Husker alumnus Trent Claus was featured on the recent episode of “Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian,” to discuss his work on the Disney+ TV series “The Mandalorian,” bringing Luke Skywalker back to the Star Wars franchise.
The episode exploring the making of the Season 2 finale and telling the story of the cutting-edge technology used to bring Luke Skywalker back premiered on Aug. 25, exclusively on Disney+.
“My role was that of Visual Effects Supervisor for Lola VFX,” Claus, a 2006 graduate, said. “So I was brought in early in process (December 2019) to help determine how best to achieve the effects at hand.”
In the season 2 finale of “The Mandalorian,” the appearance of a young Luke Skywalker was one of the biggest reveals and best-kept secrets of the acclaimed show, thus far. Reaction to the episode was emotionally-charged for many, deeply resonating with generations of fans who were elated to see the Jedi Master in his post-“Star Wars: Return of the Jedi” prime.
The episode delved into the collaborative process, including working with Mark Hamill, to create an authentic and fitting recreation and explored the immense pressure and responsibility the filmmakers had in bringing back one of the most important characters in film history.
“Growing up, there was no bigger movie in my life than ‘Star Wars,’” Claus said. “My parents loved the film so much, they actually started collecting the toys before I was even born. My room was always filled with Star Wars toys and posters, and one of the things that most inspired me to work in film was a set of books with behind-the scenes information on how they made the original trilogy. After I graduated college and got into the industry, I had basically assumed I would never get the opportunity to work on anything Star Wars related.
“For one, the prequels were over, and it sounded like maybe the films were done, but also, effects for Star Wars had always been handled in-house by Industrial Light and Magic. So it was a huge surprise when I got my first opportunity (which was on the film ‘Solo’). When this opportunity came up for ‘The Mandalorian,’ I jumped at it. It’s been surreal to get to work with some of the characters and locations that I grew up loving. And it wasn’t just Luke. We also did spaceships and lightsabers and other fun stuff.”
The episode showed the Egg, which is Lola VFX’s proprietary lighting rig.
“We use it for a number of different kinds of effects,” Claus said. “We created the first version while working with David Fincher on ‘The Social Network,’ in which we created the Winklevoss twins. It’s primarily a way to capture facial performances in ultra-high detail, with a very high degree of control over lighting, timing and performance.”
On set, Claus advised the creative team as they were filming.
“For our additional shoot in the Egg, I would direct the actors in a technical capacity,” he said. “During post-production, I created a ‘hero’ shot for each sequence that other artists would then match to for the remaining work. I would then review and critique each effect as it progressed until eventually approving them to be sent back to the studio.”
Claus said every person ages in unique ways, and, thus, everyone that needs de-aging needs to be assessed individually.
“A huge challenge with this show, in particular, was the intense secrecy on the project,” Claus said. “We worked with reduced crew during production and post-production, and had other associated challenges that dictated some of the work pipelines. On top of that, this work came in at the exact same time that lockdowns began for Covid-19. The bulk of this work was done remotely for the first time. Working 80-100 hour weeks in the midst of a global pandemic — logistically, we couldn’t have imagined more difficult circumstances.”
Claus enjoyed working with Hamill, even if it was only for one day.
“Talk about childhood wish fulfilment,” he said. “I met him on set and introduced myself, then worked closely with him throughout the day. Due to a number of logistical concerns, not the least of which was the secrecy behind everything, we only had one day with Mark, so we had a lot to do.”
Claus has had the opportunity to work on a number of special effects in his career, but age-related work has become what he is known for.
“The first aging/de-aging work I did was back on ‘Speed Racer’ by the Wachowskis, followed not too long after by ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,’” he said. “That one really changed the game, and stretched us creatively.
“I’m particularly proud of the first Ant-Man film, in which we de-aged Michael Douglas. For that one we tried a new technique that I had been pondering for some time, and I think it really holds up. Then there were films like ‘Avengers: Endgame,’ and ‘Captain Marvel,’ which both had hundreds of aging and de-aging shots. Every person requires specialized techniques, so it’s fun to figure out the effects in the beginning. I enjoy doing the concept work and working with the actors. I also enjoy whenever we have an opportunity to do aging, such as with old Captain America at the end of ‘Avengers: Endgame.’ With de-aging, the audience typically has a reference for what the actor should look like, but with aging, it’s a bit more open to interpretation, which is fun.”
Claus said his time at Nebraska helped him zero in on his career goals.
“I was a non-typical student, arriving at UNL after already having been in college for five years,” Claus said. “I was working full-time throughout most of school, and I really didn’t know what I should major in. When I decided on art, I transferred to UNL and had a much more productive experience. Courses like color theory, illustration, graphic design, life drawing and other drawing courses not only helped me to refine my own skills as an artist, and also gave me better tools to articulate what I find successful or not successful about a piece and to be able to analyze work with more sophistication. The studio course structure was hugely beneficial for my future in VFX, as it taught me to give and receive critiques, something that I do every day as a VFX Supervisor.”
His advice for students interested in VFX is to work on their demo reel while in school.
“As soon as they graduate, they will be competing, not only with other college graduates, but any VFX artist who happens to be looking for a job at that time,” he said. “Companies in the industry generally don’t care how much schooling you’ve had, or from where, but they do care if you can complete the effects or not, and your demo reel is your best tool to get that point across.
“Use your time as a student to develop your own work—your best stuff is usually the work that you had the most fun doing, so find what inspires you.”