Designing a Sith Lord
Designing a Sith Lord – Your Worst Nightmare
When it comes to character designs – I think we all can agree that Star Wars is the most iconic. From Darth Vader to The Emperor to even Stormtroopers. StarWars characters have become icons for evil itself within the pop culture realm.
So when it came to actually design Darth Maul which at the time would be the new villain for the saga, the concept artists had no easy task ahead of them.
Episode I Concept Designer Iain McCaig recalled the daunting task.
“George Lucas had described Darth Maul as a figure from your worst nightmare. So… I drew George my worst nightmare. At the time, my worst nightmare was this,” McCaig confides. “I’m inside a room during a thunderstorm. The hours pass by and I suddenly become aware that there’s a lifeless face pressed against the window. It’s dead, but it’s alive, staring at me through the rain. I drew something like that for George–adding metal teeth…and blood red ribbons falling over the face instead of rain. When George saw it, he quickly turned the drawing over. “Okay,” he said, “Now draw me your second worst nightmare…'”
That happened to be clowns, but we’ll come back to that.
Because Episode I had a full three years of pre-production, an almost unheard of length of time for a feature film, McCaig spent a lot of time drawing masks trying to compete with the original design for Darth Vader by Ralph McQuarrie.
“What Ralph came up with was perfect,” McCaig said. “Part skull. Part Nazi helmet. I tried everything I could think of to better it before eventually throwing in the towel.”
The breakthrough for Maul came when McCaig began trying to turn other members of the Episode I Art Department into Sith Lords. “That’s really where my character designs come from-personalities, and not just ideas dropped on top of a generic somebody,” McCaig smiled. “So I took David Dozoretz, the head of our animatics group, and I drew him with this incredible mask, and all you saw were his eyes poking through. Just for the heck of it, because I wanted David to see his own face, I included a picture beside it with the mask off. Because it was David, I put a circuit board on this face.”
When Lucas saw the drawing, he was intrigued by the circuit board idea. McCaig continued along those lines, conscripting the likeness of Episode I’s production photographer, Greg Gawlowski, peeling pieces out of him like he was a pumpkin. “It’s always a balancing act” McCaig recalls. “Greg is such a soft-spoken, gentle soul that he was the perfect foil for the Sith’s evil. I put a glowing orange light inside him,” McCaig recalls, “and George liked that even more.”
McCaig’s next “victim” was Production Designer Gavin Bocquet whom McCaig said, “has a sweet face – but can look quite evil if you get him in the right light.” McCaig struggled with the illustration, but didn’t want to give up on it. “There was white-out all over it. There was marker on top of the white-out. I got a knife and carved into it, and finally when I was done…I hated it. With pieces of tape I eliminated everything that wasn’t working…and was left with a kind of Rorschach pattern on his face. And that DID work. And I knew. When you’ve got a drawing and you’ve found it…a little light comes on. So I showed that to George, and he felt the same way. We were on the right track at last.
McCaig started looking for similar patterns in real life. It proved to be a simple task. “If you were to strip the flesh off your face right now… the muscles would form a Darth Maul-ish pattern. The idea of a flayed flesh face was both beautiful and frightening to me. In addition, there are markings on all kinds of dangerous animals: snakes, tigers, wasps-a dark black stripe on top of red or yellow is often a warning sign to other animals to keep away. Defenseless animals will even adopt this pattern to scare others off.”
Similar markings could be found in human culture as well. “I looked at a lot of African tribes,” McCaig said. “Some of the face-painting seemed quite frightening: blood-red and shiny. It looked like the owners had hit their heads real hard.”
“Of course, it really all comes back to clowns. Clowns have always scared the pants off me. Who knows what they’re feeling behind those painted smiles? I’ve had nightmares about Bozo the Clown since I was three.”
McCaig also created a series of real Rorschach designs by dropping ink onto paper, folding it in half, then opening it up, until he found just the direction he was looking for. “I still have all those. A bunch of splattered ink patterns. The final pattern was a mixture of those, my research, and my own bizarreness.”
In the end, McCaig used his own face for the final design for Darth Maul. “I know my own evils and darkness better that anyone else’s,” he said.
As a final touch, McCaig sought to balance the beastliness of the head with a little beauty. “To balance a design as horrible as a flayed-flesh head, you might give it a soft hood… or long, flowing hair… or, in this case, feathers. These were beautiful black feathers, bound like Native American prayer totems to a length of piano wire. And every morning I imagined Darth Maul would get up and bind his head with this piano wire, and that the feathers had to end up at the right points-it was just a part of the focusing of the Sith.” Nick Dudman, Creature Effects Supervisor, and his crew later interpreted those feathers as horns.
For McCaig, a character’s costume is not an after-thought, but an integral part to the design of any character. “I had done a costume that reflected the peeled flesh thing, so the costume was also dissected into muscles patterns,” he said. “The first costume was quite big-making him larger than life. He had Batman spikes sticking outside of his neck. For most of the storyboarding, that was his costume. But George kept referring to the Sith-Jedi battle as a cockfight, with a lot of spinning and jumping-and I realized what a waste it was to have him in this tight body suit.”
Once again looking to nature, McCaig noticed a trend for large manes and features that flare up when attacking. Consulting with Costume DesignerTrisha Biggar, he devised something similar to Samurai pleats, “so that when he spins, they can all flay out to the side.”
Given the challenging task of creating a villain to hold his own in a universe with Darth Vader, McCaig is pleased with the positive reaction to Darth Maul. “It’s funny,” McCaig reflects, “some drawings are just different from the other ones…they stand out even from the beginning as icons. That’s where we are with Episode II right now – looking for the new icons.”