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Eric Chu GALACTICA.TV interview
Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Joel Cooke caught up with concept designer Eric Chu, who was at the birth of the Battlestar Galactica 2003 series at the time of the Mini-Series. He talked to him about his career as a concept designer and how he started out in the business. They also discussed his now well known designs of the new Cylons, Raiders, Vipers and the battlestar Galactica itself.

When did you start drawing and think: This is what I'm going to do with my life?

That actually started really, really early on. I believe as a kid my mom just put a stack of paper down and gave me a pencil and said go to it. Even though at that age you're just scribbling, basically it will get you familiar with holding a pencil and making a mark on the paper. It gets you a long way in getting yourself familiar and able to improve hand-eye coordination. to the point where whatever mark you make on the paper is exactly what you're thinking in your head. Most people... It takes them a while to get to that point, but you just give your kid paper and pencil and say: "Go to it!" they'll start that much easier. Even though they may not make anything that looks like anything, they're getting familiar with handling a pencil and paper, and that's maybe something that could be key if you want your kid to consider anything in the arts, or at least in drawing. And drawing, I find it very beneficial no matter what profession you're going to [do]. If you can communicate your ideas, even when you do a very quick sketch, you're that much further ahead than most people. You're able to visualize and put your ideas down on paper and not just write it up in words. It's something visual. It's helps people in design, it helps people in science, just a lot of different professions. The ability to draw can become very, very useful and beneficial in order for you to communicate.   


Battlestar Galactica concept designer Eric Chu

Battlestar Galactica concept designer Eric Chu


Did you try out different styles before you got to where you're currently at?

Uhmm.... I did. They say everybody has a style. I think there are just so many styles out there that eventually, once you experiment, you're going to run across artists that you really like and you're going try that style for a little while and go: "Oh well, that's not exactly for me, but there are still things I like about this stuff." It's all about when you're drawing your whole career, you pick and choose those elements that affect you and say something to you to point where eventually, somewhere along the line, you start to accumulate enough influences to form your own style. Now when it came to [Battlestar] Galactica I really didn't have a style that was very mechanical, but I was a big fan of things of Joe Johnston and the art of the Star Wars books, and Ron Cobb who did some of the designs for Alien and Blade Runner.

Who did Blade Runner?

Ron Cobb.

I think he worked on the [Star Wars] Prequels

Oh yeah, for Star Wars. There was always something about that way of drawing, so I decided that "Ok, on this project I'll see if I can emulate that style." From the time that I got the scripts to the time where we actually got to production, was a solid time of one month where I sat in my room just drawing, drawing, and drawing in an attempt to emulate. . .trying to emulate. . .what do you call it, the preliminary design. Doing pen sketches with markers, I really didn't want to go Photoshop on it, I didn't want to go computer with it. I just wanted to make it look as old school as possible. Because I really wanted it to resemble the style I grew up with.


Battlestar Galactica concept design sketches for the Cylon by Eric Chu

Battlestar Galactica concept design sketches for the Cylon by Eric Chu


You said in a previous interview that you had watched Battlestar Galactica in the Cinema?

Yeah, so it was released in the cinema in Canada I think.

So did you go back and watch the [Original] Series for any influence/inspiration?

At that time, no. At the time it was not so easy for us to find. And at the time it was also just that we were under such a time deadline. Heh, I've said time, like three times now! We were under such a tight deadline that it was really hard for us to go back and find the old series. But that said, I do fairly vividly remember, you know, the show that I grew up with. And there are certain elements of it that I think that I remember more vividly than others. You can take that and strip away the details, and just take away essentially the essence of the design. So for something like the bridge - Ok, the first thing that I remember about the bridge, because it was so unique, was that it rotated. Now, I didn't design any of the interiors, but as long as you can take the basic idea and put your own spin on it, people are going to say: "Ok, I can remember that as from being from the old series, but it just looks brand new." For something like the vipers... That basic design is still there, it's just been updated and you still get the essence, the spirit of the original design.

You said you worked on the Star Wars animation series Droids.

Oh God!

Was that your first job?

That was pretty much my first job in film. At the time I think it was a very exciting thing for me, because, you know, I was a fan of Star Wars when it came out and to have my first job to actually be a Star Wars project was like: "Holy crap, I hit a homerun on my first try!" That said though, if you look back at it now, it's kind of painful to watch. It certainly isn't on the same par as the new Star Wars and the new series that's out there now.

But it was a Saturday morning kid's show...

It was, but I think a lot of things were results of a lot of people that didn't have a whole lot of experience. I think the story is therefore not strong enough to hang onto the saga of the original Trilogy. So, I think they tried to maintain some of the spirit of it, but it became so watered down that if you watch it now it's just painful. 


Battlestar Galactica concept design sketches and rendering for the Cylon by Eric Chu

Battlestar Galactica concept design sketches and rendering for the Cylon by Eric Chu


In the 90's you moved out to Asia I read. Did you do this to check out Japanese animation?

No, not at all. I had already spent quite a few years in animation and I got to the point where I was very jaded with animation. So I went to Asia to get into live action and I ended up getting into productions as a boomboy, which is a guy who just holds the microphone for the sound. That in itself ended up not being a great job, but  it got me on set and to the point where I could learn the elements that go into live action film. In a way it was like film school in a very short amount of time and I was able to... Because the films there are so low budget you have to strip everything down to its very basics. You can't get mired into details. Unlike productions in North America where you can, you know... You have trailers for everybody and it's a much bigger, much more complicated thing. In Asia it's stripped down, it's flying by the seat of your pants, and you learn very, very quickly what are the most important things to achieve a shot. In a way it was just a learning experience.


Battlestar Galactica concept design sketches and rendering for the Cylon by Eric Chu

Battlestar Galactica concept design sketches and rendering for the Cylon by Eric Chu


What made you return to Canada?

At the time, films in Asia were starting to deteriorate. Money wasn't in there, so there were not as many productions around. I had spent several years in Asia already. I was starting to get tired and I decided to come back around 1998.

In the original series of Battlestar Galactica they made sketches of the Galactica and turned that into models. Here they went straight into CGI. What do you think of fans building a 10 foot Galactica as a model again based on the CGI?

They did? Terrific! I'd love to see it. If anyone is making one and will send me a picture, I'd love to see it. I will tell you, that this is the first time that I have ever had any designs of mine made into toys or whatever. Every time I see somebody make something like that, that I originally designed, is a great thrill.

Have you ever made models of your own to get a better grip on the subject?

I started doing sculpture of my own for the last two or three years. I haven't done anything in the way of spacecraft, but mostly character designs. Things that we've been using for our own animated shows, [the ones] that we're producing ourselves. It is kind of an extra extension of 2D pencil drawings, when you suddenly can work with something like clay or something where you can see them in two dimensions. It helps you visualize it because you're doing something in animation and you have to see it from all sides. In the end it also helps in your 2D drawing, because now you're able to visualize things dimensionally better than just on a flat plane.

How do you start when you get a new project? Do you walk into a room and start sketching?

I think each project is different. Most of the time it starts with a script and perhaps a discussion with whoever is designing the show. In this case, with [Battlestar] Galactica I had discussions with the effects supervisor, who was in direct contact with Ronald Moore. Basically they gave me a very basic description of the ships they wanted to have designed. We just started doing doodles and very quick sketches, so we at least get... We'd stay loose and play around with the shapes first. Once you get something that like as a basic shape, then you go and refine it and expand it. Once that's done you run it by the people who are going to approve the design and you make any changes based on that. But really, I think that every case has its different set of circumstances. 


Battlestar Galactica rendering based on the design of Eric Chu

Battlestar Galactica rendering based on the design of Eric Chu


For Galactica, since Galactica is like a modern day aircraft carrier, did you like to look up references for things like aircraft carriers to see how they operate?

Not in this case, no. In that case it was... Our initial idea was to take the original design and try to streamline it, updating much like they did on the Enterprise in Star Trek, the movie. We kept getting notes from the producers and the people from SciFi, saying that they really wanted to see a new approach, quote/unquote "Something that never has been seen before." Which is a tall order because there are a lot of designs out there and we drew a lot of... That's a difficult thing to do. We first drew a lot of different designs, because they also didn't want to stick with the original shape of the Galactica for reasons I don't know. I can just speculate, but I think they were really trying to distance themselves as much as possible from the original series. At the time we were just throwing out ideas of different shapes. Just trying to get as many variations as possible to the point where you got at least somebody to say: "This is heading into the right direction." This case though, we ended up taking inspiration of a series of vases which were basically machined out of aluminum, and had ribs on them. I thought that was kind of an interesting look and I used that in the design you see now. I thought that was kind of an interesting look and I used that in the design you see now.

Was there ever any talk of doing any other alien races for the series?

None at all. The only indication of that was basically the Cylons. There was talk at one point of making the ships flexible and organic, much like a... Instead of metal they'd have a flexible skin. After a few passes at that we abandoned that idea and went back to the static metal ship. 

Speaking of organic... How did you design the Cylon Basestar, since even in 3D it's kind of tricky in itself.

It is, but you know what, that was probably the easiest design of the whole thing. That took all of like two drawings to get approved. So, the only thing I really did was to take the original Basestar and build it completely opposite. Instead of a circle I took a three pointed star. So I think on that basis it was probably what they were looking for. Probably the first design was approved right of the bat.


Cylon Basestar rendering based on the concept design of Eric Chu

Cylon Basestar rendering based on the concept design of Eric Chu


Cylon Basestar rendering based on the concept design of Eric Chu

Cylon Basestar rendering based on the concept design of Eric Chu


When you worked on the Cylon design, did you know there'd [also be] humanoid Cylons?

From the first script, yes. They were in the writing. In fact, you could already... I mean, in the shooting script you could already tell that they didn't really play a large part in the whole show. They showed it at the end and that's it.

In the original series there was something like the Imperious Leader that controlled all Cylons, here we have the final five who are higher in rank. How do you imagine, as a concept artist, they evolved from mechanical robots into human looking Cylons? Is this like natural evolutions of the Cylons?

That was never brought up. (laughing). Really, I don't know.

How would you imagine the Cylon home world to be like?

Uhmm... I think I thought about this for a little while and came to the conclusion that... I know that Ronald has mentioned that there is a Cylon world, but before that my thoughts were that because the Cylons basically rebelled against the humans and disappeared for... How many years? A long time. That they were in a ragtag fleet and they were probably just going from place to place. I don't actually... At that time, I don't think there actually was a Cylon home world, but they were just travelling from place to place. Maybe finding a place to stay for a little while and then moving on until they regrouped and decided to come back. Is there enough time to construct and create a Cylon home world? That's a pretty tall order and you'd have to look into finding materials to build a world or to at least have a world. In the time frame that is laid out in the storyline to me it seemed it wasn't enough time to fit all of that in. It made more sense to me that they were more like going from place to place until they could regroup and come back.   

Are you working on the prequel series Caprica?

Not as far as I know.

Or is that just in a non disclosure agreement?

They haven't contacted me about it. It sounds like it could be a lot of fun. As far as I understand, it details the evolution of Cylons, so I imagine there's going to be a lot of opportunity to design the various stages of the evolution of the robot race.


Cylon Raider rendering based on the concept design of Eric Chu

Cylon Raider rendering based on the concept design of Eric Chu


On Adama's wall in his quarters, there's a painting of the Cylon battle. Did you design that?

That was Ken Rabehl and that was... I believe the Cylons in there were the old Cylons, right? Yeah, with swords and everything. (laughs) 

Are there any projects you are working on right now?

Yeah, there are. I can't go specifically into what projects, but basically I just formed my own company and we are getting into producing films. At this point our first project out of the gate is probably going to be an animated feature. We're very close to finalizing in order to announce it. I think it's quite far removed from the Galactica universe, but I think it will be a lot of fun.

Do you have any future plans or goals you want to accomplish in animation or sketching?

Basically, right now, this first project out of the gate is going to be my first directing job and we'll see how it goes after that. I do think that once you get to be on... I've come to a point in my career where I think I do want to look into controlling a project properly, start to finish. So that I can not only design it, but also shape the characterizations, the story, and basically the whole thing. On other projects where you only come for hire, you can design things but basically you're at the mercy of your client. But in this case, since we're producing our own film, basically we get as much creative control as we want, and that is something that is very rare in this business. 

I saw in a previous interview with someone else you visited the set of Galactica. What was that like?

What was that like? Uhmm... I'll tell you that it's quite something to walk onto a set and see something that you've drawn for [so many] days of your life. It was one of the greatest thrills in my life, and for those of you who've never had that opportunity it's kind of indescribable too... It's quite something else to have something drawn and then to have it made into a computer model. To have it actually constructed in the full size prop, or the full size set and have it suddenly become a life size reality is... I think, I'll never forget that. It's just something that is indescribable.

So did you see both the Viper and the Cylon Raider in person?

Yes! Not at the same time, but the vipers were very... Since those were in the Mini-Series, I saw those very early on. The Cylon Raider, the prop, wasn't made until I think like the first Season, so that was on a second visit to the set where I saw that. Very impressive!

Who did you meet while you were on the set? Did you meet everyone?

Not really, no. I went in there with the effects supervisor. Nobody was on the set at the time.

Thanks very much for the interview.


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