"Star Wars" artist Doug Chiang talks about bringing the galaxy to life


ST. PETERSBURG — When artist Doug Chiang approached the task of re-creating C-3PO for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, he looked at the droid as if he was taking apart a car.

"I basically broke him down to his chassis to figure out the mechanics of him," Chiang said Wednesday at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg. "I wanted to explore how Anakin built him, how he was really a homemade robot."

Chiang, who was in town for a sold-out event at the museum, is now the executive creative director for Lucasfilm, the powerhouse production company and home of the Star Wars franchise created by George Lucas. When he joined the company in 1995, he was a part of the team of artists who helped re-create a galaxy far, far away through costumes and set pieces in the prequel films.

He also served as a concept artist for The Force Awakens and a co-production designer for Rogue One. Early sketches of one of his most notable creations, the gold-plated C-3PO, are on display at the museum’s new traveling exhibit, "Star Wars and the Power of Costume."

"Those two sketches, the other a painting," Chiang said, pointing to the wall next to the finished droids BB-8, C-3PO and R2-D2. "Those are the original ideas for C-3PO."

The first ink-and-marker sketch from 1995 more closely resembles what C-3PO would eventually look like — awkward stance, arms propped outward, wiring and gears exposed. The second is more streamlined with humanoid features and smooth silver plating.

The painting was one of the first Chiang ever did for the Star Wars films.

His initial role was to "visual what he (Lucas) was thinking," Chiang said. The biggest challenge was building upon what already existed. And while he had a really hard first couple of weeks working for the Star Wars family, Chiang said his process involved drawing nonstop, which he did for the next year and a half.

"He (Lucas) was just starting to formulate the story for the prequels," he said. "As we developed the world, I saw how he was shifting the story."

As any Star Wars fan can attest, the films’ visual aspects are just as important to informing the story as the characters and narrative. Costumes like Darth Vader’s black-hooded helmet, Luke Skywalker’s blue lightsaber and droids like R2-D2 tell their own stories even outside the cinematic setting.

Chiang said the reason behind the films’ iconic nature is Lucas’ insistence on putting deep storytelling into the set pieces and costumes, as well as the characters.

At one point, he said, Lucas asked them to approach their work like a silent movie, telling the story only with costumes and set designs.

"He wanted us to do the homework and figure out the history of why a character looks the way they do and why a set looks the way it does," Chiang said. "He always considered these films to be documentaries, and he wanted the worlds to be completely believable. When you look at C-3PO, you know the history of him just by his pure design quality."

The costume and set designs of the Star Wars films work well in our culture because they have so many layers built in, Chiang said. Because of the large geek community, fans often take to social media to collectively analyze a setting or costume from trailers, like those from The Last Jedi, which premieres next week.

Chiang enjoys seeing the level of engagement from the fans because they’re just as passionate about his work as he is. Sometimes they’re right in their assessments, he said. Most times, they’re off.

"But it allows us to see what things we can plant in there, what Easter eggs we can put in there to tie the whole world together," he said.

Not surprisingly, Chiang is a lifelong Star Wars fan, and it’s a treat for him to be a part of something he fell in love with upon first viewing at 15. His excitement for The Last Jedi was obvious, though he wasn’t allowed to say a thing about it.

He just hopes fans have a certain reaction, he said.

"The same one I had when I was 15. Just in awe."

Contact Chelsea Tatham at ctatham@tampabay.com.
Follow @chelseatatham.