StarWars.com: Let’s start with the Dreadnought. Can you tell me about coming up with the design and how closely you were working with Rian Johnson to bring it to life?
Kevin Jenkins: All of my work was with Rian. Direct with Rian. The Dreadnought didn’t actually come to life until we got into post [production]. We had made some passes that were similar that Rian had approved that were on set, but it kind of turned into the final version that we are seeing now when we were in the post process, and we were going into full model-build stage. Basically, it evolved from story reasons because Rian needed a new battleship in the script called the Dreadnought. Essentially, it needed to be a ground-firing gun platform, and the other limitations that Rian put on me was he needed and required a flat surface with gun turrets on it. So basically, it’s an armored gunboat, an armored gun platform. It’s sort of a heavy artillery that’s much bigger than a standard Star Destroyer, about two-and-a-half times the size of a standard Star Destroyer. That was the original brief to me.
StarWars.com: As you were developing it, what were you looking at for inspiration? Were you looking at real-world craft or were you going back to the original trilogy and building off what came before? How did you approach it?
Kevin Jenkins: Combination of the original trilogy stuff, in the sense that I designed everything in Episode VIII as if it was to be a model. World War II and the Korean War and that era was a heavy influence in all the design, going into the ‘60s. But also using the mentality that Rian and I talked about a lot, which was an iteration-type idea. War makes you adaptive. So you start off with one vehicle, tank, gun, ship, and it evolves through combat into something else. The gun platform, of course being a larger Star Destroyer gun platform, we initially started with a giant triangle, which was the shape of a Star Destroyer. But then flattening off the top became a big design requirement. Quite late in the design phase, the under side of it was also sloped like a traditional Star Destroyer, because they are kind of a trapezoid shape if you look at them in a cross-section.
We had all sorts of design ideas and things, but when seeing an early cut with Rian, I just remember straight afterwards we talked to each other and went, “We need guns.” We tried radars because, obviously, you look at Return of the Jedi and there were radar dishes. There’s one on the Death Star. So it was also part of that retro, Flash Gordon-esque sci-fi thing, and we went down that path for a while, but then the cut just went, “Nah. Big guns. It just needs big guns.”
StarWars.com: You can never go wrong with big guns.
Kevin Jenkins: Yeah, exactly. I spent a lot of time looking at real-world references. Looking at the big battleships, the Yamato and all those kinds of things from World War II, and the way those guns would lower or rise. So the idea of them coming out the bottom of the Dreadnought became a design feature, because rather than just being there pointing down, we wanted to imply the danger that they sort of unlocked themselves and then moved into position. Just like the big 14-inch guns you used to see on those old battleships. It was a capitol ship. That was what we were kind of going for.
StarWars.com: Let’s jump over to the AT-M6. Walkers are a huge part of Star Wars and a fan-favorite thing. We see them in the original trilogy, the prequels, the animated series. So in coming up with a new kind of walker here for the sequel trilogy, what did you want to accomplish and what direction was Rian giving you?
Kevin Jenkins: Well, there were a few ideas that were kicking around before we came up with this idea. Funny, just before I took a vacation, sort of half way through preproduction, I talked to Rian about “what is a walker.” We went through this whole discussion about iteration. Iteration, to me, makes more sense than random walker design. So we talked about the way a Sherman tank in World War II evolved into an Abrams tank, for various reasons, or a Chieftain tank, or a Challenger, or whatever you want to say. And so we were trying to think about what made sense for a walker and I just said, “Look, a walker, to me, it’s essentially a Panzer tank mixed with a dog.” One of the questions that tied us up a lot is the fact that they’d been taken down by snowspeeders in The Empire Strikes Back, and it felt like everyone else is trying to avoid the problem of a four-legged version of a walker because they had been defeated on Hoth. So I sort of took that on board and I suggested to Rian, “Well, instead of a dog, what about a gorilla?” I can’t remember why I said a gorilla, but I just said, “They have a great stance, they are very aggressive,” and that’s how the idea of the gorilla came. And literally in profile, I molded it over an actual photo of a gorilla to get the initial base pose.
The front legs are very heavily armored, and you can see can almost up to the forearm. And again, that’s my take on, “You can’t take these down with a snowspeeder.” They’ve armored up the front or maybe they just cut the ropes because they are too big now. Also, the way they are balanced now is like a gorilla, because their knuckles are turned backwards and they’ve got very high shoulders. They are a completely different poise. Maybe they could even sort of kneel down or something. So I just took that gorilla design iteration, with the very high back, and just went to town with it. Actually, I didn’t do many conceptual designs or even images for it. Funny enough, I literally just took my laptop on holiday and I modeled it by the beach over two weeks and brought it back to Rian. Did the only two or three pictures that were done for it, and then showed those to Rian, who was really happy with it, and then I just made the physical models. Because the other thing I was doing on this show, compared to Episode VII with a lot of the vehicles that I was doing, I actually got Rian to approve them as physical prototypes. I would 3D print them from my 3D files, and then I would sort of scratch-build them. They are fully-painted. Rian has a fully-painted gorilla walker I’ve made for him. That was done for a number of the vehicles on Episode VIII.
StarWars.com: I’m glad to hear that they finally figured out how to defend against tow cables.
Kevin Jenkins: Well, it was more of a thought process of trying to base the design not upon something random but to move it forward. That’s also the reason for adding the large guns on there. It’s become the heavy assault walker. Also, I really love the idea of going, “What if the old walkers become the scouts for these walkers?” Because these are literally about a third or twice the size of them. So in the artwork, in the designs I initially did, I always put not scout walkers, but the actual classic walkers next to them, which sort of showed off their size. I think I called them goliaths for a while or something, but that’s how they got to where they were.
StarWars.com: That’s interesting. It sounds like you had the idea of, “Let’s have this really make sense from a design perspective.” But how did you hit the balance between, “We have to make something that the audience is going to respond to visually and like,” versus “Let’s have it make sense in-universe and have it move the technology of walkers forward.”
Kevin Jenkins: Yeah, I mean, I think the way I approached the design was purely from the design-that-makes-sense approach, and I heavily wanted to mix it with the feeling of a gorilla, and you can see tons of that in there when you look at it from the side. But then, really, the final aesthetic came from something we were doing on Episode VII — this is why I made a physical model. If it feels like a model and I felt like it probably could have been in the original trilogy, then I’d be happy with it. I kind of did that bit for me. That was why Rian liked some of the physical models that I was making so much, because it made us realize that, “You know, if this could have been around 1983 and if it feels good, then we’re fine.” That was pretty much the internal checkbox that I took forward with that.
StarWars.com: With these two designs, the Dreadnought and the AT-M6, what are you particularly proud of?
Kevin Jenkins: I’m very proud of the gorilla [walker] from the point of view of exactly what I said, that I feel that it’s an iteration forward. A spitfire and a modern jet, you can see the link there. They’re part of the same thing. That was always my intention with the gorilla. It’s not a start from scratch. This is the aesthetic, this is the way that the First Order, who was the Empire, work. So that, I’m really happy with. When I found the final model balance, I kind of thought, “I don’t think I can move this around anymore. I think this is it.” Rian saw it and his eyes lit up, and he just went, “There’s our walker.” That was really cool.
But then on the other hand, the same kind of goes with the Dreadnought, and that evolved a lot harder and over a lot longer period of time than the walker, which was pretty much kind of stab one, almost. With the Dreadnought, I feel that we are making sense of First Order technology and trying to tie it together, rather than just doing cool ships. It’s hopefully cool because of what it does and its design makes sense for the story, and then hopefully future generations will think it’s cool because of what it ends up doing in the movie. But again, trying to move the design forward. That’s why it has that super-wide bridge. When it’s lit, it’s like a submarine because everything goes red when it’s going to fire.
So I don’t know, I’m pretty happy with them, to be honest with you. But for different reasons, because when the Dreadnought was [requested], “Oh, we need another ship,” I thought it was just a flippant, “Oh, we just need another thing,” and it turned into a whole sequence around what it needed to be. And the walkers for different reasons, because that 10-year-old kid in me, when I saw The Empire Strikes Back, thought that that was the coolest thing I had ever seen. And it’s very hard to live up to anything that Ralph [McQuarrie] did, but if we captured a little bit of that feeling of what was done in the ‘70s and ‘80s, then hopefully we succeeded.