ANAHEIM, Calif. >> “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is about a generational transfer in more ways than one. Set 30 years after the events in “Return of the Jedi” and coming to theaters just over 30 years after the film first debuted, that idea remained top of mind for the film’s brand new production design team, fans learned at Star Wars Celebration on Saturday.
In other words, they didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. They just had to update it a bit.
Rick Carter, an Academy Award winner for “Lincoln” and “Avatar,” was joined on stage by his co-production designer Darren Gilford (“TRON: Legacy”), Doug Chiang (“Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace”), and Industrial Light + Magic Art Director Christian Alzmann (“A.I. Artificial Intelligence”) to discuss their work together on the seventh film in the “Star Wars” saga.
While the artists couldn’t reveal any specifics about the plot, they did treat a packed auditorium to a few revelations about modernizing aesthetics of everything from the X-wing fighters to the Millennium Falcon.
“Seven comes after six. It doesn’t come after three,” said Carter, referring to the poorly received prequels. “This is a period piece that we’re bringing forth. We’re always going back to go forward.”
Indeed, at the insistence of director J.J. Abrams, the team relied on the original art of illustrator Ralph McQuarrie to inform the aesthetic of “The Force Awakens.”
The early trailers for the film, out Dec. 18, reveal a dirty, grungier world. Droids and ships are beat up and run down in the desert landscape, much like they were in the original films.
“We wanted to play tribute to Ralph McQuarrie. When we got stuck on something, we would go back and look at what he’d done before. It’s come full circle,” said Chiang.
Alzmann said there was even talk about creating “What Would Ralph Do” bracelets for the design team.
They had access to the extensive Lucasfilm archives to answer even the minutest questions. Sometimes that backfired. When Abrams told the team that he wanted the Millennium Falcon to look identical to the way it did in the originals, they realized there were actually three versions.
In the end, using elements of all three, they created the “quintessential fan version” of what the ship should be.
Even the designers themselves saw themselves as part of this generational shift in ushering George Lucas’s original vision to the big screen.
Gilford, whose father illustrated the “Star Wars” cover of a 1977 issue of magazine Cinefantastique, said that even working out of Pinewood Studios in London connected the production to the past.
There he encountered many people who had either worked on the original films or had relatives who did.
Continuing with Abrams’ oft-stated goal of building as much as possible instead of relying on sterilized computer graphics, the team discussed the idea that less was more.
“You can have all of this fancy stuff and a sci-fi movie is whatever it wants to be. Everyone is trying to outgun each other. This isn’t about that. This is about the force,” said Carter. He said they had entire brainstorms trying to answer one question: “What would frighten us if the dark side came back?”
Carter remained cryptically informative.
“It’s right in front of you. This is the movie. It’s going from a deep level up. It’s confident because there’s a real story to be told,” he said of the second teaser trailer, which premiered on Thursday during the Celebration kick-off.
He added: “When we say the force awakens it is the dark side and the light side.”