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Designing Personality: An Interview with Jay Shuster
March 22, 2001 – Jay Shuster was brought aboard the Episode I Art Department for what was supposed to be a temporary stint as a storyboard artist. Based on the strength of his design skills, Design Director Doug Chiang made him a permanent member of the team. After a break following The Phantom Menace’s completion, Shuster returned to the third floor of Skywalker Ranch’s Main House, as a member of the Episode II Art Department.
“Doug has assembled a group that is really synchronized,” says Shuster. “I believe it was his desire to keep the Episode I group intact because of that harmony. It was a guarantee, of sorts, that I was coming back.”
“Jay is a very refreshing talent that I originally brought aboard to storyboard the Podrace in Episode I,” says Chiang. “He has a very strong ability to render mechanical shapes and environments. He has a feel and a flair for mechanical objects. Once the storyboards started to slow down I gave him more designs and he’s now become one of the key vehicle and hard surface designers.”
Returning back to the world of concept design, Shuster’s first assignment played to his strengths — designing hardware and architecture with a sense of personality and character.
“The first thing on Episode II, Doug said, ‘start working on this,'” recounts Shuster. The “this” in question, though still veiled in Episode II secrecy, is a weapon of sorts that helps decide a critical battle, the first generation of a tool to be seen later on in the series. “It follows the formula for a lot of the prequel trilogy,” says the artist. “Take something pre-conceived in the existing trilogy and de-generate it.”
As with the entire Art Department, Shuster diligently produces multiple iterations of each design, putting a great deal of detail into work that will potentially be rejected. “We learn to keep our emotional ties to the work at a minimum ,” explains Shuster. “At times you wonder why a design isn’t being used as it was intended from the beginning. You eventually realize the kinetic nature of George [Lucas]’s and within that realm you can still satisfy your desire for great art and design. My whole experience here has been great. Doug likes my designs and George is is very open to what we have to say in our drawings.”
After his designs have been approved, they are then handed over to one of the talented concept model-makers who recreates the design as a small but detailed plastic model.
“It’s great to be able to interact with the modeler as they’re building it, to see it evolve” says Shuster.The 3-D modeling process adds another layer of personality on top of what I designed into the object. The design will, almost always, gain a little extra alien or other-worldly appeal when translated through different eyes. Seing it in the final cut, on the screen, is what I look forward to.”
For Episode II, among his designs that Shuster will see on the big screen are a number of architectural ones.
“Episode I was so action packed, we rarely had to opportunity to stop and look around at the amazing environments and sets,” says Shuster. “In Episode II, we get a chance to peer into and get involved with the lives of their characters and their personal dwellings and spaces. I’ve always loved architecture. As a kid, it was one of my first aspirations in the realm of design.”
From his architectural sketches came models that were then translated into full-size set pieces by Gavin Bocquet’s crew, or digital extensions to be composited into blue and green-screen footage by Industrial Light & Magic.
“I enjoyed working on Padmé’s bachelorette pad on Coruscant,” says Shuster, picking out a favorite design. “There are Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired forms throughout. There are majestic spaces and sweeping archways. You’ll see a lot of sky, filtered sunlight and the dense cityscape beyond. The designs also tell us about Padmé’s lifestyle. We interpret who the character is through the space they live in, and the various articles with which they surround themselves.”
To lend authenticity to a character’s surroundings, Shuster crafts backstories in his head to ensure his designs have personality. “It’s similar to the design of the Podrace vehicles, graphics and color schemes in respect to creating a persona for the characters that raced them. I was imagining what this alien was thinking when they designed this Podracer. My hopes are that this movie is a bit grittier, perhaps, showing a more human side to the characters and environments that the audience can relate to.”