“The Mandalorian was a beautiful marriage for me,” says Andrew L. Jones of his time on the first Star Wars series. “It’s the kind of stories that I like, and it’s using really intriguing technologies and techniques.”
The Scottish-born artist and designer has built an incredible career working with the industry’s top filmmakers. Beginning as a sculptor on Ron Howard’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Jones has worked with Robert Zemeckis on The Polar Express, James Cameron on Avatar, and recently Jon Favreau on The Jungle Book. The latter collaboration lead to their critically acclaimed reunion on Disney +’s The Mandalorian.
Speaking to Awards Focus, Jones shares the influence of Star Wars: A New Hope on The Mandalorian and himself as an adolescent, as well as crafting the aesthetic with virtual backgrounds and the interdepartmental collaborations that made it a reality.
Awards Focus: When you first got word of this project, what were you in the middle of? Were you wrapping a project? Where was your headspace at and then?
Andrew L. Jones: I was in the Klondike in 1894, deep into six months of research and development on Disney’s Call of the Wild. Unfortunately, it was shut down and luckily The Mandalorian came along at the perfect time. I was a happy to jump even further into the past. Working on Star Wars is a dream job for me. So, I didn’t have any qualms about that.
AF: Does the work mainly come from your agent or through relationships with people you’ve previously collaborated with?
Jones: I get all my work from my agent, Laura Brokaw. She’s put me on commercials with Jon Favreau and we’d done The Jungle Book prior to this series. I was familiar with the producer Colin Wilson, from Avatar and other projects.
Also, there’s a family of people who got deep into virtual production a while ago and just have been in it ever since. And so, I knew a lot of the likely candidates who were already attached to or talking to The Mandalorian team right from the get go.
AF: How much did The Jungle Book set the stage for the technology of this series?
Jones: In The Jungle Book we were working on little sets with a virtual extension beyond that. In The Lion King, Jon took it to the next step where it was all virtual, and using a bunch of new tools to do that. The Mandalorian was the next advancement, as we were creating a virtual environment around a real environment at the same time.
AF: What was the biggest evolution in technology from The Jungle Book to working on The Mandalorian? Can you walk us through your process?
Jones: There are strong similarities between The Jungle Book and The Mandalorian in that we develop the whole world ahead of time. Then we scout it using whatever the very latest technology is; in The Mandalorian that technology is virtual reality… you create the whole virtual environment, then you decide where the scene is going to play. That’s the bit that you’re going to make physical for the performers to interact with. The difference is that when filming The Jungle Book, all of the extensions are going to have to be put in afterwards, while in The Mandalorian we’re doing it in real time, the same time as you’re filming it.
AF: What an incredible leap forward. Who are some of the people that you’re collaborating with on the series?
Jones: A lot of the crew members that worked on The Jungle Book moved over to The Mandalorian. Amanda Serino, the set decorator, I saw her work incredibly hard on the series. When decorating a virtual world, you’re finding assets, scanning them, and then putting them in the virtual world. Anything that’s going to go into the virtual content she has to get it built, painted, distressed, and then it’s got to get scanned in order for it to be put into the virtual world.
And then it’s got to go through that whole process of getting approval before you even shoot it. She’s had to develop a new a new technique to her process and she’s done amazingly well.
AF: When Jon or Dave Filoni deliver a script it goes to Doug Chiang at Lucasfilm. When do you get involved in the process? Could you discuss how the workflow occurs?
Jones: I’ve actually worked with Doug Chiang a number of times before on motion capture projects with Robert Zemeckis. He’s the head of Lucasfilm design, so he’s got an amazing team in the art department in San Francisco. They just live and breathe Star Wars, so when they’re given the script they very quickly develop exquisite sets and then the work is in front of Jon for approval.
AF: What is the pacing like on a show like this and how does it compare to features you’ve worked on in the past?
Jones: I’ve done some really tough projects, I was on Avatar for a year and a half and that was very challenging work with Jim Cameron. I will say that The Mandalorian was significantly harder, I’d never done TV before and this had a very challenging schedule with a really ambitious scope. And on top of that, the new technology was largely untested in season one. We had a lot of encouragement and support from Jon and he encouraged us to keep forging ahead and not tap our brakes too much. But once we got into it and saw that it was working, it was just down to a very demanding schedule that kept us all very busy.
AF: How does your work on the series compare to film, or even theater which you’ve done previously?
Jones: I’ve got a strong background in theater, and interestingly this process is a lot more like theater than feature films in my opinion. With the LED screens on a single stage, you basically have one performance area to use and optimize. So, you’ve got to be able to put the sets in very quickly, shoot them, get them out, and get in the next one.
As a result, all the sets are built like you would for a Broadway musical or a theater. They’re designed to be broken down into pieces, they are often on wheels, and they’re made to be assembled quickly. And they’re incredibly lightweight. So, it’s a different mindset from traditional filmmaking and visual effects heavy films.
AF: Can you go into a bit more detail on the technology and how the turn around is built into the schedule?
Jones: Typically, when you arrive on a visual effects heavy film, you have a set and a blue screen extension ready. And there’s a certain amount of flexibility beyond that to create whatever is going into the digital content in the blue screen extension. But for us, we need to have everything absolutely finished before we get to the screen. And actually, it has to be finished several weeks beforehand in order for our virtual art departments to give it to ILM, so they can conform it to their pipeline and pipe it to the screens.
We’re tremendously fortunate to be working with ILM. They’re extraordinary and wonderfully generous partners and collaborators. We’ve got a process in which we develop a set, sometimes it’s developed in a very short time, and then we hand it over to them. And we frequently have to hand it over about six weeks ahead of time. But we may also need to go through the traditional process of finding a location and getting it approved by everybody. Then we’ve got to scan it and go through just the same sort of process I was describing with sets in that we’ve got to get it made into a digital asset to use in the Unreal Engine – which is what we use in the virtual art department to create these sets – and then go through the traditional approval process.
In short, our virtual art department is really more like a virtual construction department, because they’re building the sets, they’re building the worlds they’re using sculptors, using painters, using fabricators; the difference is that they’re just all doing it with pixels. And they’re doing it in sync with the physical construction department. So oftentimes, you’ll have the people painting the virtual sets referring to samples that the physical painters give them, or vice versa. It is an amazingly collaborative process.
AF: And with the technology, how have you seen actors acclimate to it in terms of their process?
Jones: I’ve been working in motion capture projects since Polar Express, and that was really interesting for the art department because usually the art department will create the drawings, build the sets, and then hand it over to the shooting company. In the case of Polar Express, the actors were in the middle of these really alien looking sets with wireframe and nobody could really tell what it was. So the art department had to be part of shooting the movie. As a result, I got into the shooting company in a way that you wouldn’t usually get just because there had to be someone to explain to the performers and the directors what that art is supposed to be and where you’re supposed to be looking to give it context.
In this scenario with the The Mandalorian, it’s like shooting on location. You put the performer on the stage and it’s all there — the distant mountain that they’ve got to look at, the ship flying over overhead and landing. So, the actors have the full context needed to get into character.
AF: Does one episode come to mind that was particularly challenging or exciting to work on this season?
Jones: The first episode was a blast for the art department and construction as we had a lot of really fun sets to build, reminiscent of the original trilogy. It was volume sets, backlot sets, and stage sets. And for the volume sets this was the first time we’ve done those. So we were just guessing and crossing our fingers with a lot of this stuff. And ewe were surprised by what did work and equally surprised by what didn’t work. We found things out with Greig Fraser and Barry Baz Idoine, the directors of photography, just slipping in guesses as they went along and using all of their instincts. They were able to make a lot of the progress that was made at the very beginning.
In the second episode, the Mudhorn fight was an incredible sequence… on top of that, ever since I saw A New Hope, I’ve been fascinated with the Sandcrawler vehicle. I just remember being a kid and thinking it was the most amazing thing. And we got to build part of one on the second episode.
AF: That’s fascinating, I love that. Are there any other kind of throwback elements from the original trilogy that you really enjoyed that you got to incorporate into the show?
Jones: We got to recreate the cantina and that was a really special moment. It was also one of the more ambitious volume sets that we did, because we really were split on whether it was going to be successful. We were basically taking this set that’s a lot smaller than the volume space and just removing some walls. And we were we were forced to do that because we were up against it with a budget, we needed to sort of find a way to do that set cheaper. So, we thought, let’s try it on the volume. It may work. It may not. And it ended up working really well. Richard Bluff, visual effects supervisor from ILM, encouraged us and said, “Let’s do it, and then we can fix it if it isn’t gonna work.” He was very encouraged by the results and surprised at how well it came out.
AF: The fans have gone crazy over “The Child” / “Baby Yoda.” The series overall has tapped into the heart of the original trilogy, can you speak to that?
Jones: Jon’s vision for this was a more scaled back, back-to-the-basics Star Wars. It suited a story about a lone stranger. We didn’t want big crowd scenes, we kept it as a simple story.
The child is extraordinary. We were so worried that character was going to leak out before the show started and it was such an important thing to keep secret. So, we went to huge lengths in the art department to keep that secret and even erased the name of it, and every mention of it from any documents and erased its image from everything. That managed to work to keep the secret.
It’s an extraordinary puppet that Legacy Effects made. During the development Jon just kept on saying as the concepts were coming through that those early concepts were too pretty or needs to be cuter. It needed to be a sweet little monster. And, he steered the design very carefully and I think all the attention that went into it paid off in a very expressive, empathetic little character.
AF: You mentioned how influential A New Hope was for you, did it inspire you to pursue this career?
Jones: I grew up in Scotland where there is a very enthusiastic, independent film audience. We grew up on films that were all about characters following their passions and their lives. When I came to Los Angeles, the last thing I imagined was that I’d be involved in these blockbuster movies. I got into these projects and kind of got deep into the techniques and the craft of it, I really got to see how fantastic it is to work on projects in these collaborative departments such as the art department, the construction department, and others. I actually came into sculpting on The Grinch as my first union job.
When I got to The Mandalorian, I felt that I was back to the type of project I grew up on — a deep study of a character and his journey. And we were curious at the start as to whether the audience would be able to engage with this character wearing the mask and unable to convey his emotions.
But I kind of thought right from the get go, that was gonna work because that’s Hitchcock’s idea, you want an empty vessel for your own imagination to pour itself into and this is the perfect vehicle for that. So, when Jon described the story to me, I thought that it was great, this is something I really want to get into. So, The Mandalorian was a beautiful marriage for me. It’s the kind of stories that I like, and it’s using really intriguing technologies and techniques that keeps us thinking.
Byron Burton also contributed to this article.