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Tag Archive: Cinema Alchemist


Review by C.J. Bunce

In art director and designer Roger Christian’s book Cinema Alchemist (reviewed here at borg) readers learn how the Oscar-winning set designer changed the way audiences see the future through intentionally distressed sets and props and the clever incorporation of real-world components.  In books like Dressing a Galaxy, Star Wars Costumes, and Star Trek Costumes, readers can see how costume designers create what we think of as the future.  Now writer Dave Addey takes science fiction fans back to visit how visionary filmmakers of classic science fiction used futuristic and sometimes even classic fonts and type styles to convey what lies ahead and in his book Typeset in the Future: Typography and Design in Science Fiction Movies, available now from Abrams Books.

At first focusing on what he believes to be the most pervasive font of the future, Eurostile Bold Extended–used in Back to the Future, Apollo 13, Battlestar Galactica, Independence Day, and hundreds of other films–Dave Addey highlights seven key science fiction films and how they used a wide variety of typeface designs to make us see the future.  2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Blade Runner, Total Recall, Wall·E, and Moon (alas, no Star Wars, possibly because it is not technically science fiction per se) each get taken apart and dissected.  With numerous screencaps, and identification of several dozen font designs inside the films and used in marketing via posters and other advertisements, readers will be surprised what set designers came up with over the past 50 years.

Addey finds some of the fonts made famous in film have filtered into our daily lives as real-world corporate logos–Gill Sans Light, City Bold, Univers 59 Ultra Bold Condensed, Manifold, Futura Bold, Kabel Book, Computer, Micr, Data 70, Stop, Handel Gothic, Pump Demi, Swiss 911 Ultra Compressed, Gunship–these will all be familiar to you even if you don’t know them by name.  With his own pop culture knowledge and sense of humor, he has also built his own framework to analyze the success of these fonts, using manipulation via italic slant, curved lettering, straightening others, adding sharp points, adjusting kern or spacing, creating slices through letters, adding texture, adding a bevel or extrusion, and/or a star field background, although he says no title font has yet used them all to become the most futuristic of all.

Here is a look inside the book:

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Review by C.J. Bunce

What many don’t realize about movie concept art books is that, from the best of them, you can learn more about the filmmaking design process from the accompanying text than from the images selected.  Make no mistake–The Art of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is chock full of many stages of concept artwork.  But what unfolds over its more than 250 pages is a rare peek behind the scenes at director Gareth Edwards, Lucasfilm executives, and the art design team as they figured out what story to tell in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

We learned last year in Roger Christian’s Cinema Alchemist: Designing Star Wars and Alien (reviewed here at borg.com), that George Lucas knew immediately he wanted to create the look of Star Wars as a sort of documentary, a historical account of a long ago event.  To that end he tapped Christian to create environments made from real world components.  As explained in The Art of Rogue One, director Gareth Edwards knew he needed to emulate that style of filmmaking and overall look, and his route was using a readily available team of concept artists to create the visuals of Rogue One from day one, even partnering with artists to create the ideas for the film’s story elements in advance of a completed story.  These elements included featuring a female lead, a rebel strike squad like that in Force 10 from Navarone, a key droid team member, a battle reflective of Vietnam, a battle reflective of Paris during World War II, and a dark planet for the home of Darth Vader.  Edwards wanted to create an echo of Luke Skywalker’s hero–who wished he could join the far away war–with Jyn Erso, a heroine raised in a life of war who only wished to escape it.  The proof of the efficacy of Edwards’ process is in the result.  Has Edwards begun a new way of making movies, and will future filmmakers take this tack?

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“I look at Star Wars as a real historical event that took place in the universe, and George Lucas was there with his crew to capture it.  And now we’re there with our cameras and our crew, filming as it passed through us,” Edwards says in Abrams Books’ latest film art book, The Art of Rogue One.  “When you look like you’ve come in with a plan, it can feel too prescribed and a bit false–but when it looks like you’re capturing the images, like you’re watching them unfold in real time, it just feels more real.  I’m always trying to find that little thing that knocks you off your path–the idea or the ingredient that we didn’t come in trying to create, the curveball that makes the story feel unique.” Edwards directive was similarly unique:  How the artists remembered the images of seeing Star Wars for the first time became a more important focus than copying the look of the environments exactly from the original Star Wars source material.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Roger Christian’s success is a testament to the idea of thinking outside the box.  If you stop in the middle of age-old processes, no matter what you’re doing and what field you’re in, and consider trying a different method, you may trigger something special.  In Roger Christian’s new memoir Cinema Alchemist: Designing Star Wars and Alien, it is the old Hollywood method of making movies that is the villain of sorts, with Christian coming to the rescue as the hero with a new way of creating movie magic for audiences in 1977.  And it just so happens he came to the rescue of George Lucas and landed a gig making of one of the greatest science fiction fantasy of all time, the original Star Wars, and the greatest sci-fi horror film of all time, Alien.

In Cinema Alchemist you learn Christian’s modern method of set decoration and design perfected in Star Wars, a method copied by many, that he would soon use again for Alien.  Ridley Scott specifically chose Christian to create the same look he came up with for the Millennium Falcon in his new ship the Nostromo and other sets.

Cinema Alchemist

In any memoir you can expect some amount of hyperbole, although Christian likely deserves a pass simply because the Academy Awards endorsed his work as set decorator of Star Wars with an Oscar.  So he is certainly the real deal.  Countless Star Wars fans have spent years re-creating his original design for the lightsaber, tracking down the original camera parts he used, as well as re-creating all the rifles and pistols used in the film.  Christian had his hands in the creation of R2-D2, C-3PO, the landspeeder, the Sandcrawler, Luke’s Tatooine homestead, the Millennium Falcon, the giant dinosaur skeleton in the desert sand, Mos Eisley and the Cantina, and set after set created for the film.

original R2-D2

George Lucas and the R2-D2 prototype Christian helped to create with a light fixture and metal bits and pieces Lucas called “greeblies”.

The value of the book is in Christian’s accounts of prop making, set design, and using found objects like old airplane scrap metal to create a “real world, lived-in” feel on Star Wars and Alien in light of severe time and money constraints, plus Christian’s personal recollections of conversations and observations with George Lucas on Star Wars and Ridley Scott, H.R. Giger, and Moebius on Alien, and his play-by-play of the filming of the Alien chest-buster scene, arguably the most famous horror scene of modern cinema.  After reading Cinema Alchemist, you will absolutely watch Star Wars and Alien differently, and notice details of the film you haven’t seen in your previous 300 viewings of the films.  That is quite a feat.

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