Searching for Concept Art Superstars: Inside the ILM Art Department Challenge

Lucasfilm's David “Nak” Nakabayashi and Doug Chiang discuss their new concept art competition.

The hunt for the next Ralph McQuarrie, Joe Johnston, or Doug Chiang — i.e., a galaxy-defining Star Wars concept artist — is on.

Industrial Light & Magic, in collaboration with Wacom and ArtStation, has launched the ILM Art Department Challenge. Think of it as Hell’s Kitchen meets Star Wars: ILM is putting entrants through rigorous tests designed to see who could make it as a Star Wars concept artist. Registration is open now through May 18, and then the Jedi trials begin. It won’t be easy, but it will be akin to a concept art bootcamp, and that’s the fun of it.

“The idea of the contest is to simulate working in a real production environment,” says David “Nak” Nakabayashi, creative director of ILM’s Global Art Department. “The challenge is broken down to pair down to people we might actually be interested in hiring at some point in their careers or lives. We know that there’s so much talent out there and it’s all over the world. Why not cast a net and also have fun with it and also celebrate Star Wars?”

Star Wars: A New Hope - Ralph McQuarrie concept art

Darth Vader vs. a lightsaber-wielding hero by Ralph McQuarrie for Star Wars: A New Hope.

The challenge is divided into three phases: “The Moment,” in which artists have to create two keyframes, or a traditional concept art image; “The Ride,” where artists have to design two Star Wars vehicles; and “The Job,” a simulation of working as a concept artist, where expectations are high, deadlines are short, and directives can change. All of the art is meant to fit within the aesthetic of the original Star Wars trilogy, and see what the artist can bring to it.

“Concept art is a simple title for a job that is all-encompassing,” says Doug Chiang, veteran Star Wars concept artist and Lucasfilm’s VP and creative director, who will also be a judge for the competition. “It involves a lot of disciplines, and for film designers like myself, concept art is really about trying to craft visions of worlds that are very believable that tell the story the director wants.” Concept art is closely associated with Star Wars in particular; most fans know the names McQuarrie, Johnston, and Chiang. 

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back - Yoda

Yoda by Joe Johnston for Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.

“When I think of concept art, I think of Star Wars,” Chiang says. “I think, primarily, that’s because of Ralph McQuarrie and George [Lucas]. George was creating a world that was fantastic that needed to be designed.” Chiang notes that McQuarrie grounded the fantastic in reality, and elevated the form as a result. The ILM Art Department Challenge is a chance to see what you might be able to add to that legacy and to learn.

“This is an opportunity I wish I would have had years ago,” Chiang says, “because I think it would have been something that would have been incredibly informative for me. I think it’s wonderful for general artists to see, ‘What does it really take to do this?’ This is a job. We’re not just drawing pretty pictures. This is a very specific job with a very specific purpose.” And what is Chiang looking for?

“One, I’m looking for skill,” he says. “At a baseline, the artists have to have very strong artistic skills. But then two, I’m looking for ideas. That they have strong ideas that can bring something extra to the table that’s unique to them.” 

Podracer by Doug Chiang for Star Wars: The Phantom Menace

Podracer by Doug Chiang for Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.

Currently, more than 2,000 artists have registered. So the competition is fierce. But there will be prizes — including a Wacom tablet, a tour of ILM, and a Skype call with Lucasfilm’s art directors — and it promises to be more than memorable. “It’s not just a challenge,” Nakabayashi says. “It’s really immersing yourself in the aesthetic and bringing something from an individual perspective into it. So focus and try to have fun with it.”

Is the next great Star Wars concept artist out there somewhere? We’ll soon find out.

Dan Brooks is Lucasfilm’s senior content writer, and spends his days writing stuff for and around He loves Star Wars, ELO, and the New York Rangers, Jets, and Yankees. Follow him on Twitter @dan_brooks where he rants about all these things.