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Every Line Counts – An Interview with Concept Artist Kun Chang
The Art Department that envisioned many of the designs of Episode I was not wholly located at Skywalker Ranch. There was a second team of concept artists across the Atlantic, working in England under Production Designer Gavin Bocquet. One of these artists was Kun Chang.
Separated by an ocean but connected by modern communications technology, the two teams worked together to craft the fantastic far away worlds. “We were always very impressed with the things that came from America,” says Kun. “When I started, I actually had a different drawing style. But Gavin gave me a drawing by Doug Chiang and said ‘Can you do this?’ In the end my drawing style became similar to the U.S. Art Department.”
Born in Denmark, Chang has lived in England, Germany and San Francisco. His schooling has included the Royal College of Arts in London and the California College of Arts and Crafts. He has worked in advertising and graphic design. His path into the motion picture industry wasn’t as obvious as some might think.
“My father was a nuclear scientist and he wanted me to become a nuclear scientist, of course,” explains Kun. “When I was about 15 I met a friend from Germany and he was a big fan of Star Wars. It really changed his life. He said he wanted to do films and everything and I just thought ‘Yeah, that sounds fun.'”
“I saw the second one first, The Empire Strikes Back,” says Chang. “My father took me to see it in a completely empty Danish cinema which was huge and I was really blown away. I think I saw the first one on video actually, but the second one made a huge impression on me. At that point I hadn’t really thought I was going to do cinema or anything because I thought I was going to be an engineer. But people used to see me drawing and they would always say, ‘Well you know what you want to do, don’t you?'”
Even though he had been working as a concept artist and illustrators on films for a while, including such movies as The Fifth Element, Chang’s involvement in Episode I came about almost by accident.
“I had a documentary that I wanted to direct and I went to England to see if I could get it done,” recounts Kun. “As part of that I went into the Royal College because my old teacher asked me to come in and show my work from the last year so the students could see what I had done. I wasn’t really that keen on working on another film, but I showed my portfolio and Tony Wright was there and he was teaching them. We went for lunch and then I said ‘Ah, there’s one film I would love to work on, that would be Star Wars.’ My teacher just said, ‘Well, actually,Tony is working on Star Wars. Are you still interested?'”
Chang had actually heard rumors that a new film was in the works, and that it was coming to England. Just in case, he had started some preparations to his portfolio. “I made sure my final project for my degree at the Royal College of Art was a science fiction project,” says Chang.
After revealing his interest in the project, Kun got Gavin Bocquet’s phone number from Tony Wright, another UK concept artist on Episode I. “I called him up and Gavin was very positive and everything.” Time passed, and more of Kun’s past acquaintances from The Fifth Element were beaming about landing positions on The Phantom Menace.
“I was like ‘Ah great, I haven’t got the job,” sighs Chang. “And then when I had given up the hope and I was about to start all kinds of other things I got a call from California one evening and it was Gavin saying I got it. It was a big surprise.”
Once work started, Kun was given a degree of flexibility in his designs that let him explore numerous approaches to a subject. “I was given a lot of freedom and I really enjoyed that. Gavin would give me like a list of things that had to be designed and he would just expect like five, six drawings of each. He would just send them over to America and then they would come back with the ‘OK’ stamps or not at all.”
“We were all working on the Podracers when I first started. There were some people who came in for a couple of weeks and they were just apprentices and they were doing kit-bashing. So, it was very free for everyone to join in then and make something,” Kun recounts. The enthusiasm did occasionally spill over into a form of rivalry between the two Art Departments. “Every time we sent something off we thought, ‘this is better than anything we’ve seen from those guys in America,'” jokes Chang. “And then over time there would come a pack back from America that was like really stunning and we’d just go ‘Wow!'”
Occasionally changes have to be made when a two-dimensional sketch is transformed into a three-dimensional sculpture. “When I did a full-scale model of Anakin’s Podracer in foamboard, we discovered that the way the handlebars were designed, his hands would cover his face. We changed that, so that’s why the handles swing outwards towards the top,” says Chang.
At times, the distance between the Art Departments did hamper communications. “I spent two weeks designing handguns for the Gungans only to be told they don’t use guns,” recalls Kun.
With new direction, Kun began developing the more exotic Gungan weaponry – the atlatls and cestas used to hurl balls of plasmic energy. Early in the design stage, the Gungan would use these weapons to create the energy balls much like a glassblower would.
When the decision was made craft the interior of the Royal Starship in England, Chang was part of the design team that tackled that particular challenge. “I got the job of doing all the initial models and to come up with the interior designs. I spent a lot of time doing models as well as drawings.”
“The American Art Department designed the exterior of the Queen’s ship, and we’d design the interior, except the cockpit. Gavin gave me like all the models of the ship to work off of. It was really hard because I just had an empty shape, and I knew George Lucas had done a really rough drawing where he had put a little kind of circle, and that was where Padmé was going to be. And that was where the handmaidens were going to be, and so on,” describes Kun.
The Queen’s ship underwent some early changes. “There was originally a reception room which was supposed to be at the back of the ship where it’s kind of round,” says Chang. “There was supposed to be a window so you could look into space. However, there was no corresponding window when you see the spaceship from the outside. From the outside it’s all metal and chrome. So it was decided to take the window away.”
Aside from the various interior rooms of the ship, Chang also designed the slotted T-14 hyperdrive generator that is the cause of such consternation for our heroes. With a design quite different from the utilitarian nature of previously seen starship innards, the T-14 could almost pass as a wall-hanging, so artistically elaborate is its surface.
Many of Chang’s designs were of so-called “action props,” gadgets and devices actually held and used by the actors. Chang helped ensure that a Jedi Knight was always well equipped. His sketches include Jedi utility belts, breather masks, and holoprojectors.
“One idea for the breathers that everyone loved – but ultimately wasn’t used – was that Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon were going to pick up a kind of jellyfish and place it over their faces which would enable them to breathe underwater,” reveals Kun.
The Jedi props — the holoprojector particularly — had to have a certain elegance to them, to be associated with such a noble order. “I think that was kind of hard,” admits Chang. “I saw everything that was Jedi-like as being tiny and more jewel-like. Kind of like a Chinese artifact or something. Not clunky like everything else is in Star Wars. The few items that a Jedi walks around with would be beautiful items.”
While chance played a role on his joining Episode I, another accident cut Kun Chang’s work short. A herniated disk caused him to leave the production early. Still, he managed to make many important contributions to The Phantom Menace. Now recovered, he continues to work on other film projects. His favorite memories from the Star Wars experience come from seeing something imagined come to life and be realized in three-dimensions.
“It was a real rush to walk into the final set and see every little detail of the drawing translated into reality,” says Kun. “Even little doodles which I hadn’t really given much thought had been turned into handles or screws — seeing something like that really makes you aware of how every line counts once it has been accepted. That was really amazing.”