This interview was originally published on September 10, 2019, at the now-defunct website The Wookiee Gunner. Parts of the article were updated after it was transferred over to Radical Grid.
Fans often look to the future for what’s new and upcoming in Star Wars, but one of my favorite things to do is to look back and flesh things out before moving onto the next big thing. That’s why I reached out to Lucasfilm and Art Director Amy Beth Christenson last year before the second season of Star Wars Resistance started because I was curious about some of the artistic choices behind the first season.
Christenson talked about the lessons learned from past animated shows, working with CGCG and Polygon Pictures, Torra’s poster designs, and more.
During the early stages of Star Wars Resistance, the team developed the anime-like visual style and moved forward with a CG cel-shaded technique to capture that look. Out of curiosity, what other styles and animation techniques were discussed or attempted at that time?
Dave Filoni was very interested in one particular style, so it was always going to be cel-shaded 3D models, with more exaggerated animation. Knowing what he had in mind, the show supervisors and myself set up some early prototyping and tests to see how far we could push the look and animation. I feel like these tests helped us to progress very quickly, and with all of the disciplines collaborating, we helped find ways to visually tie everything together as well as develop a highly efficient production pipeline.
In developing a CG cel-shaded series, what were some obstacles the team came across or lessons the team learned throughout the process?
The only real problem-solving happened in the very early days, working together with all of the supervisors in order to get the results that we were all looking for. Knowing how the shaders would work on the final 3D assets allowed the designers to draw and paint 1-to-1 for the final look once production started. For example, most people, even on the team, can’t guess which image is a concept design and which is a final asset render.
The character designs always kept in mind the animation team needs and allowed for the highly exaggerated poses and expressions. Design also continually made every effort to know exactly the behavior of the shaders and the outlines, to make sure that a final look would be achieved with lighting. The pre-production work and testing done by the supervising team was essential to make sure that everything would lead toward the same look and goal.
Tell us more about how the Lucasfilm Animation department works closely with CGCG and Polygon Pictures to help create the series.
Before production started, the team knew that we would be working with both CGCG and Polygon Pictures for the show. We worked with both companies very early on to help develop the working pipeline for the show and make sure that the final look was achieved.
In fact, a group of concept artists from Polygon Pictures were among the first to work on the project, delivering early key art and some early studies for characters, vehicles, and droids for the pitch of the show. Many of those early PPI designs made it into the show, eventually becoming the new T-85 X-wings, Yeager, Bolza Grool, and the ‘baby droid’ LE-12, to name a few.
There’s a variety of characters walking around the Colossus more so than in the backgrounds of Lothal in Star Wars Rebels, for example. What were some lessons or experiences you and the team learned from Rebels and The Clone Wars that you brought over to Resistance?
Background characters were something that I felt particularly strongly about. With the other shows, you could use just a few models several times in one scene because most shots needed much larger and more generic crowds. Since Resistance was going to take place on one self-contained base, I wanted to avoid seeing the same character multiple times in one scene, as it would be more noticeable to the viewers. It needed to have more of a feel of Jabba’s palace, the Mos Eisley cantina, or Maz’s castle. Diverse and unique.
We were able to achieve this thanks to having more pre-production time beforehand. We used the time to design more characters (particularly background characters) and to start building them. In fact, we had pages of characters drawn even before the first writer’s conference. Without that extra bit of pre-production work, background characters would have had to be added in per episode, as time allowed. Trying to add them in per episode can be limiting and difficult, since each episode can have so many other assets to design and build, often more important than background characters. I’m very happy we were able to add in so many diverse characters into the show. I think that it really helped to add to the Star Wars feel of the Colossus.
You’ve mentioned before how Torra’s your favorite and how you put some of yourself into that character. What are some other examples in which you or other artists drew inspiration from personal sources that helped inform character designs in the show?
I feel like this happens quite a bit on Resistance, that the artists put something of their own story into all of the designs. Everything living in the Colossus and every corner of the sets needs to have a bit of personality, so the artists have more opportunity to add things into each design. Early on, the design team developed a kind of approach in that everything in the show would look entirely unique and have a story to it. While I can’t speak to any specific examples for the other artists, I do know that all of the designers continually do a great job of keying in on the overall vibe of the characters and sets that make up the show. There are a couple of really great examples coming up in Season 2 to look out for!
Aaron Pham did the layout of Torra’s room, but you designed the poster art. One of Torra’s posters features Sabine’s starbird. Could you tell us more about the decision behind including that in her room?
Dave Filoni suggested adding Sabine’s artwork to Torra’s room, and it fits with her colorful and somewhat rebellious personality. Otherwise, her room needed to look like a fancy apartment (located in the central tower) and decorated to fit her personality. I was reminded of my own college dorm room — video games, action figures, model kits, and stuffed animals all crowded around. Aaron did a great job of coming up with all sorts of set decoration that was perfect for that. For the other posters, I wanted to focus more on her love of racing, so there are posters of her racer, speederbikes, and the Boonta Eve Classic.
Commander Pyre is one of my favorite characters because he’s not your ordinary trooper. It’s also fascinating how we haven’t seen the faces of some of these masked villains. I know you designed him in his gold armor, but did you also create a face for Pyre? If not, what do you imagine he looks like? How would you describe him?
I only had one initial sketch (not even in color) that had the silhouette of a bare head. It was one option in a lineup of many that we showed to Dave Filoni very early on. He was very keen on never showing his face, so I ended up only designing the full armor/helmet version. I like the mystery, and have not tried to imagine what he looks like.
It’s interesting how the back of Neeku’s head has a helmet-like device, and unlike the others, he wears a Fireball uniform. What was the reasoning behind those design choices? Because I have a personal theory he was a Fireball pilot once who suffered a terrible accident.
From the design perspective, Neeku was part of the early pages of studies for mechanics and ‘pit crews’ for the racers. His helmet as well as his outfit and colors were a nod to flight deck crews on aircraft carriers. His adding a Fireball logo to his uniform was a design choice to help show that he was very proud and loyal to the Fireball team (and Yeager). Tam, although another member of Team Fireball, has more in common with the other mechanics you see on the base, including the patch that designates particular skill and level.
I know you can’t say much about the upcoming season, but what were some highlights when it came to designing and working in a post-The Force Awakens timeline?
It’s been great designing all of the new locations and characters that the Colossus will be running into over the course of the next season, now that the platform is in space! I’m very excited about some of these, and can’t wait to share the stories for those designs!
The first season of Star Wars Resistance is available on Disney+ and the second season is currently available on DisneyNOW.