Author Jason Fry and artist Kemp Remillard on exploring Snoke's command ship -- including the laundry room -- and much more.
Two years ago, the author-illustrator team of Jason Fry and Kemp Remillard took us inside the ships and vehicles of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Now they're back with a new comprehensive guide to the inner workings of ships and vehicles featured in the latest film with Star Wars: The Last Jedi - Incredible Cross-Sections. Fry is a veritable walking Star Wars encyclopedia, who often lends his voice to Star Wars lore. Remillard is a skilled concept artist with an eye for imbuing his work with intricate and utilitarian details. StarWars.com e-mailed with the pair about finding real-world inspiration for Star Wars mechanics, keeping the First Order's finest looking clean, and their collaborative partnership on their new reference guide on sale now.
StarWars.com: You worked together previously on Star Wars: The Force Awakens: Incredible Cross-Sections, so I imagine by now you have kind of a rhythm to collaborating. What were your expectations coming into this, for lack of a better term, sequel project versus your first time working together?
Jason Fry: There was definitely less trepidation around this book, because Kemp and I had worked together and enjoyed it and because The Force Awakens had let us work out the history and visual language of this new storytelling period. So we could build on the hard work we’d already done.
At the same time, “trepidation” is overstating it. I mean, it’s Star Wars. You’re going to get to spend days thinking about spaceships and making up lore about them, with the John Williams music on loop in your head. Even the most frustrating day has a moment where I pinch myself and think, “I can’t believe I get to do this.”
Kemp Remillard: Jason and I see eye to eye on most things Star Wars-related and had a great working relationship on Star Wars: The Force Awakens: Incredible Cross-Sections. We soon found that we were able to spit ball ideas to each other and have an honest discussion about what concepts might be cool to include, and what may or may not make sense. This can actually be rare in creative fields at times, so I am always grateful for the fact that Jason is such a great guy (and friend!) on top of being the consummate professional. Also, since he’s a walking encyclopedia of Star Wars facts, he keeps me current on all of the facts/trivia from across the franchise and has the best suggestions for extra parts and Easter eggs that can really put a smile on a fan’s face. I think both of us were excited but also confident going into the development of the book for The Last Jedi. Since we also worked together on the update for the Complete Locations book, we’re like a well-oiled machine at this point and able to send ideas back and forth with confidence and ease. Also, we both have good relationships with the fine people at Lucasfilm, which is nice because we can have these great and fruitful face-to-face discussions with people like creative executive Pablo Hidalgo and Phil Szostak about what the designer’s intentions were and how our ideas would/could work within the context of the movie, and the Star Wars universe in general.
StarWars.com: Walk us through the creative process of how you decide what ships and vehicles you're going to include. How do you determine what details need to be explored and explained? How much leeway do you get in designing your vision or adding in your own fun facts?
Jason Fry: The process of choosing ships and vehicles for cutaways was pretty straightforward, as I recall -- there wasn’t a lot of debate about which ones would be best to feature. This time around, DK and Lucasfilm hit upon a strategy for splash pages that I thought was really smart: rather than use those for film stills, a lot of them are dedicated to other ships and vehicles we see on-screen, ones that didn’t necessarily demand a cutaway view but are still fun to explore. It’s borrowing a bit from the Visual Dictionary approach.
That was great -- I had a lot of fun exploring, say, Canto Bight’s speeders and creating a narrative around them. And it let us include more ships without reducing poor Kemp to a twitching, gibbering wreck, to be found hunched and drooling over his desk. I’m fond of Kemp, so I’m glad I didn’t have to see that.
We have plenty of freedom to explore, which is great. I had my list of details I knew would link up with other books in the works, which is fun for an author and rewarding for a reader, making Star Wars feel deeper and richer with connections. And then you just let your curiosity lead you to interesting places.
I have done enough cross-sections books that I’ve evolved a process that works for me and I think for the books. The first step is to give myself time to think about the vehicle, its role in the story, how many text blocks I have and the best way to use that text.
I start with the main overview text. It has to anchor the rest, and I always approach that bit as if it’s the only text some folks will read. From there, I look at the other blocks and try to come up with one idea for each of them -- I’ve learned the hard way that if I try to cram in more than one I’m risking a mess.
One block might be something technical about how the ship was designed or modified, for instance. Another might be dedicated to the ship’s role within the First Order or the Resistance. A third might put a vehicle in context of a larger design family or military philosophy -- a good approach for walkers, for instance. Perhaps the vehicle has an interesting history or backstory -- we did that with the ski speeders, which was a blast.
I mix and match those approaches and figure out what works best, always making sure I’m supporting the film’s storytelling and being careful not to simply rehash plot points. Then I take a look at what I’ve done. I can usually tell if a block isn’t going to work and I need to find another idea for it. If it does work, I sharpen and shorten the text, looking for chances to make tighter connections with other spreads and ways the annotations can work with that text. Maybe you can emphasis a point with a few well-chosen annos. Maybe one block isn’t working because there are two ideas in it, and the second one would connect better as an annotation. And so forth.
Kemp Remillard: Jason and I work with Lucasfilm and editors Owen Bennet and David Fentiman at DK to determine which vehicles should be included. Usually this list is pretty obvious depending on which vehicles get the most screen-time or are important to the story. Figuring out what details to show and what needs to be explained is a collaborative process between the four of us, while we all keep an eye out for additional details that should definitely be included from up on high (i.e. from Story Group). Usually I’ll start by doing some quick sketches of parts, engines, crew quarters, blaster assemblies, etc., on top of the sketches for determining the angle and layout of our image. This way we get the ball rolling on what might be cool to include, and Jason, Owen, and David are able to start visualizing the image and thinking about how to build on it with factoids/details. Once we’ve picked an angle and layout, I’ll start adding more details to the sketch, which usually generates more ideas on my side, which I’ll then try to explain (to the best of my abilities...). If I get the thumbs up, I’ll start baking my additions into the design. The same goes with any suggestions I get from the team. We’re all really supportive of collaborating on design ideas, so we get a really good amount of leeway in putting fun facts and design concepts into the vehicles. It’s also worth mentioning that we’re all really dedicated to making anything we put in make sense in the Star Wars universe, and are careful to make sure everything we include passes the test for being part of the franchise.
StarWars.com: But it's still, at its heart, a companion book to the film. How much direction were you getting from Rian Johnson and other creative people involved in the highest levels of production? Basically, how much do you get to play around here?
Jason Fry: There was a great “A-ha!” moment in the early stages of working on this book. I was out at Lucasfilm with Kemp and we were focusing on the Resistance bomber, which I’d prioritized because it plays a big role in two books that complement each other: Elizabeth Wein’s novel Cobalt Squadron and my Readerlink book Bomber Command. We were chatting with Lucasfilm’s creative art manager Phil Szostak and he told us that the original idea for the bombers was that the ventral bomb bay was a separate piece, like an ammo clip in an Uzi.
They’d decided not to film that idea, but that struck us as a choice made to tamp down the effects budget and production complexity and not because somebody had decided the idea wasn’t cool. Completely understandable from a movie-making point of view, but there was no reason we couldn’t run with the idea in our book. Phil agreed and we started happily geeking out about “the clip” and how it would work.
And we realized, why stop there? Phil had a great window into the creative process of the designers and effects folks and was kind and generous about sharing that perspective with us. So we made discussing that perspective and trying to capture it part of our brainstorming process for all the ships and vehicles. I think it makes for a book that’s stronger and more fun, and hope it’s something we’ll do in future cross-sections books as well.
Kemp Remillard: The book is definitely a companion piece to the movie and the fact that it is released alongside the premiere on the 15th of December is a thrill. Any queries or questions that Jason and I have are run through Pablo Hidalgo and Story Group. The same goes for any changes that come down from anyone in production. As we work on the designs, we send them to Lucasfilm for periodic review and feedback and update revisions as needed. I will say that we are given a really enjoyable amount of freedom to play around with what we include in the designs, as we are all giant Star Wars fans and want to keep everything consistent. Essentially, we just include everything we think is cool in a design, then call it out with a label or explanation. If the production team gives us a thumbs down we take it out, but this is actually a somewhat rare occurrence, and for the most part something only gets nixed if it conflicts with an aspect of the movie or story. That said, the highest priority for everyone involved is including parts and pieces that are relevant to the movie so that readers can get more of the background/story for what they see on screen, like a proper companion piece should.
StarWars.com: The Star Wars universe is constantly evolving and reinventing itself, but still maintaining that Star Wars-y feel. The AT-M6 and the TIE silencer are both beautiful examples of taking something quintessential to the original films and making it feel new. How does that deep in-universe history influence or inspire your work here?
Jason Fry: It’s always the starting point. For the AT-M6, I thought about why the First Order had changed the design (in ways big and small), how walkers fit into its military philosophy, and what technological innovations had driven those evolutions. I asked those same questions about the TIE silencer, but also thought about the long tradition of starfighter aces flying prototype craft -- something you see in the prequels, A New Hope, and Rebels. Those are the kind of connections that are both logical in the book and rewarding for readers to daydream about later.
Kemp Remillard: I think everyone involved with working on Star Wars is dedicated to making things consistent within the universe, and giving it that Star Wars-y feel. With that said, Jason and I do try to keep things fresh, because, as you say, the universe is also constantly evolving and reinventing itself. If we make design changes to what’s been included in the past, we will usually try to come up with an explanation for why some component has changed to give it a story context. The AT-M6 and TIE silencer are perfect examples of this. You can clearly see that they are built upon the existing framework of vehicles from the past, but improved/modified for the new era. For instance, incorporating some new tech while still using design functionality from the original. This works so well because this is actually the story of how real vehicle concepts work, so I try to imagine the inner workings as following the same principal. For both the TIE silencer and the AT-M6 (and in general), I always heavily reference the original cross section designs by Richard Chasemore and Hans Jenssen. What they’ve done with the original books is now lore and I try to imagine that the First Order engineers chose to improve on these vehicles because there were particularly successful design features both inside and out. Examples of this would be the design of the solar collection power lines on the wings of the silencer and the inclusion of a troop-transport/crew area on the AT-M6.
StarWars.com: The AT-M6 in particular has this loping stride that feels very familiar. What kind of real-world reference points were you using as you're illustrating and explaining the design?
Kemp Remillard: I tried to treat the AT-M6 as an update to the existing AT-AT design. This included things like trying to give the gears and hydraulics of the legs a similar feel to the original, but also updating them for the larger arm structure. So for the new front arm design, I looked at the inner workings of current robotics that have a similar design, which influenced the way I put together the upper arm in particular. For the lower part including the foot, I tried to think of hydraulic pistons as ‘tendons’ with an arrangement that suggests they can pull or push the ‘toes’ in the direction needed. Robotic machinery in the present day usually tries to mechanically reproduce the structures found in nature, so I always use this idea as a jumping point for sci-fi concepts. Another example would be the fusion reactor in the back of the walker positioned near the dorsal energy/fuel cells. This is roughly the same position as the reactor on the AT-AT, but for the AT-M6 I wanted to reference what theoretical and prototype fusion reactors under development today look like. For this reason it has a circular/donut looking shape. Whenever I concept a piece of made-up machinery, I try to give it a stepping stone of real tech and then elaborate on it to give it that super cool sci-fi feel, which is, of course, one of the magic formulas for the success of Star Wars as a whole.
StarWars.com: In some cases, there are these great and utterly bizarre details included in these books, like the location of the laundry room on Snoke's warship, Supremacy. What is the single strangest thing you made sure to work in here?
Jason Fry: Easter egg hunters, I’ll admit this up front: there’s nothing this time around to rival the Raiders of the Lost Ark reference that Pablo Hidalgo and I conspired to slip into The Force Awakens: Incredible Cross-Sections. We’ll be dining out on that one forever. If you’re a fan of Brian Daley’s Han Solo books, though, I’ve thought of you. There are some nods -- including one very subtle one -- that I hope you’ll like. (By the way, if you don’t know those books go read them -- they’re awesome.)
More generally, the Supremacy was a blast to think about, annotate, and discuss. It’s a gatefold, so I had a lot of room to delve into stuff more deeply than in a single spread. And that ship’s worth the effort -- it’s just so ridiculously and wonderfully huge. It’s like the Star Wars equivalent of a kid’s drawing of the fortress he or she will build one glorious day, with a helipad hidden by a door in the cliff face, a secret submarine base, a magma chamber, a rocket launch facility and everything else besides.
Kemp Remillard: Well, Jason and I always try to think about the practical side of things, which is a fun way of keeping the viewer/reader in the universe. The First Order does like to keep their armies looking clean and presentable so… I think what was strange but also interesting about the Supremacy was the massive scale that I needed to represent. I really enjoyed trying to convey the idea that this was a humongous flying industrial war production facility.
StarWars.com: Jason, you've done a tremendous amount of in-universe storytelling, including the novelization for The Last Jedi coming out early next year, so I know you are a wealth of insight and knowledge. What do you find to be the biggest challenge with a reference book where you have to be very economical with your words? And what was your favorite ship or vehicle included in the book?
Jason Fry: I think I’ve learned the economical part and made it part of the process, or at least I hope I have. The biggest challenge is to remember that all this lore is super-fun but has to support the story, making it deeper and richer without going off on any of a thousand interesting tangents.
As for favorites, I’ll cheat and pick two.
From the cutaways, it was the ski speeder. Sometimes the fun of Star Wars lore is a really wonky starting point. I mean, what in the world could a ski speeder be? Where did it come from and why would anybody turn it into an attack craft? The thing looked so goofy that playing around with its backstory was a treat, and I think the results are fun -- and hopefully reasonably logical too.
From the photo spreads, it was the Canto Bight speeders. Sometimes it’s awesome to start with a clean slate and not much you have to link up with. For the speeders I was able to create a kind of American Graffiti culture that exists on the fringes of Canto Bight, with car customizers, hidden garages, little artist bios, etc. Because those speeders were more on-set color than part of a fleet or recognizable design family, I was able to let the storytelling rip without fretting overmuch about continuity. That was fun, and I think the results make Canto Bight and the story we’ll see there feel bigger and more immersive. Because that’s always Job One.
StarWars.com: Kemp, the illustrations are so intricate and gorgeous! As the artist peering inside the ships that populate the new film, and getting to peel back the hull to expose the tiniest components, what was your favorite spread to illustrate overall?
Kemp Remillard: Thank you! These were all so fun to dive into so it’s hard to pick just one. I really enjoyed the A-wing, as I have always loved that ship and enjoyed having it line up with the tech I got to show inside the X-wing for The Force Awakens. The AT-M6 and the TIE silencer were also particularly fun. But to really answer this question I have to go back to the Supremacy. I loved doing something on such a massive scale! ILM intended the notches on the wings to be docking ports for the Star Destroyers, so I took this idea further and put in a Star Destroyer production and repair facility on each wing. I always really enjoy showing the practical side of sci-fi concepts, as it gives the viewer these "ah-ha" moments and keeps up the suspension of disbelief. This extended to things like a large area for having parade-ground type army/troop formations and long assembly lines/factory looking structures that conceivably construct everything from ground vehicles to droids to ships. The central structures looked a lot like a city to me, so I imagined this part as where all of the crew would live, and work commanding the facilities in the wings. So something of note here would be the giant assembly hall that’s in the core of the "city," where presumably a stadium full of First Order personnel can sit back and enjoy lengthy propagandistic speeches.
StarWars.com: Almost everyone working on any level for Star Wars today was a fan first. How did you first get introduced to the saga? And what initially captured your imagination and made you a fan?
Jason Fry: I was eight years old in May 1977, and vividly remember sitting in a dark theater in Lake Grove, N.Y., gaping as Princess Leia’s ship shot overhead and the prow of Darth Vader’s Star Destroyer appeared and took forever to cross the screen. By the time I saw those glowing blue Star Destroyer engines I think I knew my life had changed.
Another touchpoint for me: the Millennium Falcon. I was always drawn to the idea that the Falcon was simultaneously transportation, a cherished home and pretty much a character in her own right. Nearly all the Star Wars adventures I dreamed up as a kid in 1979 began with my Han and Chewie action figures and my Kenner Falcon. And getting to play with Falcon lore in the The Force Awakens: Incredible Cross-Sections book remains one of my top 10 Star Wars pinch-me moments.
Kemp Remillard: I started watching Star Wars with my cousins before I was old enough to even understand why these guys with light swords were fighting all the time. All I knew was those lightsabers are so cool, and I couldn’t get enough of watching these spaceships fly around and shoot lasers. Along with everything else that Star Wars fans love, I was hooked instantly, and kept coming back to the series as I got older and could understand what was happening. I’ve always been a fan of sci-fi spaceships and vehicles, and my little kid drawings are the lasting evidence, so I can remember coming back to the series as an adolescent to really study how the ships looked and what made them so cool. I used to watch the battle of Yavin and Endor over and over to imagine the excitement of being in those moments. I was also a big fan of the Star Wars video games, and was particularly addicted to the X-Wing and TIE Fighter flight simulators for the PC from the ‘90s. Everything about Star Wars just makes you want to go back for more since you always discover something new.
Kristin Baver is a writer and all-around sci-fi nerd who always has just one more question in an inexhaustible list of curiosities. Sometimes she blurts out “It’s a trap!” even when it’s not. Do you know a fan who’s most impressive? Hop on Twitter and tell @KristinBaver all about them!