The Acolyte took Star Wars back in time by taking things away

Kevin Jenkins is a Star Wars veteran at this point, having worked in a variety of design roles across multiple films, ranging from Rogue One to The Rise of Skywalker. But as production designer on the Disney Plus series The Acolyte, he faced an entirely new challenge: finding a look that doesn’t rely on Star Wars staples like Stormtroopers or Star Destroyers. “Unlike other Star Wars, this wasn’t to be found in a book,” Jenkins tells The Verge. “When I did the sequels, and even when the prequels were done, we had that template of Star Wars to go from. And [on The Acolyte], we took away 75 percent of the template.”

That’s because the show jumps back in time to a century before The Phantom Menace. It’s the first live-action project to take place during the High Republic era, a time of comparative peace and prosperity. There’s no galactic war, no evil empire, and no rebels fighting against it. That opened up room for the story to explore new characters while also giving the visual team a lot of space to figure out what an older Star Wars era could look like without many of its most iconic elements.

“It provided an opportunity to be almost unrestrained looking for whatever this look might be, without being beholden to very much,” says Jenkins. “I had a cleaner slate,” adds costume designer Jennifer Bryan. “I didn’t have as many restrictions [as if] it had fallen closer within the timeline that has already been filmed and televised.”

Naturally, this did create some challenges. Jenkins notes that when you take away many of those iconic Star Wars visuals, it can be hard to articulate what makes something visually fit within the universe. “There are certain tricks to Star Wars, in the sense that it comes back to the original sets and Ralph McQuarrie,” he says. “It’s like a style in architecture. You can look at different styles and go, ‘That’s a Brutalist building, that’s Art Deco.’”

Yord Fandar (Charlie Barnett) and Tasi lowa (Thara Schöön) show off the fancy new Jedi robes from the High Republic era.
Image: Lucasfilm Ltd.

Say hello to Pip.
Image: Lucasfilm Ltd.

The Wookie Jedi Kelnacca (Joonas Suotamo) next to a speeder bike designed for cruising.
Image: Lucasfilm Ltd.

There are still a few anchor points in the show. The sprawling city-planet of Coruscant, which featured heavily in the prequels, is present in The Acolyte, as it’s home to the Jedi Temple. The Jedi appear as well — but with a slightly different look. Bryan describes the Jedi robes in the show as “more refined” to fit the time period. “It’s definitely more put together and more thought out,” she explains. “Especially for Yord (Charlie Barnett), who you meet in the first two episodes. He’s quite fastidious. He’s like a dapper Jedi.”

Bryan says her process for designing many of the show’s looks is a bit like reverse engineering. Viewers should be able to see a natural throughline from the fashion in The Acolyte to later films and shows. Jedi robes are just one example — not just their cut but the color as well. “Their uniforms I did in ivories and off-whites, colors that you identify with peace and that aren’t as dark and foreboding,” Bryan explains. The overall goal was to “bring elegance to the Jedi.”

A similar process was involved for the technology and vehicles. There are few droids in The Acolyte, for instance, because the technology isn’t as advanced as in later films. This ties into the story: main characters Osha (Amandla Stenberg) works as a ship mechanic in a time when astromech units like R2-D2 are rare. Instead, she has Pip, a handheld tool that’s also an adorable bot. Similarly, Jenkins points to the Jedi speeder bikes featured in early episodes: they’re purely for exploration, as opposed to most Star Wars vehicles, which are designed for combat.

Mae (Amandla Stenberg) wears armor that includes both chainmail and bamboo.
Image: Lucasfilm Ltd.

Not everything in the show is inspired by the history (or future, depending how you look at it) of Star Wars, though. Bryan says she pulled a lot of ideas from real historical cultures, from the Roman Empire to samurai warriors. That led to one of the show’s most distinctive looks: the assassin Mae (Stenberg), whose armor combines chainmail with a chestplate made of bamboo. “You think of bamboo as a yielding plant, swaying in the breeze,” Bryan explains. “But it’s deceptive. Used the right way, it becomes a protective material.”

The result is a show that not only looks different from the rest of the franchise but is also arguably more accessible because of it. The nods to other Star Wars stories are there for fans, but not necessary for understanding The Acolyte. “This show has no barrier for entry, much like the original Star Wars when I first saw it in 1977,” says Jenkins. “It explains itself in its own way. There’s no homework to do, either visually or story-wise.”

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