed on TV? More ambitious practical sets, more emphasis on realism, and less dependence on the Volume and post-production CGI? We absolutely shouldn’t discount StageCraft, which helped make the fan-favorite, planet-hopping The Mandalorian a reality on about half the budget of a Star Wars movie, or the wizards who so often transport us to amazing new places from a Lucasfilm soundstage. But Obi-Wan Kenobi stands as a good case study for why there needs to be a better balance between the artificial and the real on Disney+. Perhaps Andor and Gilroy will show us a better way.
The first three episodes of Andor are out on Disney+ on Sept. 21.