Concept Designer (The Force Awakens)
Interview: June 2016
You have worked as a concept artist on The Force Awakens. I was wondering how you started working on that movie? I guess there was a meeting where you got descriptions from the director and producer of what they wanted and roughly what the story will be?
Usually it’s just like you stated. The director gives us a brief either in person, at meeting, or through an email. On Star Wars projects, because we are at Lucasfilm, directors have been very open about back stories and their point of view. Of course the more information we receive the better it is for us to design and illustrate their ideas. The Force Awakens in particular was unusual in that for the first few months we worked with the writers and production designer Rick Carter while waiting for the director to be named.
A lot of people (including me) love the designs of The Force Awakens because it has that old school Star Wars feel. What’s your secret? How did you and the other designers manage to achieve this?
Not a secret at all. We poured over the original trilogy art created by Ralph McQuarrie and Joe Johnston. We worked really hard and went through a lot of trial and error to tap into and discover what their design philosophy was on the first films. Most of us were very familiar with Star Wars but it was still challenging to nail down the design elements of the Star Wars universe. I found it a bit like teaching myself how to speak a whole new language using only bits of existing text as a guide. The other tricky part was unifying the look. Everyone had their own definition of the Star Wars look and we had to pull those all together.
You designed BB-8. JJ Abrams made a sketch of two circles and that was your starting point. How hard or easy was the BB-8 design process?
We knew there was going to be a little sidekick droid for Rey. We had tried a few different things before JJ did his post-it sketch. I had done an early design of a floating droid that had a very similar head to BB-8, but once he did the sketch it was quite clear he wanted a rolling droid. Since BB-8 didn’t have a name yet most of my early designs were titled Rolling Droid 1, 2, etcetera.
Once the shape was agreed upon it was a pretty smooth process and we started designing details. I did a few designs trying to figure out the look of the lower drive ball. For this I referenced different spherical shapes like soccer balls. I also tried to get a nice design for BB-8’s face by balancing naturally lovable faces with something much more abstract. The final BB-8 design touches were done by someone on the design team at Neil Scanlon’s group in the UK.
One of your creations for The Force Awakens didn’t make it to the film…but was picked up for Rebels. It looks like The Fifth Brother from the animated Rebels series. Can you tell more about this? How it wasn’t picked for the film but for the TV series instead?
I had worked pretty extensively on Kylo early on. At that early point we were calling him Jedi Killer. Among the many talented people present in our early design/story meetings was Dave Filoni, the director of The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels, and we knew he was working on something new. He, like George Lucas had done in the past, would come to the art department and look through the unused concepts we had for designs that he could use. George had set it up long ago that nothing ever gets thrown out and that it might not be right for this movie or that scene but it might work for something in the future. Dave also based another character on Rebels named Ketsu Onyo on an unused pirate design I had created originally for The Force Awakens.
You created (with Iain McCaig) awesome artwork for Harrison Ford/Han Solo. Long coat, beard…it has that Western vibe. Why wasn’t it picked for the film? I love it and think it was just perfect.
Iain and I had talked about older actors that still looked really heroic and Iain brought up Jeff Bridges in True Grit. This worked perfectly since we were going for a spaghetti western vibe with that particular piece of art.
In the end they didn’t go with that look for the film. Possibly because Han’s role was more of the wounded father and less of a gunslinger this time around.
Of all the things you’ve created for The Force Awakens, what do you regard as your best work and biggest achievement?
I had done a lot of paintings of Luke at the beginning of the project. I am really happy with the amount of emotion I was able to get into those paintings. But, I’d have to say it’s probably the little task I was asked to do, almost on the side, of designing that little rolling sidekick droid. Who knew?
Suppose you could go back in time and re-design a character or starship from the original trilogy. Which one would you choose, why would you choose that one and how would you change the design? It can be anything, from Darth Vader to the Falcon!
I tried to come up with something here but I couldn’t even dare. It would be a house of cards. Take one design out and the whole thing falls. It’s all too embedded in my childhood as being the right thing, it is Star Wars.
Maybe there are very small details I might change in the fabrication of the designs. Things like the chain that holds Vader’s cape around his neck or the store bought white cowboy boots on the stormtroopers or when Obi-Wan’s lightsaber looks like it shorts out during his fight with Vader on the Death Star. Mostly things that won’t really improve the quality of the film but I can easily defend any design choice made on the early films. They were all very brave and unique.
We have the same childhood hero: Ralph McQuarrie! What makes his art so great according to you and in which ways has his art influenced you?
Everything he designed felt new and felt believable. He had the ability to show a human moment through what felt like the lens of a camera. His high level of technical ability allowed him to not only make film concepts but also matte paintings and book cover illustrations. All of that made for a really diverse and amazing career. Also he designed Darth Vader! Ralph was a master.
Another childhood hero of you is Syd Mead. He and Ralph McQuarrie are legendary artists. Has the fact that their art is so great and almost perfect ever made you insecure? Or did it inspire you to become better and better?
I would say both. Most artists are insecure. When I started on The Force Awakens I was pretty nervous. It’s a very big set of shoes to fill and I was doing it in the shadow of artists that are my heroes and along side some of the best contemporary artists. It was humbling and overwhelming but when you’re given a job, all you can do is work your hardest and let the art and the work inspire you.
I think in a lot of ways the insecurity can lead you to becoming a better artist. It can become the fuel that ignites some of your best work.
Those are very encouraging and inspiring words…and a great end to this interview. Thank you very much for your time and help!