After more than 30 years, Star Wars is finally looking to the future, both in its story and aesthetics.
Since the release of Return of the Jedi, most of the subsequent Star Wars adventures were built to fill in the narrative gaps of a completed story. The prequel trilogy, multiple cartoon series, and a standalone movie (last year's Rogue One) were all focused on the past, constrained in both story and design of its costumes, vehicles, and technology. The first new film, The Force Awakens, pushed things forward a little bit but was steeped in nostalgia. On The Last Jedi, director Rian Johnson and his crew were permitted to push forward in new ways, while still being grounded in the franchise's traditions.
"I spent a fair amount of time up at the Skywalker Ranch looking through the archives, seeing all the old design work by Ralph McQuarrie and Joe Johnston and all of the great artists who worked on it," Rick Henrichs, the film's production designer, told SYFY WIRE. "Then we tried to evolve the designs as well. Without contradicting or conflicting with what went before, we really wanted to develop in ways that we hadn't seen yet in the earlier episodes."
There is no better example of that fusion of new and old than the Resistance's main ship, a cruiser commanded by Princess Leia that is frequently under attack by the First Order.
"The big ship there, we very much started with the best possible starting point, in my opinion, was Ralph McQuarrie's versions of the cruiser," Heinrichs explained. "And it's very curvilinear, has a lot of gentle, generous, and more soft shapes along with the aerodynamics of it. That's very much in keeping with people's natural response to what we anticipate, something that we would prefer, or that we would possibly cozy up to more than sharp pointy shapes."
The Raddus, as it became known, was not entirely taken from the McQuarrie drawing — many decades have passed, both in the story and obviously in the real world. But that inspiration remained, and set the tone for the entire Resistance fleet.
"With the transport cruiser, we were going definitely going for shapes that would engender a positive reaction from the audience, along with colored textures that you'll see are played a bit different from the First Order," Heinrich added.
The curvature was a major theme throughout the Resistance fleet, seen most clearly in the design of the bombers that attack the First Order dreadnought in the movie's opening sequence. Summoned by Poe to drop their payloads directly over the enemy ship, they lumber through space, clearly not designed for high-speed chases.
"We designed the Resistance bombers that were coming over the fueler to look almost like a herd of cows sort of moving on," Heinrichs revealed, laughing. "There needed to be that kind of metaphorical lumbering quality to it that would engender sympathy as well as make the danger that it imposes a little bit more of a surprise at the end."
Battles in space are digitally rendered, but the new trilogy's mantra has been to build as many practical sets and props as possible. So while the bombers' exterior was made in CGI, the inside of the most crucial bomber, piloted by Paige Tico, was shot on a real physical location.
"We built a set, which was a bomb bay with bomb doors at the bottom, and there is a line of about 32 racks of bombs in there," The Last Jedi's SFX supervisor, Chris Corbould, told SYFY WIRE. "So we had to move them up there and sequentially release them so they all went one after the other. That went very well."
The production team actually built a fair number of vehicles, including some old favorites for the first time.
"We also built full-size A-wings. They had never actually built any full-size ones before, they were all sort of in the background as these miniatures," Heinrich says. "I tell you, when we built it, it was just so cool to just look at. And we built X-wings, which are actually much, much bigger than you think they are when you see them live. They're a lot bigger than they appear to be."
The hangar in the Raddus that housed the X-Wings was, no surprise, also a set built at Pinewood.
"When we blew up the hangar, there were two of them in there, but we do it in such a way that it looks like they are blowing up, but they're not," Corbould said. "It's all cosmetic, and because it comes past the tall camera you haven't seen the X-Wing. Behind all the explosions there's still a perfectly safe X-Wing."
Not every new design was supposed to be new. In the movie's most important sequence, the Resistance is forced to try on rusty old equipment found in an abandoned base on a forgotten desert mining planet. According to Heinrichs, the base was supposed to be about 30 to 40 years old, and its technology designed to accommodate the extreme conditions of the planet.
Most prominent were the C-Speeders, which looked a bit like a mix of Luke Skywalker's speeder on Tatooine and podracers due to their multi-pronged body and offset cockpit.
"They needed to cover a great many leagues of distance in very little time, and that they did move along at quite a good clip," Heinrich said. "The more cinematic aspect of it was, how cool would it be if these things slightly flew a little bit, but they hydroplaned over the surface? That would be a way of reprising a little bit of that rooster-tail effect that they got in Force Awakens when the X-Wings are attacking, in this particular case with these geysers of red swelling up behind them.
There was also a bit of a quasi-easter egg in their design, for major Star Wars fans who paid attention to the books, comics, TV shows, and video games.
"The sharp-eyed viewer will see it," Henrich teased. "The B-Wing fighter is one of the predecessors for it. It was from about that same time as well. We were heavily influenced by a lot of those elements. The offset cockpit balanced by the armaments on one end and the engine in the middle. These are obviously, specifically designed for this planet."