Before its Disney+ debut, The Mandalorian became the first show in history to utilize Volume technology - a massive soundstage with a dome-shaped panel of screens that can put actors in almost any possible environment.
Specifically, fans feel the visuals lose much of their flair and realness when depicted with the Volume’s screens, although those using the tech to make these shows have their own challenges with it as well.
The Mandalorian Cinematographer on The Volume Technology
In an exclusive interview with The Direct’s Richard Nebens, Star Wars cinematographer Eric Steelberg dove into the challenges of shooting with The Volume.
Steelberg worked on The Mandalorian Season 2 as a director of photography with The Volume.
While his work on The Mandalorian "Chapter 14" was all shot practically in the hills of Simi Valley, California, Ahsoka was his “first exposure to the Volume or even seeing it in person.” Outside of that, he compared his work without the Volume to what he did working on Ghostbusters: Afterlife and the MCU’s Hawkeye series on Disney+:
“Well, when I did ‘The Mandalorian,’ I just shot four days of second unit, and that was actually on-location. Robert Rodriguez directed and so I didn’t have any exposure to that. It was actually the first time they’d ever shot out of the studio. And so I was shooting, Stormtroopers and Boba Fett’s reveal out in the hills that I grew up in. When I started ‘Ahsoka,’ that was my first exposure to The Volume or even seeing it in person. Everything else, even when we’re shooting sets on blue screen, it’s all pretty traditional, it’s all things that we’re used to, it’s things that I’ve done on ‘Ghostbusters,’ and, more recently, ‘Hawkeye.’ Everything’s real. Everything’s there in front of you.”
Steelberg explained that working with The Volume can be difficult due to “the amount of prep time” that is needed to “[build] these three-dimensional sets” that would show on the tech’s screens when the actors eventually shoot their work:
“And with The Volume, the thing that is the biggest difference is the amount of prep time. It takes so very early on in the prep schedule. I was sitting there with the production designers and the virtual art department, who was building these three-dimensional sets in spaces that were gonna be on the screens. And we would use virtual reality headsets and fly around, set up cameras, and look at the angles, and try to figure out what we needed, and how we were gonna shoot within The Volume.”
This requires the team to build “a virtual Volume in the computer” that’s maneuverable before figuring out if the camera angles can fit the necessary lighting for the scene:
“And then we would take that and build a virtual Volume in the computer and be able to move around that space and see what we had accomplished with that virtual set they were giving us. And then I would have to figure out, ‘Ok, now that we’ve done that, now if it fits, and now it works for all the angles, are we able to light it? Are we able to take the lighting that we’ve established in the three-dimensional virtual set and replicate that lighting in the real world in the foreground, so what’s on the screen blends with what’s in the foreground in front of the camera?’'’
Having to “create something virtually with a lighting style that matches” such a long time before production turned out to be the biggest difficulty for Steelberg, with those decisions becoming set in stone and unable to go through many changes during filming:
“And that is the trickiest thing: trying to create something virtually with a lighting style that matches, because you have to lock in… you have to make the decisions about what you want that to look like months, months, and months before you actually get to shoot it. So you’re making decisions that you gotta get stuck with… Not stuck, but you make decisions that you have to live with later on that you can’t change. So… if I had a sudden a last-minute inspiration of how I wanted to change the lighting in a virtual background, I was very limited to or not able to do that.”
This presented another challenge of not being able to change too much once shooting got closer, with The Volume not allowing for “a lot of wiggle room once you’re on set.” Production teams on 'normal' shows typically have the freedom of adjusting a scene's lighting on the day of filming; this isn't possible when shooting in The Volume:
“And that was a challenge, because a lot of the time when we’re shooting movies, we always have a plan going into it, but we pivot. We think on our feet, we’ll change things as we’re shooting the day before, on the day, or even as we’re shooting. We’ll change lighting, the actor does something [that] changes the tone of the scene. That’s that’s the normal way. But things are done with The Volume, everything’s very preplanned and has to be kind of executed according to plan. There’s not a lot of wiggle room once you’re on set. So that for me was the most challenging…”
While it wasn’t necessarily a problem for the cinematographer, it presented a new opportunity for different visuals as he got to “do things that [he] can’t do otherwise” without being limited to a blue or green screen:
“And it’s not an issue or a problem. It’s just learning how to work in a new environment with a new tool. But what it gives you is fantastic. You do things that you can’t do otherwise, and you get the benefit from it, which is so great, is you get really interesting lighting from the environment around you, which you don’t as easily get when you’re like on a blue screen, right? Because the screen itself, the content on the screen itself is providing you with the lighting that would kind of be for in their actual location if it was a real place, more or less. I mean, that’s the idea of that, which is why it works so great with reflective services, like helmets.”
Will The Volume Be Used in Future Star Wars Shows?
While Eric Steelberg and others have certainly noted the challenges that come with utilizing The Volume technology on set, it appears that it won’t be going away anytime soon.
Andor creator Tony Gilroy admitted there were “times where [he’d] love to use it” for his own show and explained that it “does some great things,” even though he shot all of Cassian Andor’s story with real-world locations.
For future Star Wars shows, the upcoming The Acolyte series shot at least part of its own story practically without The Volume, and there is no official word on whether Skeleton Crew is taking that same approach.
And with no timeline on when The Mandalorian Season 4 will debut or any indications of Ahsoka definitively getting a second season, fans will be curious to find out exactly where The Volume’s future lies with this franchise.
The first three seasons of The Mandalorian, along with Season 1 of Ahsoka, are now streaming on Disney+.