Doug Chiang is the Vice President and Creative Director of Lucasfilm. He’s an Oscar-winning designer who has worked on more iconic projects than you can imagine including “Death Becomes Her,” “Forest Gump,” “Rogue One” and five out of the last six “Star Wars” films. But when he heard that writer Dave Filoni and Jon Favreau were pitching a new “Star Wars” series almost two and a half years ago he had no idea how fast the project would proceed and that he’d end up one the credited production designers of “The Mandalorian.”
“I didn’t realize Jon was so passionate. In our first meetings and our phone calls, they were just very loose, blue-sky, broad strokes, talking about ideas and things,” Chiang says. “I started to just do some initial inspirational designs based on what I was hearing, with the small team that we had. It was myself, Ryan Church, Erik Tiemens and Christian Alzmann. Over the Christmas break, Jon wrote two scripts. I just loved them. I loved the characters that he was doing, I loved the storytelling that he was doing. And so I just immediately started to visualize what I was reading, even before we got the green light to go”
Chiang continues, “The great thing about this whole process was that Jon is very decisive, and he’s an amazing filmmaker in that sense, because we landed on our hero moments and our hero design very quickly, in a matter of weeks. That’s astonishing to me because normally, we chase designs for weeks and sometimes months. What I found refreshing was that Jon knew what he wanted right away, so it would typically take us one or two rounds and then we would nail it.”
In Chiang’s mind, a clear example of that is the Razor Crest, The Mandalorian’s personal mode of interstellar transportation. The design process began with Favreau revealing he was a fan of the A-10 Warthog, a US Air Force fighter jet that began service over 40 years ago. According to Chiang he just liked the engine configuration which features high-mounted twin engines.
Chiang recalls, “And he said, ‘Well, let’s think of a military surplus vehicle that the Mandalorian might have acquired. It’s kind of a beat-up junker that he fixed up, but he souped it up special,’ So, having that idea of history for that vehicle plus maybe anchoring it with the A-10 Warthog design, we started playing around with ideas and within the first round of designs, Jon identified the shape that he liked, and then we just literally did another week of revisions.”
Overall, Favreau wanted to give the series the look of a serial Western. A nod to George Lucas’ ideas for the original trilogy. And that became the foundation of almost every decision made thereafter.
“The story was centered around a rogue gunfighter in our version of the West,” Chiang says. “That opened up some really fresh storytelling environments, in terms of what we could explore with the ‘Star Wars’ universe. Knowing that this was going to be in the Outer Rim and the outskirts, on planets that maybe haven’t been explored as much, was really fun, because we got to explore storytelling with secondary characters, characters that you saw in the background in the films.”
When it came to the title character himself, Chiang and his team didn’t have to look very far.
“In the design of our hero Mandalorian, I looked at a lot of research on all the various versions of all the different armors and helmet configurations,” Chiang says. “We kind of distilled that all down to create our ironic version. And now that we have our iconic Mandalorian, we can now use that as our foundation and build off of that for all the characters that might be coming It’s really helpful to have that design evolution, but if you were to place our Mandalorian with the animated version from ‘Clone Wars’ you could see that they’re the same design spirit.”
Andrew Jones might have landed his first solo production designer credit with “The Mandalorian,” but his art director credits include “Avatar,” “The Adventures of Tintin” and “The Jungle Book.” Even with those high profile projects behind him he admits taking on the Disney Plus series was “very daunting” and that he “didn’t want to drop the ball.” Jones notes, “The comfort zone for me was the technology. It’s groundbreaking stuff, but jumping into complicated, forward-looking technology is something I’ve been doing for a while. So, that at least was an area of comfort.”
The tech Jones refers to is the immersive volume that was used on a soundstage for at least half the sets in season one. The immersive volume was basically the shell for most interior sets and looked like a lighting box where digital environments were projected on the walls. Anything that involved blaring sunlight, a battle or explosions were completed on an exterior stage.
“What’s on the walls is a video-game environment that’s rendered to, what we call, ‘final pixel.’ Meaning, if it’s seen in the camera, then it’s done. It doesn’t need post-production work, ideally,” Jones says. “Then the next layer to this, the magic sauce, is that as the camera moves around in the volume, what it sees through the lens on the wall is constantly updated to be correct in perspective.”
Jones continues, “If you are walking through a field of trees, and you see that on the content, you’re seeing the parallax as you move through the trees. It’s not just a translight [backdrop]. A translight would just look flat. As soon as you moved the camera you would notice that. This is actually changing as you go through. It’s like the holodeck on ‘Star Trek.'”
Jones says that the volume was either being shot on, being cleared of sets or it was having sets built on them. There was very little downtime, including overnight and that was necessary because they only had one.
“We’ve adopted a process that’s much more akin to the theater or Broadway shows, where they’ve got scenery that travels on and off a stage very quickly,” Jones says. “It’s a bit of a different process, but we’re able to get a lot of sets done very quickly.”
The immersive volume was so impressive that it even confused people involved with the production.
“We would show people dailies and say, ‘Look, what’s real?’ It’s a testament to the process,” Jones reveals. “Even when we were looking at reproducing sets, when you look at reshoots, we’d pull out the dailies to see what we have to reproduce, we would be lost.”
Of course, The Child might have been the most important design of all. And there was a lot to unpack when you’re introducing a new member of the alien race that spawned perhaps the greatest Jedi of all time. Simply: How cute is too cute for a “Baby Yoda”?
“The marching orders from Jon was that we wanted to find that fine balance where it was kind of an ugly-cute. We didn’t want to go overly cute, but it had to, the whole character itself, in terms of the costuming, the performance and design, had to all tie together to form one adorable character,” Chiang says. “Jon’s initial idea was that, ‘O.K., let’s start the reverse, let’s kind of make it ugly and then let’s slowly start to gravitate and make it cute and see what happens.’ A lot of that came in with the eyes. Jon was very specific that he didn’t want the eyes to look human, he wanted it to look more like a dog eye, even that the white sclera is barely visible. We made the eyes distinctly kind of, a little bit off, where you look at it and it’s like, ‘Wow, is this a dog eye, where’s the pupil?’ The funny thing is, when you put that onto the overall design of the Baby Yoda character, it actually starts to really give it that extra level of, ‘It’s cute in an inherent way that’s really kind of tapping into your emotions without being so overt'”
The team also went back and forth in both paintings, sculptures and 3D sculptures to find that perfect balance of, ear length, eye size, eye placement, mouth, overbite and lips.
“Of course, we were always kind of looking back towards Yoda, because Yoda is pretty amazing, in terms of the character’s design itself,” Chiang says. “And if you look at Yoda, he’s really not that cute. He’s wrinkly, he’s got frizzy hair, and yet he’s an amazing emotional character because all the pieces add up to inform who Yoda is. We wanted to see that same effect with the baby.”
“The Mandalorian” Season 1 is available on Disney+.