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Jay Shuster – Hardware Designer
Originally hired as a temporary storyboard artist for Episode I, Jay Shuster quickly made his mark in the art department. Staying aboard as a concept artist, Shuster meshed together the strong influence Star Wars has always had on his work together with his own obsession with purposeful, crisply-defined designs, to create original hardware for the new chapter of the Star Wars story.
Born into a family of artists, Shuster studied product design in Detroit, at the Center for Creative Studies College of Art Design. Once his training was complete, Shuster was hired by Alias/Wavefront in Toronto to work on the prototype of a digital sketching software, which allows computer artists to draw as intuitively as they would with pen and paper. Shuster then moved on to another company, Magic Edge Inc., a manufacturer of high-tech flight-simulators and entertainment centers with enclosed pods moved around by hydraulics to simulate the movements of a plane. “We designed the interior of one of the entertainment centers to make it look like the inside of a battleship,” says Shuster. “It was a good time.” Then he took at job at Rocket Science Games in San Francisco, and did storyboarding as well as concept designs for a computer graphic adventure game. After working on the game for one year, Shuster left to work as a freelancer for a few months, and try to maneuver closer to the job he had come to California for. His next step was Lucasfilm.
“My being hired by Doug Chiang was very informal,” begins Shuster. Back in 1995, Shuster was introduced to Chiang, head of the Art Department for Episode I, by a friend who worked at Industrial Light & Magic. The meeting was quite casual. Chiang was interested in seeing Shuster’s portfolio, and more short impromptu meetings and phone calls followed. Little by little, Shuster built a relationship with Chiang, showing him his work, and hoping his talent would shine through. “I didn’t harass him,” says Shuster with a laugh, “but I was persistent.” His patience and determination finally paid off. In Spring of 1996, Shuster was told his name was on the roster for Episode I. “I was so excited!” he says. “I still remember my exact start date: April 15th.”
At first, Chiang hired Shuster as a storyboard artist, and just for a period of two weeks. But it soon became clear that it would be a waste to let Shuster go. So Chiang asked Shuster, after ten days of his storyboarding Episode I, to stay aboard and do concept work. “I was six when I decided I wanted to end up working on the Star Wars universe,” says Shuster. “So a huge goal had been realized. It felt like the planets were aligning.”
Just like the other concept artists, Shuster used the numerous concept drawings and paintings already completed by Chiang as guidelines, but at the same time he was given a lot of leeway and creative freedom. “Doug is a very hands-off type of supervisor,” Shuster says. “He’s there to guide you and help you, but he keeps the supervision at a minimum. He has faith in his people, and he trusts them.” For Shuster, this was the ideal work environment: a quiet office, a friendly ambiance, and a very productive team. “All the personalities of the artists meshed together, and this is a credit to Doug,” says Shuster. “He has an eye for choosing team members who will work well together.”
Shuster’s first big assignment was to design Podracers that would complete the racing lineup under development in the Art Department. Podracers are extremely high-speed vehicles seen in one of the main action sequences of Episode I. Using directions from George Lucas as a basis, Shuster began creating several of the vehicles, while trying, as he usually does, to give his alien designs a familiar feel. To this end, Shuster likes to take the familiar and turn it on its head. “I’ve always practiced the concept of twisting the perceptions people have of their world,” he says. “To see something in a different light, to assign to an object a function or a purpose that otherwise people wouldn’t have seen…I’ve made it an integral part of my design process to stretch the patterns of the commonplace.” Shuster takes this philosophy to heart even at home. “I like to create my own environment,” he says. “There’s always a project going on to change the way something looks and works. I keep trying to change my perspective, and use an object in a way that was not originally intended.”
A big Star Wars fan, Shuster found his work was always influenced by the classic Trilogy. “These movies were so greatly designed by Ralph McQuarrie, Joe Johnston, and many others,” he says. “Everything was so innovative, so off the beaten path. It left quite an impression on me. The designs in Star Wars, in broad strokes, were very clean and simple with rational details that made them believable…it wasn’t at all a gratuitous display of generic space garbage. I get very tired of looking at car renderings coming out of Detroit that have eight hundred high-lights all over the car and a paint job that reflects a pin-head at 500 yards. That’s not reality. I want to see an illustration of real life in Detroit: a brand-new Lincoln Navigator spattered in dried, salty mud and stuck in a 3- foot pot-hole on Woodward avenue with a broken sewer-line spewing noxious material around piles of month-old, jet-black snow.”
Among Shuster’s many interests, airplanes presently loom large. “Recently, aeronautical engineering has caught my eye,” says Shuster. “It is some of the most stringently intricate and purposeful design on the planet, and yet it commands an aesthetic that, to me, is beautiful beyond all modern definitions.” This passion for aircraft design has led Shuster to include new elements into the constant redefinition of his living space. “I discovered a vintage airplane scrap yard in Oakland,” Shuster says, “and I have since used these amazing parts as structure for furniture around the house. I built a dining room table out of wing-tips from an airplane, the chairs around it out of other parts…I even built a bed!”
Shuster didn’t develop his construction skills overnight. “I grew up an avid model- builder,” he says. “LEGOs, plastic kits and Estes model rockets, all of those left an indelible impression on me, and defined the way I like to design: hands-on.” His work on Episode I gave Shuster plenty of opportunities to physically interact with his concepts, as opposed to keeping them confined to paper until the design is completely finished. “I love working with an actual model,” says Shuster. “My designs continue to evolve after they leave the page: I add a part here, cut out another there, and keep shaping the model until I’m satisfied.”
This model-building activity was, for Shuster, one of the most satisfying aspects of working on Episode I. “Almost all of my previous jobs kept me in the digital realm,” he says. “When you do designs for projects like computer games, you rarely see any of your creations take physical form.” Although there are numerous digital effects in the new Star Wars movie, real models are still used, sometimes even built as full-size replicas. One of these full-size models was Anakin’s Podracer, as conceived by Shuster. “It was a blast to see my design become real,” says Shuster with a twinkle in his eye.
The numerous Episode I items Shuster designed include several other Podracers (including the one piloted by the underhanded racer Sebulba), most of the Podracers pilots’ outfits, weaponry like the Battle Droid blaster rifle, the hangar of Theed palace (where the Royal Naboo Starfighters await combat), starship hallways and corridors where a lot of the action scenes of Episode I take place, and countless items that define the Star Wars ambiance, like spaceship landing gear and boarding ramps, light fixtures, and other set-dressing elements. All this work began with concept direction from George Lucas, who has been closely involved with the design of Episode I. Under the guidance of Doug Chiang, Shuster focused creativity on his assignments and turned Lucas’ concepts and imaginary environments into specific sketches and designs. When Shuster’s work reached approval by Chiang and finally George Lucas, the evolution moved on to the next stage. Shuster turned his designs over to other members of the production team: set builders, model makers, and ILM’s digital artists. “I didn’t lose sleep over ILM working on digital versions of my designs, because they’re so close to us,” says Shuster. “The leap of faith came when the full-size sets and vehicles were being built in London, on the other side of the galaxy. Of course modifications were made: the small piece of hardware welded to such and such’s Podracer didn’t look exactly like my drawing, and all of that. Too bad…but life goes on…and when that thing passes in front of the camera for 3 seconds on film, you could care less. And in the end it looks great!”
As much as he likes to explore new territories and expand the boundaries of his work, Jay Shuster wants his designs to connect directly with their viewers. Through his dedication to purposeful and functional designs that keep in touch with everyday elements, Shuster makes sure that the foreign environments he creates don’t become too alien. Still, innovation is de rigueur in everything he does. “I really like to experiment with textures, alien technology, ships, and things that go fast in general,” says Shuster. “I guess I’m in the right place.”