A long time ago, in a galaxy not far from ArtCenter, Lucasfilm Concept Design Supervisor Christian Alzmann (BFA 98 Illustration) saw a film with his family on a rainy day in Los Angeles. The movie was George Lucas’s Star Wars, and Alzmann’s life changed forever.
“I walked into the theater and looked up at the movie poster, and thought, as a 5-year-old, ‘This kind of looks stupid,” Alzmann says via Zoom, laughing, in his home office in San Rafael. “But after seeing the movie, I wanted to bring the poster home with me.” Alzmann went to school and finger painted Darth Vader from memory, impressing his fellow kindergartners.
Then, when he was 8, his TV director dad—who worked on The Waltons—died of cancer. “That made me tough,” says Alzmann. He thew himself into art, and most of what he drew and painted, including his own paper action figures, was Star Wars related. “I used it as escapism,” he says.
The Force has been with Alzmann ever since.
As an artist, I want people to feel the moment.Christian AlzmannLucasfilm Concept Design Supervisor
For more than two decades, since graduating from ArtCenter, Alzmann has worked at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) at Disney’s Lucasfilm, creating concept art for television and films in the Star Wars universe. Irresistibly cute and (green) apple-cheeked Baby Yoda, aka Grogu, in the Disney+ series The Mandalorian. Round-bodied droid BB-8, who debuted in 2015’s The Force Awakens. Alzmann’s art for those beloved characters became their final designs.
“This is absolutely a dream job,” says Alzmann, currently working on The Mandalorian’s third season, after working on the upcoming special event series Obi-Wan Kenobi as well as The Book of Boba Fett, a Mandalorian spinoff series scheduled to debut this December. “With The Mandalorian, more than any project I've ever been a part of, I feel like the whole art department is an important part of the team,” he says.
That team includes show creator Jon Favreau, Lucasfilm Executive Creative Director Dave Filoni, and Lucasfilm Vice President and Executive Creative Director Doug Chiang, Alzmann’s boss.
Back in 2017, several artists, including Alzmann, iterated designs for Grogu based on a sketch by Filoni. Chiang told Alzmann that Favreau wanted the alien tyke to look like an “’80s wrinkly little puppet,” but also cute, says Alzmann. So Alzmann took inspiration from puppets in the 1982 fantasy film The Dark Crystal, and also from artist J.C. Leyendecker’s early to mid-20th century illustrations of cherubic babies. For his third design, he sketched a Leyendecker-like baby face with big cheeks, tilted almond eyes, an upper lip hanging out over the bottom lip, and almost no chin.
“I remember chuckling while drawing, and I was like, ‘Boom, I think I got it,’” says Alzmann. He fleshed out the sketch using 3D software. Then Favreau and Filoni went through artwork during a review. “When they got to mine, everybody went, ‘Aw,’” says Alzmann. “Dave said, ‘If we could just start selling this thing now we could pay for the whole show.’”
Alzmann also illustrates many of The Mandalorian’s story moments. “As an artist, I want people to feel the moment,” he says. “Maybe there’s foreground water dripping. Can you hear it?”
In Alzmann’s home office, models of Grogu and BB-8 sit on a bookshelf near figurines of the Mandalorian and Luke Skywalker. There’s a photo of actor Mark Hamill “fake signed” by Alzmann’s dad, and then signed—for real—by Hamill. On one wall hangs a piece by legendary alumnus Ralph McQuarrie (BFA 56), the original Star Wars trilogy’s concept artist.
“Working on The Force Awakens, we’d joke about making bracelets that say, ‘What Would Ralph Do?’” says Alzmann, smiling. “You have to learn that visual Star Wars language, and hopefully you become fluent in it and you just design.”
McQuarrie being an alum inspired Alzmann to go to ArtCenter.
Then broke and sleeping in his van, Alzmann first took an ArtCenter Extension course using a credit card. At the age of 23, he applied to the College’s Illustration program. “When my acceptance envelope came, it was one of the best days of my life,” says Alzmann. “I thought, ‘This is when my life changes.’ And it did.”
Between getting loans, scholarships and working in retail, Alzmann paid his way through school. He also became a teaching assistant for his favorite teacher, Illustration Professor Bob Kato (BFA 87). “Bob gave me the sage advice of someone out there working,” Alzmann says.
Just before graduating, Alzmann signed up on a whim for an on-campus interview with ILM. He impressed the interviewers so much with his portfolio of storyboards and background paintings, and his knowledge of McQuarrie and Blade Runner visual futurist and alum Syd Mead (BS 59), that he was immediately hired as a production assistant on a digital feature. Afterwards, ILM brought him into its art department, and the rest is Star Wars history.
For Alzmann, one of the most unexpected and gratifying aspects of his job is seeing Star Wars fans on YouTube react with joy and emotion to The Mandalorian.
“I usually nitpick things,” says Alzmann. “But with that last episode of The Mandalorian’s season two, when Luke Skywalker showed up, I sat watching, with tears. Watching people watch the show is amazing.”