AN INTERVIEW WITH DOUG CHIANG FOR STAR WARS: THE DIGITAL COLLECTION
Doug Chiang worked as Design Director on Star Wars: Episode I – A Phantom Menace and Star Wars Episode II – Attack Of The Clones. It was Chiang’s role in the trailblazing movie franchise to create iconic new vehicles and key characters for the prequel films. With Star Wars: The Digital Collection about to be released, we talk with Chiang to discover more about his work on the Star Wars Saga. We also quiz the Design Director about his input into the exciting bonus extras for the digital release.
How did you first become involved with Star Wars?
For me, it was a very long journey. I guess you could say it started when I was 15 years old, which was when I saw the first Star Wars movie. I built my whole career towards a single goal, which was to work on the new Star Wars films. When I got into the industry, there was a rumor that George Lucas was not going to make any more Star Wars films – but I slowly made my way over to his visual effects company, Industrial Light And Magic [ILM]. I was there in 1989, serving as Creative Art Director, and then Visual Effects Director for ILM – but it wasn’t until around 1994 that we heard George was interested in starting the new trilogy.
How did you become Design Director on Star Wars: Episode I – A Phantom Menace?
Even though I was at his company, there was an open artist call for people to work on the new movies. Basically, George was going to look for artists all over the world, so working at ILM didn’t really give me any advantage. I prepared my portfolio, just like everyone else, and I submitted it blind. I didn’t say who I was; my work was solely based on the value of the portfolio itself. Fortunately, George saw something in my portfolio that he liked.
What made your portfolio stand out?
About two years prior to that, I had embarked on a self-journey to create artwork. I was a huge fan of combining nature and wildlife in my designs, so my portfolio at the time reflected that idea. Interestingly, that’s what drew George to my portfolio because that was what he was doing with the Star Wars universe. He was combining familiar elements and presenting them in a new, unfamiliar way.
In the exclusive bonus extras for Star Wars: The Digital Collection you give a great example of this blend of nature and wildlife in your designs. You reveal that the MTT [Multi-Troop Transport] vehicle was inspired by an image of Tarzan riding through the jungle on a bull elephant. What other examples can you share?
There are many examples of this in the Star Wars universe. The armored assault tank was very much modeled after a pouncing lion. It’s curious because when I design an object, I usually try and imbue it with a certain personality – and this is a lesson that I learned from George. You try to build in this emotional undertone to the design that anchors it, so when the audience views it, they have an instinctually emotional response to it without knowing why. If you can elicit this response, it makes the designs much stronger.
How did this idea work for the armored assault tank?
When I was designing the tank, I wanted it to be very threatening. The image in my mind of a lion pouncing at you with its claws forward is very powerful and that’s what I modeled the front of the tank on. If you look at the three rocket ports on each side, those represent the nails of the lion’s paw. You can see a foreshortened head that basically forms the body of the tank, too. It’s very subliminal but when you see it coming at you, hopefully it elicits the same response. Hopefully, you feel the threat and the danger – but you don’t quite identify what it is.
Giving a ‘personality’ to your creations is one of the five principals of design that you came up with through your collaborations with George Lucas on the Star Wars saga. Can you take us through the other four?
The first design principle is ‘silhouette’. The trick is to distill the design down to its basic essence. In some ways, it’s like designing a logo for a vehicle. You have to look at the silhouette and make sure that it’s identifiable. You have to be able to know what it is judging purely by the outline. If you look at all the designs in Star Wars and if you draw them as simple shapes or outlines, you know exactly what they are. It’s a key way to design because you’re designing the essence of a design; details can be augmented afterwards.
What is the second of your five principles of design?
The second rule is the most important one: ‘the three-second rule’. That was the biggest eye-opener for me and it’s very specific to designing for cinema. Primarily, it’s because when you see a design onscreen, the audience only has two or three seconds to identify it and register it before the scene cuts. If the design doesn’t live in those two or three seconds and the audience doesn’t understand what it is, then it doesn’t work; the design isn’t good enough.
Is this different to traditional design ideas?
It’s very different from traditional industrial design or product design where you can live with the design and it can grow on you. With cinema, there’s this whole different nature where you have to capture the audience in those first few seconds. The bonus is, later on, the audience will appreciate it when viewing it as a piece of artwork or as a toy; that’s when they can really appreciate the other levels of detail in there.
What is the third principle of design?
‘Believability’ is the third rule; and this isn’t as important as the first two. This comes down to designing things that are believable. If you think about it, we’re designing fantasy worlds and nothing has to make a lot of sense – but there has to be a level of believability. You have to be able to believe that this object could possibly work – if not in our world, then in another world. The careful line here is to not push the design so far where you move the audience to start to question it.
‘Personality’ is the fourth principle of design, which you’ve already discussed. What is the final principle of design?
The final principle is very specific. It’s what I call the ‘toy factor’ or ‘geek factor’. It’s about designing something that can become a product that the audience can enjoy afterwards; whether it is something that they can play with or just put on their desk. It’s something that we strive for as designers because it’s the fun factor.
When it comes to these design principals – which you discuss in depth on the bonus extras for the new digital release – what was your greatest achievement with Star Wars: Episode I: A Phantom Menace?
Oh boy… There are quite a few! I always consider George my main mentor in terms of film and design because I didn’t go to art school. On a big scale, one of my greatest achievements was becoming a better designer through working on the movie and with George. Individually, it’s all about the specific design of the Trade Barons in the Federation, coming up with the aesthetic for the droids, and coming up with the aesthetic for Naboo.
Which vehicles did you enjoy creating the most?
There are two vehicles that stand out for me: the Naboo Starfighter and the Queen’s ship. They are both in the same vein, but that was a very bold design statement to me. George said to create something that was super elegant: a chrome ship. At the time, I thought Star Wars meant World War II aesthetics that included flat textures that are dirty and gritty. But here, he wanted to make a different statement. When I first heard about this idea, I got excited but I was also terrified because I thought, ‘Would this actually fit in the Star Wars universe?’
Did the design fit into the new universe?
It actually did, because what we were constructing at that time was a design history of the Star Wars universe. If you look at Episodes IV, V and VI as the peak of the industrial revolution design in terms of manufacturing – where everything was stamped out for mass quantity – we were now going back to the craftsman era where everything was hand crafted. Every vehicle and design was a piece of art. That was the approach that I took for the Naboo Starfighter and also the Queen’s ship.
Which other vehicles did you enjoy creating for A Phantom Menace?
The other vehicle that I really liked was the C-9979 Landing Craft, which is the vehicle that looks like a bi-wing plane. I really enjoyed creating that because it was a nice blend of a lot of different things. One, it had a strong personality because I modeled it after a dragonfly – although, interestingly, George saw a different form in the vehicle. He saw a biplane. Even though the shapes and outline are very similar, they are two very different personalities. It’s great because the power of Star Wars design is that each viewer takes away a different experience from it. To me, it was a dragonfly. To George, it was a biplane. But they both served a function to anchor a design that we were both very familiar with.
What was your toughest challenge in designing the Star Wars universe?
There were many, many challenges. The starships were some of the hardest designs for me. Even though I grew up drawing spaceships, they were very hard to create. The characters were also a big challenge for me. Usually, I’m not a character designer – but I lucked into designing characters for Star Wars and my favorite example is Watto.
How did you come up with the design for Watto?
I created an early portrait of one of the Trade Barons and it was a portrait that George always liked, but the character changed in the story and the design didn’t work for this particular being. Months later, George said he had a new character that he wanted to develop. He said to me that he wanted to take the portrait I’d created earlier, but instead of using the body that I designed, he wanted to put a dumpy body with duck feet and bat wings. When you hear those things together, it doesn’t sound right. In fact, it sounds ridiculous, so I didn’t take George seriously at all. For weeks, George kept saying, ‘Take the head and put it on a dumpy body with bat wings.” Finally, I literally did exactly what he said and it was the most startling discovery. It worked. This is where I really started to appreciate and trust George’s instinct.
You discuss your working relationship with George Lucas in detail in the bonus extra, but how would you describe your first meeting with the iconic creator of the Star Wars universe?
My first meeting with George took place in late 1994, which is when I first heard that I’d got the job on Episode I. The meeting was held in his office on the second floor of the main house of the Skywalker Ranch – but I had never been there before. I remember that day very distinctly because I tried to be incredibly prepared and I had my notebook ready to take notes, but I was terrified because this was a meeting with George Lucas. I had seen him before at the company, but I had never spoken to him personally.
How did that first meeting go?
George was very approachable and very casual. He made me feel very comfortable. That meeting was wonderful because he had already laid out in his mind what he wanted, so he identified some of the designs that he wanted to attack. One of the ideas involved a race where you take two of the most powerful engines and you strap a cockpit to them. That idea slowly evolved into the pod race. He also wanted to create a whole new group of stormtroopers, but he wanted to make them robots.
How did you prepare yourself for that first meeting with George Lucas?
When I first started work on the project, I went down to the archives and I read one of the very first drafts of Star Wars. This was the draft George wrote before he cut the story up into a trilogy. Back then, he had all the components and all the pieces of the world – and he had all the characters thought out. How they evolved and fit together wasn’t worked out completely at this point, but he had all the ingredients there.
It must have been an exciting time to work with George Lucas…
It was incredible, but what excited me the most was the fact that I got to be a part of his process. As George was starting to write the new trilogy, I got to be involved. In some ways, I helped to shape and influence where he was going with his ideas. It was fascinating to hear him talk about Star Wars because up until then, I had only seen him in interviews. At that first meeting, I got to hear him in person and I got to ask him questions. It was amazing. I’ll never forget it.
STAR WARS: THE DIGITAL COLLECTION
With Star Wars: Episodes I-VI available for purchase as a complete digital movie collection and individually, viewers will have the Rebel forces at their beck and call across their favorite devices anywhere in the world. Enhancing the movie collection are a host of never-before-seen special features including Star Wars: Discoveries From Inside and insightful Conversations between key contributors from across this celebrated film franchise, as well as a curated collection of classic Star Wars extras from each film. All six epic films in the saga, from The Phantom Menace to Return Of The Jedi, will be available on Digital HD globally beginning Friday, April 10.