Michael Matsumoto has created eight awesome reimagined versions of Sequel trilogy characters. Here is my interview behind those and his Star Wars art journey.
When did you become a Star Wars fan?
I have been a fan for almost the entirety of my life. My family was never really into pop culture but did take it upon themselves to collect several movies that they heard were iconic or award-winning to have something entertaining to watch on their time off from work. The day I discovered Star Wars was in 1995, shortly after my family moved to a new home, and 5-year old me went skimming through our family’s vast collection of unopened, unwatched movies and stumbled upon the VHS box set of the original trilogy- the one that displayed half the face of Darth Vader, a Stormtrooper, and Yoda in front of a black background. I had no idea what Star Wars was, but I remember being captivated by the strange looking characters on each slip cover, as well as the little action scenes portrayed on the bottom. That alone was enough to strike my interest into watching them.
The moment I became a Star Wars fan was when I watched Episode V immediately after finishing Episode IV and witnessed the Millennium Falcon majestically soar through that asteroid field. I distinctly recall the music, visuals, and energy pulled me to the edge of my couch- the amount of wonder and thrills that scene gave me as a kid was something new and out of this world (no pun intended)! I like Star Wars up to that point but now I was won over and hooked from then on. After watching the Episode VI, I remember thinking that was it to Star Wars, but then a year later, something called ‘Shadows of the Empire’ popped up on my radar and made me realize that there was a whole universe outside of the films. I spent the few years leading up to Episode I hitting the theaters learning about the expanded universe, reading comics and novels, collecting toys and convincing my mom help me dress up as Han Solo for Halloween. When the prequel trilogy came out, it only added fuel to the fire and expanded my passion for Star Wars tenfold. My enthusiasm and excitement for the franchise grew to a new level each time something new came out. Star Wars, like for many other fans, became a cornerstone for my imagination and fascination of the arts.
How did you begin making (Star Wars) art?
I was fascinated with art well before discovering Star Wars, but when Star Wars entered my life, it also made its way into my artwork. I remember attempting to draw the X-Wing and Millennium Falcon to the best of my abilities on loose sheets of printer paper and on the front of my grade school folders. Star Wars has always been a source of inspiration for me in learning about storytelling and visuals, and it found its way into my high school learning when I discovered the incredible artists Drew Struzan and Noriyoshi Ohrai were responsible for many of the iconic movie poster illustrations that I marveled at while growing up. I spent my high school and college years bettering my foundational art skills- like lighting, anatomy, composition, etc.- before I felt like I could return to illustrating something that meant a lot to me, like Star Wars. The beginning of my professional art career was spent using 100% of my working time to design and illustrate original concepts for all sorts of clients in the entertainment industry.
When Lucasfilm/Disney announced Episode VII’s imminent release in 2014, that same passion I had as a kid when Episode I came out rekindled itself, and the announcement got me so enthusiastic about Star Wars, that I found myself illustrating Star Wars fan art in my free time- something I hadn’t done since grade school. There’s a special gratification that comes from doing art for yourself, and I found myself happy when I could channel my geeky enthusiasm in an artistic way. Nowadays, I am always trying to make time to do some fan art in between working for clients and my other projects.
What did you think of The Force Awakens / The Last Jedi?
Episode VII was amazing! It sent me down memory lane, especially when I got to see Han Solo, Chewbacca, and the Millennium Falcon return to the big screen. I never would have expected any of them would get another opportunity to show up. Now… Han Solo has always been my favorite Star Wars character ever since I first watched Star Wars, so you can imagine the emotional rollercoaster I was on when I saw this movie for the first time (no spoilers?). Now that I’ve seen this movie numerous times since it premiered, I find myself loving it more after each viewing. Episode VII brought back so much of the thrill and excitement that Star Wars had when I was growing up. Having to introduce a new storyline after a 10-year gap since Episode III premiered is an extremely daunting task for LucasFilm and JJ Abrams, and yet, the way they created a familiar tone to win back old fans and win over a new generation of fans while, simultaneously, introducing a new line of characters and plot for future Star Wars installments to build from was an incredible accomplishment!
Episode VIII didn’t quite have the same lasting effect for me. There was a lot that it was trying to say and prove, and I’m sad to see that it has created such controversy that a large split has formed in the Star Wars fan community. There are some truly incredible moments in this film as well as visuals that left me in complete awe the first time I saw it. I applaud it for being daring and unpredictable, and now I’m looking forward to where Episode IX will build from it!
Do you have a favorite Sequel trilogy character?
Kylo Ren, for sure! Not only is his design fantastic, there’s so much complexity to his character in both his backstory and his current struggle between choosing sides. His character development was a definite highlight in Episode VIII, and I can’t wait to see where he ends up in Episode IX (Please incorporate the Knights of Ren somehow)!
What was the thought process behind your alternate designs of Sequel characters?
I created the first two iterations of what would begin my personal project of “Star What-Ifs” characters on the night the very first teaser announcement for Episode VIII was released (I believe it was during Star Wars Celebration 2017 weekend). I had just finished spending the whole day designing for a client and now moved on to browsing for any breaking news from SWC2017. When I saw that a teaser announcement had been released, I must’ve watched it ten times in a row. The excitement of what would come next since Episode VII was finally in sight. I remember my mind was racing with the questions of “what if this happens, what if they end up turning out to be that, what if, what if, what if,” and it got to the point where I just needed to start answering my own questions by drawing them out because I couldn’t sit idly by until the movie came out.
When I grabbed my iPad and slumped back on the couch to start sketching out my excitement, I actually thought it’d be a fun challenge to design the two main characters had they gone down an alternate path in the canon storyline and come up with what they’d look like by the time Episode VIII started (I mistakenly assumed the new movie would’ve picked up a 1-2 years after Episode VII’s ending). I gave myself a short prompt to influence my design choices and created the concepts for “The Prized Seeker” Rey and “The Hero Reborn” Ben Solo. I had a ton of fun doing them while playing the trailer and listening to older Star Wars soundtracks. Once I finished them, I posted them online, and, unexpectedly, a lot of people enjoyed them. Over the course of what seemed like an eternity waiting for Episode VIII to premiere, I just kept choosing another character to redesign whenever I had the free time to do so. I ended up with eight characters by the end of 2017.
Where do you hope Episode IX will end up?
Honestly, I would just like a satisfying closure to what Episode VII and Episode VIII teased but have yet to wrap up. I’m hoping it can bring the Star Wars community back together, even if takes more than one movie to create a compelling, fleshed out story arc. I’m very optimistic that JJ Abrams will find a way!
What advice would you give for any aspiring Star Wars artists?
For me, it would be to devote at least an hour of each day to drawing / painting / designing / learning and ultimately developing the core foundational skills (Lighting, Human Anatomy, Perspective, Color, Composition, Animal Anatomy, Material Studies, Industrial Design, and Life Drawing). It’s not easy and doesn’t happen overnight, but the more you practice, the more “mileage” you will add on to your craft. There are plenty of resources online and out there to help you dedicate time and direction to building your “mileage.” I’ve used Star Wars as both an inspiration to motivate me to continually improve my current skillset and to allow myself to channel my geeky obsessions. Study from the renowned artists who came before you and who currently live among you. Look at them and their art not to merely compare yourself and your current skill level to theirs during their prime, but rather as evidence that through discipline, dedication, and passion, it is possible that your skill level can reach a point where you, too, can create inspirational, dynamic artwork.
Do you have any plans to create more “what-if” type of Star Wars character designs?
What if I told you that I will always make time for doing personal fan art, especially when it comes to Star Wars, and I’ve got a few characters picked out from an entire galaxy that I’ll be revealing soon?
See more featured Star Wars art and artists here.