The generational theme of J.J. Abrams' "The Force Awakens" naturally carried over to the crew, including the production design partnership between two-time Oscar winner Rick Carter ("Lincoln," "Avatar") and up-and-comer Darren Gilford ("Oblivion," "Tron: Legacy"). Gilford told me it was a very fluid, symbiotic collaboration built on a back-to-basics, hybrid philosophy via Abrams for maintaining continuity with the original trilogy.
This entailed shooting as much in-camera as possible and using lots of practical sets, models and matte paintings. They also reverse-engineered the VFX to accommodate, for example, 2D forced perspective backings rather than relying on CG set extensions from Industrial Light & Magic. You can glimpse this in a corridor shot in the Comic-Con making-of reel (see below). Of course, there's plenty of CG but only when expedient.
"A big part of it was the two generations working together, and there was a definite correlation in the time difference of 30 years where we left off with 'Jedi,'" Gilford explained. "Rick's a legend -- he's the Obi-Wan Kenobi of production designers -- and he brought me on early and my role was to get the sets ready for photography in England and Rick stayed in LA working on story with J.J.. But we were running three departments in London, at Bad Robot and in San Francisco.
"J.J.'s mandate from day one was authenticity and being as true to the original trilogy as possible. And he felt the prequels were flawed by the fact that they had every [CG] tool known to mankind and used everything at their disposal. I use the metaphor of disco when the synthesizer came about and everyone was using it in any way possible. And I think J.J. wanted to reconnect with how the original films were made."
When approaching a stylistic decision, Abrams always asked how they did it in '77 and they would try and apply the same techniques. Thus, every technique was researched and thought through, including the way they built sets. "We studied the Death Star set and how John Barry and Norman Reynolds designed [it] to be multi-purpose, the kind of anywhere but everywhere within the Death Star. And that was the motivation of how we did our 'Star Wars' base," Gilford recalled. "Rick said something like: 'You've never seen this before but it feels very familiar.'"No matter what I was showing J.J., I would always preface it by explaining how it relates to the original movies, whether it was a ship or a set or a matte painting or a location. And that would seem to resonate with him."
Gilford said the story was in flux during design, which enabled the art to drive it, which is world building at its finest. "There was a certain time in the story room where all the note cards came down and there was only the artwork, and then they started going back up in a different order. It was a natural process."
For Gilford, the son of Hot Wheels car designer Ira Gilford, "it was about reconnecting with my childhood and playing with those toys and helping steer that for the next generation [so] some kid has the same experience that I had."