An exclusive interview with Jake Lunt Davies, Concept Designer for The Force Awakens, Rogue One, The Last Jedi, Han Solo…..
Hot Dang Ladies and Gentleman, today I have been lucky enough to meet one of the incredibly talented concept designers that worked on The Force Awakens and Rogue One and continues to work on the new films at Pinewood. Straight Outta Pinewood, I give you the one and only Jake Lunt Davies!
Darth Elvis: Your Star Wars journey started back in 2013 when you were handpicked by Neal Scanlan to work on Episode VII, can you tell me how that came about and how you reacted when you got the news? — “I think I would be screaming Hot Dang for days from Skellig Michael.”
Jake Lunt Davies: Although Neal and I had worked together on and off in the early 2000s, our paths had diverged and we hadn’t been in touch for several years. Since then I had been working in commercials, advertising and videogames and was pretty out of the film industry. In May 2013 I remember being in the pub with some mates and them telling me excitedly about the new Star Wars film and that I should try and get on it. I’d love to, I said, but by the time I’d found out the right contact, I’d be sure it would be crewed up. Then a couple of weeks later, out of the blue I get this call from Neal who has some great news to tell me — he’s got Star Wars! I’m afraid you couldn’t publish my response but if that wasn’t exciting enough, he then tells me he’s putting forward a selection of UK artists to concept creatures — nothing definite yet. After a conference call and brief with Neal and Rick Carter (production designer) I have a week’s work as a test phase. This obviously went well as I started the following week at Pinewood. What was nuts was that I was imagining I was joining a huge team of ILM and US concept guys, but when I turned up I was amazed to find it was just me and another artist. Within a month, the CFX concept design team filled up to five of us. And that has been it ever since.
DE: One of the earliest glimpses at the world of The Force Awakens and Jakku came in a Force for Change video with JJ Abrams and a creature called Bobbajo which was based on one of your concept drawings, how did it feel to see your concept art come to life?
JLD: Firstly it was a huge surprise, as I hadn’t been aware the video had been shot, so seeing it for the first time was pretty exciting. It was also quite an honour for the first creature reveal to be one of my designs. During the design phase I played around with various ideas of hiding the human form within a costume to push the alien anatomy as far as possible. Bobbajo was inspired by those Hallowe’en costumes of gorillas carrying a man in a cage. I flipped the idea around and had the creature carrying a series of cages full of animals on his back with the performer hidden within the stack. He would then look out of the mouth of one of the creatures — which we made as the Worrt seen in the opening scenes outside Jabba’s palace in ROTJ. Bobbajo’s design was also pretty faithfully translated from the initial sketch to reality without many changes apart from the loss of the ‘Bottleduck’ creatures in the top cage which JJ felt were just too busy a detail. The other minor change we made during the build was to lose the beaks from the birds in the lower cage — they had already been sculpted and were ready to be popped into the socket on the face, but when I saw them at that stage I realised they looked more alien as they were so we discarded the beaks and left the opening as a mouth. Unfortunately and not unexpectedly he lost his pipe too, but he still has quite a chilled out expression on his face.
DE: The fans have all fallen deeply in love with BB-8, how does it feel to be part of the team that was instrumental in bringing this beloved character to life?
JLD: Again its an honour and something for which I’m very proud. At ILM, Christian Alzmann had taken JJs napkin sketch and set the ball rolling with the colour scheme and certain details on the head. I then took these designs and pushed it further, moving the face away from an anthropomorphic design to something closer to the R2 aesthetic with a more dominant single eye. Simultaneously the design for the body, with its 6 circular panels, was a result of working with the engineering and performance side of the design process — the panels themselves benefited the construction of the puppet whilst combined with the positioning of the axle off centre to the panels increased the illusion that the ball was free roaming and not bound to an axle as BB-8 was being performed. At the end of the day, its continually amazing to be part of creating something so iconic and now a firm part of the Star Wars legacy. Its not just about being able to see BB-8 on screen but to see the toys, the Lego version, the T-shirts, those design motifs — the shapes of his face and the panels — being transposed onto hats, shoes, lunchboxes — and the transcendence into fan culture — the BB-8 Builders Club, cosplay, the fan-art and internet mash-ups.
DE: The Luggabeast and Rey’s speeder are another couple of concept drawings you designed for TFA, what are your feelings on the fan community building their own replicas of these?
JLD: As a designer it’s so cool to see anything being embraced by the fans so much that they want to recreate it themselves. Whether its full scale exact replicas, cosplay, fan made models or Lego versions, its all a huge honour to know I’ve created something that is inspiring to and beloved by someone else. It kind of confirms what you do and that you’ve done it right!
DE: The idea of Steelpecker, I believe, came from Steven Spielberg during a conversation he had with JJ where he discussed a bird eating metal parts of a machine or ship. Can you explain how this idea became a reality?
JLD: Yes, you’re right about the Spielberg connection. The idea with it in the film was it to be a fairly throwaway moment — you see it in the foreground of a tracking shot on Rey’s Speeder — and not to dwell on it. We also wanted it to be a simple performance moment, so it’s a basic rod puppet fixed at the base with a simple pecking motion. There might have been some rods on the wings, but otherwise that’s it. The design draws heavily on a vulture, with a scrawny neck and feathers covered in oil and rusty gunk from poking around in old machinery. In Star Wars we often refer to a mantra of simplicity in form — whether a design will be recognisable as a silhouette or can be drawn with a handful of lines — and with the Steelpecker I gave it a very trapezoidal beak and head that was reminiscent of a chisel.
DE: You designed so many of the creatures and droids from TFA, do you have a favourite piece of art from the film or a character that you particularly enjoyed drawing?
JLD: TFA was a great experience because so much of the look of the film was deliberately intended to resonate with the original trilogy. For me that meant bringing aspects of R2 into BB-8 or Luke’s speeder into Rey’s speeder; it meant that as we explored the scavengers of Jakku or the denizens of Maz’s castle, we drew inspiration from the legacy designs of the Tusken Raiders and Jawas or the Cantina patrons. So drawing anything was exciting as we felt we were now adding to the Star Wars world we knew. Aside from the big ones like BB-8 I think one of my favourite series of designs was for what would become the X-Wing pilot Ello Asty and the Abednedo race. I have always had this bee in my bonnet about the prevalence of humans over aliens in the films and the lack of diversity in the Rebel Alliance. Whilst I realise there are pragmatic film-making forces that drive this, I nonetheless thought I’d bombard JJ with one particular design I liked, putting him into a variety of different roles and costumes — including one as an X-Wing pilot — until the idea took hold. You can see his race pop up throughout the film — Ilco Munica, a resident threatened with a gun in the village at the start of the film; a scavenger in the queue as Rey deals with Unkar Plutt; Crusher Roodown, a cybernetically armed giant of his species dragging parts as Rey enters Niima Outpost; Brasmon Kee, a senator on Hosnian Prime; and Ello Asty the pilot.
DE: In Rogue One, one of the first things we see is the homestead droid, again based on one of your concepts — how was it working on the first stand-alone movie?
JLD: Rogue One was a different experience to TFA. Not better or worse, just with a new director, a different mindset and approach that filtered down to our design process. What was interesting was whilst TFA is set 30 years after ROTJ we paid homage to the OT more than we did in R1 which is set days before ANH. I think this was because R1 was being seen as a stand-alone movie from the saga and was a darker, grittier film than TFA, we had more room to push certain ideas to make it so. Obviously it still had to tie in with that era and ultimately segue into ANH so it was a fine line we had to tread.
DE: The artwork on your site www.jakelunt.com/ is sublime! How did it feel getting to create concept art for cinema’s greatest villain Darth Vader? “Now there’s a guy a Sith King can look up to!”
JLD: Thank you. As the CFX department were responsible for the Vader prosthetics in the Bacta tank we seized our chance to explore the overall look of this as a set piece, pushing our concepts to include a suggestion and flavour of the setting. One of my colleagues, Luke Fisher, had set the tone of Vader floating eerily in his Bacta tank earlier on and looking at the practicalities of how he might arise and exit, I created the Vader Rising piece to explore the idea of robotic arms connecting to his limbs and extracting him. With the composition of this I referenced the back of head shot of Vader in his life support pod in ESB and tried to suggest the silhouette of Vader’s helmet in the shape of the arms coming down to his limbs. Also, another concept I painted of the Bacta tank in situ is on my Instagram (http://instagram.com/jakeluntdavies) and currently not yet on the website. So yeah, getting to add to the Vader mystique was pretty cool.
DE: Of all the creatures you have drawn so far for the galaxy far far away, which one would you like to see a stand-alone film about?
JLD: I got quite excited about a character known only as CO79. He was this 3’ high creature with a long tail, cool helmet and a face like a cow’s udder. Loaded with weapons, ammo and a backpack, he wasn’t to be messed with. He was shot on in the battle at Maz’s castle but got lost on the cutting room floor. A shame…I’d always had high hopes for him.
DE: The Dark King likes nothing better than to kick back with a glass of blue milk and sit and immerse himself in the amazing Art of Star Wars books! How does it feel to see your designs featured in these books and do you have a favourite?
JLD: Its one thing to see your work resolved in film, then another level when the artwork is in print. And as I said earlier, its still incredible to witness a design transcending merchandising and toys to be embraced in fan art and cosplay.
DE: The Creature Team seems like an incredible place to work with some of the best people in the industry, describe one of your best days in the ‘office’?
JLD: It is an incredible job and I’m continually in awe of the people I work with, the sculptors, mouldmakers, fabricators, animatronic designers, technicians, costume designers and artists that translate your work into a tangible, almost living thing.
One of the best days was when we went for a meeting with JJ to present some Kylo Ren concepts. Quite often we’d have meetings on the side of the set after they’d wrapped for the day. This day they’d just finished shooting on the Millennium Falcon and JJ suggested we just have the meeting there. So we ended up having our presentation sitting around the CHESS BOARD ON THE MILLENNIUM FALCON. The best meeting ever…
(it turned into a photo op …that’s me bottom right)
DE: Do you think the Dark King of the Sith could use a Sith Mind Trick in order to get a tour of Pinewood and just generally hang loose on set?
JLD: I’m sure he would be capable of exercising such persuasion…and if he’s thwarted then perhaps he could offer to entertain the troops instead?
Thankyouverymuch for taking the time out for the interview, looking forward to seeing more of your work in The Last Jedi, Han Solo and Episode IX and I’m sure there is space in the Galaxy somewhere for a Dark King of the Sith……..Hot Dang!