Star Wars: Episode VII brilliantly brought you back into the classic Star Wars universe by using similar storylines to Episode IV, introducing two compelling new characters, and keeping the classic Star Wars feel by not overusing modern CGI. This last point provides an interesting takeaway for designers and visual storytellers: always moving towards the latest polished and shiny design trends might not always be as effective as powerful familiarity.
When I watched Star Wars: The Force Awakens last week, there were the hundreds of previews beforehand as usual. A row of kids in front of me in the darkened movie theater audibly signed and complained whenever a new preview started.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…
John William’s amazing Star Wars theme song started and everyone clapped and cheered
Now pause a moment, and above the noise of the crowd, focus on the design of this frame: stark blue text slowly fading onto a plain black backdrop.
If JJ. Abrams were making the first ever Star Wars episode 2015, do you think he would have used this simple font? No doubt it would have at least had some sort of movement, a more sci-fi font, and not this blue color that doesn’t match other Star Wars branding. Maybe you would see a black screen speckled with a galaxy of stars, which would gradually get smaller as you moved away, and suddenly you would see the sentence looming large and revealed as if you were moving through it. Something like Abram’s Lost intro, only larger and more upright.
But everyone cheered for the simple, motionless font.
Next, the iconic Star Wars screen crawl appeared.
Once again, it exactly replicated the design of the original Star Wars movies: a black background with warped yellow text slowly moving out of sight. Your brain races as you quickly read the text to learn what the new story is about, and you make your initial judgement about whether this whole reboot thing will be a disaster or not.
No doubt this was cutting line animation when Star Wars IV was released, but any 10-year-old with basic animation software can whip this up in 15 minutes now. But anything other than the yellow text would have caused a mutiny in the theater.
Next, the movie started. The crowd was pulled into the Star Wars universe even farther by the film-like, ever-so-slightly grainy look of the movie. It feels real, like you’re right there in the action.
Thank goodness, no lens flares.
JJ Abrams, I commend and respect you. You learned from your mistakes.
Obviously the familiar visuals are not the only things that made Episode VII great. It could have looked just as familiar as if you found a TARDIS and transported back into 1977, and still have been a flop.
But to match the visuals, the writers, editors, animators, and everyone else who worked on this movie created a good story. In the end that’s all that matters, and all the shiny graphics in the world won’t help resurrect bad storytelling.
Perhaps artists, designers, and movie directors should return to the essence of their craft and focus on the essence of what they’re making, instead of trying to stay on top of the fanciest new design trends.