SDCC 2019: Step Inside ILMxLAB’s Star Wars Stories

One of the main goals for Galaxy’s Edge in the Disney Parks is to give guests the experience of entering, and having their own adventure in, the Star Wars universe. The stories created by ILMxLAB using virtual reality or augmented reality technology have the same objective, providing the experience of the Star Wars galaxy so that you feel like you’re a part of it. At San Diego Comic-Con, the ILMxLAB panel, moderated by ILMxLAB marketing manager Justin Bolger, reviewed their previous projects and looked ahead to the next episode of the current one, Vader Immortal.

The first project was Trials on Tatooine, a VR experience that debuted at Celebration Europe in 2016. Senior experience designer José Perez III emphasized the difference between the immersive experience offered by VR technology compared to a traditional first-person videogame. Ben Snow, currently the director for Vader Immortal, noted that the sounds and music in the ILMxLAB experiences are authentic because the same people at ILM who work on the films also contribute to the VR projects.

The following project, Droid Repair Bay, tied into The Last Jedi and was hosted at Nissan dealerships. It placed more focus on character interaction. Perez noted that droids are expressive but don’t have faces, which makes them much easier to render within VR technology.

On the mixed reality side, Project Porg brings the Star Wars galaxy into your home. Available exclusively on the Magic Leap One, its premise is that you are taking care of a porg for Chewie. Like a dog or cat, you must care for the porg and develop a relationship with it over time. If it trusts you, the porg will eventually have babies, too. Production coordinator Sarah Barrick described how the porgs will interact with the physical environment of your home. Perez commented that VR and AR experiences allow story living, not just story telling.

The next step up in VR was Secrets of the Empire, offered in conjunction with The VOID at Disney World and Disneyland, as well as other cities around the country. The experience involves an undercover Rebel mission to infiltrate an Imperial facility near Vader’s castle on Mustafar. Unlike previous experiences with limited mobility by a single player, The VOID facility enables an immersive walk-through experience in which a team of four participants move from room to room. The floor vibrates, and fans, heat, and smells further enhance the experience beyond the visuals in the VR headset and gear. Barrick got to work with Alan Tudyk for his motion capture and voiceover as K-2SO, an incredible moment for her.

ILMxLAB’s current and ongoing project is Vader Immortal, a three-part VR story offered on the wireless Oculus Quest VR headset. Snow explained that the experience originally started as more passive, but it wasn’t satisfying because you spent too much time observing rather than acting. The project changed to make you the main character in the story, and writer David S. Goyer has remained with the project through its multiple versions. Senior producer Alyssa Finley compared standing in a room with Vader inside the VR experience to see A New Hope for the first time in 1977. Barrick and Snow emphasized that the sensory aspects of the VR experience stimulate memory, giving Vader Immortal a more lasting impact than a traditional videogame. Finley described the Oculus as a significant improvement over Trials on Tatooine, getting much closer to fulfilling the vision of putting you inside the Star Wars galaxy.

The panel drew to a close with a peek at the upcoming Episode II of Vader Immortal, in which you, as the main character, learn how to use the Force and fight with a lightsaber. They shared three pieces of concept art, including Vader using the Force, an ancient fortress below Vader’s castle, and a new character called the Black Bishop. The panel noted that Vader Immortal does connect to the recent Darth Vader comics, and takes place slightly after the end of the recently concluded series. Snow explained that the ILMxLAB team works with the Lucasfilm Story Group to ensure the Vader Immortal story works with the rest of Star Wars storytelling. And the full Vader costume from Rogue One was used as reference for Vader Immortal to maximize the authenticity of the experience.

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B.J. Priester has been a Star Wars fan since he played with the original Kenner action figures as a young boy. His fandom passion returned after watching Attack of the Clones in 2002 and reading the entire New Jedi Order series in 2003. He voraciously caught up on the novels and comics in the Expanded Universe in addition to writing fanfiction, frequently co-authoring with Tricia. B.J. has served as editor of FANgirl Blog from its inception, as well as contributing reviews and posts on a range of topics. He edited Tricia’s novel Wynde, and is collaborating with her on several future projects set in that original universe. Currently a tenured law professor in Florida, B.J. has been a practicing lawyer in Washington, D.C., a law clerk to a federal appeals court judge, and a law journal editor-in-chief. He is also a proud geek dad whose son who is a big fan of Star Wars and The Clone Wars.