View Full Version : Imagining Star Wars

04-14-2004, 10:34 AM
(I'm posting this here because the "submit news" link will not allow me in.)

Read the article here, but I encourage you to go directly to the link. Some very cool pictures are posted on the site.


By Ellen Wolff

Millimeter, Nov 1, 2003

The Evolving Role of Concept Artists Through Three Decades

It was a chilly spring night in San Francisco, but the weather didn't deter the crowd queuing outside the Academy of Art College. They were waiting to see honorary doctorates bestowed upon two artists who helped define the look of the Star Wars universe — Ralph McQuarrie and Douglas Chiang. Many in the crowd weren't even alive in 1975 when McQuarrie first drew R2-D2 and Darth Vader, but their standing ovation spoke volumes about the enduring impact of his designs. Of course, it didn't hurt that the Academy had arranged to screen the awards scene in Star Wars where Princess Leia honors Luke Skywalker and Han Solo. The clip prompted cheers from the crowd, underscoring the celebratory mood.

Presented as part of the college's Legends of Film Graphics series, the program included Star Wars concept art and comments from McQuarrie and Chiang. Their perspectives on designing environments, characters, and costumes for the Lucas franchise were a study in how their craft has evolved from pen and paper to digital tools. For the first movie, Star Wars: Episode IV-A New Hope, McQuarrie had to design characters like the robot C-3PO and the wookie Chewbacca so they could be inhabited by actors. By the time Doug Chiang was creating art for 1999's Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace, Industrial Light + Magic's computer animation expertise enabled him to design underwater worlds and armies of 10,000 droids.

In The Beginning
“I understand my pictures did something to convince Fox to make a Star Wars movie,” McQuarrie said modestly. He recalled how he was a freelance artist working out of his garage when George Lucas dropped off a script for a space fantasy. McQuarrie previously drew technical illustrations for Boeing and graphics for CBS-TV coverage of lunar landings. But his first drawing for Lucas was all about personality — he gave shape to the robots R2-D2 and C-3PO. “I made the painting in about two days,” he recalled. Images of Darth Vader, sandcrawlers, and the Death Star soon followed, providing the designs that sealed the deal.

While Lucas filmed Star Wars in England, McQuarrie painted in Southern California. He created some matte paintings, some of which were 6ft. long. He'd strap them onto the roof of his car and drive to where Lucas' fledgling visual effects team could photograph them. Although the modern effects era was just coming of age, artists like McQuarrie soon learned to accommodate their designs to the requirements of techniques like motion control photography.

One case in point was the ominous orb Lucas called the Death Star. “George wanted it to be spherical,” said McQuarrie. “My first thought was ‘a sphere?’ That's a comfortable, approachable shape, like an egg. It isn't really threatening. In my early drawings the sphere was a lot smaller, but [effects supervisor] John Dykstra said, ‘For our horizon to appear flat, like the earth, it's got to be really big.’ So we made this 3 1/2ft. diameter Plexiglas sphere, and I decorated it with tape and layers of paper glued onto it. We put a light inside, and I cut little holes to let light shine through. That made a very convincing Death Star.”

The early days of Star Wars design had a “boys building model planes” quality about it, and job descriptions were flexible. But the aesthetic direction Lucas established back then continues to this day — he still envisions the Star Wars universe as a lived-in place. “George insisted on rust and dents, to convince people that these things were actually there, “said McQuarrie. “Most people envisioned the future to be all airbrushed and smooth, but that's unreal. We weren't trying to create ‘the future.’ This was just another galaxy, far, far away.”

Industrial-Strength Design
McQuarrie's Boeing background helped him design plausible spaceships and vehicles. “I think in 3D, and I can pretty much draw whatever I can imagine. I'd listened to engineers talk about projects, and then made drawings that reflected their ideas.” For Star Wars, and later for The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, McQuarrie followed a similar method. “I would step into a scene in my mind and walk through it, picking angles on things. I'd make thumbnail sketches showing the basic composition of a shot. Then I'd make a larger pencil drawing and blow that up to the size I was going to paint.” Explaining his design process to the Academy audience, McQuarrie provoked laughter when he recalled doing one painting from a particularly extreme perspective, and getting chided by Lucas. He recalled the director saying, “I'll pick the camera angles, Ralph!”

Lucas was clear about his preferences, marking concept art with one of three stamps: “OK,” “Not OK,” and

“Wonderful.” He did approve (though McQuarrie remembers Lucas was reluctant) the designer's idea of giving Darth Vader his infamous breathing mask. “George wanted a helmet like a Japanese warrior. But I was afraid Darth would die in the vacuum of space when he jumped from one ship to another, so he should have a mask.”

Despite the primitive effects technology available when Star Wars began, McQuarrie said Lucas' approach was always, 'Make what you think is ideal and don't worry how we're going to make it work.' So I tended to concentrate on how things looked. It didn't always turn out like I wanted!” One example was McQuarrie's idea for R2-D2 — initially envisioned as a capsule-like robot that rolled gyroscopically. While that would have been clearly unwieldy using mid-1970's mechanics, such a robot could easily be realistically animated today in CG.

The Second Generation
And CG became the means by which R2-D2 scooted around in the Star Wars prequel episodes — 1999's The Phantom Menace and 2002's Attack of the Clones. ILM's capacity to animate photoreal CG has meant that McQuarrie's robots and even famous puppet characters like Yoda could perform unprecedented feats. That opened up the floodgates for the second generation of Star Wars concept artists.

Prominent among them was Doug Chiang, who began his remarks to the Academy audience by acknowledging, “I'm riding on Ralph McQuarrie's coattails. I started in this business because of his work.” Educated in both film and industrial design, Chiang worked at ILM on projects like Terminator 2, Forrest Gump, and Death Becomes Her, which earned him an Oscar. In 1995, Lucasfilm tapped Chiang as director of concept design for The Phantom Menace. (Lucas also tried to lure back McQuarrie, who had expanded his reputation with designs for E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Oscar-winning contributions to Cocoon. But as McQuarrie admitted, “I was kind of ‘Star-Warred’ out. Besides, Doug had a ton of drawings and paintings that were knockouts, so I told George I didn't think I'd have anything to add.”)

Chiang's tenure in the Star Wars milieu marked a transitional time in the evolution of concept art, as the design process was moving inexorably into the digital realm. Although skilled on computers, Chiang admitted, “I still prefer the feeling of the grit of paper. There's a direct connection with a piece of art. But because film schedules are so tight, the computer is almost a dream tool. You can shorten the time it takes to design something by a factor of two, if not more. But the inherent danger with powerful tools is that you can hide poor design with lots of glitz.“

Given the rapid expansion of digital pipelines at both Lucasfilm and ILM during the 1990s, Chiang's hand-drawn work was quickly scanned into computers. Color, lighting, and textures were added, and the designs moved on to other collaborators, including the sculptors who built 3D maquettes. Once a piece of art is digital, Chiang explained, “It can be cut into a sequence or mapped onto 3D geometry to actually construct a scene. It enables you to approximate a more finished look. Ultimately, these tools are making it easier for the whole design of a film to happen in one department. That's something that wasn't readily available a few years ago.”

No Limits
The creative implications of this, Chiang noted, “are very liberating.” Having worked at ILM, the designer was aware that previously impossible ideas could now be attempted. Chiang recalled Lucas telling him the same thing he told McQuarrie, 'Don't worry about how we're going to do it. Just design something that works for the story.' “For a designer, that opens up everything. But because designers like parameters to work within, that's also frightening,” said Chiang. “It can be difficult when the possibilities are too great.”

High on Chiang's wish list of possibilities was the massive army of battle droids in The Phantom Menace. Unlike McQuarrie, Chiang, “didn't have to worry about puppets or men in suits,” he says. “In fact, we actually tried to design our droid so that it was virtually impossible to get a person in there! But we didn't want to make things so outrageous that they weren't anchored in any kind of reality. Because if audiences start disbelieving, it takes them out of the film experience.”

The artistic team behind Episodes I and II, Chiang noted, “fortunately understood the fundamentals of anatomy and industrial design.” Chiang, who based his design for Queen Amidala's sleek spaceship on the U.S. military's stealth bomber, emphasized, “You have to imbue objects with a real world sense. When people see something, they have to be able to understand quickly what it can do. That's important for Star Wars films, which are already one step removed from reality.”

Which is not to say Chiang's team held back, particularly with the pod race in The Phantom Menace, which was designed to be almost totally virtual. “We wondered if we could really do that,” he recalled. “I remember showing some work to John Knoll, one of ILM's visual effects supervisors, and his jaw dropped. But he didn't say, ‘We can't do it,’ It was more like ‘Wow, I don't know how we're going to do it, but we're going to try.’”

Merging Old And New
It was actually Lucas who put the brakes on one of the more ambitious concepts for Episode I. ILM's animators were itching to digitally animate Yoda. “We probably could have brought a lot more life to the character with the tools we had,” said Chiang. “But George wanted to hold back a bit. He said, ‘It needs to look like the Yoda we know.’” Lucas would wait until Episode II to create a scene where a digital Yoda kicks butt.

In addition to Yoda, reprising the Jedi light sabers and the familiar desert planet of Tatooine helped tie Episodes I and II into the Star Wars tradition. For Episode II, Chiang even designed a clone army that would presage the white-armored Stormtroopers that McQuarrie designed for what eventually will be considered Episode IV, the original Star Wars.

But Lucas also wanted to depict several additional, exotic environments in his prequels. Increasingly, he was filming actors against bluescreen and showing concept art to his cast and crew so they would get a sense of the final shots he had in mind.

On the art of designing virtual sets, Chiang remarked, “In Episode I we were still tapping the boundaries of what was possible. We had partial practical sets enhanced with virtual sets. For Episode II we knew that a lot of the sets couldn't be built, just because of the quality of the material. On the water planet of Kamino, for instance, there were vast cloning rooms where we needed a luminous light quality coming out of the walls. That would have been very difficult to achieve with practical materials, so we knew from the beginning that there would have to be some kind of a digital background. Certain scenes were almost test cases for how far we could push virtual backgrounds with bluescreen actors.”

The Fine Details
The need to invent sets, and even complete environments, meant that Chiang had to have detailed drawings of everything — from doorknobs to the overall look. “If we had time, we would actually build specific elements,” said Chiang. “For example, with complex forms like robots, it was necessary to go from drawings to 3D maquettes to work out all the joints. You can ‘cheat’ in 2D and sometimes draw something that can't be built. In the 3D world there's very little cheating. We sometimes even modeled something in 3D-CG to interpret what a physical model might look like in the virtual world. All that information was passed to the next department, whether that was ILM or another group. It was our job to provide everyone with the most up-to-date, accurate information — all the material references, the geometry references — everything that was necessary to complete a shot.”

As the concept artist's job description expanded, so did the team. They needed, as one Lucasfilm executive reportedly put it, “Ralph McQuarrie types.” Fitting the bill were Ryan Church and Erik Tiemens from ILM. The pair would eventually rise to the position of concept design supervisors for Episode III, with Chiang moving on to The Polar Express.

But when Church and Tiemens first arrived during Episode II, Church recalls, “We were there to provide keyframe production illustrations that would link Doug Chiang's concept work and the final images that ILM's matte painters and effects crew were creating. We were previsualizing lighting, mood, and color schemes.”

The Next Level
The idea of previsualizing an entire film — creating an animatic, or “moving blueprint” — has increasingly characterized Lucas' approach. That's become especially crucial as the amount of virtual material continues to rise. As Church observes, “There are lots of exotic places that have no direct correspondence to our own world.”

The conceptual process still begins, however, with the hand of an artist like Church, although he wields a computer stylus and not a brush or pen. Church uses the program Painter to emulate oil, acrylic, gouache, or watercolor paintings. “We're lucky enough to be in the first generation where computers are fast enough and software is comprehensive enough to do that,” he says.

Trained in industrial design, Church operates under the same directives that Star Wars artists always have — to design things that look like they could actually exist. “We've had to design cultures and objects that are supposed to look like they've been around for thousands of years and have had a natural evolutionary process. And they have to look right for their environments. Of course, we couldn't have just one iconic form language. George wanted five or six of them.”

When Lucas reviews concept art, he still uses stamps like he did with McQuarrie. But now he uses just two: ‘OK’ and ‘Fabuloso.’ Church explains, “If something is unstamped, it means ‘I don't want to see that again.’ It could be a great design, but it doesn't belong in the Star Wars universe.”

The approved concept art then moves on to sculptors who build actual models, and to Lucasfilm's animatics department. The latter, Church explains, “get our paintings into 3D moving space. Those paintings fill in the backgrounds and the animatics guys build off them. George wanted our talents to be put towards making a self-contained ‘document’ that would be as faithful to the final movie as possible. Hundreds of detailed animatic shots get created. This infrastructure has risen with the advent of these digitally heavy films.”

The Modern Art Of Collaboration
The digital infrastructure has also given Lucas himself an increasingly powerful way to communicate with everyone from set builders to CG modelers. On Episode III, which Church and his fellow artists spent a year designing, the animatics reflected a higher degree of finish than had ever been achieved before. “This is the first show where we've been able to really implement this volume of work,” notes Church. “We basically got the entire thing mapped out in complete color and design. It will change as things get more photorealistically resolved, of course. But the actors, and the DP as he lights a scene, can literally see what George wants a shot to look like. They're no longer looking at black-and-white sketches or one or two key production images. It gets everyone on the same page.”

Once Lucas began shooting Episode III in the summer of 2003, the responsibilities of Church and Tiemans shifted. They became more like art directors, overseeing the translation of ideas by the visual effects and animation teams. By the time the rough cut animatics arrived at ILM, Church asserts, “The idea was that there should be no question about what something was supposed to look like. The people at ILM have enough to worry about in executing the photoreal shots, so anytime we can take pressure off their hands they really appreciate it.”

They can't be too prepared, either. Back on Episode II, for example, Church and Tiemans had to work out an airborne chase of speeder cars above the neon metropolis of Coruscant, which Doug Chiang designed as a cross between Tokyo's Ginza district and Las Vegas. By the time the ILM crew undertook the filming of the sequence, they knew they'd need a model of the city that was 50ft. long.

The Saga Ends
While there has been a clear creative through-line from McQuarrie to Chiang to Church, there is something underway now that hasn't happened before. Episode III, due in 2005, will bring the Star Wars epic full circle. The “age of exploration” depicted in The Phantom Menace and Attack of The Clones now moves toward the rise of Darth Vader and the galaxy-wide conflict of the original Star Wars.

Ralph McQuarrie, whose art helped start it all, is as curious as anyone to see if George can set up Star Wars. “After all, that film was about a terrible rebel war,” said McQuarrie. But McQuarrie is certain about one thing: He's astonished by the lasting impact of his designs. “I still get letters from people who tell me that they saw my work when they were kids and it inspired them to become artists. That's the most amazing thing of all.”

04-14-2004, 01:27 PM
Interesting read!

04-14-2004, 06:48 PM
I didn't know that's why Chiang did Ep 1, I always felt like Chiang was an interloper on McQuarrie's territory so it's very surprising to learn that it wasn't that way at all. McQuarrie is the master IMO, his work always has so much life in it, I should probably go thumb through The Illustrated SW Universe again, that book is fantastic.