The author discusses his latest book and chronicling the concept art phase of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.
A reader of Abrams Books’ The Art of Star Wars series would be forgiven for assuming that, as the author, I just write the text and someone else is responsible for gathering, choosing, and laying out the hundreds of pieces of concept art that fill their pages. But my “day job” as creative art manager at Lucasfilm means that I am exposed on a daily basis to dozens of new concept art pieces for every live-action and animated project we are involved in, reviewing and disseminating them, as needed. As such, I would be tasked with gathering concept art for these art books, even if I wasn’t the author.
One of the mandates for the Art of Star Wars series was that each should be different, as different as the films themselves are from one another. And early on, I decided to try and find a thematic connection between the books and the films they were covering.
2015’s The Art of Star Wars: The Force Awakens was laid out following the month-to-month production of the film, by necessity, as the book covered a nearly three-year period. As a new author, I was also very closely matching the layout of J.W. Rinzler’s The Art of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, Rinzler himself having chosen me to follow in his footsteps. For Josh Kushins’ The Art of Star Wars: Rogue One, several layouts were tried before one that hops from world-to-world, as the film does, was selected. The Art of Star Wars: The Last Jedi followed the individual journeys of each of the main characters, Rey, Finn, and Poe, until they converge on Crait. And as a particularly character-driven film, The Art of Solo: A Star Wars Story had a chapter dedicated to each individual, followed by the world upon which we meet them.
Very early on in the process, I pitched the idea that The Art of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker could function a “victory lap” for Lucasfilm’s amazing artists and storytellers, many of whom have worked exclusively on Star Wars for the past five years. Each chapter could feature the work of an individual design team, namely, the costume, props, creature and droid effects, art (encompassing set decoration and computer graphics), and post-production departments. Within each of those chapters, the concept art would be organized chronologically, marching through the plot of the film.
I also hoped that, in doing so, the role of the artists within each department would be made clear. In rare cases, teams that don’t normally handle certain designs take a crack at them, as creature concept artist Jake Lunt Davies did with Rey’s speeder (normally the purview of the art department) for The Force Awakens. In the earliest days of The Rise of Skywalker, Neal Scanlan’s creature designers, including Davies, Luke Fisher, and Ivan Manzella, similarly took a pass at Kylo Ren’s helmet (normally the responsibility of Michael Kaplan’s costume department), only knowing that director J.J. Abrams wanted it to return. So they designed an entirely new batch of helmets, only later learning that Abrams intended Kylo to fix the one he smashed in The Last Jedi.
So, given that blending of roles and how each department’s art is normally mixed together in an The Art of Star Wars book, I hoped this layout would cement the players and their respective responsibilities in the reader’s minds. As soon as that “by department” layout concept was approved by Lucasfilm Publishing and Abrams Books, I was off to the races, deciding the chapter order, what subjects would be covered in each chapter, and, most importantly, starting the long process of gathering, organizing, and winnowing down the gigantic pool of concept art.
Looking at our database as I write this, there were upwards of 20,000 pieces of concept art created for The Rise of Skywalker. The Art of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker has 684 pieces squeezed into its pages, the precise number of pages (256) that each of the Art of Star Wars books have. So, there’s a surprising amount of math that goes into it, knowing that I have X amount of subjects to cover and only so much room to cover them. I do my best to stick to those numbers when placing art into the rough layout.
The amount of art available on a particular subject, how important it is in the film, and how interesting the stories are behind its creation all factor in to how long I can afford to dwell on any given topic. Key, and potentially beloved, new characters with a lot of design iteration, like Babu Frick or Zorii Bliss, might warrant four to six pages, whereas Jannah only gets two, because her costume design came together so quickly.
Thankfully, I am not alone in the process of deciding what concept art makes the final cut. Since The Force Awakens, the art department has created what co-production designer Rick Carter called a ”moviescape,” a single PDF that runs through the entire film visually with concept art. Those pieces are my jumping-off point for the art department’s work. Over the winter of 2019, co-production designer Kevin Jenkins also sent me several batches of his art selects, as did several of the other department’s designers, like chief costume concept artist Glyn Dillon.
But the ultimate decisions usually come down to me, with the help of designer Liam Flanagan at Abrams Books, pieces getting added or dropped until no more changes can be made as the book is prepared to go to print, around six months before it’s released to bookstores worldwide. Industrial Light & Magic post-production concept art and shot paintovers are often the very last slugged into place.
One of the great joys of the process is digging through our film production database, checking each folder and subfolder for hidden concept art gems. In the case of The Art of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, some of the weirdest and most fun pieces I dug up included Jake Lunt Davies’ BB-unit tank and Caretaker assassins, costume concept artist Calum Alexander Watt’s pilot design tribute to David Bowie, and Rodolfo Damaggio’s storyboards for a deleted Knights of Ren battle sequence. In spite of those pieces’ lack of relevance to the final film, I couldn’t resist including them.
From start to finish, The Art of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker took over a year and a half to complete. In the summer of 2018, the work was very part-time but ramped up dramatically as I approached my early-2020 deadlines. The analogy I always use in describing the process in putting one of these books together is climbing a mountain. And there is no more intimidating place to be than at the base of the mountain, not having taken even a single step. But the books do somehow come together, step by step. However difficult the journey, it is always a joy. And it remains the deepest of honors to, in a small way, represent these films and, by proxy, the legacy of what George Lucas created, and all of the incredibly-talented people behind the scenes that make them happen.
The Art of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker by Phil Szostak, and Lucasfilm Ltd. © Abrams Books, 2020
© & TM 2020 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved. Used Under Authorization
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Lucasfilm creative art manager Phil Szostak has worked in conjunction with Star Wars art departments since 2008. A graduate of the School of Visual Arts in New York, Szostak ran the JAK Films Art Department on Skywalker Ranch for more than three years before joining the narrative design team on LucasArts’s Star Wars: 1313. He is also the author of The Art of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Abrams, 2015), The Art of Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Abrams, 2017) and The Art of Solo: A Star Wars Story (Abrams, 2018). He lives in San Francisco.
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