With its birth-of-the-rebellion prequel-to-a-prequel, Star Wars finally has a new hope amidst a slew of underwhelming television efforts, and all they had to do was make a series that looked and felt like a real show. Compared to other Disney+ flagships, Star Wars has always fared better visually. Hiring filmmakers with an eye for dynamic, flashy spectacle (JJ Abrams, Rian Johnson, Gareth Edwards) has meant that the TV offerings have to step up to the franchise’s already established look in order to compete with the films.
But Andor isn’t the only fantasy prequel game in town. In an embarrassment of riches, HBO’s House of the Dragon and Prime Video’s The Rings of Power guide our return into the two most well-known fantasy realms, with networks and studios staking a lot on keeping up big engagement throughout a season’s run. TV may be better suited to fantasy stories than film, giving gestating storylines about centuries of lore more time to breathe over episodic installments, but that also multiplies runtimes and catapults budgets. The whole process involves tons of money and, as it turns out, labor exploitation. It’s a thankless task for animators; not only are they being burnt out and inadequately compensated, but when their work looks less-than-convincing, their talent is what’s questioned rather than the unjust and impractical conditions of their labor.
Visual effects are not the be-all-end-all to fantastical storytelling. This is drama, remember, we need characters, themes, pacing—all those regular storytelling apparati to keep us engaged with spectacle. But if mass audiences may not be regularly calling out thematic inconsistency or clumsy act structure, everyone with eyeballs can point at the screen whenever they see unconvincing visual effects. What’s more, we’re barely ever harsh on CGI in conventional, regular dramas—only when the fantastic spectacle is the draw do we see fit to complain over isolated effects. Of course, you don’t complain about dodgy effects when the show is spectacular; anyone denying their legitimate engagement with a story because of some digital hokeyness is lying to themselves about what they want out of TV.
So with its dramatically compelling characters and patient but urgent storytelling, Andor comes out a clear winner. It’s the best Star Wars TV has looked since early Mandalorian (maybe even better!); it retains the gritty aesthetic of Rogue One; everything is tinged with ‘70s smog, layered with tangible dirt. Even these brand-new sets are made mundane in the best of ways—a brick outer-rim town, a vibey bar, a corporate office—which causes everything to look and feel just enough like the world we recognize does more than offer an entry point to a fantastical world. We implicitly understand what our characters’ relationship to the spaces are, and what the interpersonal dynamics will be like inside them. It’s basic screenwriting, the building blocks of drama!
Andor’s look isn’t just commendable for its practical sets, there’s very little to fault with the special effects either, as it’s the first live-action Star Wars series not to use “The Volume.” The StageCraft video wall acts like a smart rear-screen projector, where computer-generated landscapes are blown up on massive screens surrounding actors, shifting and changing based on what effects are needed, where the actors move, and how the camera repositions.
When used in sync with various other complicated filmmaking techniques, the Volume can look impressive—see The Mandalorian Season 1 or The Batman. But just like greenscreen or compositing effects, no technology is an easy fix; you can’t just plug it in and hope it’ll look convincing, and Disney has given us plenty of recent examples of its shortcomings. (See Boba Fett, Kenobi, and, if you can stomach it, Thor: Love and Thunder.) While one piece of technology is not to blame for Star Wars TV’s recent efforts feeling lackluster, Andor’s choice is significant. Disney must still think of it as a prestigious, ground-breaking innovation, using it for their biggest event series of the year, Obi-Wan Kenobi, but letting the much less buzzy Andor go ahead without. “We’re old school,” says Andor showrunner Tony Gilroy (yes, the screenwriting legend and Michael Clayton director is doing a Star Wars show, but honestly after Robert Rodriguez helmed Boba Fett, all bets are off).
Andor is a refreshing reminder that the merging of film and television resources, both in writing and craft, can still be visible on a blockbuster streaming scale. Whenever Andor needs a moodily lit promenade, an abandoned construction hanger, or an Amazon-esque jungle, we’re given gorgeously photographed evidence of their existence. The same attention to detail is given to shuttle buses and interplanetary phone booths as the spaceship interiors and Imperial control rooms. Maybe that will be Andor’s legacy: in a world where the far beyond is being projected onto state-of-the-art screens, Andor painstakingly brought to life the mundanities of the galaxy.
Other than overloading audiences with prestigious nerd content, the current TV landscape makes for an excellent case study. House of the Dragon and Rings of Power join Andor in big names filling up our screens, and having to work extra hard to prove these are stories worth telling. Rings of Power, drawing from the thousands of years of Tolkein’s invented history, also has the honor of being the most expensive show in television history, but manages to be an uncommonly positive example of “throwing money at the screen.” Middle-earth and its further isles are dazzling, with no expense spared to reconstruct and expand upon Peter Jackson’s filmic world. (It’s there in the action too—Rings of Power further enshrines into Tolkein canon elves’ ability to do kick-ass flips.)
Meanwhile, House of the Dragon seems to be stuck in two worlds: a continuation of the epic, bombastic latter seasons of Game of Thrones, and a back-to-basics reset to the simmering thrills of talking-in-rooms-and-raising-eyebrows when the show first started. The narrative of a prequel will always be tinged by what’s already happened/what’s going to happen, but the stretches where people look upset and say, “It is not advisable, your grace” sure are fun. And yes, there are dragons.
House of the Dragon’s CG has summoned some detractors. Visually, it mirrors Thrones’ vision; a murky, medieval world that doesn’t look as flashy or polished as other fantasy media, and certainly not like the polished look of Rings of Power. Some setpieces in Dragon, like Daemon’s surrender-deception to the Triarchy and the ensuing chase and battle, just look… undercooked. Thrones’ CGI eventually became extensive, but the real stunner was its production design, the towering sets and swathes of filthy, cursing extras brought the grime and grit of Westeros to life. Remember, the show was a huge risk, and Season 1 didn’t have nearly enough budget to translate George R.R. Martin’s book scene-for-scene—Tyrion was even unconscious for a main battle to avoid showing it. House of the Dragon maybe had enough CG money for their big dragons and, like even the most accomplished fantastical spectacle, some sequences just got less time and money allocated to them.
Whenever audiences get bombarded with meaningless effects, you often hear the argument that CGI should be only used to further a story in creative ways. It’s true, but still a reductive way to look at a filmmaking tool that operates like any other. Effects, like camera movements, lighting, and color correction, are a way to manipulate images to evoke feelings and moods. With its tents stuck up in muddy fields and guts being ripped open, House of the Dragon still evokes that gritty realism of Thrones, but now with a more dangerous, macabre edge—fire and blood digitally rendered atop the simmering political chesswork. Rings of Power couldn’t feel more different, with pristine, mystical worlds of elves, dwarves, and utopic havens of men grounded in just the right ways, marrying the denseness of Tolkein’s histories with that gorgeous Jacksonian lightness of touch.
But with endless locations and production design borrowed from our world—but remaining authentically Star Wars—Andor may turn out to be the surprise champion of effects-heavy television. Maybe it’s to do with Tony Gilroy’s daunting screenwriting experience compared to the light resumes of Dragon and Rings’ showrunners, but CGI is consistently used to guide its audience through the emotional interiority of its characters, on top of evoking mood like the other fantasy big-hitters on TV right now. Perhaps the only disappointing thing between the enviable effects on our small screens is that we’re only being sold on a visual style that’s come before; these shows have no issue with mimicking how Westeros, Middle-earth, and the Empire’s galaxy have been shown to us already. But now blockbuster series seem to have found how to meld big scale spectacle with episodic drama, so the door is wide open for something novel to take our breath away.
Rory Doherty is a screenwriter, playwright and culture writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.
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