When it comes to movie making, some of the first people to see what the movie might look like are the folks who turn story ideas into pictures: the concept artists. For Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a team of concept artists was assembled and put to work even before J.J. Abrams was selected to direct the film. Under production designer Rick Carter, this team started turning ideas into images for characters, worlds, and more, and helped to shape where a new Star Wars movie could go. As the story became more developed, an art director continued the process of conceptualizing the look of key elements of the film, as well as developing how to bring that element into the film: as a set on a studio stage, or as a prop, or miniature, or computer-rendered object. Recently, two of the key artists of The Force Awakens, VFX art director James Clyne and veteran Star Wars concept artist Iain McCaig shared their experiences working on the concept designs of the film to an eager audience at Gnomon, a visual effects school in Hollywood, at the opening of a gallery exhibit showcasing their concept designs for the most recent episode of the saga.
Both Clyne and McCaig gave dynamic presentations, showcasing their roles in contributing to the making of The Force Awakens. Clyne, who joined ILM in 2013 after working on films such as Star Trek Into Darkness, Avatar, and Minority Report, was first introduced to the world of concept art by the Joe Johnston drawings in the 1980 The Empire Strikes Back Sketchbook. Much of the early discussion for the art design team on The Force Awakens focused on how to refine the design style in a galaxy a generation after the events of the original trilogy. “Eventually it would always come back around to needing to feel like Star Wars. Very simple shapes, with a little tech off the side,” Clyne explained as he showed a design for a round adobe structure to be used in the Jakku village at the film’s opening. Later as Clyne moved into preproduction, he moved into designing some of the most important and exciting locations of the film: the hallways. He recounted spending about six months on designs for various hallways and corridors, trying to make them visually appealing, since so much of the film’s action and dialogue takes place in these interior locations. “You want the sets to reflect the mood,” Clyne mentioned, as he described how the design of the interrogation rooms was built around the tension of the scenes, with sharp geometry making the walls and ceiling seem to close in on the subject.
Clyne also designed many of the ships seen in the film including Han Solo’s giant freighter, the Eravana, which he had nicknamed “the Super Nintendo” ship due to its main docking bay resembling the cartridge entry slot of the original gaming system. Abrams loved the design and compared it to Jaws, and in the final film, the ship rises up to swallow the Millennium Falcon. Much like the miniature makers of the original trilogy who “kitbashed” starship models by adding detail pieces from plastic ship and airplane models, his 3D digital models used pieces of existing designs as details to new vehicles.
One of his favorite ships to design was the Imperial landing craft because it was something yet unseen to the Star Wars galaxy. Based on the Higgins boats of WWII that landed at Normandy, his design took the landing craft’s geometry and added more details, including the top hatch of an AT-ST! When developing designs, whether digitally for ships or using mock-ups for set designs, Clyne explained the importance of communication, such as with production designers for changes that need to be made in the limited time they have. Using the scene of Finn and Poe escaping from the Star Destroyer hangar, Clyne showed before and after videos of what was done with sets and what was later added by ILM: “Real stormtroopers, real pyrotechnics, cut in with digital effects.” When asked about how he factors real-world functionality into his ship, Clyne responded that his ship designs are created with story as the primary priority, and not functionality, and that with good story comes the suspension of disbelief.
A busy man, Clyne was working on both Episodes VII and VIII at the same time at one point — postproduction on The Force Awakens while doing concept work for VIII. The key to Star Wars design is to look back at how Ralph McQuarrie conceptualized it with basic shapes: “The more simple you get, the more memorable it becomes,” Clyne explained. His main source for inspiring concept art is looking at the real world and historical art, and not other concept art. As an effects art director, he enjoys solving the challenges of his role: how to turn a design into something that can be physically constructed as a set, or determining how to do paint overs on plates in postproduction, or even figuring out how TIE fighters are meant to land and be boarded. “The day-to-day process is the same. It’s problem solving,” he said, “from beginning to end, it’s the same, but the tools and the people you work with are different.”
Iain McCaig, whose previous work includes concept art for the Star Wars prequel trilogy, as well as Guardians of the Galaxy and John Carter, emphasized the importance of story when it comes to art. He outlined the basics of story: someone has a want, but there’s obstacles that must be overcome to achieve that desire, with the toughest obstacle being something inside them, and in the end, the protagonist gets what they need but not necessarily what they want. And there can be conflicting needs, as McCaig described in the case of Luke Skywalker: the need to be there for the people he loves and the need to fulfill his own destiny as a Jedi.
He described the art team as a band that developed great music. As a band, the artists might collaborate, such as on pieces where McCaig would sketch the characters while others like Doug Chiang, Kurt Kaufman, or Christian Alzmann might handle some of the technology or other aspects in the image. Showing off sketches and finished concept artwork that he had designed for The Force Awakens, McCaig highlighted the journey taken by the band as the story evolved from its initial concept by George Lucas to closer to its final form. From picturing canal-lined junkyard worlds to sketching droid cock-fights to developing potential looks for the scavenger character Thea, who eventually would become Rey, McCaig used story as a way to drive the concept art. This artwork would then become “bones” for the developing story, which would then be built by trying to assemble the “bones” into a full organism, forming a loop of story and artwork growing each other and exploring many different directions. He encouraged aspiring artists to focus on story, and showed how to handle their inner critics.
With Star Wars, many ideas that might get rejected initially are “the wrong drawing for that moment” but as the story evolves, might find a new life. One example of this was a sketch of a shaman-like character wearing a stormtrooper helmet. As the story went away from this idea, the image was set aside, but later inspired Finn’s bloodied helmet look at the battle at Tuanul village on Jakku. When asked about what problems he had faced in his work, McCaig described his own role: “My job — my joy — is problems. Because I can make the solutions.” For inspiration for art and story, McCaig turns to the real world, whether it is using real raccoons for developing Rocket for Guardians of the Galaxy, or being able to see the story of Star Wars unfold in a set of photos of street scenes in Portugal. While most of McCaig’s work for The Force Awakens is locked up in Lucasfilm vaults, he was able to share a series of sketches he had done of his colleagues while in development meetings — and some of these co-workers ended up inspiring some looks in Star Wars
When asked what it was like to work on The Force Awakens as compared to working directly with George Lucas on Episodes I-III, McCaig felt that with the prequels, the answer to “Is it Star Wars?” would be answered by Lucas directly, while for The Force Awakens, the goal was to figure out how to make Lucas proud with what they were doing, while being like “a jazz band, knowing when to improvise and solo, or fall back and support. When direction came from our band leader, Rick Carter, and later, when he came aboard, J.J. Abrams, even then there was a lot of discussion on ‘Is it Star Wars?’” Clyne added that, in the beginning, they strove to be fearless and weren’t afraid to fail, because eventually they would find the right direction. When designing Han Solo’s freighter, Clyne didn’t set out to create the coolest ship ever, but one that the audience could get and understand where Solo’s character was at that time in the story — it wouldn’t be something that Han would rather keep over the Falcon. McCaig summed it up: “That’s one of the big messages to students. Without a story, there is no context to judge whether something is even cool. You can add all the greeblies and spikes and turn up the volume as loud as you want, but without knowing how it fits, what it reacts against, why it is like that, it’s just noise.”
Afterward, McCaig and Clyne shared some of their favorite stories and storytellers: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Dune by Frank Herbert, Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin (who, McCaig points out, wrote an excellent guide to writing entitled Steering the Craft). McCaig finished up with his thoughts on stories: “These days, I only want to teach people storytelling. We can use words or we can use pictures, but we all need to learn how to tell good stories. We all do, because we already do tell stories, because we use them to define our lives and our countries and our world… We need to be aware enough to re-write the story of this place we live in, and we can only do that if we know what stories are. Now, more than ever, we need to know how the story of the past took us down this path, and how to change it to a story that takes us over to a better path.”
“Episode VII: The Art of James Clyne & Iain McCaig” runs from May 14 to July 20, 2016, at Gnomon Gallery. Nearly 50 pieces of concept design and sketches by Iain McCaig and James Clyne are on display, open to the public. Visit the Gnomon Gallery site for hours and directions.
James Floyd is a writer, photographer, and organizer of puzzle adventures. He’s a bit tall for a Jawa. His current project is Wear Star Wars Every Day, a fundraising effort for a refugee aid organization. You can follow him on Twitter at @jamesjawa or check out his articles on Club Jade and Big Shiny Robot.