<I>The Mandalorian</I>: A look at the Disney+ series' most challenging shot
August 11, 2023

The Mandalorian: A look at the Disney+ series' most challenging shot

Disney+ has a hit with its series The Mandalorian, which recently streamed its third season. The journeys of the Mandalorian through the Star Wars galaxy continue, with bounty hunter Din Djarin reuniting with fan favorite Grogu. Meanwhile, the New Republic struggles to lead the galaxy away from its dark history. The Mandalorian reconnects with old allies and maked new enemies as he and Grogu continue their journey together.

The show received several Emmy nominations, including those for Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, Visual Effects and Cinematography. 
Grady Cofer was the production VFX supervisor for Season 3 and recently shared his experience working on the series.

Hi Grady! How did you get involved in Season 3 of The Mandalorian?
“This was my first season on the show. Richard Bluff, who oversaw the VFX for the first two seasons, was busy on The Book of Boba Fett, and I was asked if I'd like to take over for The Mandalorian Season 3. In truth, I couldn't say yes fast enough. Jon Favreau's gift for storytelling and character had made The Mandalorian a pure delight. The art of the show, led by Doug Chiang, was stunning. And the philosophy behind its visual effects — balancing computer graphics and animation with traditional techniques, like animatronics and model miniatures — really resonated with me. 

“But beyond all of that, the real draw of a project is the people. I enjoy collaborating with creative artists and helping them tell their stories. I want to work with people that I like and admire - people I can learn from. So when I had my first meeting with Jon and Dave Filoni and Rick Fukuyama, and I experienced their passion for this show, and their commitment to excellence, I knew I was in the right place. Whatever I could do to help take Season 3 to the next level, I was all in.”

The show makes extensive use of VFX. Is there a particular sequence or scene that you found both exciting and challenging?
“This season kicked off with a massive action set piece – the Lake Monster attack. The script described an epic battle between the Mandalorians and a huge snapping turtle, all taking place along the water's edge. It's the kind of sequence that I find thrilling to tackle. So many logistical questions arise: Do we shoot in water? Do we need a practical representation of the monster? What stunts can we achieve in live action, and what needs to be animated? It's the kind of scene that you could plan for a year.
“To create the environment, we excavated a lakebed and filled it with 150,000 gallons of water. Then, special effects supervisor Scott Fisher and his team installed a wave maker, and placed water canons throughout the lake, which could blast a thousand gallons of water per take. This provided a real-world foundation of splashes and waves.
“The creature’s design came from Doug’s team. It drew inspiration from snapping turtles and crocodiles. Then, ILM built the creature in computer graphics, with some highly-detailed modeling and paint work.

“But the real challenge was the water. The creature’s motion generated a complex interplay of water and sand. All of that had to be simulated realistically. One of my favorite shots shows the turtle digging its claw into the sand, and then scraping the sand back, allowing the water to rush into the cavity. The simulation is both beautiful and convincing.
“We also built a practical back of the turtle’s shell, which could be controlled on a motion base. This allowed stunt performers to interact with a dynamic surface. 
“The scene, shot over multiple days, took a massive amount of coordination between all the departments to pull off. But after many months of post, it's very rewarding seeing how it all came together.”
Can you comment on how visual effects really help bring the series to life?
“To me, Star Wars has always been the pinnacle of visual storytelling. The characters and their narratives are forever intertwined with iconic, cinematic imagery. If you say Luke, I see the lightsaber duel on Cloud City, the twin suns, training on Dagobah. The visuals, and the visual effects are integral to the story.
“Such is the case with The Mandalorian, and especially in its third season, with its sweeping story and epic scope. The themes that Jon was exploring — redemption, rebirth, the unification of the Mandalorian factions in order to reclaim their homeworld — these were big ideas. And they demanded that the visuals and the world building be taken to a new level.

“The planet Mandalore, this season’s centerpiece, is a great example. We knew that the audience was really anticipating it, and we just had to get everything right, from the massive storm system that shrouds the planet, to the trinitite-crusted landscape. The Ruins of Sundari. The beskar mines. The Living Waters. Every step of the way had to be carefully designed and executed. Doug Chiang’s team deserves a lot of credit for the beautiful art concepts that they developed. But the VFX team did a brilliant job realizing these locations and making them feel lived in, like they had a rich and authentic history.”
What did Season 3 entail as far as shot count?

“All in, this season’s eight episodes comprise nearly 5,000 visual effect shots, over a hundred unique environments, and introduce nineteen creatures. But it wouldn’t be The Mandalorian without blending cutting-edge visual effects with the charm of old-school tricks. For every CG environment or character, there is an animatronic puppet or a practical droid. It is this particular alchemy that keeps The Mandalorian grounded, even as it soars to new heights.”