8 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of a Star Wars Poster Artist
Collectibles are a huge market in the era of big-screen franchises, and nowhere is that more true than in the Star Wars universe. Countless pieces of art have depicted every nook and cranny of the beloved space opera, including the prints featured on Acme Archives, a website that produces officially licensed artwork from a wide range of geek-friendly properties including The Simpsons, Alien, Indiana Jones, and more.
To gear up for the release of December's Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Acme and Lucasfilm commissioned a series of artists to create pieces that featured the new characters and locales from the first standalone Star Wars adventure. The group included Madrid-based artist Akirant, and Belgium-based artist Arno Kiss.
Akirant created an action packed U-wing piece called “Dawn of Rebellion,” and a marketplace scene called “Streets of Jedha,” while Kiss created a two-part poster set of the movie’s hero, Jyn Erso, and the villainous Orson Krennic titled “Rebellion Rising” and “Immeasurable Power," respectively.
We asked Akirant and Kiss to give the inside scoop on what it’s like creating officially licensed Star Wars art. Here's what we learned.
1. STAR WARS ARTISTS ARE ARTISTS FIRST.
Both Akirant and Kiss contacted Acme Archives for completely different potential projects, and ended up in a galaxy far, far away.
“I'm a big fan of Iron Maiden, and Acme’s other site called Dark Ink has a bunch of Iron Maiden fan art,” Akirant explained, “and I thought maybe I could send them some Iron Maiden sketches.” After initially contacting Acme in September of 2016, the artist was put on a three-week trial run creating sketches, but it only took until October for a possible Rogue One project to pop up. “That's when they mentioned Star Wars, and I was like, ‘Of course!’”
Kiss, on the other hand, wanted to create art inspired by popular video game titles. “I sent Acme my standard email to reach out to new clients, but I didn't hear anything for two months," Kiss says. "I figured I wasn't at the level they wanted, so I told myself I’d try again in a year or so. I really wanted to do something for them about Halo.”
Patience paid off for Kiss; he eventually heard back from Acme after sending them his website portfolio. “I love working with space scenes, so I think they might have seen that and made a Rogue One connection,” Kiss says.
2. EXPERIENCE ISN'T NECESSARY.
Just because Star Wars is an enormous franchise with millions of fans the world over doesn’t mean you need to have an artistic resume that rivals the masters like original Star Wars concept artist Ralph McQuarrie. Neither Akirant nor Kiss had ever specifically worked with officially licensed properties before their pieces for Rogue One.
“I had experience primarily on advertising stuff, and I did that for over 20 years,” Akirant says. “This was a new chapter for me.”
Kiss's first brush with officially licensed work involved another Disney property. He participated in an art exhibition called “Sequel” by Los Angeles-based gallery iam8bit, where various artists created poster art for fake sequels. Kiss’s piece was called “Down,” a hypothetical sequel to Pixar's Up.
“I was hesitant to use Disney and Pixar's logos on that because I heard they could go as far as blacklisting artists who do that without their permission, but they ended up approving it,” he said. So tempting Disney with copyright infringement actually paved the way for his Rogue One pieces.
3. NO, THEY DON'T GET SPOILERS. OR SNEAK PREVIEWS.
You get a gig to create officially licensed Star Wars art for a brand new movie, which means you get a fancy sneak preview personal screening, right? Wrong. When they were commissioned to work on the Rogue One project in late 2016, both Akirant and Kiss were given the same amount of information on the new movie that was available to the public.
“They sent every trailer and some PDFs with posters—nothing new,” Akirant explains. “They gave me access to part of the Rogue One internal server so I could have more detailed photos,” Kiss said. “I was afraid of going on the server at first because I was excited for the movie and I didn't want to see any spoilers!”
4. MOST IDEAS WILL NEVER MAKE IT ANYWHERE.
Once they got the officially licensed greenlight, the creative floodgates opened on purpose.
Akirant sent 10 ideas to Acme featuring different situations and character combinations for possible pieces. Those rough outlines were whittled down to six concepts that were then sent to Lucasfilm, which chose three final potential pieces for him to create. One was scrapped, and they finally settled on two ideas that ended up being “Streets of Jedha” and “Dawn of Rebellion.”
“Since this was Star Wars, I wanted to throw everything out there,” says Kiss, who proposed everything from a basic image of Jyn in silhouette criss-crossed by X-wing fighters to the seemingly crazy idea of doing a good-guy-versus-bad-guy diptych. The unorthodox dual-poster idea eventually won out.
“I was surprised they went with the Jyn and Krennic diptych, because I figured they'd want to test the water before approving two pieces,” Kiss said.
5. THE LEGACY OF STAR WARS IS EXTREMELY IMPORTANT TO LUCASFILM.
Rogue One seems complicated from an art direction point of view. It rubs up against A New Hope in the greater Star Wars timeline, so artists have to respect the throwback futuristic designs from George Lucas’s original 1977 film while creating something new. But both Akirant and Kiss found it to be a relatively easy process since Lucasfilm made the legacy of the original movie a top priority.
“When I looked at the first trailer I focused on a shot that was a kind of panoramic of the streets on Jedha,” Akirant explains. “Then it dawned on me: This was a typical shot from Star Wars seen across all the movies with a marketplace environment loaded with a lot of different characters.”
According to Kiss, the daunting task of a project like this is to confront the storied Star Wars tradition head-on. “You start comparing your work to everything that came before it,” he said. “It slows you down. You start doubting yourself, but you just have to power through it.”
6. THE FEEDBACK PROCESS IS INTENSE.
Because these pieces were officially licensed through Acme Archives, the workflow from artist, to intermediary, to Lucasfilm represented a steady procedure that started broad and became granular.
“Early in the process I worked with Acme on five or six changes on what we thought final passes would be on each. We changed themes, light angles, colors, and more,” Akirant says. “Then, once we had a good proposed final piece, we sent them to Lucasfilm.”
The artists then got feedback from Lucasfilm directly, and the same process started all over again. “They emphasize every detail in what you're depicting,” Akirant explains. “In architecture, in shape, in characters and colors. They could change everything.”
Akirantspecifically cited their reaction to his depiction of reprogrammed Imperial security droid, K-2SO, saying it took different passes to get the droid’s eye correct, his height to be perfect, or the shape of his body to match his onscreen counterpart.
“It's not a problem,”Akirant says of the potential for such feedback to be creatively stifling. “It's a challenge.”
7. A SINGLE HAIR CANNOT BE OUT OF PLACE—LITERALLY.
Nothing is as frightening for a Star Wars fanas having your Star Wars art scrutinized by the people who make Star Wars. But both Akirant and Kiss said that anxiety is a necessary part of the process.
“There was one time they sent so much feedback they asked Acme whether I still wanted to work on the project or not,” Akirant admits.
“Lucasfilm was never strict," according to Kiss. "They were so clear from the very start about likenesses being spot-on and things like that, which was great, and the feedback I got back gave me slight suggestions like, ‘Maybe this piece of hair should be moved here.’”
Kiss says “Immeasurable Power” was the more difficult of his two Rogue One pieces. “We originally had Jyn's dad in there, but Lucasfilm pointed out [that] you couldn't really put him on either the good or bad side, so we took him out.”
In his place, Lucasfilm suggested one of Rogue One’s newest Imperial adversaries: the Death Trooper. Even that presented its own set of challenges. “It's tough to get the lighting on a black armor right when it's just a red background,” Kiss said. “We worked really hard to get the helmet right because it’s the most instantly recognizable feature.”
8. YOUR STAR WARS ART NEEDS TO UNMISTAKABLY BE A PIECE OF STAR WARS ART.
When you see a final piece of Star Wars art, it better not remind you of something from Star Trek. And Lucasfilm makes sure of that. While granular feedback of likenesses was one of the main points for the artists, both said that they had to deal with a more visceral kind of feedback as well.
“Another main concern was that if you saw these pieces at a gallery just at a glance they had to read as something from Star Wars,” Kiss explains.
Even if U-wings and TIE fighters streaking across a canvas were somewhat abstract, the general gist had to capture the adventurous feeling of Star Wars.