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Tom Watches Movies: Star Wars And the Art of Design


Since its first installment, Star Wars has been a veritable masterclass in creating memorable, effective designs, from its costumes to its props, creatures, sets and virtually everything in between. This is a strength that the epic franchise has managed to retain, thankfully enough, since re-entering the contemporary blockbuster landscape with 2015’s The Force Awakens. This sterling approach to aesthetic design is one of the things that’s allowed Star Wars to stand alongside its new contemporaries in the blockbuster game, and even surpass them in this regard. But what goes into a good design? What makes Star Wars’ visual design work so effectively, and what is it doing right that many of its peers are failing at? In a follow-up to our previous exploration of the effects of CGI on the aesthetics of genre film, let’s go on a deep dive into what leads to effective designs, and how Star Wars continues to exemplify those qualities.

There are many, many factors that go into an effective design, depending on whether the thing being designed is an object, costume, character, etc., but two incredibly important qualities to be considered whenever an original design is called for are communicativeness and memorability. Does the object in question express certain qualities through its design, and does it stick in the memory of the viewer?

A communicative design tells you about the properties and function of the object, using visual language that humans have been developing for ages. Does it look sturdy? Delicate? Does it look like a weapon, or a tool for healing? Is it a vehicle, and if so, which part is the front? This may seem painfully obvious, but you’d be surprised how often these fundamental qualities get overlooked in favor or making something look “alien” or “futuristic.” Of course, there’s a time and a place for abstract designs, but the best ones are those that balance that abstract-ness with something (anything) that we as viewers can interpret or “read.” A design that effectively communicates its qualities is an extremely useful thing for storytelling, because it cuts down on the need for exposition. We don’t need to be told or even shown that a sleek, streamlined ship will go fast, while a bulkier, boxier one will be left in the dust, because we’ve been programmed by years of observation to recognize those qualities. A good design capitalizes on this vocabulary, trusting in the audience to pick up on the visual cues its presenting.

Star Wars

A memorable design, meanwhile, is one that has just the right mix of distinct shapes, colors, and components that we can recall it to a reasonably high level of detail with ease. A good place to start when considering the memorability of a design is the silhouette. A fantastic rule of thumb for design is that an object should be recognizable from its silhouette alone, a collection of shapes and “gestures” that can be easily recalled, but is still unique. Think of an effective profile or silhouette like the melody of a piece of music; one that’s too complicated or lacks a recurring theme doesn’t get stuck in your head the way that some others do, but a catchy tune, one that’s easy to hum or whistle, will stick in your head like glue.

From there, a design can bolster this quality with a good combination of effective color use and just the right amount of surface detail. And just like the silhouette, the rule that simpler is better is something to bear in mind. When it comes to colors, a design that sticks to a color palette of just a few core tones that are carefully laid out is more effective than one that tries to cram in as many shades and hues as possible. Similarly, when the colors of a design are mixed too liberally, with numerous small patches of color mingling in a small space, that doesn’t stick in the memory as well as a design with simpler blocks with clear delineations. You can probably picture in your mind’s eye the basic color layout of something like Superman’s costume – blue body with red for the cape, boots and belt, and yellow highlights. It’s straightforward, effective, and easy to picture. Color can also be a handy way to clearly differentiate multiple characters or objects when they’re sharing screen space. Contrasting or complimenting colors can help certain elements pop out and take prominence as well.

Finally there’s detail. Adding surface details and accents can mean the difference between a design that’s boring, one that works, and one that’s far too complicated to make an impression. The right amount of detail, like textures, panel lines, or bolts and screws (in the case of machinery) can make a design feel three dimensional and “real.” Too much detail, on the other hand, can overwhelm the viewer to the point where nothing sticks out. Too much visual information (or “noise”) can easily overwhelm, making the memory of a design blurry and difficult to maintain. Too little detail, meanwhile, and a design can look flat and uninteresting. Color and detail are like the percussion and back-up sections of a good tune, working in concert with the melody to create something simple enough to be memorable, but not crowded with so much information that it becomes overwhelming. Each element supports and adds to the other.

So what does all this have to do with Star Wars? Well, it’s an unfortunate truth that a lot of these fundamentals seem to have been left by the wayside when it comes to modern genre movies and other media. You’ve got stuff like Michael Bay’s Transformers movies, or Cyborg’s live-action look for the upcoming Justice League movie serving as evidence that contemporary design work is overcomplicated to the point of absurdity, with a focus on the abstract and alien when it comes to futuristic or otherworldly technology. Yet, since re-entering the blockbuster scene, Star Wars has managed to stay immune from this trend. Perhaps owing to the influence of designers like Ralph McQuarrie, and a desire to emulate the look of classic originals, the design work on the new films has maintained a high level of quality when compared to other recent blockbusters.

The design work on the new Star Wars films is so good that the positive qualities we went over can be found in even the smallest details. Take the prop pictured below, for instance. This is the blaster that Han Solo gives to Rey in The Force Awakens. It’s easy to look at this prop and just see another sci-fi gun, but when you pay attention you’ll notice the absurd level of information that the design of the gun communicates.

Star WarsThe blaster is a simple design that uses multiple cues to get across that this isn’t a precision weapon, but rather one designed for power. There’s no scope or sighting device of any kind, and the barrel is thick and imposing-looking. There’s nothing delicate about it, no small or fragile components. Instead, it’s composed of broad shapes – a few cylinders, a rectangle, and a handle. It looks like a weapon designed to dole out punishment rather than one for use by an experienced marksman like Han. Speaking of Han, the gun has the same “broom handle” grip as his iconic blaster, which draws a visual link between the two props. This is an appropriate touch, given the mentor/student relationship between Han and Rey. It’s clear from looking at this prop that a lot of consideration went into the its design.

To draw on another example, let’s look at everyone’s favorite Rogue One character, K2-SO. Being an Imperial droid, K2’s design has a lot of details to tie him visually to the Empire. There are subtle design cues that echo Stormtrooper and Snowtrooper armor, like the shape of his chestplate or the raised details on his upper back, and the predominantly-black color scheme, as well as his slightly hunched neck, give him an air of menace, more looming than someone like R2 or 3PO. We’re also meant to like K2, however, and one extremely important detail helps this: his eyes. Rather than looking angry or menacing, his eyes are big, almost childlike circles that give him a surprised expression. K2 is also the only Star Wars droid to ever have expressive eyes, with pupils that can look around, as opposed to the unmoving optics of 3PO or the prequels’ Battle Droids. This helps the viewer form a connection with him, despite his otherwise menacing appearance.

Star Wars

Color is used sparingly, with silver on and around the joints, and simple yellow bands encircling the shoulders to break up the sea of black. There’s a fair amount of surface detail in his design, particularly around the midriff, but never so much that it seems to be jockeying for attention or muddling the overall shape. Again, all of these details are the product of careful, considered design work that worked in concert with Alan Tudyk’s performance, creating a character that connected with people in a powerful way. This is the power of good design – to speak to audiences and viewers in a universal language.

For the moment, Star Wars stands relatively alone in its commitment to effective design. Overcomplicated, busy designs are en vogue everywhere else, with the limitless power of CGI giving artists license to cram far more detail than they should into their creations. Not that all of the fault for the plague of bad designs is entirely the fault of CGI – somewhere along the line, something essential was lost, a knowledge of an incredibly important set of guidelines for creating visuals that become (as so many films strive to be) iconic. It’s appropriate then that Star Wars, a franchise with scads of iconic visuals to its name, is the torchbearer of these design traditions in the modern age. Hopefully, designers and visual artists working in other franchises will start taking note of what Star Wars is doing right, and it won’t be alone in this much longer.

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