Doug Chiang’s Star Wars Art Process

Movies Star Wars
Movies Star Wars

The extremely talented Doug Chiang had a panel in Star Wars Celebration. In it, he walked listeners through many of the steps he took when designing many of the vehicles and locations. Many up and coming artists can learn from his work, which was up for all to see at the event.

We learned how the unique art style that is seen in the films is created. There’s a lot more to the process than “just copy Ralph“. It’s about creating a coherent setting that feels exotic but also recognizable through art. Also for show were some of the tools Doug uses to draw.

Guiding principles

A simple silhouette, and a curved design.

George Lucas set many design principles for the team, which are evident in Doug’s work:

  1. I don’t want anything to stand out“. Anything drawn had to look natural. This made the setting much more coherent as everything appeared to belong in the world.
  2. Visual contrast. Any color palettes had to be very distinct. Objects should be easy to determine. Any Empire or First Order areas were easy to determine with their mostly black and white design.
  3. Familiar but not familiar. Taking real world objects and making them appear more exotic. Examples are the battle droid speeder which is based on a jet ski and the Queen’s starship which is based on a military plane. More interestingly, the Gungan Kaadu riders were inspired by western cowboys.
  4. Iconic Star Wars shapes. These were domes, cones, and circles. Two examples of these three in settings by Ralph are Jabba’s Palace and the Lars moisture farm. Doug’s own example is the Mos Espa Grand Arena, though he himself has admitted he went overboard in their inclusion.

Rules of design

Doug also walked listeners through the rules of designing for Star Wars.

  1. Strong silhouette. The overall form of a design was extremely important to make it memorable. An artist needed to be able to redraw a design.
  2. Three second rule. Doug initially ran into problems with his designs being rejected. While he could explain his more confusing designs to Lucas, he wouldn’t have time to explain to the audience. A design had to be understood in three seconds so the audience can appreciate it.
  3. Personality. This didn’t apply just to characters, but to vehicles, droids, and environments. This meant assigning an evil personality to a design by making it look deadlier, or a friendly design to make it look welcoming. For instance, a droideka clearly looks menacing, while an N1 starfighter does not.
  4. Believability. Though Star Wars is science fiction, a design must still be believed. Adding details such as hinges to droid limbs was one way to make the design look realistic. The B1 battle droid may have a slim design, but the curved parts support its upper body.
  5. Toy factor. As we all know, the Star Wars films don’t just serve as enjoyable films, but as 2-hour commercials for the merchandise. Most designs had to potentially be made into toys.

Modern tools

An A-10 Thunderbolt II ground attack aircraft pulls up sharply out of a low-level strafing run during a combat search and rescue demonstration at Moody Air Force Base, Ga., Oct. 4. The digitally upgraded A-10 is equipped with satellite-guided precision weaponry and advanced communications data links for transferring information with ground-based warfighters. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Parker Gyokeres)

Doug began with markers, pencils, pens and painting when designing in 1995. These days, 3D geometry and digital tools make designing much easier. It’s now easy to make a painting in 3 hours as opposed to a week. The undo button allows Doug to be much bolder with colors and experimentation, as well as to achieve many effects.

Of course, this is not without its downsides. Many new artists may become too reliant, and therefore too complacent, with art designs. Doug began by setting himself goals to make 5 pieces a day and finish the week with 25. New artists may not be able to achieve that amount. To solve this problem when working on The Force Awakens, Doug turned off all computers for a week, and while the new artists struggled, it was ultimately beneficial.

Simplicity is key

The poderacer is a simple design with only two jet engines.
The pod racer is a simple design with only two jet engines.

It was important for any design to follow these principles and also be simple. Star Wars designs were a mix of old and new, making a real world object still appear exotic. It is instantly recognizable and very memorable. The Podracer, for instance, is simply a mash of two plane engines, based on Doug’s own research, and is a simple and effective design.

It was fascinating to hear how Doug Chiang put his art together. Here’s hoping any designers that follow in his footsteps take many of these things into account.

I've been gaming since playing Crash Bandicoot: Warped at 6 years old, and my favorite game of all time is now Metal Gear Solid 3, while my favorite series is Final Fantasy. I've also been wiki-ing since a long time, so you'll find me writing and coding throughout the site.
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