Interview: Star Wars: The Force Awakens Art Director Doug Chiang talks reviving the epic sci-fi saga

One of the biggest hurdles in the way of The Force Awakens’ enormous box office success was crafting a film that could really nail the look of the original trilogy, yet also build on Lucas’ original designs, in a way that set the tone for a new generation of Star Wars stories.

Fergus caught up with Lucasfilm’s Art Director on The Force Awakens Doug Chiang to talk about the film in time for its release on DVD and Blu-ray.

It’s a real honor to interview someone like yourself. You’re the current Vice President and Executive Creative Director at Lucasfilm. You’ve won an Academy Award, two British Academy Awards and a Clio Award. You’ve won awards for your writing, directing and work in production design.

You served as the head of the art department for the Star Wars prequels. What was it like returning to that universe with The Force Awakens? What was the biggest change? What was the culture around the project like?

It was actually quite a thrill. I grew up up watching [A New Hope] when I was 15 and from that moment on it completely transformed me in terms of knowing what I wanted do for a career.

At that time I really didn’t think I would ever have a chance to work on Star Wars because at that time we always thought that [Episodes] IV, V and VI were the only movies that Lucas was going to do. So when I made my way finally to the Lucas companies in the late-80s/early-90s, rumor had it that George [Lucas] was not interested at all.

So when he finally announced that he was going to do new episodes (I, II and III) it was this amazing revelation for me that I was finally [going to] have a chance to work on design in the Star Wars universe, and best of all, to work directly with George.

I spent about seven or eight years working directly with George and it was probably one of the best experiences of my life. Just [in terms of] learning about film, and about art and design because George has such a comprehensive knowledge of the Star Wars universe and design overall.

It was just invaluable, and what I loved about [that] was that during that time I grew up wanting to do Ralph McQuarrie and Joe Johnston-type drawings (what I knew from [Episodes] IV, V and VI) and it was George during the first week who said “Lets put all that aside because we’re actually going to dive into the history of Star Wars and look at how those designs came about” and what he was doing was crafting a timeline that would span all the films. So it was a really good way to understand and dig deep into the thinking of ‘what makes a Star Wars design?’

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That experience was just amazing, and I thought ‘Well, that’s gonna be it – there will be no more Star Wars films’. So when I heard in 2012 that George had sold Lucasfilm to Disney and that Disney was gonna make more films I was really very excited because, I mean, here’s another opportunity to work in the Star Wars universe and take all that collective knowledge I had learned from George and from what I had studied and bring it to the new films.

So when I came on board, I really was determined to be just an artist. For the last ten years or so my career has led me to be a production designer, mostly for Robert Zemeckis – so when I came back for Episode VII I was just keen on being one of the guys. I wanted to draw again.

How did that go?

It was terrifying – I was so rusty and it’s been ten years since I did [anything like] that and the art departments have really transformed. The tools we use have evolved quite a bit and for me it was playing catch-up but what I loved about that experience was that I was leveraging all that experience that I had and adapting it to the new stories that were being formed.

Working with new filmmakers like J.J. [Abrams] was brilliant. He’s such a visual director. He’s very clear in terms of what he wants and he’s such a fan of the classic designs and we knew it would be a big challenge in terms to take the next evolutionary step for design and how would we do that. So in the earliest days we were really trying to figure that out together.

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I remember he said very clearly, “Lets approach these new films as sets and designs that were built in the 70s and 80s when George made Episode IV. Perhaps these are sets that he never used and we’re shooting our film with these sets now”.

That’s really interesting.

It’s actually a really good way to ground the aesthetic.

The Force Awakens snuck in a few nominations at the Oscars this year. Were you surprised or disappointed it didn’t win anything?

You know it’s interesting. It’s one of those things where the craft and the skill-level of the film-making across all the different kinds of films has grown to such a high degree that they’re all beautiful.

There is a little part of it as well where you hope that The Academy would recognize it more but I’m just thrilled that it was even recognized [at all] because a lot of the designers I work do it because we love it. When we approach these designs, we don’t think ‘What does the audience want to see’, we ask ‘What do [we] want to see?’

Something that stuck with me from The Force Awakens was the use of color in the film. It really popped out at you. Was this aspect of the film’s look planned from the beginning or did it emerge naturally?

That was actually a very distinct decision and it’s something that I learned working with George way back in ’95. He was always adamant about creating a distinctive palette for the different societies and the good and the bad.

With Episode IV, it was very clear. He wanted to make it black and white. The Rebels were always organic colors (brown tones, earth tones, green) and The Empire, in contrast, were black, white and red. Independent of color, the forms themselves were very distinct. The Rebels were all about all compound organic shapes and The Empire was all about geometric shapes and right angles – so that was something we were going to leverage off of.

Part of the whole visual vocabulary for Star Wars is to create a very distinct palette so that when the filmmakers are jumping between one culture to another you know quickly who’s on the good side and who’s on the bad. So when I was working with George for episodes I, II and III, he wanted to really blend that and really turn it on his head. That’s where you started seeing a much more complex, subtle version of that playing out.

And what we are doing for Episode VII, since it comes right after IV, V and VI where that distinction is very clear, [is] leverage off that but then update it for these new films.

That’s really interesting. A lot of the film takes place on the planet of Jakku. How did the art department approach differentiating Jakku from Tatooine?

Yeah, that was a very big challenge. Early on, we had about two-to-four months of exploration before we really knew what the story would be. We [only] had a brief outline and one of the great things of having the art team working concurrently with the writers was that we could explore [some of these] ideas – put down exotic ideas that create imagery that maybe sparks conversations that help inform the story.

Likewise, it happens the other way as well. It was a wonderful way of working because at that time we really didn’t know what kinds of planets were going to be in the story but we knew in the Star Wars universe these planets were very iconic. You have the ice planet of Hoth, the forest planet of Endor, the desert planet of Tatooine – and we thought “How can we create a new distinct planet?”

We always loved deserts – I love deserts – and one of the things we started exploring early on [with Jakku] was “Well, how do we make it distinctive enough so that when the audience sees it they don’t confuse it with Tatooine” and one of these early explorations was [the idea] that we make it a very cold desert – so then we started referencing the Atacama Desert in South America. The other way [we looked] to go was “Well, how about if it’s a desert but there’s oceans on it?”

That started a whole chain of visual exploration where we were trying to come up with a visually striking look to make it very distinct and then from there we started to fill-in and create our own backstory.

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It’s interesting too because early on we kinda knew that Rey (Daisy Ridley) was going to be our main female character but we didn’t know much about her backstory, so we started to invent some of that while we were making the artwork.

One of the things I’ve always loved to do was to put in visual contrasts in the designs – things like putting something we are very familiar with into a new context. For me, this was taking [those] giant Star Destroyers and sticking them into a desert. It sort-of creates drama. It creates intrigue and mystery for the audience – and as a viewing audience you start to ask questions like “What is the history of this?”

It creates all this information that’s pulling the viewer in and when you can create designs like that it helps to engage audiences on many levels. On one [level], it’s a very emotional and spiritual image where, automatically, it just pulls the audience in. The visuals are so valuable but then it’s supported by the story of the real character of Rey and what her backstory is.

Those shots of the Star Destroyers are some of my favorites in the film. Another bit of imagery that stuck with me was the arrival at Maz’s Cantina. Where did this come from? Were there any specific inspirations?

We wanted to create a really exotic environment and that evolved quite a bit. Originally Maz’s Castle was going to be an entire planet, which we had termed in our minds as ‘exotic-city’ or ‘exotic-planet’ – It was this idea of taking the convention of the cantina and taking it city-wide.

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Early on in the design phase we were really playing around with a bunch of different ideas of creating a very interesting location for characters and as the story came together, and as J.J. began to write the character of Maz (Lupita Nyong’o), that location slowly started to solidify and ultimately it became that very contained and concise version you saw in the movie.

In the end, all the art and design and all the history and research that we do is to support the character. There were a lot of really good ideas but if they didn’t support the characters they were put aside.

Looking ahead, Star Wars: Rogue One is due out later this year. What was your level of involvement with that?

I mean [with] Rogue One, I’m a co-production designer so it’s a bigger role.

What was your approach to it?

Very much the same. I’ve been doing production design for a while [and] this is a universe that I feel very comfortable in. In all of these, the challenge is getting in-sync with the filmmaker.

J.J. [had] a very distinct taste and direction he wanted me to go in, so really we do the design and the work we do to fit their story they want to tell.

What’s the biggest thing you learned from The Force Awakens that you want to take forward into future films?

That’s an interesting question because it’s a question I ask with each one of these films.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Diego Luna) Ph: Film Frame ©Lucasfilm LFL

Even though we’re designing these Star Wars films there is a visual language that’s very strict to it. You can easily design a form or shape that can take it out of the Star Wars realm – so the challenge for us with these new stories that are being told in this universe is how do we adhere to that. Part of my larger role within the company now is making sure that the designs for the feature films all fit in with that.

As we move forward with new filmmakers it’s really to support the story. We’re always supporting the vision of the directors while still fitting it within the Star Wars universe that we know.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens releases on DVD and Blu-ray on the 13th of April.

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