Creature Concept Designer (The Force Awakens, Rogue One, The Last Jedi, Solo: A Star Wars story)
Interview: April 2018
A long time ago… something inspired you to become a designer. I’d like to hear how it al started.
Since I was a child I’ve been drawing – I’d draw cars, spaceships and creatures. I was torn between wanting to be a car designer or movie production designer when I grew up. With films I’d always been fascinated by how they were made, what went on behind the scenes. I loved the special effects, the models and matte paintings. I loved the concept of the perfect artifice that was contained within the frame and that there was all this other stuff going on just out of sight. And with sci-fi films you had this freedom to create whatever you wanted – as a kid I remember designing my own new versions of spaceships and creatures for imaginary future Star Wars movies beyond Return of the Jedi. If I’d only known how things would work out one day!
How did you get involved with Star Wars and start designing all these creatures and droids for the movies?
I’d worked with Neal Scanlan on and off from 2000 to maybe 2005 doing design work. Our careers diverged after that – I was focusing more on work in commercials, storyboarding, design and subsequently some directing and I think Neal was doing more prosthetics and SMUFX. By the summer of 2013 I don’t think I’d been in touch with Neal for five years when he phoned me out of the blue to tell me he’d got Star Wars and was looking get some concept designers on the team.
Your biggest hit is without a doubt the Porgs. Fans love them and they’re also a commercial success. Could you tell something about the whole creative process of the creation of these creatures?
Yes, they have been somewhat commercially popular haven’t they? But as much as their presence might be seen to be a cynical marketing ploy purely to sell toys, they were never originally created to be that. Skellig Michael, the location for Ahch-To, is a UNESCO protected site and wildlife preserve…and quite liberally covered in puffins, either dotted about in the background or flying around the cliffs. Physically removing them was impossible and digital removal would have been a lot of work, so I think Rian decided to look at how he could work with this by introducing our own indigenous species. The idea was that we’d have these ‘throwaway’ background creatures crop up in various shots that would validate the real puffins you see in the wide landscapes of the island. Rian also saw that they might then be able to provide small moments of levity to the scenes on Ahch-To such as the Porgs investigating the discarded lightsaber or annoying Chewie in the Falcon’s cockpit. The brief was that the size of the creatures would obviously have to be in the region of a puffin and might want to have some similarly striking markings as they have on their beaks. I drew a few a pages of sketches – lots of little ideas looking at different aquatic and avian sources, such as otters, beavers, seals and seabirds. I probably got the essential Porg shape somewhere within these first few attempts. There’s an ethos of simplicity in the design of Star Wars that we try to adhere to (and maybe sub-consciously do anyway) – a clean recognisable silhouette, a shape that any child can draw and you’d know what it is meant to be. I’d been looking at seals, puffins and pug dogs, sketching these little ovoid shapes with big eyes sat right at the top of their heads and funny down-turned mouths that gave them a sort of sad yet neutral face. And it was these that Rian was drawn to.
The best droid design in the new movies is in my opinion PZ-4CO. To me, it looks like an Egyptian Anubis head inspired design. Since 2015 I’ve been wondering if that is where you got the inspiration from?
I suppose there is some Anubis-like quality to her design – the long face and the suggestion of ears. But I’m afraid it wasn’t an influence. I’d been playing with the idea that there could be C-3P0 type protocol droids that wasn’t necessarily human and would be used to specifically interact with another alien species. So I was drawing a lot of aliens and extrapolating a droid design out of them. Somewhere deep in vast amounts of artwork that have never been seen are some alien designs that share a look with PZ-4CO. Also, we did tweak the costume design for The Last Jedi – on The Force Awakens the neck ended up being bit too long compared with the original design so on The Last Jedi we got the opportunity to reduce it.
My favorite alien you created is Pao! What can you tell about the creation of him?
Pao started off as a wild looking tribesman for an abandoned scene in The Force Awakens. With a huge mouth and tiny eyes lost deep in angry wrinkles framed by a long mass of wild hair, he was only semi-clad in something like a grass skirt with tattoos covering his blue skin and clutching two or three throwing spears. There was going to be a scene in Rogue One with a tribe too and I represented the design again. That scene was also abandoned but Gareth really liked the core look of this alien – basically the big mouth – and he asked if I could redevelop him into a rebel fighter. So I tried to keep the silhouette of the long hair that the original design had by replacing it with a hat and havelock (neck flap) and giving him a more rebel like outfit, topped off with a long rifle. On a practical level, how we worked the performer Derek Arnold into the head is pretty cool. Pao’s mouth interior extends back around Derek’s face and cheeks so that when Pao’s mouth is wide open you are actually looking right back into Derek’s open mouth. The only way Derek can see is through slits hidden in the ridges of the roof of Pao’s mouth – so when the mouth is shut, Derek is blind and totally reliant on radio communication from the puppeteer operating Pao’s face.
The new movies feature a lot of great aliens. Still, a lot of fans wonder why so many new creations are in the movies instead of a more balanced mix of new and old, existing aliens. Do you know the reason for this?
I hear this question a lot and it is something that actually does get considered on all the movies we’ve worked on. Firstly, thanks for the appreciation for what we have contributed to the new movies! I think people forget that with the Original Trilogy, there wasn’t actually that much continuity of alien species from one movie to the next – off the top of my head the only one I can think of was Greedo in A New Hope and a Rodian dancer cropping up in Jabba’s palace in Return of the Jedi. The Prequels were better in that respect and you did get to see more Twi’leks and Rodians; and Rebels has continued brilliantly by having loads of Rodians and Ithorians as background characters. The thing is with these though is that they have had a certain ‘luxury’ of being digital or animated so adding a bunch of alien extras doesn’t have the logistical implications shooting practical does. For every creature we create it requires a suit performer, a puppeteer if it needs an animatronic face, an animatronic designer to build the mech, a fabricated alien body suit, a costume tailored for that shape plus all the sculpting, moulding, paint and hair to make it a reality. So the director really needs to want that alien in his film from the outset. And you also have to put yourself in the place of the director. Imagine you were given the chance to direct a Star Wars film…wouldn’t you want to use the opportunity to make the film your own; to introduce some cool new aliens? Anyway, as I said before, having ‘legacy’ aliens is something that has actually been considered for each film but unfortunately many have fallen by the wayside (along with many, many of our new designs!) during the production process with scenes being cut before the shoot and after filming in the edit. A few that did make it were the Mon Calamari in The Force Awakens, Rogue One and The Last Jedi; the Hassk that appeared in a Ralph McQuarrie Cantina concept were made for Maz’s Castle in The Force Awakens; and Twi’leks and Ponda Baba were made for Rogue One. We’ve also tried to create some continuity with the new species in the new films and you do see some recurring faces. One species in particular is the Abednedo, most notably the pilots Ello Asty and C’ai Threnalli. When I was working on The Force Awakens, I really wanted there to be at least another species that could have the ubiquity of humans in the SW universe. JJ had responded quite well to an early Abednedo sketch and I decided to draw a multitude of different versions – as scavengers, townspeople, bar patrons, pilots, etc. and bombard him with them at every presentation. And it worked – you can see them on Jakku, as a senator on Coruscant, Slowen Lo on Canto Bight and the aforementioned pilots. Anyway, I hope that what you can take from all this is that the inclusion of aliens from the previous movies is not something that is being ignored and that hopefully the balance will be redressed in the future!
You were heavily involved in the creation of BB-8. Christian Alzman did some designs but it was you who eventually realized the final model. What kind of ‘typical Jake Lunt Davies touches’ did you add to this droid?
Yes, BB-8 was the sum of a lot of peoples input – from the initial sketch by JJ, through Christian’s development and my final design. And even that was born out of the development of the puppet under Neal Scanlan’s supervision. As our team worked out how the puppet would be made, move and be operated, we tried out various different pattern structures on the ball of the body. The combination of the core arrangement of the six panels, their size in relation to the overall sphere and their offset positioning to the axle on which the ball rotates all worked together to maintain a texture to the body as BB-8 rolled – i.e. the pattern was bold enough not to just blur into nothing – and create the impression of an omni directional movement. As far as the details go, I don’t think I was trying to add any of my personal touches to the design. I was very focused on trying to make BB-8 feel as Star Wars as possible, that he would feel like a believable progression of an astromech droid design. When I came on board he had a much more anthropomorphic face, with two eye lenses and the suggestion of a mouth. I pushed to lose the mouth and make the lens arrangement more asymmetric, with a focus to being mainly on the single eye. Christian had already set the tone for the use of orange colour accents on the head and I continued to carry this over into the body with the rings on each panel, designing individual arrangements of tech within each one. All in all I feel the final design of BB-8 succeeds in fitting completely with the Star Wars aesthetic.
What was the biggest challenge you faced while working on the new Star Wars movies?
Well I suppose the thing is that we are designing not just for a movie but for this bigger thing that is Star Wars. Knowing we are contributing to something that means so much to so many people on so many different levels, that our designs can live on beyond the moment of the movie and have to stand up to scrutiny and analysis can sometimes be an added factor to the process.
If you could redo an alien, character or vehicle from the original trilogy or the prequels… which specific one would you choose?
As I discussed earlier in regards to the inclusion of classic designs in the new movies, we did look at some and some did get made. For example we remade the 2-1B, the medical droid from ESB, for Rogue One and there were elements of the original that were a bit rough and ready or inconsistent that had to be worked on. So while he looks the same at a glance, he’s got a tighter design around the eyes and fresh detailing on the shoulder joints. You never saw his feet in the movie and researching them threw up various different versions – as far as I was concerned, my take on his feet was what I knew from the action figure I had as a kid. So that’s the look we went with in the end. Otherwise this is quite a tough question to answer. I’m not sure there’s anything in particular I feel the need to redesign – they are what they are. But I suppose if there’s one detail I’ve never been happy with its the back of Luke’s landspeeder – its great all round until you get to the point where the side jet pods sweep into the back and they are just a bit clunky, lacking in detail and out of keeping with the rest of the vehicle.
Of all the things you’ve created for Star Wars, what do you regard as your best work and biggest achievement?
I think I’m pretty pleased with the success of BB-8, Rey’s Speeder and the Porgs…if I can say three things.
Several new Star Wars projects have been announced: a trilogy created by Rian Johnson, a TV series, new movies written by Benioff and Weiss… I guess you won’t be without any Star Wars related work for the next few years?
Who can say – it would be great to continue contributing to the Galaxy.
And we appreciate your work… thanks for the interview!