Boston’s Pilot Studio brings Star Wars to toy store shelves

Star Wars merchandise designed by Pilot Studio
Star Wars merchandise designed by Pilot Studio

When Bill Concannon saw the original “Star Wars” in 1977, he was entranced.
“Being 13, seeing that in the theater, that was life changing,” said Concannon, now age 52, of the film’s special effects. “Nothing had been even remotely that good looking.”

He certainly never anticipated that he’d one day be responsible for designing much of the public face of the “Star Wars” franchise. But as founders of the Boston-based Pilot Studio, Concannon and creative partner Chris Ford have for the better part of the decade worked closely with the creative team behind the movies and tie-in media to create much of the packaging that “Star Wars” production company Lucasfilm’s hundreds of commercial partners use to sell figurines, clothing, video games and other merchandise.

Pilot’s work on the upcoming seventh “Star Wars” installment, “The Force Awakens,” is arranged on a wall of the firm’s airy studio in the Boston Design Center to show the progression from conceptual pencil sketches, to ink drawings, to digital graphics and finally to the finished packaging, which began to ship last week when the toys hit stores to huge crowds three months in advance of the film’s opening.

The design process began during the film’s pre-production and has been informed by concept art, excerpts from the script, still images from the set, and extensive talks with Lucasfilm. It culminated in Pilot designing the majority of Hasbro’s packaging as well as the graphic of fictional character Kylo Ren, brandishing a red lightsaber, that appears on packaging by many other Lucasfilm licensees.

The difficulty for Pilot’s designers, Concannon said, is in capturing the action of a scene in a way that inspires collectors’ or children’s imagination without bringing too much of their own artistic personalities to it.
“Our task is not to reinterpret,” Concannon said. “It’s to bring it into worlds other than film.”

Concannon and Ford first worked on “Star Wars” branding at Hasbro Games’ office in East Longmeadow in the year 2000, where Concannon was a senior design director for board games and puzzles based on “Attack of the Clones” and Ford initially came on board as his assistant. Obsessed with minute design details, the pair recall often staying at work until the early hours of the morning.

Pilot Studio employees examine their work for the upcoming "Star Wars" release,
Pilot Studio employees examine their work for the upcoming "Star Wars" release,
Ford eventually transferred to a job at Hasbro’s headquarters in Pawtucket. But he kept in touch with Concannon, and in 2005 the two made a high-stakes decision based on the strength of their creative partnership: to leave their comfortable corporate positions to start their own firm.

They bought an expensive printer and started courting indie design work as Pilot, from a rudimentary office they set up in Concannon’s guest room.

After some small contracts, the duo caught a break when they dropped by Lucasfilm during a trip to the West Coast the following year. They’d only intended to catch up with some old friends from their time at Hasbro, but Concannon recalls that president of licensing Howard Roffman, vice president of licensing Casey Collins and art director Troy Alders approached them, asking if they could stay for an impromptu meeting.

That meeting led to an astonishing offer: Lucasfilm asked if Pilot could create the “trade dress,” or the unifying visual theme that would be featured on the packaging for all merchandise related to the “Star Wars” 30th anniversary re-release.

That project was a success, and Pilot has subsequently swelled to 21 employees and worked on projects as high profile as “Wall-E,” “Jurassic World,” “The Dark Knight,” and “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” — as well as for non-Hollywood brands including World Wrestling Entertainment and Boston Beer Co., the brewery that produces Sam Adams.

“They are a talented group that we are thrilled to call a partner,” said WWE executive vice president of consumer products Casey Collins, who during his stint at Lucasfilm was one of the three executives who wooed Concannon and Ford.

“We were impressed with Pilot Studio’s work on entertainment franchises like Star Wars and Transformers,” said Andrew Stalbow, who worked with Pilot when he was an executive at “Angry Birds” maker Rovio and has continued to do so at Seriously, the game studio where he now works.

Pilot has continued to work on Star Wars properties including the “Clone Wars” series and annual merchandise lines, but they’ve kept a strikingly low profile. Representatives of Marquis and Jackrabbit, two other prominent Boston design firms, both said they were unfamiliar with Pilot.

“We kind of live under the shroud of darkness,” said Ford, now age 36.

Bill Concannon (left)  and Chris Ford of Pilot Studio.
Bill Concannon (left) and Chris Ford of Pilot Studio.

They’re starting to talk about their years of work on “Star Wars” now, in part, because Pilot is for the first time starting to experiment with its own intellectual properties. Concannon and Ford are tightlipped about the details, but they say that Pilot’s artists and writers have developed a half-dozen concepts that they’re starting to shop around to publishers.
“This is where we get to write our own stories, create our own characters,” Ford said.

For the time being, though, Pilot is likely to continue their work for Hollywood. They’ve already signed on to develop packaging for “Rogue One,” the “Star Wars” tie-in film that will follow this year’s “The Force Awakens.”

“The stuff coming in makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up,” Ford said, referring to concept art for “Rogue One” they recently received. “The intimidation and humility factor there — it reminds us that we’re not the best artists or designers in the world.”

Concannon looks over the work of an employee at Pilot Studio.
Concannon looks over the work of an employee at Pilot Studio.