‘The Mandalorian’ Isn’t the Best Drama of the Year, But It’s the Most Important

When the 2020 Emmy nominations were announced this summer, one entry stunned prognosticators: Disney+’s The Mandalorian for Best Drama.

While the “Baby Yoda Show” had been an unspeakably big hit for the fledging streaming service, critics didn’t necessarily consider it on the same narrative level of Succession or Better Call Saul. And it’s true. The Mandalorian is a fine show, a fun show even, but hardly the best drama of 2020. However, it may be the most historically important.

StageCraft, the groundbreaking technology developed specifically to make The Mandalorian, could be the most profound leap forward in television production since Desi Arnez invented the multi-cam setup to speed up production on I Love Lucy. The tech not only makes it easier to create epic visuals on a tight budget, but could pave the way for safe productions in the age of COVID-19.

One of the first challenges posing the very first live action Star Wars television series was replicating the cinematic scope of the films, but on a TV budget. Not to mention, a small screen timetable. The solution, as it has been for every single Star Wars film since A New Hope, was to push technology further. As Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian shows, series showrunner Jon Favreau had been noodling on this very problem for years, using the experience of directing Disney’s “live action” Lion King to test the limits of screen projection on set. When approaching production on this new project, he brought together the best minds at ILM and Lucasfilm to create something truly new: StageCraft tech and a state-of-the-art soundstage nicknamed “The Volume.”

The Volume on the Mandalorian shooting a space scene
Photo: Lucasfilm

As Favreau himself puts it in Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian Episode 4 “Technology”: “The Mandalorian is the first production ever to use real-time rendering and video wall in-camera set extensions and effects. That was, again, necessity was the mother of invention because we were trying to figure out how to do the production here, in the time frame, at the budget level, but still get the whole look we’re used to seeing.”

In laymen’s terms: every single scene in The Mandalorian was shot on the same exact set. The light boards surrounding the actors not only previewed what the CGI sets would look like, but moved with the performers, changing the way light hit or perspective felt. It’s a huge step forward for digital technology as it immerses actors in the reality of a scene set on the outer reaches of the galaxy while never asking them to leave a studio lot. Nor do they have to deal with green screen. It’s all there, right before their eyes, taking them everywhere they need to be without making them travel outside The Volume.

The implications of what StageCraft and The Volume can offer the television industry are huge to say the least. Instead of wasting budgets flying stars and crew all over the world to shoot single scenes on location, a high level production could just stay put on a single lot. Rather than ask a performer to stare at a tennis ball to coax a reaction out of them, you can show them the monster they’re meant to fear.

The Mandalorian shooting on the Volume
Photo: Lucasfilm

From an artistic perspective, as veteran actor Giancarlo Esposito admitted in Disney Gallery, it’s a game changer.

“Now we have a room where there are things that you can see. Where I can climb up on top of my TIE fighter and see the horizon. It’s interactive. I can now feel the power of that sun coming up,” Esposito said. “Wow, what a difference.”

As an answer for how Hollywood could get back to business during the COVID-19 pandemic? It’s a potential godsend.

One of the biggest challenges facing productions trying to keep up with COVID guidelines is keeping track of all the moving parts of a production. We’re talking the folks who strike sets, build them, set them with props, adjust lighting, etc. And then there’s the fact that a lot of productions flit between working on a soundstage and on location. It’s a nightmare for containment. However, a single contained set like The Mandalorian‘s Volume might offer the potential for a show or film to shoot within its own “bubble.” Potentially uncomfortable for the cast and crew? Sure. Possibly a way to get back to business? Absolutely.

The Volume in Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian
Photo: Lucasfilm

Whether or not The Mandalorian‘s tech paves the way for Hollywood post-pandemic return, it’s already earning awards. The show has already won five Emmys in technical categories including Outstanding Special Visual Effects. And the series is still in the running for four more, to be awarded on Emmys night. Like it or not, but it seems that The Mandalorian‘s Best Drama Emmy nomination came on the strength of its production. And on that merit, it was well-earned. The Mandalorian‘s contributions to television production have yet to be fully appreciated only a year after its debut. However, there are already shows — like Amazon Amazon’s Prime Rewind: Inside the Boys — already using similar lightscreen tech to liven up its socially distanced interviews.

Even more exciting might be the freshman class of directors that Favreau invited to play in this new technological sandbox. Along with veteran Star Wars leader Dave Filoni, he recruited the likes of Oscar-winner Taika Waititi, Rick Famuyiwa, Deborah Chow, and Bryce Dallas Howard to helm episodes in The Mandalorian‘s first season. Together, it’s a team of diverse voices, both in terms of artistry and representation, ensuring that the experts of this new tech won’t just be, uh, straight white guys.

The Mandalorian might not seem at first glance to be as groundbreaking a series as Watchmen, which is nominated this year in Best Limited Series Emmy category, or as precise a drama as some of its competitors in the Best Drama category. But what The Mandalorian brings to the table is a template of what the future of TV production might be. Because of that, it’s arguably the most important drama of the year. If not the last few decades.

Watch The Mandalorian on Disney+

Watch Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian, Episode 4 “Technology” on Disney+

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