When Doug Chiang began designing Rogue One (available on Digital HD now and Blu-Ray April 4), the stand-alone Star Wars film was just a concept with no script or director. But that’s all that Chiang needed. As soon as he heard John Knoll’s idea for a Death Star heist film, the Rogue One production designer (who is also the VP and executive creative director of Lucasfilm) began sketching out characters, ships and locations for a Star Wars adventure that would take place immediately prior to the events of Episode IV: A New Hope. He knew how to build a world out of just a few fragments, because he’d learned almost 20 years earlier… from George Lucas.
“That’s how I started with George when he hired me to head the art department for the prequel trilogy back in 1995,” Chiang tells Yahoo Movies. “He didn’t have a script or a story, but he knew of things… he would just give me tiny fragments of information, deliberately, so that I wouldn’t know too much, and then I would just throw out a bunch of different ideas and he could kind of hone it in quickly like that.”
Lucas had always seen art as a crucial part of story development for Star Wars. While working on the original trilogy, Lucas commissioned artists like Ralph McQuarrie to create designs for planets, characters, and ships that could be a part of his universe. “I love that part of the process because it liberates you to just explore and see what feels right given the story,” says Chiang. “You try something crazy, and it might actually inspire the writer or the director to come up with a new idea.”
Some of the early ideas developed by Chiang and his team included an alien member of Jyn’s crew and a rebel base on the planet Dantooine, where part of Rogue One was originally set. (Chiang’s idea for that rebel base — large, rounded rock formations with hollowed-out layers of sediment that form rooms — was inspired by a McQuarrie concept painting of Dantooine made for the original trilogy, in which the planet is mentioned but does not appear.)
When director Gareth Edwards came on board, he contributed his own ideas for the Rogue One world, including a vision for a new spaceship that would, in Chiang’s words, “be on par with the X-wing or the Millennium Falcon.” That ship became the U-wing, a new Rebel starfighter that looks exactly like it could share airspace with the Falcon — and took the production designers exactly 781 drafts to get right.
“When Gareth set that bar that high, it was very intimidating because I consider the Falcon and the X-wing to be perfect designs,” Chiang explains. “And so our goal [with the U-wing] was really to try to find a design that could be in that same space yet still feel very classic in terms of Episode IV aesthetics, but yet different enough so that it bridges Episode III aesthetics. And at the same time, we had to know that there was a reason why the U-wing doesn’t continue on to Episode IV, that it was an obsolete design. And so you layer all these different factors in there and it becomes very complicated.”
Chiang knew he was on the right track when he showed Edwards a design for a ship with its wings stretching out forward. “He said, that reminds me of Superman with his arms outstretched. It was a very powerful, instinctual feeling that he got,” Chiang recalls. “And that immediately informed me and I was like, ‘OK, that’s what he’s going for emotionally.’ And so I started to use that configuration. From there it was really iteration upon iteration of refinement of those forms, because the minute you change the proportion of one thing, it affects another. Easily half of those 781 drawings towards the end were little changes to find the perfect thing… And at the end I think we found the perfect note, because it actually looks great from all angles. I’m really happy with the design.”
In addition to his work on the prequels and Rogue One, Chiang is a concept artist on the current saga films, including The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. So he’s uniquely qualified to answer the question of what makes a design feel like Star Wars. Chiang describes striking that elusive balance between a design that feels fresh, yet blends easily into George Lucas’s universe, as his biggest and most exciting challenge. “You can actually almost play it too safe and make everything feel too familiar, and you don’t want to do that because you’re just repeating. You have to add something new to it,” he explains. “Because when you look at the classic films, George brought in something new to each of the films. For instance, Cloud City [in Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back] was such a bold design statement, and if you just judged it from Episode IV, you would say, ‘No, Cloud City is not Star Wars.’ Or Jabba’s barge from Episode VI.”
What unifies these visual ideas, he explains, is a timeline grounded in actual design history. The prequel trilogy draws on design ideas from the 1920s and ‘30s, while the classic trilogy reflects mid-century design through the early ’80s. The aesthetics of Rogue One — the guerrilla troops, the ships — were influenced by Vietnam War design, in the same way that the original trilogy took cues from WWII iconography like Nazi uniforms and dogfights. And the new films have a contemporary feel, while at the same time being grounded in the original 1970s technology — vector graphics, keyboard push-buttons — that established the look of A New Hope.
And of course, it’s important that the designs can be turned into cool Star Wars toys. “I always think, ‘OK, would I want that as a toy to play with as a kid?’” says Chiang. “For the U-wing especially, we were trying to go for designs that hit all the design notes in terms of story, functionality, the aesthetics leading into Episode IV. But then at the end I wanted something that I would proudly show on my desk and play with as a kid.”
Chiang won’t comment on the rumors of new AT-AT designs for The Last Jedi, other than to say that audiences will be “pleasantly surprised.” Meanwhile, fans can turn to the Rogue One Digital and Blu-Ray extras for more of Chiang’s concept art — which may well inspire the Star Wars universe for generations to come.
Read more from Yahoo Movies:
- Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Writer Gary Whitta on Alternate Endings, Discarded Characters, and How He Came Up With the Title
- Star Wars: The Force Awakens Concept Artist on Creating Starkiller Base and That Dark Knight Crossguard Lightsaber
- Rogue One Creator Defends CGI Tarkin; Says Carrie Fisher ‘Loved’ Her Digital Self (But She Won’t Come Back)