'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' Concept Artist on Creating Starkiller Base and That 'Dark Knight' Crossguard Lightsaber

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Doug Chiang on Kylo Ren: “I remember when I first saw the crossguard on the lightsaber, it put a smile on my face” (Film Frame/Disney/Copyright Lucasfilm 2015 via AP)

By Jordan Zakarin

Doug Chiang, concept artist on Star Wars: The Force Awakens (available on Digital HD on April 1 and Blu-ray/DVD on April 5), is living out a fan’s dream. After getting hooked on George Lucas’ original trilogy as a teen, he would later go to work for Industrial Light and Magic (he won an Oscar in 1992 for Visual Effects on Death Becomes Her), and became part of the team working with Lucas on his prequels. Below, he offers some tidbits about his experience with both J.J. Abrams now and Lucas then; shares a key insight on the series from Lucas; explains the influence of original Star Wars conceptual designer Ralph McQuarrie; and more.

When did you hear about the new movies? Were you on board right away?

I first heard about it when the press release came out, that Disney acquired Lucasfilm and that they were making new Star Wars movies. I immediately reached out to [production designer] Rick Carter.

At that time, I had no idea. After working with George [Lucas] for seven and a half years on the prequels, there was no indication there were going to be any more films. When this came about, it was like, oh, wow, it’s an opportunity to work on another Star Wars.

How did tech change in the 10 years that went by?

When I was working with George, digital technology was just in its infancy in the art department. But I really strove to go old-school. I wanted to live up to Ralph McQuarrie. I put this crazy pressure on myself to generate 4 to 5 marker sketches a day and do production paints in 2 to 3 days. Ralph did it even faster than that, and it kind of blew my mind.

But digital painting tools like Photoshop transform the efficiency. Production paintings would take maybe 3 to 4 days. [Now], you can do them in a couple hours.

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Doug Chiang (Facebook)

People were very excited about returning to the “used” universe of the movies. As someone who worked on the prequels, what was the difference in the approach?

When I first started in my career, I grew up with [the work of] Ralph McQuarrie and [designer/director] Joe Johnston, and I really loved that [style]. When I started working with George in 1995, I was primed to do that. I wanted to do those kinds of drawings. But he actually said no, we’re gonna go back to design history and create a more elegant era. A more craftsman era, more artisan, more handcrafted.

When we were designing [Episode] VII, we wanted to stay as true to IV, V, and VI as possible. This was coming from J.J. [Abrams]. He said, let’s design sets and vehicles as if they were built in the ‘70s and ‘80s but George never shot them, we’re going to shoot them.

Given how big the Star Wars universe is, between comics and TV shows and books, there’s now an explanation for literally everything. Did you have to have a background reason for every detail that changed?

We always do. Even if it’s never explained to the audience, It’s always there, you can feel it. I call it emotive art direction. One of the best things I learned from George was, he said, “Star Wars is like a foreign film,” and he shot it like a documentary. And when you look at it with that kind of perspective, what you’re doing is creating a whole comprehensive universe, but you’re not explaining any of it. You’re showing just enough of the story.

How about Kylo Ren’s lightsaber, what was the thought on that?

Part of it is trying to create iconic visual images that help support the story of the character. Early on, J.J. had always described Kylo as this next-generation villain who’s going to be as bad as Vader, and as powerful. And he said, he’s kind of like a knight, a dark knight. So it works well, that the blade has a crossguard. You bring in those little elements that start to reflect the character. I love it when designs can do that, inform who the character is. And at the same time, I remember when I first saw the crossguard on the lightsaber, it put a smile on my face. It was so unexpected but felt right. I know it took risks of, how would you explain it? Would it be practical? You can explain that afterwards.

How about the Starkiller Base?

One of the discussions was, how can we surpass the Death Star? The simple answer was, let’s make it big. The Death Star was moon-sized, so I thought, how about a planet-sized weapon? And one of the first exercises I did was to stick the Death Star dish on a planet, just to see if it would work. At first, it seemed like a ridiculous image. But what I like is, when you push designs and take those risks, sometimes those are the right answers, even though it makes you very uncomfortable. And after the fact you go back and you start to figure out, how can we make this real?

‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ on Blu-ray/DVD: Watch Rey, Finn, and Kylo Ren show off their lightsaber skills in a behind-the-scenes clip: