Star Wars Production Designer Doug Chiang
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Doug Chiang Designs the Link to ‘Star Wars’ Past

Jon Favreau highlights the contributions of the designer he considers a direct connection to George Lucas.

Star Wars designer Doug Chiang

Doug Chiang


One of the things that makes “Star Wars” so special is its world-building. A mid-budget studio film with the ambition of the tentpole blockbusters it paved the way for, George Lucas’ 1977 original uses modest settings to suggest a vast and complicated universe. Intricately detailed spaceships that fill the screen, belying their humble origins as miniature models. The glossy tech and fascist uniformity of the Galactic Empire versus the slapped-together equipment and species-specific garb of the Rebel Alliance. A desert planet home to AI-scavenging nomads, interplanetary outlaws in off-the-rack monster masks cooling their heels in a dimly lit saloon, and a farm boy destined to bring balance to the galaxy.

“It’s not like you have a handbook that says what is or isn’t ‘Star Wars,’ said writer, actor, director, and longtime ‘Star Wars’ fan Jon Favreau. “It’s hundreds and thousands of little decisions that are being made about costumes and props and set design and vehicles. As you dig deeper, you get into very specific use cases. But it all adds up to a generalized understanding.”

As the driving force behind the current generation of live-action “Star Wars” TV projects that began with “The Mandalorian” and “The Book of Boba Fett,” Favreau has played a major role in expanding the universe Lucas established in the film that’s now canonically referred to as “Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope.” And like Lucas’ before him, those efforts have come to rely heavily on designer and artist Doug Chiang.

Star Wars designer Doug Chiang

Doug Chiang

screengrab/"Inside ILM Creating the Razor Crest"

“Star Wars” has been Chiang’s creative North Star since he was 15 years old, when he bribed his older brother to drive him to the movie theater to see this new science fiction movie he’d seen advertised on TV. At that time, Chiang was already an avid drawer, and had begun experimenting with model building and stop-motion animation. So ​​when he saw “Star Wars” — and, even more crucially, the “Making of Star Wars” special that aired on ABC in the fall of ’77 — it felt like a sign. “That’s when it really came together for me, because I saw the people behind the scenes doing the craft and I realized that’s what I want to do,” he said.

Nearly 20 years later, Chiang was a VFX art director at the very studio whose work was depicted in that TV special, Industrial Light & Magic. Chiang had won an Oscar as part of the team that ratcheted necks and blew holes through torsos for “Death Becomes Her,” but ILM’s founder was about to take his career to another level: In 1995, Lucas handpicked Chiang to develop the world of a new “Star Wars” trilogy, set prior to the rise of the Empire and the fall of Anakin Skywalker. A world that would dramatically widen the scope of Lucas’ creation, and the design of which grounds the films and television of today’s “Star Wars.”

“When I started, I thought I knew a lot about film design,” Chiang said. Lucas changed that. “Star Wars,” as he imparted to Chiang, is a balancing act deeply rooted in history and culture, with a specific formula — 80 percent real-world references, 20 percent “Star Wars” adjustments  — and certain procedures to be followed. “[Lucas] made a huge difference in terms of how I designed,” Chiang said. “I thought at first that we would be tasked with actually designing worlds from scratch. And it was the complete opposite.”

To see how “Star Wars” design is kept grounded in the real world, watch the Craft Consideration video below, in which Chiang breaks down his work in creating the burnt-forest fortress of “The Mandalorian” Chapter 13, “The Jedi.”

The process of doing research to inform the historical, scientific, cultural, and even industrial backdrop for every aspect of a “Star Wars” design comes up a lot when Chiang talks about his process — “homework,” he calls it. It’s a fitting word for one of Lucas’ most devoted students — one who, now that Lucas is no longer involved with “Star Wars” on any kind of day-to-day basis, finds himself not only acting as his mentor’s emissary, but mentoring new designers and filmmakers in turn.

“What I find really fascinating with new filmmakers is that they have wonderful points of view,” Chiang said. “I love pushing that boundary and feeling uncomfortable. If I get that little bit of uneasiness, I know that we’re doing our jobs right, because we’re pushing the boundaries. But then I also have to put on my ‘Star Wars’ universe hat and say, ‘I like the boldness of that, but did we go too far?’” This is a major part of Chiang’s current role at Lucasfilm, where his official title is VP and executive creative director, “Star Wars.”

“We try to make sure that Doug gets to have a meaningful say and contribution over everything that gets created by Lucasfilm in relation to ‘Star Wars,’” Favreau said. “And I think what filmmakers and other production designers find is that he’s a great collaborator. He’s never looking to do anything but stoke the fires of inspiration that [they’re] bringing. But he’s also steering them clear of aesthetics that might make it feel less authentic to a very engaged fan base.”

Reflecting of his experience writing “Obi-Wan Kenobi,” Joby Harold said he could sense this cohesion and shared sensibility. “And with design, more than any other department, you really get a sense that there’s bedrock there,” he said.

Decades of experience make it so that Chiang can judge whether something has that ineffable “Star Wars” quality. “It’s a very elusive ingredient,” he said, which can be achieved in a few ways. One is by simply tweaking the form of an object: rounding out a corner, or modifying the scale of different design elements. At the same time, as Chiang puts it, “One of the key elements that keeps ‘Star Wars’ fresh is its combination of different cultures, different eras, and different time periods. There’s a richness there that you can’t replicate by inventing. And so we don’t.” Achieving that magic 20 percent could be as simple as mixing, say, ancient Egyptian aesthetics with feudal Japanese ones. “You get that feeling when you hit it,” Chiang said.

Chiang comes alive when digging into the intricacies of, say, the visual through line from the window mullions on Anakin’s Jedi Interceptor in the prequels and the design of those same features on TIE Fighters in the original trilogy. “This was [done] very specifically, because the Republic was going to become the foundation for the Empire,” he said. He sees his job as making sure that not only everything he touches maintains its innate “‘Star Wars’-ness,” but that it also has a solid foundation.

Watch the video below to see the design evolution of “Star Wars” in action.

That doesn’t just mean that the vehicles he designs are theoretically capable of flight, or that a creature could survive on its home planet — although both of those things will be debated at some point during the production process. “From a visual effects standpoint, we need to make sure that whatever is designed can physically move,” said Industrial Light & Magic VFX supervisor Richard Bluff. “So oftentimes we go back to Doug and say, ‘this creature needs to move in a particular way. Let’s look at the joints you’ve designed and see if there’s a way of modifying these to make it look real.’”

But everything also has to make sense in terms of the larger “Star Wars” timeline. Chiang says that designing vehicles is especially challenging in this respect, because, like clothing, vehicle styles change relatively quickly compared to more permanent objects like architecture. “When I approach vehicle designs, there’s an added layer of complexity, because not only do we have to make sure that it’s culturally appropriate for the world that we’re building, but it has to be time specific — and character specific as well,” he said.


“The Mandalorian” concept art


Ironically for an artist who’s now famous for his concept drawings — thanks to the end credits of “The Mandalorian” and “The Book of Boba Fett” — Chiang’s involvement with “Star Wars” began at a time when the franchise was going all in on CGI. Looking at Chiang’s drawings for the N-1 Starfighter in “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace,” the craft has a sleek, streamlined profile that was a radical departure from the nuts-and-bolts ships in the original trilogy. Although they were initially modeled as physical objects by Chiang and his team, the N-1 became an all-CGI creation. That changed when the design resurfaced on “The Book of Boba Fett” as Din Djarin’s new ride, translated into a physical prop and given a good tarnished finish to reflect the series’ desert setting and the passage of time.

“Even though it’s a 35-year time difference, it is one cohesive universe. And what I enjoy most about what we’re doing on ‘The Mandalorian’ is that we have an opportunity to realize the cohesive design philosophy for the ‘Star Wars’ universe that George came up with. And the N-1 is really dear to me, because that was one of the spaceships that was really pushing the boundaries of ‘Star Wars’ design,” Chiang said.

“If you are only judging ‘Star Wars’ based on the original trilogy, you would never think that the N-1 would fit into that. But if you look at the foundation of that design history, it makes perfect sense. If you equate it to our car industry, the N-1 [of the prequels] is like the 1920s, when the cars were first being developed. It was all handcrafted. It’s being designed not only as a vehicle, but as art. In the original trilogy, we’re more in the 1970s, more manufactured,” he said. And by the time you get to “The Mandalorian” and “The Book of Boba Fett,” the N-1 is “a vintage car. It’s a classic. It was terrific to take that idea and then hot rod it. George Lucas is a huge racing car fan, and so to have the opportunity to actually hot rod a design that we had developed close to 25 years ago, well — it was really fun.”

Mandalorian Concept Image

“The Mandalorian” concept art


What sets Chiang apart from even the most obsessive of fans is that he worked directly with Lucas, meaning that he was privy not only to early versions of “Star Wars” designs viewers know and love, but also the ones fans never got to see. Favreau said that Chiang has been particularly helpful in filling in some of the details of the “Star Wars” underworld for “The Mandalorian,” using research Chiang and Lucas conducted decades ago for a project that never got off the ground.

“Doug keeps everybody honest in terms of the aesthetic of ‘Star Wars,’” Bluff said. He doesn’t act alone: Dave Filoni, ILM chief creative officer John Knoll, animation supervisor Hal Hickle, and production designer Andrew Jones are also members of the informal brain trust overseeing the franchise. And the way that they work is unusual, in the sense that everyone sees “Star Wars” as something larger than themselves.

It’s a matter of modesty, to be sure. Asked if he feels any sense of authorship over his designs, Chiang says that putting his stamp on “Star Wars” is “really not something that I think about at all, because I don’t feel like this is my universe. I’m just visiting.” But there’s also no time for clashing egos on set with the accelerated pace of shows like “The Mandalorian” and “Obi-Wan.” Live-action television was a godsend for the “Star Wars” brand, but according to Chiang, “we’re producing three times the content in about half the time and a third of the budget [of a Star Wars movie], and that creates enormous challenges and stresses. This is ‘Star Wars.’ We’re not going to sacrifice the look.”

“One of our goals for ‘The Mandalorian’ was to make sure that we push the envelope so that we were creating theatrical quality for TV,” he said. “It’s an enormous challenge because you’re trying to create so much more content with so little resources.” But the upside of all this stress is that it facilitates quick, decisive decision making. “With ‘The Mandalorian,’ because Jon is so decisive, we trust our instincts early on,” Chiang said. “And so that short schedule actually in some ways improves our workflow, because we can trust our instincts and not overwork a design.”

Behind the Scenes of "The Mandalorian" Season 1

Behind the Scenes of “The Mandalorian” Season 1

Lucas Film

Aside from a sense of common purpose, the thing that makes it possible to produce and release “The Book of Boba Fett” and “Obi-Wan” in such quick succession —with “Andor,” “Ahsoka,” and a new season of “The Mandalorian” due within the next year — is, in quintessential Lucasfilm/ILM fashion, a piece of new technology. ILM StageCraft, known colloquially as “The Volume,” eliminates the need for costly location shoots through the use of LED screens that not only have the resolution to mimic real life, but are more responsive than green-screen technology.

The Volume makes it possible to shoot a season of TV in half the time of a similarly effects-heavy blockbuster. But it also allows for an unprecedented level of artistic consistency and control on the design side. Chiang’s concept art is drawn early — sometimes before the episode is even written. Bluff and Favreau describe a writers’ room type of environment, where Chiang, Jones, and the shows’ writers and directors engage in a back-and-forth about the planets and environments being explored in an episode, and how they can be best used to tell a particular story. “The concept piece is what everybody’s working towards throughout the entire flow of production: prep, shooting and post,” Bluff said. “Doug’s role is very powerful. It really underpins everything.”

From Chiang’s drawings, Jones and the virtual art department create models and sets, a mix of practical and virtual elements that can be tailored to the needs and preferences of a particular filmmaker. From there, Jones and his team load a preview of the environment onto VR headsets, which Chiang, as well as the episode’s director and department heads, will don to “walk through” the space. As Bluff explains, in this intermediate stage, a director can virtually rearrange objects to fit the blocking for a scene, or a DP can virtually adjust the lighting. This, too, is a collaborative process, with Chiang consulting on which technique would be right for a particular detail. Even more input is needed once a background is upresed to The Volume. “Oftentimes, once we start putting this massive environment on the walls, you can see detail that wasn’t apparent in the headset,” Bluff said. The volume operates at 24 FPS, while VR headsets work at 60 FPS. But the biggest difference is, well, volume: ILM StageCraft can hold 35 times the detail of a VR headset.

Bluff cites the example of a scene shot inside a ship’s hangar. “A lot of times it comes down to, ‘If this was a real spaceship, how was it manufactured?,” he said. “And [Doug] tells us, ‘It was made on Corellia, so these panels would be this size. Let’s start modeling in seams where welding would’ve happened.’ Or he could say, ‘This is a planet where they’re not welding things together, they’re joining things with wood joints.’ So we have these conversations as to how things would be built in ‘Star Wars’ that are directly related to the planets we go to. All of these choices and decisions are things that Doug has worked on for many, many years.”

Ewan McGregor in Obi-Wan Kenobi

“Obi-Wan Kenobi”

Lucasfilm Ltd.

Chiang, by and large, subsumes his own influences into the Star Wars aesthetic. He’s the keeper of the tradition, not the writer of it. But with “Obi-Wan,” Chiang and director Deborah Chow bring a personal element with the intentional incorporation of Asian artistic influences. It’s a meaningful touch for the designer and director, whose families both have roots in China. “The Asian influence has always been there in ‘Star Wars,’” Chiang said. “We’re building upon that and trying to find a different aspect [of the culture] that we haven’t really explored before.” For “Obi-Wan,” Chow brought in pictures of elaborately textured, luxuriously brocaded Asian fabrics, which the two viewed under different types of lighting. “There was this really rich jade green mixed with very wonderful maroon red. And the combination of those two color palettes, along with the texture [of the fabric], created an interesting visual identity,” he said.

Like the corridors of the Death Star or the Mos Eisley cantina, Doug Chiang’s concept art suggests entire ecosystems. Civilizations. Technologies. The images he puts onto the page are backed by decades of thinking about the “Star Wars” universe, based on the design philosophy he helped George Lucas develop nearly 25 years ago. He designs worlds that can be appreciated on a surface level, as cool spaceships and far-out alien races. But there’s deeper meaning underneath. The history of the galaxy is built into the DNA of Chiang’s designs, as is Lucas’ appreciation of mythology and the shifting moral compasses of his characters. “George taught me all that,” Chiang says. “He showed me all those layers that are never really talked about, but are really important to the ‘Star Wars’ universe.”

Every day, people come to Chiang with a single, all-important question: How do we make this more ‘Star Wars?’ “The challenge that I face in terms of what I do is that I want to build this world without breaking it,” he said. “I want to make sure that I’m doing things that George will be proud of. As long as I can feel confident that if George asked about a certain design, I could explain it and that he would accept it?” That, to Doug Chiang, is what “Star Wars” is all about. —Katie Rife

Doug Chiang

Credits: "Obi-Wan Kenobi," "The Book Of Boba Fett," "The Mandalorian"

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