Rise of the Stormtroopers

Far from bumbling, the bad guys get tough in the fan film, Star Wars: The Last Stand.
By Meleah Maynard

Sekani Solomon’s short film, Star Wars: The Last Stand, was viewed nearly 2 million times in the first two months after he posted it on YouTube. It was a pleasant surprise, to say the least, Solomon says, particularly since the film was a personal project that started out as a gag when he was working as a motion designer at Imaginary Forces in 2016. He and Aled Jones, one of Imaginary Forces’ IT guys thought it would be fun to make something silly and cool, maybe with a Star Wars theme.

But many different things derailed that plan: Solomon went freelance, made a short film called Hidden and was one of the designers of 2019’s Semi Permanent titles, to name a few. Still, he managed to work on the fan film on and off for three years, mostly by himself using a combination of Cinema 4D, Houdini, Nuke, Redshift, X-Particles and After Effects. The result is a just-under 90-second full-CGI battle scene in which Star Wars Stormtroopers get to play the role of fierce, skilled fighters rather than bumblers who are easily mowed down like so many bowling pins.

“Stormtroopers always look silly and inept and I wanted to make something that reimagined them as dynamic, skilled fighters,” he explains. “It’s always cool to take a different perspective than that of the heroes. This film asks viewers to relate to the stormtroopers a bit more.”

Born in Trinidad and Tobago, Solomon currently lives in New York City where he works as a senior C4D generalist and designer at Cash App. Here he explains a bit about his background and the making of his latest film.

Tell me about yourself and how you became a Cinema 4D artist and designer.
I’ve always had an interest in art. I discovered Photoshop when I was about 14, and then I rediscovered it in 2008 when I was 18. I thought it was cool to make stills, but I really wanted to make things move, so I chose Cinema 4D and got into motion and 3D in 2009. At the same time, I was planning on going to college to study software engineering, but I realize I as way better at 3D and design, so I applied and got accepted to Savannah College of Art and Design. They had a lot of great internships, and I interned at Imaginary Forces, The Mill and other places.

I really had to hustle because I knew I either had to make this work or I would have to go back home. Imaginary Forces made me an offer for a full-time job before I graduated, so I took my last class online and stayed there until 2016 while doing some freelancing on the side. About a year ago, I took a staff gig at Cash App, but the work is really flexible, so I still freelance every now and then. At first, when I was just freelancing for Cash App, I didn’t think I wanted a staff job. But the culture there is very unique. They really foster creativity, and they kind of let me go wild and think of crazy, cool stuff that’s mostly for social media, so your imagination is really the limit.

Beyond having competent Stormtroopers, how is this battle scene different?
I knew the key was to illustrate the battle in an interesting way. To do that, I used dynamic camera angles, focused on moments and scenes you don’t usually see in Star Wars films and I came at things from a different perspective. Like, showing what the inside of a stormtroopers’ weapons and visors look like.

My buddy, Toros Kose, designed the visor interface in Illustrator and I think he did a fantastic job. We agreed the interface should have a good balance between utilitarian and abstract. I did the animation in C4D, and to make sure things didn’t feel flat, I pushed the Z space and comped some stuff in After Effects. I also wanted to use a lot of slow motion for some of the fighting moments to increase the impact on the viewer. I think that helped build an emotional connection with the troopers.

Describe your process for making the film over time.
It’s interesting because I worked in such a fragmented way on this over time. The initial creative I did were just some shots of stormtroopers facing off against some type of Jedi. I didn’t choreograph anything, bit I did have style frames in C4D, as well as some lighting, texturing and cool camera angles. Much later, when I picked it back up again, I thought more about how to design a camera move to feel more like one continuous shot that started inside a stormtrooper’s visor. I don’t usually do storyboards. I like to work in the software, and I think Cinema 4D is great for previsualizing shots in a way that helps me make better decisions.

Did you create and animate the stormtrooper characters yourself, too?
No. I am not a character animator. This project had no budget, and I didn’t want to pay anyone. I tried to do as much as I could myself, and then I convinced some people to help me. I got the characters from Mixamo for animation reference and, at first, I did try rigging a stormtrooper, but it was just terrible. I passed my stuff to my buddy, David Lee for reference. He’s a great character animator, and he used a rig made by my friend Martin Gunnarsson.

Most of the piece was animated in Cinema 4D, but Maya was used for the section where you see the wide shot of multiple stormtroopers in engaging in battle. David really helped me out with the sequence where they’re all fighting and shooting.

How did you handle the explosions and other VFX?
It’s Star Wars, so I knew I needed to have some visual effects. I mostly used Houdini and X-Particles, and the blaster shots were a pyro simulation so I could get the organic, fluid motion I wanted without the effect being so demanding computationally. The huge explosion at the end was one of the most challenging things, and also the most fun. I did a pyro simulation in Houdini, which powered a particle simulation using advection. I think that simulation had about 22 million particles if not more. I used both of those simulations to render the blast.

I really wanted it to come out a week before Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker so I could kind of capitalize on all the hype around that. Of course, a lot of things went wrong right as I was getting ready to release it, but I don’t like missing deadlines, so I just got through it and put it out there. A lot of people start personal project and never finish them. I think having a release date in mind and trying to stick to it really helps.

What advice do you have for other artists who want to do more personal work?
Choose something you’re interested in. But don’t plan to do something that you know you can’t do, or you’ll never get it done. Pick something you feel like you can learn and have patience with that. There are a lot of things I didn’t know how to do on this Star Wars project, but I did know how to do a lot of it, and I felt like I could learn what I needed to. It pays off in the end to do this kind of hard work, and if you need help, ask for it. It’s okay to not be able to do everything.

I made Hidden all on my own and learned that if you want something done right and can’t do it, ask someone to help you. Of course, it’s easier to do that if you have money to pay people, but if you don’t, there are other artists out there who want to work on a cool project so they can learn new skills and be a part of something they’re interested in too. It really brings people together.

Watch the Mograph Podcast interview with Sekani Solomon below

Directed By: Sekani Solomon
Audio by: Echoic
Rigging: Martin Gunnarsson, Preston Gibson
Character Animation: David Lee, Sekani Solomon
Interface Design: Toros Kose
2FX, Rendering, Animation, Composting: Sekani Solomon

Meleah Maynard is a writer and editor in Minneapolis, Minnesota.