Doug Chiang’s visual effects résumé reads like a greatest hits of everything: Ghost, Terminator 2, Forrest Gump, Jumanji, The Mask, and The Phantom Menace are visually iconic, and the best training in the world to be a concept and production designer. He’ll be heading up the latter category for the next Star Wars film in theaters, Rogue One, but he can’t talk about that yet…except to say “it’s very cool.” On the other hand, now that we’ve all seen The Force Awakens (more than once, in most cases), we did get to talk to him about his role as a concept artist for Episode VII.
We began the chat, naturally, with our most burning question: if the Starkiller Base sucks up the nearest star, and the sky gets dark—per the climax—why is it broad daylight the first time the weapon is fired? Chiang’s answer is simple, and should have been obvious: “The indication would be that it actually sucked a star—a different star—and the Starkiller base, being mobile, has moved into a new system, so it hasn’t sucked out the sun yet.”
Okay, so the second time, during the climax, when the nearby sun gets sucked up, how do people survive on the surface? “That’s one of the questions that we don’t ask!” he laughs. “Sometimes we have to just push that fantasy button a little bit and say, ‘You know what? It’s the Star Wars universe, and things float because they float—we don’t have to explain it.”
Chiang has been working with the Star Wars universe since the Prequel Trilogy, and has tried to keep George Lucas around in spirit even as the flannel-clad auteur has handed over the franchise to others. “It’s terrifying in some ways, because when I was working with George for seven and a half years on [the Prequels], you really knew that he was the final say,” he says. “This was his universe, he had the ultimate vision for what it is. And back then when I was working on it, you’d sometimes get comfortable enough that you think you can anticipate what he’s going to approve and what he likes, [but] he’ll always surprise me. He loves to take that risk. And for me, moving on and designing these new films, it’s really finding what are those risks that you’ll take. Because without George guiding that, then you have to find it within yourself to say how far should you push these designs before they become non-Star Wars.”
It wasn’t as much of a risk this time as it could have been, since director J.J. Abrams wanted an aesthetic closer to the Original Trilogy, with elements that looked like they could have been built back during the ’70s and ’80s. But wouldn’t the galaxy far, far away have changed in 30 years?
“As far as design,” he recalls, “we had many discussions about how much we should update the TIE fighters [and] how much we should update the stormtroopers. Part of the design history of Star Wars was that, if you really think about IV, V and VI as being grounded in sort of ’70s and ’80s design in our timeline, but Episodes I, II and III were really in the 1920s and ’30s. So VII, VII and IX is really contemporary times. So how would that inform the visual language, or what could that be? That answer was: maybe it’s materials, maybe it’s manufacturing. Maybe designs did work—for example, the TIE fighters have such a classic, strong design, but maybe their manufacturing process has improved. And so we explored things like, maybe we change the materials, make it more stealthy.”
His favorite design work in the new film was Jakku, a planet riddled withs remnants of a battle long ago. Chiang says, “For me, it was like, ‘What about a crashed Star Destroyer?’ I had loved the idea of juxtaposing nature with big tech. A Star Destroyer being such an iconic thing… once you put it on the ground, on the surface of a planet, it creates such a startling image. Fortunately, as that evolved, it actually fit in pretty well with the story, and then we slowly started to figure out the back story of Jakku. But then the icing on it was you have a Millennium Falcon/TIE fighter chase through it!”
If you geeked out about that moment as much Chiang did, you’ll be glad to know he’s in charge of making sure the new expanded universe makes visual sense: “As a designer, it’s trying to make that all cohesive…It’s a pretty challenging task, because a lot of these stories are very different. And with each new filmmaker, they bring a very different point of view. My role, really, is to kind of bridge all of that, to make continuity here.”
Star Wars: The Force Awakens comes out on Blu-ray April 5.
Doug Chiang courtesy of Click Communications
The Force Awakens via Disney/Lucasfilm