Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Musing on the Design of Star Wars

Image found HERE
I just finished listening to some folks talk about Star Wars and its possible future under Disney (main take-away - how can Disney screw it up more than Lucas?). The podcast ended with the tune played by the Cantina band, and that got me thinking about the over 1940's vibe of the original trilogy, and, more importantly, what I consider the design failure of the second trilogy. Among other problems with the second trilogy, I felt that they missed out on some design cues that might have cemented it into the same universe with the original trilogy.

Star Wars had a significant 1940's vibe to it - it was very much a recreation of 1940's sci-fi serials and WW2 movies - with some Akira Kurosawa thrown in for good measure. Okay - the cantina music was more 1920's, and the 1930's fills in as well - so maybe we'll call it a 1920's to 1940's vibe. Now, one cannot remove the design of a piece, even a pseudo-period piece, from their own time and place. That makes it an interesting mix of 1920's-1940's and late 1970's design (and boy, can you tell that the second and third movies were designed in the 1980's). The "seventies meets the past" look was nothing new, really - there was a definite interest in resurrecting the 1920's through 1940's look in that era, with a modern twist.

Luke and Leia appear to be about 18 years old or so, so the second trilogy should be taking place about two decades earlier. What I think would have been cool, then, is to make the second trilogy look very 1900's-1920's.

I guess what I'm getting down to is this: What might a very "early 20th century" Star Wars have looked like? A very aristocratic Galactic Senate in old fashioned military uniforms - a doughboy vibe to the soldiers and proto-storm troopers - bobbed hair on the ladies - a little more ornamentation on things than was necessary, that transition from the Gilded Age to Moderne - more of an Egyptian style to things - a waxed mustache on Yoda. Perhaps some of these elements were present in the second trilogy.

I don't know quite what it would look like, but it makes me wish I was an artist so I could explore the look of the thing.


  1. I do think there is a bit of art nouveau in places in the new trilogy--and certainly some non-Western influences, but I agree these are largely drowned out by a more "science fictional" look than the original trilogy.

  2. As a childhood fan of the original trilogy I never thought much on the 1940s vibe of the original movie. Now that you mention it, that makes so much sense. There is definitely that "air" about the film.

    This is going to sound soooo clique, but the so-called new trilogy basically ruined Star Wars for me. Now, as I grew older, I began to realize that it wasn't the only game in town for Science-Fantasy, but still have a bitter taste in my mouth about it.

  3. I think I felt a bit of the same without quite being able to put my finger on it.
    I know that I had similar thoughts about Star Trek. The original series had such a colorful, wild look to it that never shows up in the other series/movies (as far as I know). The Next Generation is all natural fibers and new-age blather with very few visual touchstones to that (not so long ago) era preceding it.
    An more baroque/Art Nouveau design for Star Wars would be a fun lark to draw up. More Edwardian and WWI influence... leavings of Captain Nemo... some Buck Rogers crazy blimp-ships and helmets (didn't they have wings on them?).
    Probably be more productive to just dream up a whole new setting with that era's retro-future in mind.

  4. Imagine if - just as the original film ripped off the visual iconography of 50s-60s WW2 air war movies - the trilogy-which-never-happened had actively aped interwar WW1 flyer films (Ace of Aces, Dawn Patrol, Hell's Angels, Wings, etc) in its space combat scenes. Or if the action scenes had openly echoed and paid homage to the combat choreography of Errol Flynn or Douglas Fairbanks' films.

    Visually interesting and a cute Easter Egg for the cinephiles.

    Doughboy clone troopers would have been fun too.

  5. I am in complete agreement here and knobgobbler brings up Star Trek, where I had a similar issue with the new movie. The Bridge and Phasers are kind of retro-50s/60's and than the engine room is a modern day brewery?

    The problem I see is the same one effecting comic books. We have incredible artists, amazing computer tools and no sense of design. I saw a kid draw Superman recently and he drew him with his red 'undies on the outside'. Meanwhile, he hasn't had those for over a year, yet he is remembered having them. Certain looks just work for design reasons. The creator of the Silver Age Green Lantern was originally an advertising guy and designed that costume and logo to be memorable.

    With Star Wars, Ralph McQuarrie and company had a definitive look they were going for. They were trying to evoke a feel over all. The artists of the second trilogy seemed to be taking a more, "Hey check it! Doesn't this look cool?" Yes...but does it look like it fits this universe. Not so much.

  6. Agree on the design - modern Hollywood design is pretty much all the same - quite boring. The new Superman movie typifies it, in my opinion.

    Regarding Superman's red undies - I recall Alex Ross saying something that struck me as being quite true. He said that the better known superheroes are, in a sense, no longer owned by their owners. I don't mean in the sense of copyright and trademark. Rather, everyone on Earth knows who Superman is, what he stands for, who his arch-enemies are, his origin, etc. DC Comics can try to re-invent him, but in a way, even though they say it's official, the best that can do is fan fiction. There is a base line Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man that exists over and beyond anything the writer of the month can invent.

    Of course Superman wears red undies, and nothing DC Comics can ever do will change that. And on a side note - removing the undies from the tights and keeping the boots just doesn't look right - gives Superman the equivalent look of an adult man wearing nothing but a pair of black socks. Put the undies back on DC - he just looks creepy without them.

  7. Oh, those action figs are great!
    They also kinda point out a tangential issue I have with Star Wars/Star Trek design and such... that as the properties increased in value, got so weighed down with money concerns... they seemed to get farther away from a focused vision of a single creator... got more of that 'designed by committee' look to them. They went with what was 'safe'.
    A parallel example is Mickey Mouse. If you look at his earliest shorts he is a bit of a wild man. He's no Daffy Duck but he's barely clothed and plucking out tunes on a pig's nipples... horsing around in a carefree manner.
    Compare him to modern Mickey, who hardly ever shows up as anything but a squeaky clean trademark who isn't allowed to have much of a personality at all.

    1. To be fair, though, Mickey got safe a long time ago.

    2. I love those old covers though the books make for very uneasy reading (like that one particular book) as the they echo the time they were written in and well same ideas are are expressed with new names even today.

  8. Airship designs for the Barsoom series are often like this.


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