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'Star Wars' visual director Doug Chiang misses his mentor George Lucas

By Steve Tilley, Special to Postmedia Network

A screengrab from the trailer for "Star Wars: The Force Awakens."

A screengrab from the trailer for "Star Wars: The Force Awakens."

In the Star Wars universe, Padawan learners tend to rebel against their Jedi masters, at least if that Darth Vader dude is anything to go by.

Not so with Doug Chiang. The man who learned at the feet of Star Wars creator George Lucas, designing pod racers, battle droids and a host of other spaceships, creatures and settings in the prequel films, still feels the void left by his mentor’s absence.

Chiang is the driving force behind the visual design of this year’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, as well as all the other Star Wars feature films currently in the works. He joined Lucasfilm in 1995 with the daunting responsibility of heading the art department for Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, and has now come full circle, overseeing a small army of designers building the worlds that will fill the next wave of movies.

“The terrifying part is we don't have George,” Chiang said in an interview this week, on the eve of the six-part Star Wars saga making its debut on iTunes, Google Play, Xbox Video and the online Cineplex Store, the first time the movies have been made available for high-definition digital download.

Lucas, who sold his Star Wars empire to Disney in 2012 for more than $4 billion, has no direct input into the new movies. J. J. Abrams, who most recently directed the Star Trek reboots, is behind the camera for The Force Awakens, hitting theatres this December. Rian Johnson (Looper) will direct 2017’s as-yet untitled Star Wars: Episode VIII, while Gareth Edwards (Godzilla) will helm next year’s Star Wars spinoff Rogue One.

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“It’s very demanding. It’s very hard,” said Chiang, who now serves as vice president and executive creative director at Lucasfilm. “We’re still trying to figure out, what is Star Wars? Without George, it’s a very tough challenge.

“We all think we know what it is, but really, Star Wars is George. George is the only person who really knows it very well. We’re all trying to create something in his playground, but it’s his playground.”

The digital release of The Phantom Menace, available Friday along with the other five Star Wars films, includes a behind-the-scenes documentary that shows Chiang watching Lucas approve or dismiss concept art with barely more than a glance.

“He could scan a wall full of art and almost instantly identify the one or two or three images he really liked,” said Chiang. “When I finally had the courage to ask, it was probably the biggest lesson for me. He said, ‘I’m basically judging it by shapes and understanding.’ What George was really doing was he was looking at those designs through an audience’s point of view.”

Chiang designed hundreds of on-screen elements for the prequel movies, from Queen Amidala’s elegant silver shuttlecraft to the stately, if sterile, galactic senate chamber. With The Force Awakens being set decades after Return of the Jedi, he’s getting his hands dirtier – figuratively speaking, since all the work is done digitally these days – and going back to Star Wars’ roots.

“I grew up drawing things like X-wings and TIE fighters, and I’m finally getting an opportunity to do that,” Chiang said.

But when the 53-year-old Chiang was a teenager, Star Wars movies were major events that happened years apart. Beginning this year, we’ll have a new Star Wars feature film every year, to say nothing of the deluge of spinoff media, from TV shows to comics to video games. Is there enough magic left in that galaxy far, far away to sustain all this?

“When I was working with George, we had designed a huge universe, and only a small portion was used because the stories he was telling only used a little bit of it. And now we’re able to utilize all that other richness,” said Chiang.

“I think the audience is going to be really surprised. There’s so much out there still.”

Twitter: @stevetilley

steve.tilley@sunmedia.ca


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