Star Wars: The Force Awakens has only been a part of Star Wars for a very short time, but BB-8 has already become a fan favorite. Kylo Ren's lightsaber is instantly recognizable. Even the movie's action scenes are easy to understand, despite the many moving parts.
How was this achieved?
"With Star Wars especially, good design means reducing everything to core iconic shapes," Christian Alzmann, ILM's senior art director said in an interview with CGSociety. "No bells and whistles. It you look at the Star Wars films, I feel like a lot of the ships are simple. They’re designed after letters of the alphabet. The Death Star is a planet, but it’s a circle with a little circle inset with a line going through it. That’s the icon on the death star. If it were designed for a movie today, it would be pointy shapes and busy, busy busy. More like a Transformer."
So many of the best-known ships and droids of Star Wars are made from basic shapes laid out in a way that can be recognized and understood from any angle. This pays off in many of the scenes from The Force Awakens.
Check out this battle, with swarms of Resistance and First Order ships flying at each other. It takes a moment for your eye to pick out the Tie Fighters, which are a circle in the middle of two straight lines, and the X-Wings, which are cross-shaped. What may have been a confusing soup in a film with weaker design becomes a clear, exciting battle.
We see a pilot we recognize, and then the scope of the war. The stakes are laid out in an instant, and you understand it all. That's not just direction, but design.
And it's not just the legacy ships that stand out, even new creations benefit from this approach.
"I started with a little two-circle sketch that J. J. [Abrams, director] did. Literally two circles," Alzmann said, describing the early days of BB-8.
"I wanted to go back and get that feeling I had from my childhood and hopefully have that come through in the design. I was five or six when I saw Star Wars. So, I looked at R2-D2 and thought about what we could use. I wanted to keep the same language, so BB8 would feel familiar."
Kylo Ren's lightsaber, one of the other now-iconic designs from The Force Awakens, is a simple cross. Combine that with the its red coloring, and you have an item that's now linked to both the film and the character in a very strong way. This is why that shape showing up in other places is so shocking.
This is what you get with strong design and an insistence on simple shapes as the basis for these items: The moment that saber showed up in Rebels, even though it's a different color and held by a different character in a very different point in the franchise's history, your first thought is "Kylo Ren."
It seems like these are simple ideas based on thoughts that are obvious in retrospect, but so few modern films attempt it and, of those that do, so few do it so successfully. Nearly any child can sit down and draw out a battle of Star Wars ships and you'll understand what they're trying to do. Drawing Kylo Ren's saber, at its most basic, takes two lines. This is the difference between a film that's forgotten and one that lasts.
The entire interview is worth reading, but the use of strong, simple shapes in the Star Wars series may be the most enduring aspect of the film's designs.