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Reinventing a Galaxy Far, Far Away: Kevin Jenkins on Designing ‘The Last Jedi’

From preproduction through postproduction, design supervisor Kevin Jenkins helps safeguard the visual language of the Star Wars universe for the eighth episode in the iconic franchise.

The Star Wars franchise is 38 years old in real time, and almost the same age inside the myth. Luke Skywalker was 19 going on 20 when Episode IV, the first Star Wars film, released in 1977. He turned 53 for this year’s Episode VIII, Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Time has passed, and a second generation of characters including Kylo Ren, Princess Leia’s son, and Rey, of unknown parentage, carry on the battle between the First Order and the Resistance. To help ensure that the ships they pilot and the planets they visit perpetuate the myth, Lucasfilm turned to design supervisor Kevin Jenkins.

Jenkins was the first artist to work with director Rian Johnson on Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and the last artist to paint a shot. For three-and-a-half years, he drew concept art, designed spaceships and sets, built physical models, did live action art direction, and created matte paintings in postproduction. All the while, he helped safeguard the visual language for this eighth episode in the Star Wars franchise, from preproduction through postproduction.

“I have a weird job,” Jenkins says. “Most films hire a production designer who hires an artist. But, Star Wars has a rather unique process, different from other films. It’s more complicated because of its aesthetic and because we have a long history working in the universe that George (Lucas) and Ralph (McQuarrie) created. For example, most of the vehicles have been designed by ILM over 40 years. There needs to be a continuity and consistency with the franchise, so while on a show I carry that flag for Star Wars and Lucasfilm.”

Jenkins was working as a live action art director on Episode 7, J. J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens, when he first met Jedi director Rian Johnson at a breakfast meeting. “Rian pitched the story to me, and I did a couple pictures for him right then,” he says. “Using artwork was the easiest way to carry on the discussion.”

He went on to create 10 images and ideas for what could happen on the island. “But, Rian asked, ‘Could you try a red crystal planet covered in salt ?’” Jenkins says. “So, I did that concept art, and Rian said, ‘Yeah, that will work.’”

After completing his stint on The Force Awakens, Jenkins moved straight on to The Last Jedi. There, he spent approximately 15 months in preproduction, six months in production, and a year or so in post.

“Kevin was a huge part of the design,” says Ben Morris, who was overall supervisor for Return of the Jedi, and is the Creative Director at ILM’s London studio. “Kevin works for me at ILM London, but on these films, he takes a sabbatical and works for Lucasfilm directly. He’s one of the most talented artists I know and he has a complete encyclopedic knowledge of every Star Wars set design and spaceship. He’s already on Episode IX.”

Unlike many on the crew, Jenkins’ knowledge doesn’t derive from having been at ILM or Lucasfilm for years. He has 32 film titles to his credit as art director, concept artist, environment supervisor, or matte painter, but the first Star Wars film he worked on was The Force Awakens.

“I can’t say anything about who did what on which planet as far as the Star Wars canon goes, but I’ve always collected everything to do with the aesthetic by Ralph McQuarrie, Joe Johnston, and John Barry,” he says, referring to the legendary work on the Star Wars films by concept artists McQuarrie and Johnston, and to Barry’s production designs. “I have years of passionate study in the subject. Who did what where and where their influences came from.”

Star Wars has its own design language,” he adds, “and one of the things I’m involved in is making sure all those things I learned, whether Ralph’s DNA or Joe Johnston’s work -- are remembered. When Rick [Carter] brought me on to work on Force Awakens, that passion I have had since I was a 10-year-old came out in floods.”

Jenkins describes Star Wars design language in this latest sequel trilogy as analog and restrained. Simple shapes with the analog feel of the 70s and 80s; a mechanical real-world that references World War II. His office is filled with model kits for warplanes from the 40’s to the 80’s, “Art of…” books, and books on communist architecture and brutalism. The Empire Strikes Back plays in the background.

“I’ve watched that film every day for the past five years,” he asserts. “Well, maybe not every day, but I watch it a lot. I believe in completely understanding any subject I’m working on, not just painting a picture. So, I scrub through Empire Strikes Back to look at how those sets were designed. They’re so iconic.”

During the year and a quarter of pre-production, Jenkins’ set designs ranged from planets to spaceship cockpits. The main set, though, the one he worked on for the longest time, was Snoke’s throne room.

Rey and Kylo are on the First Order’s gigantic, wedge-shaped flagship, a Star Destroyer called the Supremacy, big enough to house factories for manufacturing and repairing AT-ATs and other Star Destroyers, as well as starfighter hangars and troops. Kylo and Rey travel through First Order architecture designed by Jenkins to enter Snoke’s lair.

“Rian [Johnson] had a strange brief for the throne room,” Jenkins recalls. “He used the word organic all the time. And, he had a bunch of parameters dealing with Snoke and how he interacts with Rey. For example , he would describe Snoke dragging her toward him, so we needed a sloped dais.”

Working with Johnson and production designer Rick Heinrichs, Jenkins spent several months creating concept designs, designs that took into account the needs of set builders as well as what the ILM artists would need to work with later in postproduction.

“We tried using ceremonial-type banners and all of a sudden we saw the massive graphic redness,” Jenkins relates. “We ended up with an abstract graphic throne set against a red curtain, which was great to burn down and reveal Snoke’s Star Destroyer. We also tried to make the room a playground for Rian [Johnson] with pods coming up out of holes for the Pretarians to fight around. The main thing was that Rian wanted Snoke’s throne room to be theatrical.”

On set, Andy Serkis played the part of Snoke, who would later be a digital character created at ILM. Daisy Ridley played Rey, and Adam Driver was Kylo. Jenkins designed and built models for their “theater” using “pencil, magic markers, Modo, Zbrush, Maya, Photoshop, and a 3D printer,” he explains. And, then the art department created the physical set on location at Pinewood with moveable set pieces and rigging for stunt actors. “When you look at all the shots of Rey presented to Snoke, they are 100 percent on the set,” he says.

When he was on set, Jenkins worked with supervising art director Chris Lowe and the art department team. “I don’t do anything other than maybe suggest, ‘try this,’ or ‘try that,’” Jenkins insists. “It’s always about making something better for the film, so if I feel I can, I put my hand up. The way I work in post-production is different; the skill sets are different -- it’s chalk and cheese.”

Unlike most films in which the artists who have worked on the physical sets leave the production when shooting ends, Jenkins continued on into post-production. “Usually, a huge amount of information is lost, but I could take the information I knew on set back to ILM where I worked with Ben Morris,” he says. His work on the ships and vehicles started in pre-production, and some were built on set for the actors. But, many weren’t art designed or finished by the time post-production began.

In addition to Snoke’s flagship, The Last Jedi features several new First Order and Resistance ships and vehicles. To design them, Jenkins began with concepts that continued the designs from Episode VII, all the while referencing the aesthetic and vehicles in the early films. “It’s very difficult,” he says, and provides an example. “I was asked to solve the problem of coming up with a new walker [a new ATAT]. It’s difficult to think what to do. I thought to base it on a gorilla, but it isn’t as simple as that. I needed to make it feel like the same company that made the ‘Empire’ version made the new one.”

The process Jenkins uses to design these vehicles and ships is to sketch, create a concept painting, and then a 3D model; and often prints the model on a 3D printer. “The reason I like printing physical models is because I can glue real kit parts on them,” he says. Among the models he printed were designs for the Resistance Bomber, DJ’s stolen ship, and the new AT-AT -- an AT-M6 that, referencing the giant walker’s ape-like feet, he calls the Gorilla Walker. “I probably created between five and 10 physical models, but the only two I completely finished to a painted stage were the Gorilla and the Bomber,” he says. “Rian has the AT-M6 Gorilla on his desk.”

In addition to these models and Snoke’s flagship, Jenkins designed Ski Speeders, Shuttles, the Resistance ships, and other vehicles, working with ILM art directors and concept artists.  “In post, we also worked on the medical frigate, the blockade buster, and the dreadnought,” he says. Jenkins singles out Ben Lambert who was in charge of the model builds in UK, noting that he assisted Lambert with paint-overs and proxy models when that was helpful.

As shots moved through production, Jenkins also kept an eye on the art direction and painted over shots he thought could improve, until the last shot was finaled. For this film, that last shot was his. “Rian wasn’t happy with a shot about a quarter of the way into the movie when Luke gives Rey her first lesson,” Jenkins recounts. “We were out of crew and out of time. So, I offered to do a couple concepts to see if there was anything I could do in a matte painting, suggesting a 2.5D solution -- I used to be a matte painter and digital environment supervisor. He liked one of them, so I ended up doing the matte painting, and it got composited into the shot. It was the last one to be finaled from ILM London.”

For Jenkins, working on Star Wars has been an emotional, rewarding experience. “I was only 10, no, I was eight when I saw Star Wars,” he says. “A lot of people younger than me are used to films with tons of visual effects, so it’s hard to tell them what it was like to see this film in 1977. It was so beyond anyone’s imagination, miles ahead of anything else. I never imagined that kid buying all those Star Wars books would end up having a job doing this. It’s immensely rewarding.”

“This is an amazing experience,” he adds. “And I’m still in the middle of it. I probably won’t realize how amazing until I look back on it. I’m mostly trying to get through every day doing my job. But, when I tell someone what I do, and they say, “Oh, you get to make models? And you get to do that for Star Wars?’” I realize it’s quite incredible.”

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