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Monday, 18 January 2016

AFICIONADO REVIEW: 'THE ART OF STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS'


Kylo Ren stalks our young heroes in this striking Doug Chiang image captured in THE FORCE AWAKENS first teaser trailer in 2014. All images: The Art of Star Wars: The Force Awakens by Phil Szostak © Abrams Books, 2015
(C) 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. And TM. All Rights Reserved. Used Under Authorization

THE ART OF STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS

By Phil Szostak

Foreword by Rick Carter

Published by Abrams Books


Reviewed by Scott Weller


“Imagination has no end.” Words spoken by Mark Hamill back in 1980 highlighting the continuing beauty and wonder associated with the visual creation of the incredible STAR WARS saga by George Lucas. That same spirit of beauty, creativity and inspirational zest now hard at work within the conception and reality-based execution of the latest spectacular entry of the incredible cinematic legacy with THE FORCE AWAKENS, whose well-pitched blend of emotion, drama and aesthetically pleasing thrills have so captured the world’s hearts, and whose design origins from art to celluloid life is charted by Lucasfilm Archivist Phil Szostak in his striking new book THE ART OF STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS, given glorious publication by ABRAMS BOOKS.

From the official announcement of newly inaugurated company President Kathleen Kennedy’s taking the reins of LUCASFILM LTD from the much-missed George Lucas, to the short, swift and invigorating news of October 2012 that surprised fans everywhere-news that a new set of STAR WARS films was incoming, followed by the quick throwing in of the assistance hat to make those adventures a reality by longtime film designer and friend to Spielberg and Kennedy, Oscar-winning production designer Rick Carter. This was soon followed by STAR WARS Prequel ingĂ©nue Doug Chiang, who truly wanted to work on the evolution of the visual storytelling of the new sequels- the important building blocks of their willing recruitment to the new era charted efficiently by Szostak. This love for the resurrected STAR WARS soon brought together a further collective pool of visualists like no other as the calender reached January of 2103 (and expanding even further into the following year), as acclaimed storyteller Michael Arndt’s emergence as screen writer caught attention, followed by the final acceptance of directing wunderkid J.J. Abrams, despite his early reticence and having just completed the most recent revival of another successful sci-fi franchise in the STAR TREK series, with its second re-imagined entry: INTO DARKNESS.

The first genuine brainstorming meeting during January 2013 must surely have looked like something out of DR. STRANGELOVE at first, but it soon proved a successful, well-honed conflagration of minds, determining what they thought was necessary to recapture those original elements of that first 1977 film that had been so successful and indelibly linked, nay hardwired, into their mindsets. Rick Carter’s foreword to this very special book importantly reveals what STAR WARS, created by George Lucas, meant to him, and how he wanted to bring that magic back to life in symbiosis, and through the eyes of superfan Abrams, and with the at-the-peak-of-their powers, fast-moving conceptual/design team of artists. There’s a stressing of the underlying importance of rediscovering what made the original three films, especially the later titled A New Hope, so great, plus a fascinating what would happen next? discovery and mixing of story and art of which they've clearly, eagerly wanted to reveal after the closing of Luke Skywalker’s story with the redemption of his father…

An older but no less ready for action "Han Solo". Art by Christian Alzmann and Iain McCaig
The Art of Star Wars: The Force Awakens by Phil Szostak © Abrams Books, 2015
(C) 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. And TM. All Rights Reserved. Used Under Authorization

As this new storyline emerges, so too does its new young heroes in plucky Kira and charismatic Sam, who’d eventually become our Rey and Finn, immersed within a whole host of intriguing ideas, concepts and art concoctions, separately, together, and, most importantly, inter-mixing with the anticipated return of the Classic Trilogy heroes- the LUCASFILM artists having the equal thrill and responsibility to show us what they’d now look like and also what the've been up to in the 35 years since RETURN OF THE JEDI. Striking tapestries in the book show Han Solo as a tough guy in the best John Wayne/TRUE GRIT tradition, to an ethereal-like, at one with the nature of the Force, and partially submerged in the sand Luke Skywalker, berthed in an unusual but striking illustration.

Then there’d be the classic vehicles they’d all be using/travelling in, like the Millennium Falcon, Rebel/Resistance starfighters and Empire/ First Order Star Destroyers- how they would evolve and change with the times and the demands of a new/old audience. Now a rich and open palette for them to explore, the designers soon unleash their visions in astounding speed- the classic image of the powerful and dominant Star Destroyer, in particular, now becoming a ghostly shrine of an historical war not yet witnessed, crash-landed in the wastelands of that far-off desert realm/scavengers paradise of Jakku, and being one of the first conceptual images to make it across the production process and into the onscreen end product, done in such a successful and hauntingly prescient way. Other shots in this book would later equally become as well captured, surely making the crew justifiably proud of their gestating accomplishments.

In isn’t stated so much, but some of the early work presented in this period could also have come from some of the ideas developed by George Lucas for his original draft/concept for the new sequel saga, the one which helped cement the original sale  of the franchise to DISNEY, and which would ultimately, sadly, be pushed aside- all of this part of the production history quietly ignored for the rest of the book, in favour of the new-yet-old direction that basically reworked so much of the Classic Trilogy with what would be a new vitality and zest- J.J.’s “going backwards to move forwards” idea which has, ultimately, worked with audiences young and old, and propelled the film way past the billion dollar mark globally.

"Saber Studies." Art by Ryan Church.
The Art of Star Wars: The Force Awakens by Phil Szostak © Abrams Books, 2015
(C) 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. And TM. All Rights Reserved. Used Under Authorization

Thankfully, the Lucas legacy lives on within the hearts and minds of the artists whom he hired during that intense creative period engineered for nearly ten years with the opulent Prequel Trilogy: the aforementioned Chiang, plus other masters of painted imagination in Ryan Church, Erik Tiemens and Iain McCaig- all welcome contributors. We’ve been so used to seeing their superb Prequel concept art, but it’s even more pleasurable to see their marvellous and evocative work for THE FORCE AWAKENS, with some standout pieces handsomely used over the book’s lavish spreads.

Arndt’s early scripting may be a slow-in-building mass, but the heavy march of time and production deadlines opens the floodgates to artistic interpretation: the idea of a scrapyard planet, old references to classic worlds like Felucia and a Coruscant-esque New Republic (not too dissimilar from The Prequel Trilogy and The Clone Wars animated series), plus ice planets, double-bladed lightsabers (each side a different colour), and a continuance of the Darth Vader armour and the Sith enemies, come to being and assessment. Plus the continued influence of the late, great Ralph McQuarrie, as well as Lucas’ favourite director in Japanese legend Akira Kurosawa, whose visuals and storytelling tone from classic cinema like THE SEVEN SAMURAI and THE HIDDEN FORTRESS resonate as strongly as the STAR WARS adventures they’d inspire.

Old favourites within the book surprise and delight within new surroundings. The aforementioned Millennium Falcon is particularly, beautifully rendered in all-new scenarios - whether travelling underwater to a crashed Death Star (crazy but fun!), landed and tarpaulin cover blown over on the windswept Jakku, or up in space pursued by the next evolutionary step of the lethal and fast-moving TIE Interceptor, following on from their last appearance in JEDI. There’s a particularly splendid inside hardback cover of the Falcon that I hope someone eventually realizes its worth as a poster.

Other lovely centre spread images lingering in the mindset: Kira/Rey flying an X-wing fighter, its canopy open, as she spiritedly uses her her lightsaber to crucially damage the underside of a Star Destroyer, plus further unused concepts like the L-wing fighter and the single wing-fin TIE fighter, red Star Destroyers emanating from holed out middle planet cores and the massive and intimidating Imperial Warhammer capable of breaking through shielded planets in a way that Imperial orbital bombardments could never do against the Rebels on Hoth during the opening to THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.

March and April 2013 see more new artistic insights developing from the Arndt script: the former Emperor’s Castle (an idea going way back to the late 1977 conceptual stages of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, of which Vader himself was to have been its primary occupant), an ice planet with a centralized weapon’s core, plus bands of space pirates whose allegiances and positions in the adventure would change as the story changed- from Stormtrooper-esque hunters to junk scavengers, to what they would eventually be in the film, linked to Han Solo, Chewbacca, and later the reconfigured castle now belonging to that warm-heated but secretive bar owner Maz Kanata (who, at this point, hadn’t been conceived), plus the demonic idea of a new “Jedi Killer” (deliberately Darth Vader-ish in appearance, designed to unnerve a Luke Skywalker whose presence was still being worked out, not yet the classic “MacGuffin” he’d ultimately become by the finished film), and the revelation of this new foe being linked to the Third Reich-esque Empire, eventually re-christened The First Order.

Beyond the art, a true highlight of the book and its early behind the scenes charting, is the discovery of just how much of the finished film had been conceived by Michael Arndt. By April ’13, his script, and its influences and contributions from Abrams and the artistic team, would be taking a very recognisable shape, especially the re-development of Sam into a new and more interesting type of hero: Finn- now a Stormtrooper who ultimately doesn’t want to be one. And stronger ideas in tying in events from the Prequels to the Sequels are also considered- a force ghost Anakin and even a new variation of Yoda. An intriguing image of a bearded, Obi-Wan inspired Luke holding the bonfire damaged Vader mask also impresses- something considered and redrawn for the later villain that would be Kylo Ren.

With the rich diversity of the already designed STAR WARS universe being a well still bringing much water to be absorbed, Darren Gilford would join EPISODE VII as Rick Carter’s co-production designer. Working primarily from London, he’d bring his own brand of knowledge and love for the original films to the table, building on the established classic work of McQuarrie, Joe Johnston and others, and being a vital contributor to the needed practical realization of those ideas, especially for the upcoming set construction in England and Abu Dhabi during May 2014. Beyond the world of lightsabers and Jedi, modern-world influences of the team and especially those formed from the life-experienced Carter would prove equally essential in making things believable to the general audience, whose tastes had seemingly changed since the last STAR WARS film of 2005.

July 2013 saw mercurial pirate bartender Maz Kanata’s role in the movie being finalized (completed by and seen by actress Lupita Nyong’o, who embraced the role and used her grandmother as a source of inspiration in bringing it to life), as was the design of loveable spheroid droid BB-8. First known as “Surly’, the little ball droid’s origins were not revealed on screen but are actually pretty dark, having escaped a reject pile on the way to an Imperial vessel's blasting furnace, no less. Happier times ultimately see him becoming best buddy to ace pilot Poe Dameron. August, meanwhile, would see Exotica City- the planed middle planet involving the return of lovable but self-exiled Han Solo and Chewbacca- lost and transplanted into Maz Kanata’s castle with the later fast script re-writes initiated by Abrams and Kasdan, now taking a firm hold of the film’s direction and what they ultimately wanted the film to be about, as Arndt departs the project after his lengthy stint.

Between December '13 and Feb '14, Abrams and Kasdan’s well-matched union brings with it a fresh kind of excitement and enthusiasm that clearly, infectiously pumps up the spirits of everyone around them as the late Spring shooting for Abu Dhabi beckons. Spirits buoyed amidst a high nostalgia factor, mixed with the challenging ambitions of new and unexpected story and character directions soon given exploration via the arrival of additional artistic contributors with an eye for STAR WARS possibilities old and new, and whom previously worked with Carter and Gilford on other successful movies. By March 2014, the all-important look of the “Jedi Killer”, christened Kylo Ren, would be fatefully locked in, retaining a quasi-Vader-ish look but generating a new sense of the macabre with its intimidating facial frontage, whilst an early idea of his bearing a chrome armour became the separate brutal and cold-hearted Captain Phasma, too good not to be used and worn by the saga’s first-ever female villain, played by the strong-willed and strikingly beautiful Gwendoline Christie.

Other Dark Side related factors locked in during that spring would be the new face of Dark Side corruption in the enigmatic and clearly dangerous Unknown Regions-based alien, Snoke (originally conceived as a female, and whom may actually be older than the Sith), the final interior designs of the Starkiller Base (of which ILM legend Dennis Muren ultimately came up with its immense sun-draining capabilities), and the conflicts of the all-important and dramatically charged, tear-jerking third act set within its darkened core, and its multitude of John Barry Death Star tribute hallways.

Now that the results of all those individual and collective talents on EPISODE VII have finally been cinematically released as of December 2015, the sleeping giant that was STAR WARS looks set to be wide awake for a very long time to come, and with further rich areas to be developed, what with many of the artistic team having also just completed work on the closer to EPISODE IV realms of the anthology series opener ROGUE ONE- a darker, more violent, feel the blood and sweat of it all dominion than THE FORCE AWAKENS, as the Rebel Alliance risks everything to capture the plans of a certain battle station approaching apocalyptic completion. Plus the January 2016 on set return of Rey, Finn, their friends and foes, for the revelations-packed events of EPISODE VII! All these new travels, new aliens and new drama eagerly awaited both for on screen life and ART OF book publication!

I wonder how many readers of THE ART OF STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS will eventually forge their craft and surely work on the next blockbuster chapters to come in ten years time?

The saga, seemingly brighter and more reinvigorated than ever, continues…

AFICIONADO RATING: George Lucas’s visual heritage continues to be in safe hands with the dedicated starburst of talent on perusal here. 4.5 out of 5

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