Star Wars Prequel Uses Forceful Art
Jesse Richards - March 26, 1999

An Internet record was broken last week with a Web site’s report of an incredible 3.5 million downloads for a single item. But this isn’t surprising considering what site it is — It was a mad rush for a glimpse at the newest trailer for what is rightly being called the most eagerly anticipated movie of all time.

So it’s hard to believe that when visiting the site last week, something even more exciting caught my eye.

But leave it to master artist Drew Struzan to cook up something so engaging — a spectacular poster for the upcoming Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace. The official poster was released last week on the Web site and to theaters nationwide to coincide with the new trailer.

Never heard of Struzan? Even so, you’ve probably seen his work. Struzan’s style is now synonymous with Star Wars. Not only did he create all three posters for the Special Edition re-releases, but he continues to paint other poster merchandise as well as the covers to nearly all of the large number of Star Wars novels. Struzan combines a talent for rendering likenesses with creative compositions and a unique, painterly texture to create stunning illustrations. Star Wars poster by Drew Struzen

But what’s most striking about the poster is that it was painted at all. Think about it — when was the last time you saw an illustrated poster for a live-action movie? In recent history, not very often. In fact, besides the re-released Star Wars trilogy, the only examples that come to mind are two other trilogies — Back to the Future and Indiana Jones, neither released in the past half-decade. In the ’90s, computers have made it ridiculously easy to flawlessly montage photos, leading to few hand-drawn posters.

I read in a design magazine how easily this can be done. It used the example of the poster for Tin Cup. An image of Kevin Costner laughing was combined with an image of Rene Russo and a sunset background. Then other pictures of Costner were used to change the position of his arm and add a pair of headphones around his neck. This is essentially how all movie posters are created now.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with computer illustration. Certainly those photo editors are artists as well, often accomplishing artistic feats as noteworthy as a beautiful painting. They can be quite creative, like in the poster for The Game, in which Michael Douglas’ head dissolves into puzzle pieces. But movie posters were hand-drawn for generations, and it’s a shame that a whole genre is on the way out, replaced by floating actors’ heads set in a monochromatic computer wash.

But a revival could be at hand. Some posters continue to be drawn. Recent films Bullworth and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas come to mind. Granted, those were sort of independent films; they didn’t appeal to a wide audience. But The Phantom Menace, will be shown to perhaps the largest audience ever. Maybe its success will lead to more experimentation with traditional media to create posters.

George Lucas is subtly showing a lot of gumption by re-introducing the hand-drawn poster to a wide audience. Which leads into a broader topic, still confined under the banner of the approaching Star Wars film: George Lucas’s singular artistic vision. Specifically, it seems that the director has an incredible grasp of how computers and art can co-exist peacefully.

As happened a century ago with photography, many fears of computers replacing traditional art still run subconsciously through the art world as well as the public. Some people believe that it’s only a matter of time before computers make drawing, painting, and sculpture obsolete. But Lucas challenges these fears in both the process used to create his films and the films themselves. Hard to believe, since the films are notoriously technology-driven. The prequel sports 1,700 F/X shots, a record that is also three times the number used in Titanic, according to Entertainment Weekly. But on a closer look, the films’ technology melds seamlessly with Lucas’ artistic vision and emphasis of humanity.

The ideas behind the first Star Wars trilogy perfectly reflect this melding. The main theme is the bad ( technology) trying to take over the good (nature and humanity). The technological dark side is epitomized by Darth Vader, who has surrendered his humanity to machinery, and Coruscant, the little-seen home base of the Empire — a whole planet that looks like midtown New York City. The natural good side, representing art, religion, and intellectual human achievement, is epitomized by Yoda, who needs no technology to be a Jedi master. It is also seen in Yoda’s planet of Degobah, where the swamp rejects all technology, including Luke’s X-Wing and R2-D2. This conflict is best shown at the end of Return of the Jedi when the primitive tribe of Ewoks brings down the Empire’s armored, humanity-less stormtroopers and fighting machines.

But this simple theme is deceiving. The true theme is not humanity vs. technology, but humanity working together with technology vs. all-encompassing technology. Lucas is saying that technology is necessary, as long as we don’t lose sight of our humanity, art, and religion. Looking closely, this is also clear in the films. The Jedi’s main weapon is the lightsaber, a stylish device combining technology with the art of fencing and a natural power source (little known fact: the lightsaber is powered by a faceted gem that can only be created by Jedi). This theme also relates to the two “droids” in the film, who actually have more humanity than the faceless stormtroopers. The humans must rely on the droids, as well as ships, holograms, and blasters, to defeat the Empire. The necessary character of Han Solo fits in this mold and represents technology in his role as pilot, with mastery over his ship. The Rebels must work with him, again nature working with technology. And he falls in love with Leia, in a subtle Montague/Capulet reference that brings the two houses of nature (Jedi) and technology together.

Another interesting point is that the Empire refuses to work with alien species, preferring humans, while the Rebels invite all manner of creatures to help them. The aliens often represent nature with their animal-like facades.

How Lucas creates his movies also shows the harmony of technology with natural art and traditional skill. Lucas is creating the first movie to blend a huge amount of technological effects with live-action. Instead of making a completely computer-generated feature, he is using live actors and sets which are then computer-enhanced later. Lucas also employs a large number of traditional artists to come up with the ideas that are then computer-created. Biologists and artists work together to create plausible aliens and settings — only after they’re fleshed out completely are they created on computer.

Some people may think the computer effects will overshadow the actors and the plot of the upcoming film. With any other director, this might be the case. But Lucas fully developed the plots of his films even before some of the technology existed. And although the original Star Wars was known for its (at the time) cutting-edge effects, it’s the characters, themes, and plot that make it one of the most beloved movies of all time. Lucas promises a similar devotion to substance over style with The Phantom Menace. Lucas allows the computer effects to work for him, instead of basing his movie around them — much in the same way the Rebels in his films use technology to their advantage.

Another fear is that the large number of computer graphics may reduce the identity of the film, the humanity that the actors bring in. With computer graphics, the creators’ identity is lost — after all, you can probably name the voices in Toy Story but not the animators. The same holds true for movie posters — creating the same old computer montage eliminates an artistic voice and identity from the work. But by personally overseeing every step of the process with his films, Lucas is instead making sure a unified identity does exist.

This is quite a shift away from Hollywood’s current committee idea — that it takes 12 writers or 10 big-name actors to create a successful film. Instead of adding character development or a good storyline, they throw in more actors for each sequel (e.g., Lethal Weapon 4, Batman & Robin). Lucas is about to prove that that’s not the way to go. He’s also about to show that art — in this case one creator’s singular artistic vision — is more important than hype or flashy style. Maybe this can provide a model not just to poster artists and filmmakers, but to creators in any media.

“Always two there are,” Yoda says to Samuel L. Jackson’s Jedi Mace Windu in the newly released trailer, “A master and a student.” And when it comes to providing a model of traditional art and cutting-edge technology working together to produce amazing results, George Lucas is the master, and we are his students.