Sunday, September 19, 2010

Visualizing Star Wars

One of the problems with conjuring up a vision of Star Wars that follows a different path than the one George Lucas laid down for it is that, whatever his other faults may be, Lucas excels at creating compelling images. I love the look of the prequel films, for example, and often suffer through them simply because they have some great visuals. So, trying to imagine a different Star Wars, one that might have been, requires at least partially shaking off those visuals and that's a tall order -- but not an impossible one.

When I was a kid, one of my most beloved books -- so beloved that I eventually split its binding from reading it so much -- was The Art of Star Wars, which included pages upon pages of concept art for the film. A lot of this concept art was done by Ralph Mcquarrie and I remember being intrigued by what at the time seemed like really weird versions of things we saw in the films, like this early interpretation of R2-D2 and C-3PO:

There's a definite Metropolis vibe to C-3P0 that I like. He looks a lot more like a human being than the movie's version and, for some reason, this pleases me. At the very least, it gives a different notion on what a 'droid might be.

Then there's this illustration of some stormtroopers preparing to face the heroes:

There's a lot to love here, particularly the shields. I mean, sure, it is cool to see lightsabers as standard issue weaponry, but I really dig the shields they're carrying. It makes no sense, of course, but it looks awesome to me and it's one of those nonsensical esthetic choices that helps to ground the film in a fairy tale reality rather than anything more realistic.

Speaking of lightsabers, here's Vader facing off against a similarly armed opponent:

I love the fact that the other guy is wearing goggles and a breathing mask. That kind of stuff screams space opera.

And here's a group shot of the protagonists from a very version of the screenplay:

I distinctly remember that the Star Wars Fan Club sold a poster of this image in its early days. I never got it then, because, well, I was young and stupid and didn't see any point to a poster that had characters on it who weren't "real." Now, I kick myself for not having gotten one, because I find it really evocative. I get a clear "Star Wars vibe" from it, but it looks sufficiently unlike the actual film that I find it a lot easier to use it as a springboard for letting my mind wander so as to come up with new approaches to the basic ideas Lucas was playing with when he created his space fantasy.

And, yes, before anyone mentions this, I am aware that Hasbro released action figures based on the Mcquarrie concept art (a pity their subsidiary WotC couldn't be similarly broad-minded when it comes to D&D). If I had the money to spare, I'd probably try to acquire a few of these -- the stormtrooper at the very least. I don't usually indulge in such geekly man-child purchases, but I can't deny that these things really hit a sweet spot with me.

32 comments:

  1. Holy gooberastic transnerdia! I had no idea about these minis/figures. I'm very taken with them, and with the spirit of making them.

    I didn't have the art book, I had the portfolio of the same art presented in glossy letter-size 'prints.' I leafed through that for hours on end, my imagination spiraling to great heights. Thanks for the reminder of fond memories!

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  2. I remember when I picked up the old Galacta miniatures game (my very first minis rules) I noticed that the heroes and villains looked like they had been based on this art. They even had a Stormtrooper leader with a "laser sword".

    As to your difficulties in running your "own" SW setting I know what you mean. I played both as player and GM with some serious SW fans. They were the sort who own multiple suits of trooper armor and have hand-made replicas of weapons etc.

    These guys were the best and worst people to play Star Wars with. Fortunately, I was/am also pretty good with flexing the muscles of the Lucas-verse, but to other players less initiated, they could be real tools. Heck, I even caught flak a few times when I tried to expand the universe too far.

    It can be hard playing an RPG set in an iconic setting. I imagine there are D&D groups that are like this too, who get miffed if you play too fast and loose with Greyhawk or Forgotten Realms.

    -Eli

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  3. I must confess, however, that I'm glad they didn't go with Swamp Thing Chewbacca.

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  5. This is just conjecture here, but perhaps the shields would have served the same function as riot shields in today's world. The shields could help deflect laser bolts, which seem to down stormtroopers instantly, despite their armor.

    @Eli:
    I almost never play in published settings, because my first foray into that was Forgotten Realms (it had been out for a year or so), where a player took me to task because I didn't follow TSR's metaplot they had going. It didn't make him happy to hear that not only was I going by what was written in the campaign set but also in countless articles in Dragon by the Realm's creator, Ed Greenwood.

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  6. While I didn't own the Star Wars visual guide, much of this artwork was published in WEG's Star Wars books...I, too, in my immaturity thought it was "less cool" rather than celebrating it as an inspiration to the imagination.

    Sometimes it's nice to grow up.
    : )

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  7. Nice stuff, James. I'm not sure if this is part of what you mean by the more 'human-like' C3PO depicted above, but I remember first seeing C3PO when I was kid, and not being able to comprehend why all of his innards were showing. I never pictured anthropomorphic robots (as I called them with my exceptional 5-year-old's vocabulary) as being unfinished, or with the nuts and bolts and tubes and wiring showing. I was always trying to understand what the deal was with him, and fabricated all kinds of stories to explain what led him to this sorry state. So to me, even though I never really have liked the character, he always sort of agitated my thoughts on the Star Wars world.

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  8. C3PO's "innards" are more than likely a plausible diversion meant to distract you from the fact that it's a man in a costume.

    The picture with a hairless Chewbacca and Han Solo wielding a lightsaber has another interesting feature: a female Luke character. In the various drafts, Lucas toyed with having a female protagonist out to rescue her long lost brother who is held by the bad guys.

    The shields carried by the stormtroopers were brought back in the prequels and used by the Gungans.

    What all this shows is that George Lucas may drop ideas at one point, only to bring them back later in a different way -something all creative people should emulate. Just because it doesn't work now doesn't mean it won't work in the future.

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  9. I've always admired that painting of the lightsaber duel with the more sinister-looking Darth Vader. I think I first saw it in a large format magazine special that my parents bought for me in 1977 or 1978.

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  10. And even closer use of the shields comes in the Stars Wars: The Clone Wars TV series where Mandalorian security troopers walk around with them throughout the Mandalorian cities.

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  11. Thanks largely to your recent spat of posts on this, I too have been giving serious thought to a re-invisioned Star Wars for gaming purposes.

    The easy route is to take the rather obvious feudal japan influences to the next degree. Planetary systems and their resources being parts of Clan holdings (maybe Clan leaders are called Moffs or something); incessant Clan skirmishing (hence the 'Wars' part of the title), etc. Jedi can stay pretty much what they are: shinto priest/samurai. Just imagine each Clan with it's own personal army of stylized-armored stormtroopers (or battle droids or whatever floats their boat).

    Of course, there is that other major influence on Star Wars...Flash Gordon. Maybe you could take it more in that direction; each planet is already a single topology/climate (like the planet Mongo).

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  12. These are great. I would jump at playing in a Star Wars "Ralph McQuarrie Concept" campaign!

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  13. In a thread on ENW, I was informed yesterday that ballistic shields are commonly employed by modern Special Forces and the US Marine Corp!

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  14. There's a lot to love here, particularly the shields. I mean, sure, it is cool to see lightsabers as standard issue weaponry, but I really dig the shields they're carrying. It makes no sense, of course, but it looks awesome to me and it's one of those nonsensical esthetic choices that helps to ground the film in a fairy tale reality rather than anything more realistic.

    For similar reasons, I've always liked the way the Cylons in Battlestar Galactica carried short swords and bayonets.

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  16. Actually shields are still fairly useful even in the modern world. Its far easier to armor a shield to stop a modern bullet then any sort of body armor because a simple reason, the shield never has to flex, bend or twist. A shield might not help in an open field, but in an urban area or inside a building of sorts they could be definite life savers. And the Star Wars universe makes that even more true as there is a material that can short out a lightsaber blade. A layer of that over an ablative material that will stop the military grade blaster bolts that drop Stormtroopers and you have a solid setup for urban patrol.

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  17. I, despite the nice look of the prequels always end up re-imaging them. I guess I just love the stories that happen after the original movies with Han and Lei having Jasen, Jayda, and Anakin(named after Anakin). I personally always thought of the empire forming in the Past with a capital "P" and not under a couple decades ago. That just did not seem like enough time for all the things that they seem to find out about the Empire in the after movie books.

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  18. @Bigfella
    I'm not sure how early that picture is, but if it's early enough that swamp-critter might not be Chewie. Han Solo was originally conceived as an alien, and I think you will note he is missing from the picture.

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  19. My favorite alternate take on Star Wars: the steampunk and WWII action figures done up by Silof's Workshop: http://www.sillof.com/

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  20. The sillof versions of the Mcquarrie Star Wars are pretty good too: http://www.sillof.com/C-SW_mcq.htm

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  21. I like getting SW imagery from the novelization by George Lucas of A New Hope. The level of detail and the conjuring of images is masterful. Too bad he didn't have that same spark with the prequels.

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  22. I agree with the difficulty of running a SW rpg. I ran a Star Wars: Saga Edition game set in the Old Republic era not long ago, and it was one of the most difficult games I've ever ran. I just felt too much pressure trying to keep within the framework and time line of the established universe.

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  23. I've come to the conclusion that there are really 2 good ways to run a Star Wars campaign: Either say "Canon be damned" and set it in the world of the films, but let things diverge how they will, or take the imagery and broad themes of Star Wars and simply make a separate Star Wars universe of your own design with lightsabers, blasters, Sith, etc. that takes place in an undefined galactic era. (The second is roughly reminiscent of what Bioware did with Knights of the Old Republic, which is one of the greatest works set in the Star Wars universe.)

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  24. Everybody go get the art book for Episode III. It's beautiful, and the potential stories that emerge from some of the earlier pieces of art are a window into all that you imagine a movie called Revenge of the Sith should've been.

    It also shows, like Doug Drexler's blog, that regardless of what the writers may be failing to do, the art department usually loves the idea of playing in these worlds and what they mean to them.

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  25. I like getting SW imagery from the novelization by George Lucas of A New Hope. The level of detail and the conjuring of images is masterful. Too bad he didn't have that same spark with the prequels.

    That's more easy to understand when you realize that this novel was written by Alan Dean Foster, not George Lucas...

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  26. For those of you who love McQuarrie's work, a cheap an inexpensive way to get a lot of his stuff is to buy the movie trading card sets (remember those? 8) from ESB and ROTJ. They included a lot of cards of McQuarrie's conecptual art, as I recall (well, I know one of the three ESB movie sets did). You should be able to get these from any card collecting store pretty cheap (I know one near my parents' place had the sets for less that $20 a piece at one time... since it was I who sold them said sets 8).

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  27. @Evan
    Swamp Thing Han Solo is even more Do Not Want!

    On the plus side he probably wouldn't have been bothered by the odor of the tauntauns...

    Scruffy lookin' nerf herder indeed...

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  28. I do recall a book I received as a gift titled "Robots", which claimed that the robot from Metropolis was "the evil grandmother of C3PO."

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  29. Actually, from what I've read, that *is* a *bearded* Han with the lightsaber and flowing cape (and headband? - LOL). And the Swamp Thing in question is just a more *equipped* Chewie in an early design concept form. I absolutely LOVE the McQuarrie art! Some of my favorite illos.

    Oh, and yep, as someone has noted, Luke was a *girl* in a real early vision.

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  30. Do the movies ever say that the beam weapons are shooting lasers? The beams clearly move at less than light speed, and wasn't there a scene where a robot was hit with a beam, and it didn't damage the metal, but just seemed to 'stun' it for a while? Given that, shields made out of the same metal as robots might make sense.

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  31. the official PSB behind blasters in SW is that they are "packets" of energy hurtled at the targets. There are other energy types used too such as the Jawa droid blasters, droid poper grenades and the stun settings on the blasters.

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  32. Nice. I always loved how the early Star Wars art never resembled the finished product...I could not understand it as a kid...who wanted to see more Starships and cool clothes (like the Stormtroopers costume or Leia's outfit on my girlfriend). But, clearly this different vibe was eventually all recycled into the films anyhow.

    The strange thing is the original Lucas plan was to do a 9 hour epic telling the tale of Anakin but the studio execs persuaded George that his ideas were good but not that good. I suspect if Lucas ever did make that 9hr film...it would flop as it would be so expensive, it could never recoup the cost...and the audience would have lost interest in 1977 and not wanted to sit through it all.

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