Joining ILM was an illuminating experience for Chiang. “I always thought of the design process as one seamless workflow. ILM was different in that we were doing post-production design, so the art department was specifically for that. The films that I worked on, like Ghost, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Forrest Gump, were all post-production design. While I was at ILM it started to evolve where we could participate in the pre-production design. It wasn’t until I started working with George Lucas when he hired me to head up the art department for the prequels in 1995 that I realized that was the way George had done it all along back with Joe Johnston and Ralph McQuarrie. 

“I was one of the first people onboard while George was writing Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace,” Chiang continues. “I had been learning Joe Johnston and Ralph McQuarrie, and got their style down. When he told me that we were going to set the foundation for all of those designs, and aesthetically it is going to look different, that threw me for a loop because I felt like I was studying for the wrong test. My goal was to give him the spectacle that he wanted without any of the practical limitations. There were enough smart people at ILM like John Knoll to figure all of that out. It was world building and design in their purest form. I remembered it terrified ILM because they hadn’t developed anything of that scale. The Phantom Menace was the biggest film at that time at ILM with miniature sets. There was a huge digital component, but that was mostly for the characters.” 

In 2000, Chiang established DC Studios and produced several animated shorts based on the illustrated book Robota, co-created with Orson Scott Card, which takes place on the mysterious planet of Orpheus and was inspired by his robot drawings. He would then co-found Ice Blink Studios in 2004 and carry on his collaboration with another innovative filmmaker, Robert Zemeckis, which resulted in Chiang receiving an Oscar. “Death Becomes Her was fascinating because the story is about the immortality potion, so our main characters can’t die. It was figuring out, ‘How do you achieve that?’ Real prosthetics can only go so far, and we had never achieved realistic skin in computer graphics before. It was a huge risk to try to combine the two. Forrest Gump was all about subtle adjustments to the reality of the world to create powerful dramatic images. Bob’s films can be complete spectacle like The Polar Express, and you have to lean into that sensibility. Bob doesn’t have a specific filmmaking style. He goes with what works best for his storytelling.” 

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