In a special event at Gnomon Gallery, the artists reveal how they brought ships, characters, and moments to life in the latest Star Wars film.
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.