Researching the Star Wars universe

Although he lives only about 15 minutes away from Lucasfilm’s San Francisco campus, Matyas works from home, often in the evenings. (He’s not a morning person.) The week is typically front-loaded with work, and Matyas works closely with Chiang, showrunner Jon Favreau, and executive producer Dave Filoni to ensure what he’s doing matches their vision for the series. It’s a much easier process than when he worked on video game projects. There, he had several people to report to. “You’d have to try and meet the opinions of a lot of people,” Matyas says.

The work that Star Wars original trilogy conceptual designers Ralph McQuarrie and Joe Johnston—who designed Boba Fett’s armor and equipment—serves as the starting point for The Mandalorian’s visual language. Even though the Star Wars universe is expansive, the visual bible they developed is more specific than many people might realize, Matyas says. And to expand upon that requires research.

“I rarely do things straight out of my head,” Matyas says. “I understand I have a limited pool of knowledge and that I need to expand upon that. I start a new assignment by doing a ton of research. Through books I’ve found Mando’s blaster, a little pistol, and a very unique gun from the 1800s that I didn’t have to do much to—it was like a Star Wars gun almost by itself.”

Snapshot of his creative process

Matyas’ work also involves understanding how fabric and materials behave in Star Wars. He mulls over questions such as should an item appear to be metal? Polycarbonate? Plastic? Or plastoid, a material specific to the Star Wars universe? Sometimes that means going old-school and returning to the approach he took in his 3D illustration classes at University. If he can’t figure how to depict something—say, a helmet or a creature—by sketching it out on his Wacom tablet, he’ll take clay, sculpt it, take iPhone photos, and then digitally paint over the image. “It just helps the design process flow better if I’m stuck,” he says.

Moff Gideon image

Matyas understands the power of imagery to tell a story, and the value of research to get things right. “I go to a lot of historical, military and cultural reference points and mix them together, so there’s nothing too on the nose. … Historically speaking, Star Wars designs are always best if you mix a lot of different flavors. Like with Darth Vader, you have the ’70s, almost Battlestar Galactica, but you’re putting in a good dose of samurai and, like, gothic knights of Europe, and mixing all those things together and getting something unique.”

What is it like to be part of a pop culture juggernaut like The Mandalorian? Matyas says it’s been a joy to see fans embrace the series.

The Mandalorian, at least for me, has felt like a return to the original trilogy in a lot of ways and definitely leaning into all of those inspirations like Kurosawa films or Westerns, and then it does stand on its own as well,” Matyas says. 

 That said, Matyas says there are some surreal moments along the way: “When you see something you’ve designed on a bag of salad, that’s when it’s weird.” 

Learn more about University’s Illustration program or apply here. See more of Brian Matyas’ work by following him on Instagram and Twitter. 

Stay tuned to University’s blog for Chapter 3 of this series of interviews. Find Chapter 1 here. 

All images courtesy of Brian Matyas (Illustration, 2007).