Interview – ILMxLAB Producer Harvey Whitney And CG & Lighting Lead Ronman Ng Talk About Bringing Star Wars: Tales From The Galaxy’s Edge – Enhanced Edition To PlayStation VR2 – The PlayStation VR2 is almost in our hands, and those with pre-orders (like myself) can hardly wait.
This new VR platform is a huge major step forward for Sony and its VR efforts, though good hardware can’t survive without games worth jumping into on it.
That’s where titles like Star Wars: Tales From The Galaxy’s Edge – Enhanced Edition come in, as the different Star Wars tales first released on the Oculus Quest between 2020 and 2021 come together in one big immersive Star Wars package.
I got the chance to speak with two members of the development team from ILMxLAB, producer Harvey Whitney and the lighting department supervisor for the studio who worked as the CG lead on Galaxy’s Edge, Ronman Ng about bringing these set of tales to PS VR2, and the joy that Star Wars is still capable of bringing out in us.
Interview – ILMxLAB Producer Harvey Whitney And CG & Lighting Lead Ronman Ng Talk About Bringing Star Wars: Tales From The Galaxy’s Edge – Enhanced Edition To PlayStation VR2
“It’s pretty dramatic,” is how producer Harvey Whitney describes the difference from playing something like ILMxLAB’s previous title Vader Immortal on PSVR, when I ask him about how the difference feels.
Though, that’s the kind of language you’d be hoping to see in this new jump in VR generations, especially as it also ties in with a whole new home console generation with the PS5.
Which is a key aspect of why this new generation of VR gave developers so much more to play with.
“I think having it run on PS5 for us and just being able to see our expanded tool set, right?” says Ronman Ng.
“Because then when we look at doing something, our question is ‘Oh, what’s our budget?’ and with PS5 our budget is so much greater than anything we could have done.
So it was really a question of revisiting all the elements of our image making and trying to sort of, you know, spend that amazing budget that we got from PS5.
And also to figure out with the PS VR2 headset, what are the capabilities and the strengths of that hardware that we can leverage with our images.”
This all becomes more exciting to think about when considering that we’re not talking about a Vader Immortal upgrade from PSVR to PS VR2.
We’re talking about an upgrade for Star Wars: Tales From The Galaxy’s Edge, which never made it to PlayStation before this coming release.
Speaking of Vader Immortal however, though I did ask, there’s no word on whether or not it’ll be making its way to PS VR2. For now, the studio is focusing on Galaxy’s Edge.
It still works well as a comparison title though, as both Whitney and Ng have been with ILMxLAB for more than five years, and have worked on both titles.
Before ILMxLAB, Ng came from a computer animation background and has worked on films like Boss Baby and How To Train Your Dragon.
“I stared out at Dreamworks, Pixar, Oculus Story Studio. I think that’s when I branched into real-time and VR and all things immersive. And that was a great departure for me.”
Whitney however came to ILMxLAB after years of working across AAA games and mobile games, which includes some time working on games like the first two Bioshock titles, Jak II, and SOCOM: U.S Navy Seals.
“I came from traditional AAA games, did some work in mobile games, and then went back to AAA games, and you know, wanted to do something new and exciting.
There was an opportunity at ILMxLAB and at the time they were working on really cool new creative things. I’m like, that sounds like an awesome place. And they’re trying all sorts of different things and very immersive storytelling, so I wanted to be a part of that.”
Elaborating further on the difference between playing something on PSVR versus PS VR2, Whitney said, “Just the visual quality is the one that jumps out, right from the beginning, if you look at the two different headsets and how things work.
But then you gotta take into account audio. We have 3D surround audio now in Tales From The Galaxy’s Edge and it makes a huge difference. And then you throw in the haptics between both the headset and the controller.
I think those three things jump out really immediately, as the big differences between those experiences, and it’s pretty dramatic.”
It seems that across the VR space, the trend of what the PS VR2 means for developers is simply more potential, when compared to other headsets on the market like Oculus.
“I think the expanded view, for one thing,” begins Ng when listing hardware upgrades he appreciates as a developer on PS VR2.
“It’s definitely the resolution, for me, the expanded view, the fact that I could basically have more atmospherics, dynamic lighting. Those are the things that really improve the immersion experience for people.”
Lighting in particular can be a huge aspect of what makes any visual media, be it a game, VR or non-VR, a film, tv show. It can be the difference between an immersive experience that draws you in for hours, and something that just never quite looks right.
And there are plenty more challenges added when it comes to lighting something in VR. One of the main ones being that the player could be looking anywhere at any given time.
“I think in VR because you have agency to look wherever you want,” says Ng, “It becomes sort of a team challenge to figure out compositionally, more from a world view as opposed to a frame view, how to best compose lights.
Whether it means creating depth and space, or using lights to create shapes that help guide the composition. Those are some of our challenges, and also player movement, right?”
For Ng, a quote stolen from cinematographer Roger Deacons, “Lighting design succeeds when it is in service to the story,” acts as an ever-constant rule to his work.
“I think you know, as artists we know how to make a pretty picture, but what’s the powerful part is to actually make a pretty picture serve something, and to understand once you do that, it actually makes our job easier because we know what our goal is, and how to best partner with other departments.
Whether its audio, whether its design, whether its animation, when we’ve all got our eyes on the same target, and also trying to get that mood and emotion. It really just strengthens the experience for people.”
This new version of Tales From The Galaxy’s Edge is marked as the ‘Enhanced Edition,’ and the markers that players can expect will make this version enhanced are different when I ask Ng and Whitney about what it means for this to be the ‘Enhanced Edition.’
“Well right from the start I would say its the full version, right?” begins Whitney. “There’s no DLC, its the complete edition of all the content. And then I don’t want to just go past the visuals, its pretty dramatic when you put that headset on and you see it, and then mix in the audio and the haptics and all those combined, it is a very immersive experience that you just kind of get lost in.
It all just works together in harmony. It’s a really great experience.”
For Ng, the meaning behind this new version being ‘Enhanced’ unsurprisingly comes from all the re-working he and his department did to put Tales From The Galaxy’s Edge in a new light, so to speak.
“I think we definitely benefited from revisiting atmospherics, having dynamic shadows. Dynamic lighting is such a great toy for us, right? Also the characters respond so much better with better sub-surface scattering. Those are some of the material things that we brought to the visual fidelity.”
The PS VR2 means a lot more power and potential for VR developers, but its also another aspect of what seems to be a rising surge of interest in VR and VR gaming, something that all VR developers are happy to see, Whitney and Ng included.
“We always want to have more ways to tell our stories, right?” says Whitney. “And so the fact that there’s another headset out there, and people are very much into VR, we’re excited about that because we love telling stories. That’s where everything starts with us at ILMxLAB.”
And when it comes to new stories to tell, Ng points to the expansiveness of the Star Wars universe.
“I think it’s [Star Wars: Tales From The Galaxy’s Edge] a great follow up to Vader Immortal. Vader Immortal was more of a linear story, and Tales was sort of like, what can we do a little bit differently that’s also in this Star Wars world. There is a lot more freedom to explore it in different ways.
I really like that as a participant, you can actually have your own experiences and make your own story.”
Between Tales From The Galaxy’s Edge, Vader Immortal, and the other VR experiences ILMxLAB has developed, it’s been a lot of Star Wars for Ng, Whitney, and the rest of the team.
As a Star Wars fan myself, I was curious to hear what moments stood out to Ng and Whitney as special, moments where the Star Wars universe just really shined as a fun world to be working in.
“One of my favourite moments, and this is just personal to me, is when I was actually interviewing with ILMxLAB to come on. They took me around and gave me a demo, they put me in a headset.
And I had this moment where I had a controller in my hand and I hit a button and it was a lightsaber. Just that whole process, the sound effects, (imitates lightsaber turning on sound), the visuals, I was like, this is amazing. I’m holding a lightsaber in my hand.
It felt real to me and it blew me away, and I was just turning the lightsaber on and off. So that was one of those moments that was like, this is the future, right? Like I’m actually holding a lightsaber in my hand. I’m turning it on and off, and it just blew me away.”
Where as Whitney’s memory calls back a feeling of awe and wonder, Ng’s had a more sinister setting, though the feeling of excitement brought out by Star Wars still infected every aspect.
“I started at ILMxLAB working on Secrets Of The Empire, which was a location-based void experience. And that was my first foray into immersion and Star Wars.
But the apex for me was probably in Vader Immortal when I worked on lighting Vader walking towards you. That was when I was like ‘wow,’ like hearing him breathe, seeing him come down the hallway.
It was like, this is great. This is the movie experience for characters that we know and love, it’s being able to be in the same space with him. It’s pretty amazing.”
That ‘pretty amazing’ feeling will soon be available to all PS VR2 players when Star Wars: Tales From The Galaxy’s Edge – Enhanced Edition launches with the new VR platform on February 22, 2023.
Thank you to Harvey Whitney and Ronman Ng for taking the time to speak with me. For more on Star Wars: Tales From The Galaxy’s Edge – Enhanced Edition, check out our review of the game right here.