With five Oscar nominations, four BAFTA nominations, seven Visual Effects Society nominations, and the AFI award for movie of the year, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is more than a box office hit. But, a box office hit, it is. Directed by J. J. Abrams, the Disney / Lucasfilm production quickly jumped to the all-time number one US box office record, ahead of Avatar and Titanic after its release in December.

As with the previous six Star Wars films, visual effects created at Industrial Light & Magic played a major role in this film’s success with Oscar, BAFTA, and VES nominations awarded to members of the crew. Often, though, when it comes to awards, the art department is filled with unsung heroes. And heroes, they are.

Visual Effects Art Director on The Force Awakens Christian Alzmann, for example, was the first designer on BB8, the irresistible rolling droid in Star Wars: The Force Awakens that has become nearly as popular as Rey.

Alzmann has 19 film titles to his credit as a visual effects art director, concept artist, digital artist, and conceptual designer. Those credits include A. I. Artificial Intelligence, Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones, Men in Black II, War of the Worlds, The Spiderwick Chronicles, Terminator Salvation, The Last Airbender, Rango, Cowboys & Aliens, The Hunger Games, and his most recent film, Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I met him in at Industrial Light & Magic’s San Francisco studio. ILM’s art department is now global, with artists based in the Singapore, Vancouver, and London studios, as well. We sat in a private dining room with a view over the park-like grounds of the Letterman Digital Art Center. And talked. Conversations ebb and flow, take off in one direction, then slip back into another.  We’ll begin with BB8.

CG Society: Tell us about BB8 
Alzmann: I started with a little two-circle sketch that J. J. [Abrams, director] did. Literally two circles. I wanted to go back and get that feeling I had from my childhood and hopefully have that come through in the design. I was five or six when I saw Star Wars. So, I looked at R2-D2 and thought about what we could use. I wanted to keep the same language, so BB8 would feel familiar. We spent a fair amount of time trying to figure out what the patterns would be on his drive ball on the bottom. I looked at a lot of soccer balls.

What was the art department’s role during the making of Star Wars: The Force Awakens? 
On EP7 [The Force Awakens], I was at the first meeting and started early conceptual work, but I was also involved at the back end. With visual effects films, there are new designs right up to the end of the film. In the first concept phase, we’re thinking about what we’ll strive to do. But after we’ve gone on location, we have the plates and we have to decide if that concept now fits into the plates. Sometimes it doesn’t and we need a redesign. We do a lot of that on tent-pole films because the third act is always in flux to the end. By that point, the pre-production art department is long gone. I love the early stuff, the blue sky, anything goes part – it’s more art for art’s sake. But, I also like the second part, the post-production part. I like to make the film work.

How do you help make a film work during post-production?
I make a road map for the modelers, texture artists, other artists, and compositors so they can get results with the least trouble possible. If we can’t deliver reference we find, then we create the reference. Along the way, we find 100 other problems that need to be solved in art. During post-production, I spent the first hour of the day in a dark theater going to dailies. Then I went to meetings. Sometimes, I can’t believe we get paid for a half-hour meeting on the color of subsurface scattering. It’s so cool. Everything is poured over time and time again. I paint over or draw over models. Usually when a movie comes out, I’ve seen each VFX shot we’re worked on 100 times and commented 30 times. 

Did you start as a concept artist at ILM?
I started as a production assistant. I scanned, I printed, I organized storyboards. I was in the low position in the art department.

Did that drive you crazy?
Coming to ILM, even from a great school like the Art Center [Pasadena, CA], was intimidating. There are so many top-level artists here. I was a PA for about a year, and it was the best year of school I had. Sure, I had the basics and foundation skills, but I needed to apply them to a specific job in the film industry. Learning how to make stuff look appropriate for film is a long road. 

What do you mean by “appropriate for film?”
On EP7 [Star Wars: A Force Awakens], I heard production designer Rick Carter say under his breath, after looking at some art work, “Yeah, that looks like it belongs in a major motion picture.” I thought he was kidding. But when I looked at the art, I agreed. Yeah, it does.  He was dead on. You have to make it look like it’s for a major motion picture. When it’s right, it’s right. 

It takes a long time to figure out how to make a piece of art that looks like it’s for a big budget movie. It’s the quality of the lighting. The way things are framed. A sophistication. Literally, the subject matter and what’s framed. You know it’s not for a video game. It’s not for animation. It’s for a film. It’s hard to describe, but you know it when you see it. In animation and videogames, everything is a little exaggerated. Pointy shoulders. Long noses. You can push the style of everything. That’s fun for artists to do. But a good film concept artist strips all that away to create a successful design.

Can you give us an example?
With Star Wars especially, good design means reducing everything to core iconic shapes. No bells and whistles. It you look at the Star Wars films, I feel like a lot of the ships are simple. They’re designed after letters of the alphabet. The death star is a planet, but it’s a circle with a little circle inset with a line going through it. That’s the icon on the death star. If it were designed for a movie today, it would be pointy shapes and busy, busy busy. More like a Transformer. 

Although in the past five or 10 years, video games have been getting more filmic and the design more realistic, there is a culture where everything has to be really exaggerated. It goes back to when, because of the resolution, it was the only way to tell things apart. Film has never had that problem. It can be more subtle. To make something subtle interesting is always harder. It’s the holy grail for us. The simple things are more work.

Is that what you look for when you’re recruiting artists? Someone who can do interesting, yet subtle designs and illustrations?
No. Making something that’s subtle interesting can be learned. I look for one superpower.

Everyone doesn't have the same strength. Some people have it in the way they can bring a figure to life. Or, the way they paint lighting and color. Or, the way they design shapes. Or, just a pleasing attitude and style. For me, I look toward what that superpower is. After that, it’s up to my boss Nak [David Nakabayashi, creative director] who does the hiring.

So, do you have something you consider your superpower?
For a while, I think it was color. The one I've been going after the last few years is what I love about images: the storytelling in them. That’s a big one if you want to separate yourself in the industry. People can design great gadgets or characters, but putting together an evocative image that asks questions of the viewer and gets them involved is a powerful tool for a concept artist.

I see a lot of storytelling in your personal work. 
I often have a visual relationship between two characters that’s . . . I might pair innocent children with some horrible thing. I have one with a girl and a horrible alien thing blowing flowers at her and she’s enchanted.

My work for film is getting more and more photorealistic and as that happens, there’s less delineation between artists. I think it’s important for concept artists to do personal art to find their individual voice, to explore art on the side so their work won’t be so homogeneous. Clients love photoreal, but hopefully we can show a little brushwork, a little line somewhere in the piece.

Do you do most of your work on the computer?
Most of my work is digital, but I I often, 90 percent of the time, sketch on post-its or in my sketchbook. I have tons of those little drawings, tons of post-it drawings around my desk. They’re stuck everywhere. 3D is not a very quick, intuitive process to get to something. It’s a limiting place to start from scratch.  The ILM art department pretty much uses Modo, Zbrush, and Photoshop. For my personal work, I use Corel’s Painter.

Were you always interested in art and movies?
I remember in kindergarten drawing Darth Vader with finger paints. The other kids ran over and said, “That’s so good. It looks just like him.” I'm sure it didn't, but when you have a couple good experiences like that you think maybe you should keep trying.

My father was a director/producer. He studied film at UCLA and went on to direct some television shows. So, I was raised in a movie culture in Woodland Hills [California]. He passed away when I was eight, but he left us some options. He had invented a slide chart called a 2 in 1 cropper that photographers used in darkrooms to crop photos. You slide these waxy things in front of each other and it would scale perfectly but always keep that 5 x 7 or 8 x 10 proportion. So that was our family business. My brother and I and my mom had this production line going on Saturday while we watched movies. I would bag. My brother would staple the bag and header card. Mom would do the waxing. 

In high school, I was that kid who was sculpting a little, painting a little.  I was always drawing in sketchbooks. But, I thought I couldn't be an artist because it was too expensive.

Why did you think it was expensive?
During my final year in high school, I took a tour of Cal Arts in Valencia, the Disney school. The person giving the tour said that some of the students were plucked out of school before graduating. I thought, “Sign me up.” He gave us a catalog. I looked in the back at the tuition, and my whole world came apart. I put art out of my mind. 

So, what did you decide to do? How did you end up at the Art Center?
I knew I needed to go to school. I needed the structure and guidance.  So, I went to junior college, Pierce College in Woodland Hills [California]. I went there for five years. I was living at home, working in the mall. I became a personal trainer. I studied language, science, everything I could. Nothing clicked. When my mom moved to Colorado, I bought a Volkswagen bus for $800 and lived in that for three months while I was still going to Pierce. I was very stubborn about it. I wasn’t going to leave until I knew what I was going to do.

Finally, I figured out the question. It was: What do you want to do eight hours a day, 40 hours a week? It’s that simple. That’s the secret. And, I realized that I wanted to draw. I wanted to make stuff. By that time, I was almost 23. So, I took some art classes at Pierce and I knew that was what I was supposed to do. 

A counselor at Pierce sent me to a counselor at Art Center. It was expensive, but she said, “You’re 23. You’re independent. You’re living on your own. That qualifies you for a ton of financial aid.” I still had to borrow money, but I was able to go. Barely. The nice thing about that was that because it was so expensive and I was paying for it, I listened to every word the instructors said. School cost me $121 a day. I didn’t miss a day. I would go when I was sick.

Were you still living in the VW Bus?
By that time, I was splitting costs with a girlfriend and we had an apartment. But living in my van was good. I realized I could have absolutely nothing and still be happy. I was ecstatic with life. 

What did you study at Art Center?
Illustration, figurative oil painting, drawing, all the tools needed for image making. Two of my favorite artists, Ralph McQuarrie and Syd Mead, went to the Art Center and studied transportation design, which is the usual path toward concept art. But, illustration was more interesting to me than transportation. I knew I wouldn't be a vehicle guy. I knew I wanted to draw people.

Did you go straight to ILM from the Art Center?
Yes. When it was time for the on-campus interviews, my portfolio was filled with stuff for Disney or DreamWorks. But this was December 1998 and they had layoffs. I always loved the ILM movies, so when ILM came I decided to sign up. I knew there was no way they’d hire me. I didn’t have anything they’d want in my portfolio – no live action – so I had no nerves going into the interview. I had a “nothing to lose” mentality. I thought at least I’d get to meet someone from ILM and how cool would that be after all these years. Unbeknownst to me, they were trying to get a digital feature off the ground.

I remember Susan Davis, the former art department manager, reading my resume and saying, “OK, it says here you graduated with distinction. Do you really feel like grade point averages matter for an artist?” I told her that I kinda do. That if you think of a teacher as an art director or a client and you get an A, it means it was a job well done.  The whole demeanor of the people in the room changed. I thought, oh, I totally nailed that. And I went from totally not nervous to totally nervous. They asked about my availability. I was over the moon. I started in March, 1999. My first project after my year as a PA was the digital feature and then A. I. Artificial Intelligence [released 2001].

And now, 30 years after Ralph McQuarrie designed R2-D2 for the first Star Wars, you have designed BB8 for the latest.
When I was five years old, I would draw because I wanted to draw Star Wars. The past few years working on EP7 have been a dream come true.

Images: Star Wars: The Force Awakens © 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Right Reserved.