Saturday, January 30, 2010

Design aesthetics, Mandalorians, and my love for the look of old-school Star Wars

No, it's not impossible. Search your feelings and you'll realize it's true, I'm a Star Wars geek (as you may have noticed). NO, this will not turn into a Star Wars blog--however there are definately aspects of that universe that I think are great inspiration. The concepts I appreciate most stem from the wealth of design aesthetic applied to the development of the films and now the Clone Wars television series.

I'm not sure if any of you are regular watchers or have seen episodes of the show, but it's actually a great deal better than the prequels (writing wise). Yes, it's geared more towards kids (generally simpler plots and the dialog has more comedic overtones) but it's in many ways much closer to the classic trilogy we all remember.Which reminds me, I'm going to assume that you're all familiar with the "used universe" idea behind the scenes, so I won't bother blathering on about that.
Anyway, there's a article covering the design behind the Mandalorian soldiers on the show, which is of course an homage to Boba Fett/Jango Fett armor and helmet. Specifically, it covers the default Mandalorian template and what was "customized" for by the Fetts. Very interesting, considering Boba Fett, who was arguably customized his outfit the most, was obviously the first incarnation to appear in any Star Wars property before we even heard the word "mandalorian". True to form, the artists' output is often relegated to the background, as this behind-the-scenes clip explains.

Ralph McQuarrie and Joe Johnston* are the artists credited with designing Fett's original armor--in gleaming white no less. And while they did use their work as a reference, the show's design team went all the way back to Boba's first appearance in the Star Wars Holiday Special for their inspiration. So much has already been said about how atrocious that program was so I won't cover it here, but the one bright spot was the gonzo--almost Bakshi-esqe quality it had and the timely appearance of Fett in muted, multi-colored armor.
There's more on his design in an earlier article. One thing I've always appreciated about the Star Wars look is the skill and craftsmanship in the design, especially those early days between A New Hope and Empire. In many way it's easier to subtrack the Star Wars feel out of those illustrations and see it in a more ("generic isn't quite the right word) universal way. I think those early drawings have so much spark and intrigue to them. Almost a mysterious quality because we can't immediately tell what direction the illustrators were leaning in. Of course NOW you can see exactly what became of their work. But it's fun to imagine what could have been had they not made certain decisions or gone another way.

I think a good deal of my design-y thoughts are spent in McQuarrie's Star Wars, more than George Lucas'. I think it's almost easier to daydream about an illustration--which is more open-ended in some respects--compared to a film. 
As I've become a more aged Star Wars nerd I think my brain has begun to separate the two versions more profoundly. Part of that is also due to the fact that with the prequels came a whole new crop of artists and designers who had their own take on Star Wars, and it was like seeing another whole version of Star Wars that could have (should have damnit!) come to pass. Don't even get me started on the Obi-Wan concept drawing (below) that would have solved the whole "one with the Force" thing in a much more elegant fashion than what Lucas hamfistedly shoehorned into the end of Revenge of the Sith. [shakes fist in air!]
Anyway, artists like Doug Chiang and  Ryan Church brought an entirely new look to the Star Wars universe both on, and pre-screen. And while they, and many of their colleagues are extremely talented my fondness for McQuarrie and Johnston's work has grown immensely. I own many of the Art of Star Wars books and they're easily among my favorite story-based books. The only sad part is that in the Empire and Jedi the concept paintings were more like Lucas' vision and less raw or reconcilable to the artist's.

A few final thoughts on the Star Wars of old: Christoper Mills blog space1970 has a great new post on the 70s Star Wars comics which were pop-off the page delicious and managed to squeeze a swashbuckling saber ZZZT! into nearly every dot of halftoned ink. It's exactly 180 degrees from McQuarrie, et. al. and I absolutely adore it. It amazes me how something so opposite from the clean, manicured look of Ralph's work can inspire, essentially, the same level of excitement (in a different way of course). 

Simultaneously, Reis O'Brien over at Geek Orthodox has been posting the Pizzazz Star Wars comics, and they're every bit as wonderful, if not a little over-the-top zany! Honestly, every story arc seems to begin with Luke's ship crashing. He must have had beginner's luck with that whole blowing up the Death Star trick. Reis also covered the Marvel comics last year.

RetroJunk has a great archived post on Fett's early comic incarnation as well, which played off of the ambiguous "is he a villain or isn't he" dynamic before it was confirmed in Empire. 

Finally, There's a great gallery of Marvel comics covers on Word is these are being re-released in trade paperback form by Dark Horse sometime this year. I have a few torn up copies, but I'd like to get my hands on these in a compiled format. Just try not to spend too much time on that site or Lucasfilm's tendrils will wrap around your wallet and never let go! ;)

Now, if you're all lucky, I can shake this Star Wars kick for now and we can all return to our regularly-scheduled program of pulpy, OSR, nondescript, retro-clone, space universe explorations. *sigh*

*McQuarrie and Johnston also worked on the concepts for the original Battlestar Galactica series, and as I understand it, BSG came under fire from Fox/Lucas for having an aesthetic too closely resembling Star Wars' look.


  1. Jay, do you have copies of the fan-documentaries 'Building Empire' and 'Returning to Jedi'? Def worth tracking down. They're freely available on the Intertubes.

    Also, the Darth Editus version of Episode IV which combines elements of the pre-Special Edition version (taken directly from Laser Disc) with elements of the Special Edition is a must-have. Total labor of love. More info on that here:

    If you have trouble finding any of these things, I'm more than happy to help you get them.

    Also, great post! Love that early design for Fett's helmet and the ghostly Obi Wan.

  2. G., thanks for the kind words and the info on the documentaries and fan edit. I'll definitely have to check those out!

    I should clarify on the "ghostly Obi Wan" pic (my bad) it's supposed to be a painting of Obi Wan (foreground with lightsaber) conversing with a ghostly Qui Gon in an underground grotto after being blasted off his varactyl on Utapau during Order 66. (Wow, that might be the nerdiest sentence I've ever written!)

    The artist had the brilliant idea to make this the point where Obi Wan gets guidance from his former master for the first time after his death. Imagine for a second the story opportunities this scene would have offered--that Obi Wan learns of the possibility of transcending death and to "become one with the Force". It could have also mirrored Luke's own cave experience on Dagobah. There's lots' you can do with a scene like that...

    My ire stems from the fact that Lucas decided to discard the idea (or ANY better idea, really) and replace it with a crappy stapled-on scene at the end of RotS in a conference room.

    So instead of imbuing some mysticism back into the series with a stirring/emotive scene that underscores the true power of the Force and how it could have helped restore Obi Wan's faith in, literally, the Jedi's darkest hour...Yoda blurts out "BTW, I saw Qui Gon and he says 'hi'. Also, training for you I have."


    The picture appears in the Art of Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith book, page 95. :)