While fans were wary at first about a new series of films set inside the Star Wars universe — but outside the main episodes — Rogue One: A Star Wars Story quickly proved that George Lucas’ epic space opera was much bigger than the story that played out across the first seven films (and counting).
Set between the events of Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith and the franchise-spawning Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, Rogue One followed a ragtag group of rebels tasked with stealing the plans to the Death Star. Along with telling the story of the dangerous mission, director Gareth Edwards and Rogue One’s creative team also faced the daunting task of inserting the tale into the Star Wars timeline in a believable way — not only would the story itself have to align with the saga’s timeline, but the sets, costumes, and even the technology would need to seamlessly blend with the 1977 film that started it all.
Taking a lead role on the technology side of things was Doug Chiang, a Lucasfilm vice president and executive creative director, who served as the co-production designer on Rogue One. Chiang previously led Lucasfilm’s art department during the production and release of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace and Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones, and served as a concept and co-production designer for 2015’s Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens.
Digital Trends spoke to Chiang about the process of integrating Rogue One into the Star Wars universe and making a standalone story feel like an important thread in the Star Wars tapestry.
Digital Trends: Once you knew you were making this movie and when it was going to be set in the timeline, how did you decide which elements would carry over from existing films – in the past or the future – and which elements you needed to create for this particular movie?
Doug Chiang: That’s an interesting question, because Gareth and I talked a lot about exactly that thing. We knew that Rogue One was going to take place right before Episode IV and the designs and the sets had to dovetail seamlessly with that film. So we knew right away that at least 80 percent of what we were going to build and design for Rogue One had to fit exactly with Episode IV.
One of the things we did was to approach it as if these were sets and designs that George [Lucas] had actually designed back in 1977 but never shot. That gave us the framework for grounding our designs in that aesthetic. But we also knew that, because the film itself had a prologue sequence that actually was closer to Episode III, that gave us some room – maybe 20 percent or so – for adding some new designs into the film that could help bridge Episode III aesthetics with Episode IV.
It ended up being a wonderful combination of people bridging the romantic designs of Episode I, II, and III with the practical, functional designs of Episode IV, V, and VI.
How did you go about bridging that gap? The first three episodes have such a different tone and look than Episode IV, V, and VI.
When you look at all the films there’s an underlying structure grounding everything. That’s what makes Star Wars feel so authentic
It was a great challenge. We knew that, for instance, we were going to go back to Yavin Hangar, which we saw bits of in Episode IV. For our version, though, we wanted to open that up. Our approach was to keep the design exactly the same, and we designed it as if George only shot that particular set from one point of view. So for Rogue One, Gareth was going to turn the camera around and show the other parts of Yavin Hangar.
It was a great exploration of design to create something that was true to the classic film but opened up the universe even more.
Do you have a particular element that you’re especially proud of in Rogue One – one that really encapsulates the process of making this film, from your perspective?
The U-Wing is probably one of my favorites, but it was also one of the hardest. We chased that design for months – almost a year. That was primarily because we set the bar really high. We wanted a new ship on par with the X-Wing or the Millennium Falcon. That was Gareth’s request. He wanted a new design that would be as memorable or timeless as the X-Wing.
To me, the X-wing and the Millennium Falcon are perfect designs. There’s very little I would change about them, if anything at all. So to create a design at that level was very daunting. But on top of that, we also knew that the design had to be an obsolete design, because it doesn’t carry forward. It basically had to be decommissioned after Rogue One.
That seems like a pretty tall order to create something as memorable as the Millennium Falcon …
It is! How do you address all of that and then also have a bit of design heritage from Episode III? And on top of that, Gareth wanted this U-Wing to be a cross between a Huey helicopter and an X-Wing, so it could carry troops, too. So you have all these checkboxes, which makes it very daunting to fulfill all of those elements and at the same time create something that’s very compelling and powerful and very cinematic.
So, we chased the U-Wing forever, and it spoke to Gareth’s thoroughness. He’s a super-fan as well, and it’s very hard to please someone who’s as passionate as myself in designs like this. I’m never happy with anything I design, and Gareth is just as passionate about Star Wars designs. So you have two people who are hard to please to begin with and were always chasing that iconic design.
In the end, I feel like we achieved that with the U-Wing. I’m very happy with this design. It hit all the right notes and checked all the boxes.
You mentioned that the design aesthetic in the first three episodes was more romantic, while the middle episodes had a more functional aesthetic. How do you decide on the aesthetic that defines each period of the franchise’s cinematic continuity?
There is a strong foundation of Star Wars designs, and I always use that as my baseline in terms of informing how designs evolve or change to adapt to where they are in the timeline. One of the great things that I got to experience working with George in 1995 [on The Phantom Menace] is that we were establishing that design history – for instance, grounding Episode I, II, and III in 1920s and 1930s design vocabulary, while [Episodes] IV, V, and VI were more in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. So when you know that timeline you can relate it back to something we know — our history — and use that to inform how a design would evolve and change.
So in approaching something like Rogue One, we knew there was going to be a bit of a blend there, so you layer that understanding into the design. For instance, there were elements of the U-Wing that were more fine-tuned than the X-Wing. The X-Wing is definitely a manufactured, assembly-line product, while the U-Wing is right on that cusp where it’s partially assembly line, but with elements that might be more hand-crafted. So in viewing the design of those elements, you can help tell that design history – that story that makes the world feel very real.
The fans might not pick up on all of that, but instinctively they feel it. That’s the thing about Star Wars designs: There’s this layer of design background and history that comes across due to all the homework we do.
What about the current trilogy? How does the look and feel change when you’re telling these future stories and extending the timeline in that direction?
In some ways, it’s very similar because we’re grounding it in the general design philosophy for Star Wars. These are thing established by George way back. You take something historical and you kind of update it a little bit so you’re not inventing something from scratch. When you do that, you’re tying it to something historical and bringing all of that history to the design.
At least 80 percent of what we were going to build for Rogue One had to fit exactly with Episode IV
So in going forward, we’re using a similar parallel with the new trilogy. If you think of the classical era with Episode I, II, and III, and then the ‘70s era of IV, V, and VI according to our time history, perhaps the new history is more contemporary. So what does that mean? Is it new materials? Is it stealth technology? That can start to inform the design aesthetics.
So when you look at all the films together there’s going to be a common thread of design history that makes sense, so it doesn’t feel like the designs are made up for no purpose. There is an underlying structure grounding everything. That’s what makes Star Wars feel so authentic: that foundation.
Does the process change when you’re deciding on designs for a theme park, for example, or any of the other myriad ways the franchise presents itself these days? How do you decide which elements of Star Wars should be in a theme park, or a video game, or whatever else is in the works?
That’s a good question, because it really is a big challenge. What helps is having that language of design. For the theme parks, for instance, once we know what the timeline of the story is going to be for that particular environment, we can identify where in the design history it takes place – and that gives you a box of aesthetics to pull from.
By using that design history as a template, it starts to inform what the designs are, so when you look at the whole film franchise – whether it’s theme parks or games – once you identify all of that, all of the designs make sense. You see how they evolve from one medium to another.
Geroge was always adamant about designing these worlds to be as immersive as possible. From that world he would then cherry-pick the elements to tell his story. But all of that history is there. So if you go to any theme parks or sets and ask how one element relates to another, we can tell you about it. Even if you don’t get it from the cinematic experience, it’s all there and I think the audience feels that.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story will be available on DVD and Blu-ray April 4.
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