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Gavin Bocquet: Building A Galaxy Board By Board
For Star Wars: Episode I, Production Designer Gavin Bocquet faced the usual challenges of turning ideas and concept art into three-dimensional sets. But the size and complexity of Episode I, with its many otherworldly environments, presented Bocquet and his team with some extraordinary challenges too. Many of the environments in Star Wars: Episode I had to be created in the studio as sets, since nothing like them exists anywhere on Earth. Building these otherworldly places and making them real for the camera was Bocquet’s job.
“Generally my role is to produce any constructed background that you see behind the actors, whether it’s an in-studio set or on location, including props and set dressing. In short, we deal with any inanimate objects,” Bocquet says. All together, he and the designers and crafts people who work with him built around 55 sets. “About 40 of those were constructed on the stages at Leavesden and the rest were on location,” he adds.
Bocquet himself designed some of the sets, but in most cases he was responsible for bringing to life the elaborate designs of Doug Chiang (Director of Concept Design) and his team. Bocquet would turn Art Department renderings into construction diagrams, figuring out how to build in wood and plaster the fantastic worlds spun from imagination.
The Production Designer also got lots of guidance from George Lucas and Producer Rick McCallum. “George had been thinking about this project for years, and he and the concept art staff had been working together for many months before I signed on. As on most films, our job was to interpret the director’s ideas and convert them into some sort of visual form,” Bocquet says.
Bocquet has considerable experience working for Lucas and McCallum. He was Production Designer for the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, for which he received an Emmy Award. He also has ties to the original Star Wars Trilogy, having been an art department draftsman on Return of the Jedi. His feature film production design experience includes Radioland Murders and Kafka, among his other credits.
On some film projects, final sets can change dramatically in appearance from the way they are first visualized by an artist because of issues of cost, time or design impracticalities. But on Episode I it has been more a matter of subtle changes as sets approached the construction stage. “The development of every environment was sort of an organic process,” Bocquet says. “Using early sketches and foam-core models, reference or location photos and just sharing ideas, the process moved along until we got something much more defined.”
One challenge was to determine in advance just how much of a set should be built on stage and how much would later be done digitally by Industrial Light & Magic. “Since we’re producing one part of the film before digital work is underway, we all had to make assumptions about what we should build and what could be achieved at ILM,” Bocquet says.
Another unusual aspect of working on sets for Episode I is that many could be left standing for planned further use after the completion of phase I principal photography, since Lucasfilm has a long-term lease at Leavesden Studios. “Normally studios are expected to clear out one group of sets and get the next film right in to pay the rent,” Bocquet says. “But it’s a great advantage to Lucasfilm, because it has tied up the studio for a longer period of time, to be able to leave sets up to come back and shoot newly-written bits and pieces if necessary.”
When asked if there’s a single set or even a specific room for Episode I that he’s most proud of, Bocquet grins. “No, and I’ve been asked that question a few times,” he says. “There are five or six major environments that are totally different from each other. And even the smallest set can provide its own satisfaction. It’s not just about scale or things being unusual. Generally, it’s the whole lot of them together that provides the greatest satisfaction.
“Actually, a better time to ask that question would be after we’ve all seen the film. Because until then, we’re never quite sure what’s going to be seen and what isn’t,” Bocquet adds.
The designer points out that even with wildly unusual environments, Lucas likes them to relate to environments that are familiar to the audience. “So we’ll come up with geographical or environmental things like forests or deserts, or architectural styles that are known such as classical or art nouveau-things that give the audience some sort of key. If you try to design something completely in the abstract, something not of this world, there’s less chance that the audience will believe in it. They need to have something to latch on to, even if it’s subconsciously.”
Working with location filming was fairly similar to doing the sets at Leavesden, Bocquet says. “There’s obviously the geographical distance and the communications problems that entails, meaning you can’t get back the information as quickly and as visually as you’d like. So you have to delegate and trust the people you employ to use a lot of their own creativity. I was only in Tunisia once every two or three weeks when the sets were being built.”
The timing of the location shoot was arranged mid-way through the filming schedule, partly to give the production crew at Leavesden a chance to dismantle some of the first wave of sets there and build the second wave in their place. “Since there was only one or two days of shooting on many of the sets, without that break it would have been impossible to get all the sets built-even though Leavesden is a very large studio. One advantage of that size was that we were able to prefabricate a lot of the second group of sets away from the stages where they would be shot.”
Many of the decisions regarding camera angles and specific areas of the sets to shoot were made in discussions as the sets were designed. Sometimes, however, Lucas would decide to shoot from different angles. “Filmmaking and design aren’t fixed sciences,” Bocquet says. “Everything must be as flexible as possible, and you just have to be prepared to get as close as possible to the shot that the director wants.”
Doing a film such as Episode I is a constant learning experience, Bocquet says. “Every day there’s something to learn, whether it’s dealing with a tiny screw and trying to decide which head it should have on it, to the conceptualizing, planning, scheduling and the economics,” he adds. “If you’re not always learning something then your job probably isn’t quite as interesting as it should be.”