By TREVOR HOGG
The award-winning definitive authority on all things visual effects in the world of film, TV, gaming, virtual reality, commercials, theme parks, and other new media.
Winner of three prestigious Folio Awards for excellence in publishing.
By TREVOR HOGG
Even though the Coronavirus pandemic confined Doug Chiang to home for most of 2020, for the Vice President and Executive Creative Director, Star Wars at Lucasfilm, there was not a lot of family time. “I still couldn’t talk to them much because I was busy!” This is not surprising as he is the visual gatekeeper of the expanding Star Wars franchise, whether it be films and television shows, games, new media or theme parks.
The space opera did not exist in 1962 when Chiang was born in Taipei, Taiwan. “We moved to Dearborn, Michigan when I was about five years old. I remember the home we grew up in Taiwan, the kitchen and bedrooms. Before getting into bed, we had to wash our feet because of the dirt floors. We actually had pigs in the kitchen.”
Arriving in Michigan during the middle of winter introduced the five-year-old to snow and the realization that he didn’t quite fit in, as Asian families were a rarity in Dearborn and Westland where Chiang attended elementary school and high school.
“Our parents always encouraged us [he has an older brother Sidney and younger sister Lisa] to assimilate as quickly as possible, but as a family we were still culturally Chinese. I was your classic Asian nerd. I didn’t talk a lot, was quiet and looked different. I was picked on a lot, but the saving thing for me was that I quickly developed a reputation for being the class artist. I found that as a wonderful escape where I could create my own worlds and friends, so I drew a lot.”
“Star Wars had a huge impact on my generation. That completely defined my career goals in terms of what I wanted to do. I was starting to learn about stop-motion animation. When I saw The Making of Star Wars with Phil Tippett doing the stop-motion for the chess game on the Millennium Falcon, it all connected together. That’s when I went down to the basement of our home and borrowed my dad’s 8mm camera, tripod and lights, and started to make my own films.”
—Doug Chiang, Vice President and Executive Creative Director, Star Wars, ILM
A passion for filmmaking developed as a 15-year-old upon seeing the film that would launch the franchise that he is now associated with. “Star Wars had a huge impact on my generation. That completely defined my career goals in terms of what I wanted to do. I was starting to learn about stop-motion animation. When I saw The Making of Star Wars with Phil Tippett doing the stop-motion for the chess game on the Millennium Falcon, it all connected together. That’s when I went down to the basement of our home and borrowed my dad’s 8mm camera, tripod and lights, and started to make my own films. All trial and error. You’re discovering things by accident. I love that aspect of it.”
A newspaper ad caused the aspiring cinematic talent to enter the Michigan Student Film Festival. “I won first place and that gave me a lot of encouragement. It gave me connections to one of the founders, John Prusak, who would loan me professional tools.
That became the start of my quasi-filmmaking education. When I came out to UCLA for film school it was a lot more of the same. A lot of it was self-driven. After I made one of my experimental animations called Mental Block, I made this film in 10 weeks, where I took over the little dining room of our dorm. I entered it into the Nissan FOCUS Awards and got first place. Winning a car as a sophomore was great! My goal was to direct films, but I realized that everybody in Los Angeles wants to do that, so there’s virtually no chance. I could do storyboards well so that was going to be my foot into the industry. One of my first jobs out of film school was doing industrial storyboards for commercials.” A fateful job interview took place at Digital Productions, which was one of three major computer graphics companies in the 1980s. “I was hired on the spot to design and direct computer graphics commercials. That was my first introduction of combining film design and art direction with this new medium called computer graphics.”
Joining ILM was an illuminating experience for Chiang. “I always thought of the design process as one seamless workflow. ILM was different in that we were doing post-production design, so the art department was specifically for that. The films that I worked on, like Ghost, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Forrest Gump, were all post-production design. While I was at ILM it started to evolve where we could participate in the pre-production design. It wasn’t until I started working with George Lucas when he hired me to head up the art department for the prequels in 1995 that I realized that was the way George had done it all along back with Joe Johnston and Ralph McQuarrie.
“I was one of the first people onboard while George was writing Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace,” Chiang continues. “I had been learning Joe Johnston and Ralph McQuarrie, and got their style down. When he told me that we were going to set the foundation for all of those designs, and aesthetically it is going to look different, that threw me for a loop because I felt like I was studying for the wrong test. My goal was to give him the spectacle that he wanted without any of the practical limitations. There were enough smart people at ILM like John Knoll to figure all of that out. It was world building and design in their purest form. I remembered it terrified ILM because they hadn’t developed anything of that scale. The Phantom Menace was the biggest film at that time at ILM with miniature sets. There was a huge digital component, but that was mostly for the characters.”
In 2000, Chiang established DC Studios and produced several animated shorts based on the illustrated book Robota, co-created with Orson Scott Card, which takes place on the mysterious planet of Orpheus and was inspired by his robot drawings. He would then co-found Ice Blink Studios in 2004 and carry on his collaboration with another innovative filmmaker, Robert Zemeckis, which resulted in Chiang receiving an Oscar. “Death Becomes Her was fascinating because the story is about the immortality potion, so our main characters can’t die. It was figuring out, ‘How do you achieve that?’ Real prosthetics can only go so far, and we had never achieved realistic skin in computer graphics before. It was a huge risk to try to combine the two. Forrest Gump was all about subtle adjustments to the reality of the world to create powerful dramatic images. Bob’s films can be complete spectacle like The Polar Express, and you have to lean into that sensibility. Bob doesn’t have a specific filmmaking style. He goes with what works best for his storytelling.”
Zemeckis developed such a strong level of trust in Chiang that he hired him to establish ImageMovers Digital, a ground-breaking performance-capture animation studio. “It was almost a perfect collision with all of my experiences, because I had that strong computer graphics experience working with Digital Productions, I had the strong foundation with ILM for post-production design, and then I had the pre-production design with George Lucas. ImageMovers Digital became this wonderful test-case where we had an opportunity to build a new company from scratch and create a new artform. We were taking a huge risk because the difficulty of that challenge equated to bigger budgets because of the sheer amount of time and the number of people that it takes. Literally, tools were being written as we were going. Those four years were a highlight of my career. It was a culmination of all that history of learning, having Bob as the visionary to drive all of that, and the support of Disney. It was sad for me [when it was closed by Disney in 2010] because we were right at the point of breaking through to having the right tools to make that big transition for success.”
Production on The Force Awakens saw Chiang join Lucasfilm to shepherd the expansion of the Star Wars universe. “Working with George Lucas for seven years, we established a logic in terms of how designs evolve in the Star Wars universe. It’s marrying the design history to our actual history. The prequels are in the craftsman era – that’s why the designs from Naboo are elegant and have sleek artforms. The shapes in the original trilogy become more angular and look like they came off of an assembly line. George always considered Star Wars to be like a period film where we do all of this homework and only 5% of it ends up onscreen, but all of that homework informs that 5%.” Believable fantasy designs need to be 80% familiar and 20% alien, Chiang learned. “I learned specific guidelines from George. When you design for the silhouette, draw it as if a kid could draw it. The other one is designing for personality. Certain shapes are very emotive, and if you can design with that in mind, and on top of that put in color and details, it’ll be more successful. The way your brain works is that you’ll see the shape first which will tell you right away, ‘Is it friendly or bad, and what it’s supposed to do.’ In the end, the details don’t inform the design but can make it better.”
Conceptualizing and constructing the Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge theme parks situation in Disneyland and Disney World has been a whole other level of design for Chiang. “Film sets exist for weeks and we tear them down while theme parks exist for years, so the materials have to be real and there is no cheating. On top of that, you layer in the whole health and safety component because you’re going to have people wandering through these environments unsupervised. We’re trying to layer in what makes Star Wars special. For instance, the whole idea of no handrails is a real thing in Star Wars. You obviously can’t do that. The aesthetic part was just as challenging because we wanted to create a design that fits seamlessly with our films. One of the things that I didn’t realize is the sunlight quality in Florida is different than Anaheim. You have to tune it to take in account the cooler light in Florida. On top of that, there are hurricanes in Florida whereas you have earthquakes in Anaheim. The WDI engineering team are amazing artists in their own right.
“There was a period of time where films became CG spectacles because the audience hadn’t seen anything like that before,” observes Chiang. “What I find interesting now is that got boring because it became too much sugar. Now I see the pendulum swinging back to where, what is the best technique for the film? One of the great things about working with Jon Favreau on The Mandalorian is precisely that. I don’t know what the younger generation will think because they have grown up with video games where they’re completely immersed in digital spectacle.”
Virtual production works best with filmmakers who know exactly what they want, Chiang explains. “What’s different about what we’re doing now with StageCraft and the volume is we’re bringing a good percentage of post-production work upfront so it involves all of the department heads collaborating to create a seamless process. Virtual production is transforming filmmaking into a fluid process, which is in some ways what computer graphics did when it first became available as a tool. The world building has to be complete before we actually start photographing the film. But it’s not unlike what I was doing with George. When I think back to what George, Robert Zemeckis and Jon Favreau were doing, they’re of the same mind. We were all trying to create a technique to better tell stories and to make the most efficient process to create visual spectacle onscreen.”