Exploring Mustafar – Behind Episode I

Written by Kelly Knox


We’re giving a look at how Vader Immortal: A Star Wars VR Series came to be in our written series titled “Exploring Mustafar.” From a digital artbook written by StarWars.com contributor Kelly Knox, we’ve shared the contents out across four online pages to provide insight into how Vader Immortal was brought to life when it was created in 2019, back when ILM Immersive was still ILMxLAB.

“A word of advice. Do not anger Vader.” —Admiral Karius
As Vader Immortal begins, you find yourself in the shoes of a ship captain making your way through the galaxy with your trusty droid companion, ZO-E3, at your side. Your ship, the Windfall, shudders as it’s abruptly dragged out of hyperspace. The Galactic Empire has found you. You’re escorted to the surface of Mustafar, a volcanic planet in the Outer Rim. In the gloom of a prison in the depths of a foreboding fortress, you meet the imposing Admiral Karius. Then, Darth Vader himself steps out of the shadows in a heart-pounding encounter you’ll never forget. “We got a glimpse of Vader’s castle in Rogue One. What is he up to there? What is he going through there?” said Director Ben Snow. “We get to sneak around and zoom in on some moments that you wouldn’t normally get to see.” The Dark Lord of the Sith tasks you with unlocking a one of a kind artifact. As the configuration opens, it identifies you as a descendant of Lady Corvax, a Force-sensitive ruler of the once thriving planet who lived centuries ago. She stole the Mustafarians’ Bright Star, a powerful and sacred object, to bring her husband Dorwin Corvax back to life. The result was catastrophic.
“Mustafar was once a verdant and green world, and this fortress harkens back to that time—thousands of years before the films we know,” Lucasfilm Creative Executive Matt Martin said. “The Bright Star is, in part, responsible for turning Mustafar from the lush green world of the ancient past into the fiery hellscape we first saw in Revenge of the Sith and later in Rogue One.” Darth Vader now seeks the Bright Star for his own purposes, and you’re the only one who can retrieve it for him. After you escape the Empire’s clutches, a priestess of Mustafar asks you to find the Bright Star and risk everything to return it to her people instead. This unexpected path will take you into the depths of the castle with the Dark Lord of the Sith at your side. “This is a hidden area of the fortress that hasn’t really been explored,” said Snow. “The Mustafarians know of it through legend. It’s a good chance to poke around in an unexplored part of Star Wars.”


During its initial design phase, the Star Wars VR project was given the tongue- in-cheek working title “Weekend at Ani’s.” Mohen Leo created a visual outline of story beats overlaid on the landscape to show progression through the environment. As character locations and interactions were laid out in a rough storyboard, Vader Immortal came to life. “This was the first time we’d created something like this, a visual roadmap of where we wanted the project to go creatively,” said Sarah Barrick.



The captain and ZO-E3 call the Windfall home. The small ship has seen its fair share of adventures but is well cared for and expertly maintained. It also boasts plenty of storage for completely legitimate business opportunities.

The Windfall is pieced together with makeshift parts. “We did as much as we could visually to separate it from its Imperial surroundings,” said Concept Artist Stephen Todd. “We had cool lighting in the hangar and an earth-toned, beaten up scrapy- ard-assembled ship that was out of place. The two different worlds clash.”




“Early in Episode I is the only time we get to really get into who you are, where you come from, and your relationship with ZO-E3,” said Executive Producer Mark S. Miller. “The objects we have in your personal quarters, which you get a few moments to look at, give the backstory of where you’ve just come from and where you were heading before you’re so rudely grabbed out of hyperspace.”

Concept Artist Stephen Todd found just the right balance between the character and person controlling them in these ship interior pieces. “We wanted the ship to reflect not the personality of the player, but what their job was,” he said. “They were someone who was scrappy, a collector of things that might not be what most people collect, and made do with what they have. The fun part was creating things that look like they have a purpose, but they really don’t.”


Maps and Cross Sections

Vader Immortal begins in the far reaches of the Outer Rim and takes you to the molten surface of Mustafar and into the ruined depths below Fortress Vader. These early castle plans and cross sections illustrated by Erik Tiemens gave the designers an idea of how these locations could be connected to each other and traversed in virtual reality. “We needed this to map out the journey since we’re on a room-to-room exploration as we go through Vader’s castle and beyond,” Mark S. Miller recalled. “This explained it all.”

Statues and Bas Relief

Early environmental studies focused on establishing the ambience of the ruins below Fortress Vader. These pieces hint at the hidden past of the iconic planet that’s revealed as the story unfolds. Speckled stones in the statues and gleaming gold in the bas relief—which hides a surprise—add compelling details. “The sentries’ attack is the first time that you sense that this castle is a danger,” Concept Artist Stephen Todd said of the droids concealed in the walls. “We had been hinting at it the whole time by setting the mood with the atmosphere and lighting, and of course its association with Darth Vader. We had the idea, what if we had a decorative element that didn’t appear to be a threat, but then came out at you? We were trying to create something beautiful that would surprise you.”

Training Room

The captain and ZO-E3 find a lot more than they bargained for when they enter Darth Vader’s personal training room. The plucky pair are attacked by a deadly but oddly helpful training droid designed to challenge a Dark Lord of the Sith. “We had fun coming up with a bunch of different ideas of what kind of weapons that droid would have and what its configu- ration was,” Mark S. Miller said. “The minute we saw this droid character, we knew [Lucasfilm’s] Pablo Hidalgo had to voice it.” The training room was such a breath- taking experience in the first episode that it quickly inspired a new side project, Vader Immortal’s Lightsaber Dojo. Potential Jedi who wanted to flex their Force skills in VR could concentrate on taking on escalating challenges separate from the story. “That was so much fun that we decided we wanted to let people have a longer shot at it,” said Ben Snow. “We put a lot of work into making the lightsaber feel [realistic]. Lift it up to your ear, you can hear it.”


The enigmatic Priestess finally has some answers for Zoe and the captain. The Mustafarian leader shares the long history of the planet, which was once lush and peaceful, and the unforgettable tale of Lord and Lady Corvax.
“We had a lot of early conversations about what sort of animation style and rendering styles we wanted to bring to these vision sequences,” Mark S. Miller said. The team eventually decided to use an animation tool called Quill to set the past of Mustafar distinctly apart from the present. The result is a striking story that unfolds before your eyes in a dazzling, painterly style.


The captain and Darth Vader form an uneasy alliance as they descend into the Corvax castle ruins below the fortress. Ancient Corvaxian droids emerge from shadowy niches in the walls, programmed to guard the secrets buried beneath the surface of Mustafar. “Early on we were calling them kyber golems,” said Concept Artist Aaron McBride. “You would almost get the feeling that there was a furnace inside with the kyber crystal that would power them. They also had a spear that had superheated kyber on the tip.” The droid sentries tower above the unlucky troopers and Darth Vader in this concept art but were ultimately scaled down for more manageable combat mechanics. “We made these very tall, elongating the limbs,” McBride said. “The head and the torso are taken from the shape language of an old Joe Johnston sketch for The Empire Strikes Back.” As for the setting of the confrontation, designers faced a few challenges fitting a medieval castle into the galaxy far, far away. “We found a reference of an opera house in Berlin by an architect named Hans Poelzig from around the turn of the century,” said McBride. “It had this elongated pill shape similar to the motifs that are in Star Wars, but it was repetitive. It was a nice bridge of Ralph McQuarrie’s work and gave it the feeling of an ancient, gothic-looking cathedral that we were trying to achieve.”


Lightsabers hum and sparks fly as the Corvaxian sentries unleash their attacks while the elevator descends. “While you’re busy defending yourself,” said Mark S. Miller, “you can see Darth Vader methodically mowing through the Sentry droids with all of his powers on display.” “We thought it would be cool if the death troopers, established in Rogue One as super elite Imperial troopers, were no match for these ancient droids to make it a little scarier,” Aaron McBride recalled. “That’s why we had a lot of death troopers in these pieces, to show how powerful the Corvax droids were. What could be intimi- dating to not only death troopers, but also to Darth Vader?” Concept Artist Stephen Todd focused not only on the action but on the combatants’ surroundings as well. “We were trying to hide as much as possible in these environments to keep that dark and foreboding sense,” he said. “These classic pill-shaped interiors look similar to the lights in the Death Star in the way they’re arranged, but with just enough spin so that they’re familiar, yet different, for a horror twist on it. We inverted the white light into a pit of darkness.”

Read more of our Explore Mustafar series below

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