In an exclusive talk at Gnomon this month, ILM art director James Clyne and legendary concept artist Iain McCaig provided a unique insiders' perspective on the making of The Force Awakens. Here are some of the highlights
For many Star Wars fans, Episode VII was the answer to their prayers. The first of a new trilogy of sequels, The Force Awakens neatly plays homage to George Lucas's 1970s and 80s originals — key characters Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa and Han Solo all put in an appearance — while introducing a new generation of fan favorites, including Rey, Finn and Poe Dameron. On its release last year, the movie shot into IMDb's fan-created list of the world's 250 most popular films, and became the third-highest grossing movie of all time.
But for director J. J. Abrams, production company Lucasfilm, and lead visual effects facility Industrial Light & Magic, the process of arriving at the right balance between nostalgia and novelty was a tricky one. In Designing Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a fascinating four-hour talk at Gnomon earlier this month, two of the key players — ILM art director James Clyne and veteran Star Wars concept artist Iain McCaig — provided a glimpse into the early stages of that process, presenting their personal recollections from The Force Awakens' formative months.
James Clyne: a Star Wars fan from the age of eight
James Clyne has worked in the industry for more than 15 years, collaborating on over 30 film projects with directors including Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Michael Bay, Terry Gilliam and, of course, J.J. Abrams. He is a passionate Star Wars fan. "I was about eight when The Empire Strikes Back came out. I saw a paperback book — all line drawings, no color — but it showed the art side of filmmaking. It boiled down the essence of what an illustrator or concept artist was at the time. I begged my mother to buy it and, in a way, it changed my life."
In January 2013, he joined ILM. "I didn't know Star Wars was going to be a thing. I was working on Transformers 4, but the moment I heard they were making Star Wars I did all I could to weasel my way in.”
Building the core concept art team
During the early stages of a project of this type, a studio approaches a director or producer, or a producer approaches a studio with an idea, treatment or script. Concept artists are then brought in to visualize those ideas. The results are used to land funding, or to decide how to allocate the budget already available. On The Force Awakens, Clyne was one of the first hires, along with Iain McCaig, Ryan Church, Erik Tiemens, Christian Alzmann, Kurt Kaufman and Doug Chiang.
The team sought inspiration from the concept art for the original Star Wars movies, created by Joe Johnston and the late Ralph McQuarrie. McQuarrie had "so much influence on [the] storytelling," says Clyne, citing the legendary artist's use of very simple shapes: cubes, spheres and cones. "The simpler you get, the more memorable [a design] becomes."
The first step was to gather reference, creating massive 'bibles' for each sequence. Clyne developed his ideas in a sketch book that held his notes and thumbnail sketches. "I think a true artist should be thirsty and curious, always trying new things. Even though the process of filmmaking doesn't change that much, if you can find a new way to approach something, that is always the best. Having the ability to do a variety of things rather than one thing is a great approach."
At this stage, the storyline was evolving as Clyne and the other artists worked. "The story was molding as we worked on the visuals," he says. "We would have these crazy closed-door meetings with people like John Knoll and Denis Muren [ILM's chief creative officer and creative director] and wax poetic about what it meant to be a Star Wars movie. Where could the movie go? Where is the Dark Side now? Where is The Force at this point? It was mostly to ask to questions, rather than answer them."
This often meant reading between the lines, defining how a few words of description translated into minutes of film. "As concept artists and art directors, we are hired to tell stories,” says Clyne. “The story drives the design, not the other way around."
When is a TIE fighter like a Pez dispenser?
As the opening titles have it, the original Star Wars took place "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away", so The Force Awakens had to maintain the feel of the original. Simple storytelling and silhouettes were the order of the day, as was use of scale — and a little tech off to the side. "We had the technology to do full touchscreens and iPad-esque manipulation, but instead of a computer looking like a Mac Pro, it looked like a big backyard BBQ," says Clyne.
Some familiar designs from the original movies also needed clarification, such as how a TIE fighter could land, and how the crew would get in and out. To resolve the issue, Clyne built a sliding-wall hanger similar to a Pez dispenser, where the pilot and gunner could board and take off.
Designing a triangular torture cell
The practical work was done at Pinewood Studios in the UK, to which Clyne traveled back and forth for about a year. "When I was there it was less drawing and more pointing fingers, figuring out set construction. That was new for me, being in that part of the production pipeline. It was like moving chess pieces. Where do we put a prison cell? How can we give enough room for the actors to run around and still have it look like the set goes on for miles in every direction? In reality, [the movie was] only shot on a very small 165-by-110-foot stage."
To maintain the illusion of massive space while avoiding the need for an extra set, the team built small set pieces to shoot through. The design of the torture room was inspired by Hitchcock. Clyne wanted to create a sense of tension, so he designed a triangular room where the walls closed in on the actors and the ceiling raked in. "You want the sets to reflect the mood,” he says. “We spent months on this stuff. In film, you are constantly given these problems to solve."
Iain McCaig: concept art legend and freelance Hobbit helper
In the second part of the talk, Iain McCaig took to the stage to discuss the evolution of The Force Awakens' storyline, and the role that concept art played in it.
McCaig began his film career in 1991 as a concept and storyboard artist on Terminator 2: Judgment Day, going on to work on all three of the Star Wars prequels, where he designed characters including Darth Maul and Queen Amidala. He works as a freelancer. "I'm not a member of ILM,” he says. “Like Gandalf, I wander the land looking for trouble and occasionally helping the Hobbits."
While Clyne discovered Star Wars at the age of eight, McCaig was in his early 20s before he saw the original movies. Growing up, his books were Dune, Frankenstein, To Kill a Mockingbird and The Lord of the Rings. "I got dressed up like Tarzan, took my clothes off and ran through the woods," he says of his formative years.
He hasn't changed much since then. In his Gnomon talk, he launched, almost literally, into what it was like to work with other six initial concept artists, enthusing over what they were able to accomplish. "We were all playing from the same music. And that music is the story."
Telling stories the Iain McCaig way
“Stories are the only things that drive me,” says McCaig. “We make a story for ourselves from the moment we are born. It helps to define who we are, who we want to be, and what our values are. Stories are always about somebody. The main character wants something with all their heart and soul. And if you are invested in the story, you want them to have it, because they want it for a really good reason.”
In the original Star Wars, the thing Luke Skywalker wants is simple — he sees Princess Leia begging Obi-Wan for help, and he is instantly infatuated. Yes, he wants to be a star pilot, he wants to be good, but none of those are his story — his story is that he knows he must save a princess. The whole movie is driven by love — or at least lust.
Good stories need a protagonist who want something they must struggle to get while overcoming the obstacles in the way. Luke doesn't know where Leia is, and he doesn't have a ship to reach her. But these aren't his true obstacles. He has given his word to stay on his home world, so remains there through his loyalty to those he loves. “If he leaves, he's broken the Luke Skywalker story he's written for himself, and he'd no longer be Luke Skywalker,” says McCaig. “That is one of his biggest obstacles.”
In stories, the adventure starts when you come up with a crazy plan to get what you want anyway, despite the obstacles. "Luke's plan is to find a legendary nutcase who will help him get a ship, rescue the princess, and done!" says McCaig. He's a hero, she adores him; happy ending. "You got what you wanted, you got your dream, it's in your hand. Not! Because right after the highest high is the lowest low. If you watch romantic movies, when the main characters go to bed together, one of them usually wakes up regretting it."
While Luke rescues Leia, he inadvertently leads Darth Vader to the door of the Rebel Alliance. "That is the point where the hero discovers not what they want, but what they need,” says McCaig. “And that is the trick to a story. Why doesn't he just get off the planet? He can't, because he realizes he has to be there for the people he loves.”
Unused ideas for The Force Awakens
McCaig is typically called in at the beginning of a movie, to help create or excavate the visual ‘bones’ of a story. “It doesn’t matter if the bones connect,” he says. “It just matters that they are good bones and there are places where a good story could connect.” Sometimes, it is McCaig’s job to find those connections, too.
In his Gnomon talk, he recreated a typical day in the life in The Force Awakens' art department, cracking his knuckles and gibbering sound effects while he creates a new concept sketch. Seconds later, it’s rejected. “But every rejection helps you find the right place to dig, so you quickly sketch another one, and another! Inevitably, you hit the jackpot. “Brilliant! Approved!” you hear, and that image then becomes one of the bones of the story.
Why concept design thrives on rejection
Through such a process, the plot line of a movie evolves. In The Force Awakens, it helped to define the junkyard desert world on which the movie begins — although in some of McCaig's early designs, it was very different to the form in which you see it in the movie, as was Rey's place in it.
"We imagined canals cut through the desert and a junk dealer floating down with his collection,” says McCaig. “Storm Trooper helmets, half price! We know the young lady was to be a scavenger of some sort. I wanted to see a woman free diving into water oblivious to everything except weird alien turtle things she has to collect to make money to survive, totally unaware she is skydiving in the trenches of the overgrown Death Star.
Those specific ideas were rejected, but led to others that became integral to the story. “It’s the job of a concept artist to provide ideas: a menu full of delicious options," McCaig concludes. "You’re not supposed to get offended by what the director picks. It’s his or her job to choose the meal — or in this case, the movie."
About the Author
Renee Dunlop has 23 years of experience in the entertainment industry, working in VFX for games and film before making the jump to journalism and creative writing. In 2014, she published the top-selling text book Production Pipeline Fundamentals for Film and Games.
Read more coverage of the event on the official Star Wars website
Discover how Gnomon alumni helped create The Force Awakens
See Iain McCaig and James Clyne's Star Wars art at the Gnomon Gallery
Read a list of upcoming speaker events at Gnomon
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