5 Rules for Designing a ‘Star Wars’ Character

One of the people most directly responsible for the design of the “Star Wars” prequel is Doug Chiang, so it seemed only fitting that I would hop on the phone with him to discuss “Star Wars: The Digital Collection” the morning after the announcement was made.

Before we spoke, Fox sent over a clip from the extras on the “Digital Collection,” and in it, Doug talks about lessons he learned from George Lucas about design, lessons that Disney summed up for me in the following bullet points:

As a designer, you can get bogged down in the minutiae of perfect form and proportions. Doug had to learn to think and draw like a kid again. Don”t worry about the details; they don”t define a design.

When the audience sees something new on screen, they have to immediately connect with this new item. They have to understand what it is within two or three seconds. If the design doesn”t tell you what it is within three seconds, then it doesn”t work.

George Lucas loved creating designs with personality, but this principle doesn”t just relate to the characters of Star Wars; it also applies to vehicles and sets. Everything in the Star Wars movies has to have a personality to convey to the audience.

Doug Chiang had to ensure that all his designs had a level of believability so that the audience wouldn”t be distracted or taken away from the movie experience.

This design principle refers to the extra factor that gives the design flair. It”s the extra element that makes kids want to play with the new design and make it “extra cool”!

On Tuesday morning of last week, just after the big announcement, Doug called my house, and we had the following short, but interesting, conversation.

DREW MCWEENY:  Hi, Doug. How are you sir?

DOUG CHIANG:  Good. How are you?

Big fan of your work. I find it fascinating right now, as we're gearing up for what will be the first time I get to take my kids to an original Star Wars film in the theater, that  I thought I was beyond this excitement. I thought I was beyond that moment of the anticipation that I felt in '99, but I guess I'm not, and this time it comes from the sharing. For you guys, that countdown in '99 had to be maybe the strangest moment you will ever have as a designer, because you guys were responsible for bringing back a world that meant so much to so many people. Can you talk about the process of becoming involved with that, and then watching as people started to react to what you guys were doing?

Absolutely. For me, it was such a treat, because that journey actually started when I was 15 years old, when I saw the first “Star Wars,” and that defined my career in terms of what I wanted to do. Flash forward 20 years, and I actually ended up at Industrial Light and Magic in the art department. At that time, rumor had it that George was not interested in creating a new trilogy, so I just embarked on a creative design for films. In '94, that was when we heard the bombshell news that George was going to actually do the new “Star Wars” films. For me, it was really exciting and terrifying at the same time because I was primed to want to work on it, just like all the others on the film that I was working with. Interesting being at Industrial Light and Magic at that time… even though we were part of his company, George really wanted to look everywhere for the artists for the new trilogy. So it didn't really help that I was within his company already. We all still had to submit a portfolio like everybody else, and it was a nerve-racking month or so before hearing back. I got the phone call that George actually responded to my portfolio, and I didn't know what degree. I was just happy that I was going to be part of the team. It was only later that I heard that he actually wanted me to head the art department. It was one of those things where it was a fulfillment of a dream, because I'd always wanted to work on a “Star Wars” film, and now I finally had the opportunity to do that. Then the reality set in where you realize, okay, you're trying to fill the shoes of Ralph McQuarrie and Joe Johnston. I mean, those were huge icons at the time in the film design community, and here I was, this young kid… I think I was about 30… and it was crazy that I was even trying to do that.

Then there was the excitement of, “Yes! I've got the job!” and the horror of, “Oh my God! I have to do the job!” The funny thing is that George actually made it really great. The first couple of weeks were terrifying because George said that he wanted to throw everything away that we knew about “Star Wars” and start from scratch. At that time, I had developed a whole career. I had been working on my portfolio for two years prior to showing this to George, and I was designing things like Ralph and Joe, trying to really get into that mindset. I was all primed to do the IV, V, and VI design aesthetics. In the first week to hear George say, “No, no, no, put that all aside. We're going to do something new. We're going to go back and kind of re-create this world”… it was really unsettling. In hindsight, I think that was probably the best thing that could've happened, because I really got to understand how George created his world. I got to understand his philosophy, his approach, what makes a design work in “Star Wars.”

I take that year and a half to be the best experience that I've ever had. I've always considered George to be my best artistic mentor precisely because of that. I didn't go to art school, so George was my art school. It was an intense compressed art school where you're really learning from the master. For me, the value that I got out of it was to understand how to design for cinema. Those seven years I eventually spent with him were really great, because he could go in there and he could explain things and I could ask him questions. When we actually created the world, the first year and a half was just laying the foundation for all three films. From that rich foundation, then you also take the slices that he wanted to tell in the films. Maybe 20 percent ended up on screen, but there still this huge rich foundation underneath all of it.  

When the film came out, it was one of those things where you get so close to the filmmaking process that you really can't look at it objectively. It's a very surreal experience where you don't know how to react. You just have to completely trust George that he's guiding the process in the right way. In some ways, that made it much easier for me because I knew that if he liked something, he was the filter. He was the final word on that. So I trusted him in terms of the look of the movie. What I find interesting now is that without George, we are now the filter. We now have to decide what that is. It's so much harder, because at the end of the day, George is “Star Wars.” We can all pretend to be George and play in this playground, but we're not. George is the only person who really knows “Star Wars.”

In '99, I didn't have kids. My first son was born in the year “Revenge of the Sith” came out, so we completely missed that wave of “Star Wars.” They've grown up on it now, and we came up to Skywalker Ranch, we did a press day up there with my oldest, who lost his mind when he got to see all that stuff being made.  One of the things I've noticed is there was my generation of fans who had their own very vocal relationships with the prequels, and then there are my children who have a radically different take on them. For you guys as designers, when you meet younger fans of “The Clone Wars” or “Star Wars: Rebels” or the prequels, the people that have grown up with these movies who did not have that hype and disappointment cycle they went through, do you get from them a sense of what that design aesthetic and that world did for them growing up? And is it radically different than what you hear from adults?

Yes. No. Completely. It's fascinating in that it's a generational thing for sure. George always says he was making these films for 10 to12-year-olds, and that's the mindset. When I saw the first film, I was 15, and I grew up on that. I felt that these films were made for me. Even as an adult, I thought the original trilogy was made for me. If you really listen to George, he says these are experiences for the younger generation. It's great that the audience can appreciate that, but when he made the new trilogy, he was specifically targeting that next generation. He was making choices specifically for that generation in terms of the designs. That generation is very different from ours, of course. They grew up with computers and video games and mass media and entertainment that are way over the top. When you think about it and frame it in that framework, it's hard for us as adults to say, “The new trilogy are not our films, they're not what we thought 'Star Wars' is.” We're looking at it from the wrong perspective. They weren't meant for us. Yes, we can appreciate them. The thing that I think is interesting to take away from this whole thing is that George is making the films for a very specific audience. He knows the audience that he wants to make these for, and the beauty of it is that when you talk to the new generations that grew up with the new trilogy, with I, II, and III, or with “The Clone Wars” TV show, they love it. But just as often, they don't like the original trilogy. I find that fascinating because it is a different perspective.

The beauty of all this is that as that younger generation grows up, they're going to start to appreciate everything, just like for me as a designer, I appreciate the new trilogy as well as the original trilogy. For me, it's all one cohesive universe. The magic of what George was creating was that he was thinking far enough ahead that he actually outlined and made it all work so it applies to new generations. Whether or not each generation likes the other generation's films, I think that's not really that important. The bigger picture is that everybody finds a piece of the “Star Wars” universe that works for them. That's what I admire about George. He's creating a world not for a targeted specific audience. Instead, he's creating it as general entertainment. Like any pieces of art, he's the master artist. He likes to take risks. He likes to engage new audiences. Sometimes those risks may alienate certain portions of the audience, but it doesn't diminish the art at all.

We're going to go back now and talk pure design for a moment. If you want to talk about a reaction that an audience has to an element of design where it is immediate and electric and right away you know that you hit a homerun with design, the lightning bolt example of that for me would be the moment in “The Phantom Menace” where Darth Maul turns on the double-sided saber for the first time. The audience reaction in the room that first time… I don't care if somebody was sitting through that movie miserable up until that point, that moment happened and they came out of their seats. For you guys, when you nail a design like that, do you guys look at that and go, “All right, we completely and utterly nailed that one”?

Exactly. And that happened on many levels. As film designers, we tend to geek out and be specific about certain things. For myself, I like certain things more than others, and I'll think, “Oh my gosh, this is a great design. The audience is going to absolutely love it,” and it turns out the audience hates it. There are certain things like the double light saber where it just gives you goose bumps when you see that and you know the power of what it could be. Then to see the reaction of the audience… it's so rewarding. Those are the risks that you take in designing films like this, because the expectation is so off the charts. You don't really know how how the audience will respond to certain things. You shouldn't think about that because if you do, then you play it safe all the time and you won't take those risks.  If we played it safe, maybe we wouldn't have came up with a double-edged light saber or any of the other designs. When you take those risks that make you uncomfortable, it pushes the boundaries of the design aesthetics, and I like the idea that we make the audience uncomfortable, and maybe after time they'll learn to appreciate the designs that we're presenting. George said it really well. He said when the original trilogy came out, he got all kinds of comments saying, “Oh, this is silly. This is kid's stuff. I don't like the droids. I don't care for spaceships, and why are they flying this way?” Now that's all forgotten because success erases and rewrites history, and time has created that emotional response that you get now.

With Darth Maul from the prequels and Boba Fett from the original trilogy, these are characters who, whether they speak or not, as soon as you see them, you develop some sort of emotional reaction to them. I know that for my generation, Boba Fett was a toy before he was a character, and I honestly believe most of the affection that they have for him comes from the design, not from anything he does in the movies. They look at him and fall in love and immediately have this history they fill in around him. Some designs, you start inventing the second you look at them.

Yes. I think that's a great example of what happens if we do our job right. We can imbue so much character and history into a design even if the character doesn't really speak. When I design characters like that, you really try to bring in certain kinds of iconography. When Joe [Johnston] was designing Boba Fett, he was  looking at Clint Eastwood and gunslingers and trying to bring in that motif. When you see Boba Fett, he has design aspects of all that and automatically you know he's a loner, he's a gunfighter, he's something really mysterious, a character that's really interesting. When you can do all that to a character so that when you see it on screen it automatically brings all those layers of nuance to the character, it really reinforces the story. It actually helps the storytelling when all the design visually supports what the character is supposed to be. When you find those little elements throughout the whole “Star Wars” universe, that's when the designs work the best. And you're right. Boba Fett is one of those characters where you look at the image and even without him speaking a line or doing any action, you know what he is. He's already appealing.

From the prequel trilogy, I would argue that the one that you guys got right immediately was Darth Maul. Was it frustrating to know that the character that you guys nailed like that was going to be gone about 11 minutes after he became a fully awesome character?

It's one of those things where it served the story that George was telling, and you don't want to fall in love with something and just keep it because you think it's cool. If it doesn't serve the story, then you're keeping it just for the sake of keeping it. The great thing about the “Star Wars” universe is you have spinoffs and other things where you can bring characters back to life. It didn't really end. [LONG LOOOOOOOONG PAUSE] Even though it was kind of a heartbreak, 'cause, yeah, he is a pretty cool character.

You can purchase “Star Wars: The Digital Collection” from about a million different places right now.