Article re-posted from May 26, 2014
Monday-morning; every morning before work I go through a selection of sites in an attempt to expand my archives. Last week I ran into a collection of Ralph McQuarrie concept art illustrations for Star Wars, which I’d seen before, but a long time ago.
For the ones interested: http://www.juxtapoz.com/current/original-star-wars-concept-illustrations-by-ralph-mcquarrie
Anyways, in my opinion one of the things that Ralph showed the design world, is that concept-art and design are about creating extremely memorable shapes. His designs were recognizable way beyond the movies; they ’embedded themselves into main stream culture’ as even a rough napkin doodle would be enough for most people to see ‘this is an X-wing’.
Normally in order to ensure your designs obtain acceptance by a wide audience you’d need to design something that is remotely similar to things people know from the real world (cars, planes, ships, etc.) yet Ralph’s most popular Star Wars designs had little aerodynamic equivalent in the real world. The most extreme example is for example the Tie Fighter, as it looks nothing like anything we know and so the audience literally needs to ‘learn this vehicle’ let alone feel a natural acceptance for it.
This is an enormous risk, one which very little designers would have the ability to do in today’s flooded market, as the goal nowadays is to reduce complexity and ‘simplify as much as possible’ (easy to learn..), at which point using ‘what people already know’ to reduce the learning curve becomes almost a must. This is because you only have ‘seconds to appeal to an audience’, almost like a billboard; requiring patience for the mainstream market is very risky, as there’s a thousand competitors fighting for only a few seconds of their time.
For me this brings about an interesting thought in that I wonder if it was just the right timing back in the 70s, in that there was little (compared to today) competition for people’s attention, or would these designs have worked in today’s world just as well? I’d like to think the latter as I’m such a fan.
At ISOTX we had a similar internal discussion regarding airship designs; the airships I directed the artists to design were based on World War 2 battleships, as can be seen below:
Yet when we were making Iron Grip: Marauders, we needed airships that fitted ‘pirates’ and so ‘clean industrial-made airships’ weren’t fitting for that concept; what we wanted was similar to what ‘Pirates of the Caribbean‘ did with the pirate-ships in that they felt organically adjusted. An important key-phrase was ‘Mad Max in the Sky!’.
The result was this:
While cool-looking in concept-art form, the designs didn’t translate well to 3D, as we noticed when creating ‘Sky Corsair‘; the silhouettes weren’t recognizable and players felt ‘weird insect-like creatures’ were attacking them. Arguably we went too far to alienate from the basic ‘blimp’ shape, and perhaps with a more recognizable ‘blimp-like-basis’ or ‘battleship-appearance’ this might not have gone down that way.
Its a good example on how difficult it is to work out innovative takes on established genre’s while sticking to what your target audience knows, can relate to and can easily grasp in video-game form. Whether a good shape-design or not, the risk we took was clear in that had this worked, the unique take on the genre would mean people would forever associate it with your IP, making it stand out from the competition. This is where Ralph was able to shine, and the respect one must have for his artistic skills.
Either way, regardless of whether or not the ‘strangeness of the shapes’ in some of Ralphs designs could still work well in today’s mainstream sci-fi blockbuster settings, what is still a strong message to all concept-artists and illustrators today; focus on shape first, block it out in 3D first if you can, perhaps even make it in LEGO or clay, but whatever the case; focus on the shape first, then detailing/coloring, as aside from the case listed above; if you are lucky enough to find yourself in the movie-business one day, your designs will get a whole new angle and set of prerequisites; ‘how applicable are they for merchandising?’...
/end monday-morning rant :)