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Tuesday, 3 January 2017

AFICIONADO REVIEW: THE ART OF 'ROGUE ONE - A STAR WARS STORY'

K-2SO on Jedha. Art by Doug Chiang. The Art of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story by Josh Kushins, and Lucasfilm Ltd. © Abrams Books, 2016 (C) 2016 Lucasfilm Ltd. And TM. All Rights Reserved. Used Under Authorization.

THE ART OF ‘ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY’

Written by Josh Kushins

Forewords by Doug Chiang, Neil Lamont, and Gareth Edwards

Published by ABRAMS BOOKS


Reviewed by Scott Weller

If ever a book series could make us soar with inspiration to become artists, whilst further cementing our love for the STAR WARS saga, it has to be the continued lavish Art of titles chronicling the visual wonder and excitement of George Lucas’s cinematic universe, of which the latest publication, dedicated to the dark and brooding classic-in-the-making that is ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY, is out now, and another stellar presentation from ABRAMS BOOKS.

Continuing the new format successfully created with last year’s tome for THE FORCE AWAKENS, writer and compiler Josh Kushins takes us deep into the heart of the modern visual masterpiece that is ROGUE ONE, immersing us within an enlightening creative fusion that gives us the evolution of a dark new chapter in the saga and a behind the scenes charting of how the film found its path and place in the STAR WARS cinematic universe, both as a standalone entry and as a lead-in to the phenomenal 1977 film that started it all.

It begins with the seven-page storyline from ILM legend and dedicated STAR WARS behind the scenes veteran John Knoll that quickly won support from the Lucasfilm Story Group and an immediate go for pre-pre production from Kathleen Kennedy, leading to the wonderfully titled Blue Sky development period, where concept art springs from the words and vice versa- where ideas, planets, action and characters begin their long, sometimes simple, sometimes complex, birth- a wonderful period for the fertile imaginations of the assigned artists to take flight before any money needs to be spent, and where incoming writers like Gary Whitta and Chris Weitz (both of whom clearly in awe of the art department, adding their input to the stunning creations presented in the book) can be enthused and run free...

Early costume design for Jyn by Glyn Dillon.

It’s this early exploration of the original Knoll treatment that proves most fascinating- when the story was truly a heavy ensemble piece in the best MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE and THE DIRTY DOZEN tradition- the intriguing not to be (well, not in this film anyway) combination of diverse human and alien rebels, all conceived with special traits and abilities that would make them an essential gestalt for the mission to steal the Death Star plans, envisaged before the adventure instead locked in on scavenger Jyn Erso as the primary hero and emotional core of the story. Of this early assemblage, I loved the big alien Senna and his agile little cohort Lunak, looking like they’ve come out of THE GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, complimenting each other with their abilities-they’re so quirky they deserve a chance to be made real- let’s see them in the upcoming Han Solo standalone movie! Of further interest in the production notes, being the first film of a standalone series, literally an experimental film, Knoll had additionally made sure that his outline could be made as economically as possible, even going so far as to generating options in how to reuse/repurpose sets and costumes, where possible, from the then about to film THE FORCE AWAKENS. Thankfully, ROGUE ONE got the budget it deserved, as its ambitions and universe travelling got bigger- an eventual on screen budget of $200 million that has more than made its money back for the mouse with the lightsaber at the worldwide box office.

With the redeveloped story, the Blue Sky period is over as work begins afresh under the inspiration and challenges of chosen director Gareth Edwards. Our first planet encountered in ROGUE ONE will ultimately be the isolated mountain plateaus and grass hilled realms of Lah'mu, shot in the genuinely cold climes of Iceland, hosting a futuristic homestead similar to the one Luke Skywalker will later be raised in on Tatooine, though the one here seen populated by the fugitive Erso family would have to be much more durable against the weather conditions that this frontier world unleashes. It's here that dark destinies, violence and the path to redemption will soon begin for young Jyn Erso once her family is taken from her by the Empire, amidst an early colour palette of green and black helping the film have a separate visual identity to other entries of the saga. Its also in the process of creating the starry-set opening towards Lah'mu that a new kind of symbiosis between concept art and storyboarding is developed- concept boards, initiated by Edwards, and featuring the work of Matt Allsopp, Jon Mccoy and Stephen Tapplin.

Determined to pay tribute to the Classic and Prequel guardians of the Lucasfilm Art Department, and knowing how vital they still are to the saga’s continuing future as long-term enthused fans, Edwards attitude to the film’s design life brings further new ideas and inspirations to the table (like using specific colour palettes for the environments to create emotional resonance, and to accentuate the story), the director mixing easily and enjoyably with an old/ new art/production team straight from, or having worked parallel to, THE FORCE AWAKENS, determined to bring freshness yet subliminal recognisability to ROGUE ONE, a feeling of true STAR WARS-ness, of which that Holy Grail in the Lucasfilm Archives is the key and influential springboard- the Ralph McQuarrie legacy as evident and vital as ever in this creative evolution, and subtle revolution, for the saga in its first standalone movie. A return to classic worlds and iconic tech but given fresh exploration alongside new designs that had to be linked and feel right and logical, have a personality of sorts, within the STAR WARS universe- ships and shapes that could be drawn easily and be identifiable to viewers. And as the Rebel/Imperial technological feel goes back to the 1970's, some very cool and truly A NEW HOPE era capturing computer graphics and displays follow suit, courtesy of the UK’s BLIND LTD. 


One of the most impressive elements to be considered for ROGUE ONE, however, would be the way the Empire's domineering presence in the story would be showcased. Finally, with this bridging chapter between III and IV, we'd get to see just how bad and all-controlling that "dark time" Obi-Wan referred to actually was- worlds old and new swarming with intimidating Stormtroopers of varying kinds on the ground, skies and space controlled by the Imperial war machine. Throughout the book we see revised, some would say improved, designs for evil, like the TIE fighters used in atmospheric battle - one of many interloping presences on the beautiful beach world of Scarif to be explored later in the book.


Now emerged as the only force capable of resisting the Empire, we finally see the fragmented and under equipped Rebel Alliance coming together from their Base One on the jungle world of fan favourite Yavin IV. With the 1977 film we’d seen deep inside one of the Massassi temples and its housing of Rebel Starfighters, but ROGUE ONE additionally shows us new design aspects of the Rebels encased there that’s fun to see, and a true continuity paradise.

As the once Imperial held Jyn is sent on her mission to find out more about a new super weapon being developed by the enemy, alongside her edgy new chaperone in Rebel spy Captain Cassian Andor, additionally assistance comes from an all-new and further evolutionary twist for hero droids in the STAR WARS universe, with the unveiling, and deserved cover star to the book, of the chatty and downright straight talking K-2SO droid, formerly Imperial and now in the reconditioned hands of its once combatants, given his unique new programming by Cassian himself- the start of an all-new relationship between man and droid that is fun to see. The artistic development of K-2SO is just as interesting when charted through the book’s special section, with director Edwards having some key things he wanted seen with its eventual final look.

Soon enough, the hunt for the mysterious Imperial pilot with information about the weapon leads the trio to the mysterious holy world city of Jedha, linked to celebrating the religion of the once Jedi Knights and the nature of the Force. With this section, the art team get to enjoy bringing something unrestricted and all-new visually to the scope and mythos of the STAR WARS series, a place of mystery and atmosphere linked with Imperial oppression- a powder keg of violence waiting to be triggered as the planet's natural resources are mined in open secret, the followers of the ancient religion and normal city folk forming its densely packed streets under constant bullying from the enemy- art and final on screen imagery deliberately akin to the real-life events and horrors witnessed in Paris during World War II. The book's opening spread for the planet, courtesy of Andree Wallin, truly spectacular, shows the occupied holy realm with the sky high Star Destroyer and its umbilical cords reaching dow to drain the life from the city, blisteringly setting up the nature of the difficulties our heroes will encounter in their search for the elusive extremist Rebel leader in Saw Gerrera.

Temples, rock formations and the city of Jedha itself as described in the script, as well as impressive locales captured at the film's real-life location filming in Jordan, are clearly a fertile mixture for the designers to play with as we enter this genuinely impressive section, which also has some sadly unrealised ideas that would have been great to see on screen: a catacomb prison where the walls are comprised entirely of eroded skulls, and Saw Gerrera's crash-landed spaceship, ranging from small to large designs, impacted on the cold desert surface beyond the city. One art piece even establishes more about the Jedi Order and its’ being circa 2000 years old.

This section of the film and the cemented assemblage of Jyn’s DIRTY DOZEN-esque team at the heady location clearly highlights the kind of extraordinary feats that ordinary, Force-less people will have to find in themselves in order to defeat the Empire. (Though interestingly enough, early on in the script process, Jyn’s mother was almost a Jedi - thankfully, that idea was scrapped).  

Saw Gerrera on his throne. Art by Adam Brockbank.

With Gerrera's resistance base and his erratic, violent force revealed (including Bib Fortuna's cousin, no less, and a 2-1B medical droid assigned watch over their ill leader, who'd only make it to the original cut of the film), George Lucas's creation from THE CLONE WARS animated series becomes an enigmatic, battle-scarred reality, his look going through several iterations-in one powerful image he resembles a STAR WARS version of the isolated and doom laden Colonel Kurtz from Coppola's APOCALYPSE NOW, sitting atop a throne held up by numerous Stormtroopers helmets- a collection that STAR WARS REBELS youth Ezra Bridger can only dream about.

As a brief but nice to see flashback shows us the nature of Jyn’s fractured family life on the Prequel core world of Coruscant, linked to the manipulative Orson Krennic, our heroes unlucky fortunes at the now destroyed Jedha could be on the up with Jyn’s plan to rescue her father from the scientific prison he is being holed up on at Eadu, and to convince the Rebellion of the full nature of the Death Star threat. The mountainous, rain-swept realms forming it, and the secret base/crystal refinement centre there housing the Death Star scientists, packed with equipment and a long shuttle ramp for busy transports in and out, would be envisaged by Gareth Edwards for the film as a very deliberate OO7-esque design tribute- the kind of lair lived in by that iconic spy's supervillains, yet also acting as the film’s emotional and spiritual turning point for Jyn as she finds herself at odds with Cassian, now turned silent assassin and under orders to kill Galen. Tragedy is ultimately the only result such collisions of good and evil will bring.

As Eadu fades away, and our retreating heroes lick their emotional wounds, other older scars emerge from the darkness, from the Sith, resonating via the next world visualised and book depicted: a key return to the volcanic realms of the fiery Mustafar- the birthplace, and indeed birthright, of the ominous Darth Vader, going back thematically to the early 1977/78 designs for an unused screen entrance for the Dark Lord in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, the planet also having been the past catalyst for the eventual lightsaber duel between once "brothers" Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi for EPISODE III. Like Yavin, new facets of this ugly, evil world are showcased alongside Vader's magnificent obsidian castle - the kind of environment akin to something seen with Sauron in THE LORD OF THE RINGS, fusing prequel and sequel realms together even more effectively. A home reflects its owner, they say- trust me, you don't want to be anywhere near this abode, as Krennic finds out when trying to use Vader to get in with the Emperor’s good graces. Before that intimidating scene, however, we are privileged, or should that be scared, to see sci-fi and cinema’s greatest baddie in a more vulnerable but no less chilling way- what’s left of his damaged and decapitated frame held for a time within a duel Bacta healing/meditation tank, whose gothic/Imperial aura, so tantalizingly glimpsed and queried by fans worldwide when seen in one of ROGUE ONE’s earliest trailers, is given form on the printed page through a variety of genuinely impressive nightmare scenarios.

From the horrors of the flesh to a beauty awaiting the eyes with the film's finale set piece world of Scarif- the mostly antithesis location to a war genre action adventure. Early ideas of an Imperial mining world to a steel apple core force field held space complex/intelligence centre housing the Death Star plans were good, but the idea of a lush tropical world being controlled by the Empire- the setting for our hero’s fateful destinies, couldn’t have been a better, stylistic right choice from Edwards..

The Death Star gets its dish. Art by David Hobbins.

The idea of nature abused by technology is an important part of ROGUE ONE’s finale, and the artists have fun with such mixing for Scarif. Equally, concepts of an Imperial Star Destroyer docking ring above it, surrounded by an energy field, are impressive, as is the vital to the plot communication base and vault, both interior and exterior, infiltrated by Jyn and Cassian, with some great storyboard ideas for the sequence and subsequent beach battling by the Rebel forces by Allsopp, Mccoy and Tappin. Regrettably, though, with so much major story material too important to reveal with the publication date, it’s at this point in the book that the detailed text and artists commentaries of their work tail off. Let’s also not forget the controversial but necessary period of reshoots for the revised finale likely affecting things further, which no one will ever talk about in major detail for the foreseeable future due to industry non-disclosure agreements.

At the end of the day, though, it’s the art that counts above all else- the grittily charged depictions of blood, sweat and tears conflict on land, sea, air and space more than enough to capture our eyes and mind-set, most notably Doug Chiang’s superb spread of the intimidating Death Troopers getting ready for action on the beach, plus Ryan Church’s stellar depiction of two crashed Star Destroyers and Rebel fighters in battle over the shield enclosed Scarif. Plus some lovely Allsopp imagery of the space battle and ships featuring the kind of brushwork tribute that reminds me of that classic John Berkey space battle over the Death Star poster that accompanied the John Williams STAR WARS soundtrack album of 1977.

As the familiar X and Y-wing fighters go to work, three cheers also for the bold new Mon Calamari hero and Winston Churchill-esque figure of Admiral Raddus housed in his new ship, also a vital part of the space battle, and bearing a design style keeping with the race’s sea-based roots- the massive military craft looking very majestic and whale-like.

With a costly victory won for the Alliance, the book closes its artistic success with a brief selection of pages linked to the Imperial controlled “Planet X” later named The Ring of Kafrene, the trading post world clearly a last-minute inclusion with the film's reshoots, for an earlier set scene where the realist Cassian gets first news of the Death Star and the fugitive pilot Bodhi Rook, whose role would be expanded in post production.

AFICIONADO RATING: The past, present and future of STAR WARS couldn’t be in better hands via the incredible talents working at Lucasfilm. THE ART OF ROGUE ONE is another visual triumph for their creativity- a joyful 256 pages of a film whose success has opened up even brighter new artistic avenues and imagination riches for the franchise’s future. 4.5 out of 5

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