In 2002, Feng Zhu got the call every conceptual artist in Hollywood wants to hear: An invitation to join George Lucas at Skywalker Ranch in Northern California. What’s more, he’d be helping design the look of the final Star Wars chapter, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. This was a new highpoint in Feng’s career as a concept illustrator, which began nine years ago with his work on an ill-fated online version of Wing Commander at Electronic Arts; he later got much attention as the designer of the shapely video game vamp BloodRayne. Since then, he’s also worked with director James Cameron on a new film project, helped produce a line of industrial art design DVDs at Gnomon Workshop, and is starting up a new design firm, Gamma Ray Studios. In video games, he’s been working on the long-long-long-awaited Duke Nukem Forever at 3D Realms, and a couple of Unreal projects for Epic. He’s also currently designing some toys he hopes to unveil at the next Comic-Con, as well as posters and new DVDs. In this interview, he talks about the job of creating conceptual art, the visual style of Episode III, and what it’s like to work for Jedi master George Lucas.
How did you land one of the biggest film jobs in conceptual design: Revenge of the Sith?
I have a friend who works at Skywalker Ranch—he’s actually the art director for Star Wars, Ryan Church—and he said they were looking for artists for Episode III. And I was like, “Hey, I’m sending my stuff!” So then they hired me on. For concept design, that’s probably the film you want to work on because everything needs to be designed in this movie. It’s all original stuff. It was a lot of fun working on this film. I grew up with all these movies, and to work on the last one is especially fun.
Did you have any early trepidation taking on such a huge icon?
Yeah, the first few days were pretty scary because we had meetings with George every Friday, so of course the days building up to that… I had worked freelance for them for about a month from Los Angeles, sending them my stuff, and George would look at it, but I never met him in person. Then I finally went to the Ranch to work full time, and the first few days before that meeting I was pretty nervous—George Lucas was going to walk in, look at my drawings, and make comments about them! But it went well. He’s a nice guy.
What was the experience of working at Skywalker Ranch like?
Basically, he comes in on Fridays, looks at our drawings, and picks the ones he likes. He also gives us story points or anything he needs on that day. So then we take the weekend off and on Monday we have our little team meetings and divide up who is working on what. My main assignment there was environments, and anything man-made—droids, vehicles, stuff like that. There’s another team that handles the characters and creatures. So we divide the work up and everyone works really hard and then on Friday we have the big meeting.
Did Lucas ever give you personal advice on particular pieces?
Yeah, I worked on a couple of things that he came up with the original designs for. Like Grievous, for example, has these bodyguards hanging around with him that have these weapons, and George was the one who goes, “I want it to look like that.” And he had it sketched out on a little pad for me. I think I did a couple of versions that were too crazy. He’d go, “Nooo, I don’t want that, I just want this.” And then he’d just draw it on paper and give it to me. So if you’re designing something directly, he’ll talk to you one on one about what he needs. So it was pretty cool.
What was the overall style you were shooting for in Episode III?
Well, I can’t talk about too much of it because it’s not out, but there’s definitely a new visual that George always wanted to push us (toward), especially when we first got onto the project. He wanted a visual that no one had seen before—it’s not in any other movie. He pushes really hard on that. I did a lot of planets that would get rejected: “Oh, this looks like Aliens,” or “This looks like Blade Runner,” things like that. He wants something that looks very different. But then other parts of the movie needed to look more like the original Star Wars because this movie is bridging the gap, so we did introduce a couple of designs in there that are merging the two together. There’s a 20-year gap between this movie and the last one, I believe, so we couldn’t bridge it that far—we couldn’t have the original X-Wing.
How has the look of the prequels evolved from Episode I to Episode III?
I think George’s whole goal was that Episodes I and II were like a pre-World War II era, where everyone is well-off and everything is well-made and crafted. And Episode III is where things go to war, basically. The later Star Wars are when the war is over and no one has money and the spaceships are pretty crappy looking. So he wanted to create this contrast, and I think he did that with Episodes I and II—everything looks very fresh. And when you see Episode III, it’s going to feel a lot darker as a result, because this is the turning point for all the films.
Do you think your illustrations were translated well into the 3D graphics of the movie?
Yeah, I think so—ILM did a really cool job of translating our drawings. I think once George approves something, it’s very difficult to get it changed. On most films, when you do designs, it goes through so many people before it makes it down to the actual 3D modeler or whoever’s building the set. On Star Wars, George’s word is pretty much final. So if he approves something, that’s it—that’s the one that goes into the movies.
Can you identify particular things in Episode III that you designed?
A ton of the volcano stuff at the end of the movie, I did a lot of the sets for that. You’ve probably seen the trailer—it’s where they fight and they jump on railings. That’s a very big set I worked a lot on. I did a lot of the detail drawings for Grievous; my friend Warren Fu actually designed him, but the thing is, after we design it, we have to make it work for animation. He’s a very complex droid, so it’s a pain making it work. That was a really hard time; I spent about a month just getting around the joints, and his arms and legs. You can see in the trailer, too, that they have a little bit of human movement to them. So I came up with some joints that should be pretty cool in the film—especially the bodyguards, and how their waists work; it’s not a traditional cylindrical, XYZ thing. And they translated that exactly into the film.
Did you actually study robot/mechanical design when drawing these, or did you just use your imagination?
It’s probably half and half. The cool thing about working at the Ranch is that I think George has the biggest library on the planet. He has a warehouse that archives every single book you can imagine. So what we do is write notes on what we want to see: “I want to look at Roman architecture.” And we send the note down to the library, and they find every single book we need—a stack of books, so we don’t have to go out and do our own research. We lay them out and we’ll have books all around us. It’s pretty cool.
Did you ever pay attention to the criticisms of the more zealous Star Wars fans about the film's look?
No, you can’t. Until you make a multi-billion-dollar company and make your own movies and fund them yourself, don’t make a comment. The people who make the most comments are the ones who haven’t done anything—they’re sitting at home wishing they could work on these films. I mean, if George went to their house and asked them if they wanted to work on his movie, they’d say “Hell yeah!” But then they’re the most critical of his films. Making a film is really difficult—even just trying to write a script would take you a year to do. I don’t think a lot of people realize it.
What kinds of things did people ask you or Lucasfilm to do?
I get these emails with the weirdest requests, like “Put LCDs in,” or “Don’t call them droids unless they have legs.” Legally, when we’re on the project, we’re not supposed to look at anything because I think people sue George every single day: “We made Star Wars!” So to protect him, we’re not actually allowed to look at portfolios unless they sign away their rights. It’s not because we want to copy them, it’s because we want to stay protected.
There are a lot of weird people who send the strangest proposals to the Ranch. You can never imagine: People sending us shoes painted white, saying they can make Stormtrooper shoes for us; a guy sending us a whole coffin with his portfolio dug inside it; Stormtroopers made out of pipes. I think a lot of people don’t realize what true production is, they just think they can somehow make a Stormtrooper toy and work on the movie. It’s completely different. It’s only here on the west coast or east coast where production really happens—it’s a very focused, small industry of people.
But the fans, they’re crazy. Those TheForce.net guys—they’re good. I think they’ve got guys inside who tell them what happens. They had the partial story very, very early on—back when only ILM and a few people knew what the story was. It’s pretty scary!
Were you the kind of kid who would doodle a lot in class?
Oh yeah. Most people from my industry grew up exactly the same way—almost mirror lives. We grew up playing video games, had a lot of toys, built kit models, and of course watched Star Wars. The big films are Star Wars, Aliens, and Blade Runner—those three definitely changed what I wanted to do when I grew up. I drew a lot in high school and got in trouble for that—I got in trouble a lot in college, too. I actually went to UC-Berkeley for architecture because my parents, being Asian, didn’t really understand this world—most people don’t. They go, “You’re going to draw, you’re going to starve.” So I thought maybe I’d try architecture, and there (UC-Berkeley) I got in a lot of trouble for doing designs that weren’t meant for architecture, because I’d draw weird spaceships and things like that. They want very traditional things. So I dropped out of there and pursued my dream to do films.
How did you figure out that film design was your dream career?
The school that I went to, Art Center College of Design (in Pasadena, Calif.), was pretty good about exposing you to what’s out there. When I was growing up, there were no DVDs, no “making of” (documentaries), nothing like that. There was VHS and you watched the movie and that was it. Now it’s a lot easier to learn about our industry because of all the behind-the-scenes stuff that every DVD comes with. But back then, no one knew what preproduction looked like; you wouldn’t even know where to apply for a job. But the school I went to, a lot of professionals worked there. So I went into the gallery and saw all of this really cool artwork, and I knew this was what I wanted to do.
Were there any particular illustrators that influenced or inspired you?
Syd Mead is probably the biggest one—he influences most of us in the industry. He was probably one of the first concept guys to really do a lot of stuff. And then artists of Star Wars—Joe Johnson, Ralph McQuarrie; these guys are a huge influence on what I do today.
What was your first big break as a conceptual artist?
I got pretty lucky. I went to GDC nine years ago, and I wore my school T-shirt which said Art Center, and I got picked out of the crowd by a producer who asked me if I was looking for a job. So I was like, “Actually, I am looking for a job.” So I sent him my resume and portfolio, and I ended up working in Austin for EA for a year. That’s it. Once you have one job, it’s a lot easier to roll into the other ones. So I got pretty lucky finding my first gig, actually.
How was it different illustrating as a job as opposed to for fun?
It’s definitely different. When you do it as a job, you still do it professionally—you give it all you’ve got—but I think some of the better ideas that I have in mind, I never give them to my clients. Because I want to do my own stuff with that. Once you give it to your client, that’s it—they have your design forever and you can never use it again. So if I have a really cool idea for, say, a new propulsion system for a spaceship, I might give a hint of that to the client, but not the whole thing in my head. So that’s the big difference. Ultimately, they’re hiring us for our minds, and we can’t just sell everything in our heads to the clients, otherwise they’ll own pretty much all of our ideas.
How did you go from the video game industry into film work?
It was a pretty smooth transition, I guess. I went from games to another production house called Blur, and they happened to do game cinematics, not game design. They also do some TV commercials and stuff. So I spent about two years there, and that gave me a chance to work on all sorts of stuff, and it gave me a lot of exposure to film work. In-game art has a very different look than what film stuff is, so over there I did a lot of wide-ratio-format drawings.
Do you take different approaches between your film work and video game work?
They’re very different. Films definitely have a bigger audience—when you design for film, everyone can see it on the screen; whereas with the game market, you’re pretty much limited to age 35 and under. But the thing is, when you’re designing for games, the freedom is way more open because it’s a lot easier to change anything in games. In films, once they build a million-dollar set, you can’t change anything—it costs a lot. But in games, whatever you draw, they can try it and model it. Most games these days, they translate my stuff exactly over to the game.
Have you worked on any other movies since Episode III?
After that, I actually worked with James Cameron for a while, but his project is really hush, so I can’t talk about it. You know Cameron; he doesn’t want anyone to talk about his stuff. I worked there for almost seven months—a very small team, just two other artists and me. It should be a pretty cool film, but I don’t know if it’ll get made. It’s huge. That was really fun to work with him—a completely different director, a very hands-on type of guy. And also, Cameron draws himself, so oftentimes I’d actually take some of his sketches and translate them into designs.
Any advice to aspiring conceptual designers?
There are no shortcuts. I’ve been teaching for about four years, and every student wants to know the secret of getting better. But there is no secret. The harder you work, the more you draw, the better you get.