Monday 27 March 2017

Star Wars At 40 (pop-up 1) - Millennium Falcon

I have long been a fan of The Millennium Falcon (as I mentioned here) and even though I wrote a post about it before (in 2014, which you can read here), I decided I couldn’t let my on-going Star Wars At 40 celebration slip by without further mention of the ship that “made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs.”

Colin Cantwell (left) & George Lucas.  A Y-Wing model is on the bench
Colin Cantwell was one of the first designers George Lucas brought onto the project, starting a couple of weeks before Ralph McQuarrie.  Cantwell, who had worked with Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), was hired to create preliminary models of spaceships and vehicles - the Y-Wing, X-Wing, Luke’s landspeeder, the Death Star, the Jawas Sandcrawler as well as the Blockade Runner and what was then called ‘the pirate ship’.  At one of their meetings, Lucas - working on his usual yellow lined legal pad - made a series of sketches, the last of which is labelled ‘Pirate Ship’ though the image could also clearly be the ‘Rebel Blockade Runner’.
George Lucas' sketch
“Colin deserves a lot of credit for the initial vision of what ‘A New Hope’ looked like, in forms of its hardware,” said Joe Johnston, who came aboard the project later as effects illustrator and designer.

Both Ralph McQuarrie and Johnston worked on the ship - adding an engine cluster, the radar dish and a rounded cockpit - before the design was signed off and blueprints made, for both the set construction team at Elstree Studios in England and the modelmaking department at ILM, led by Grant McCune.

In late 1975, the Gerry Anderson TV show Space: 1999 appeared on British television, featuring a ship called The Eagle Transporter.  When Lucas, working in England at the time, saw it, he realised the pirate ship design looked very similar and, not wanting to appear to have lifted the idea from TV, immediately insisted the pirate ship should look very different.
left - the Eagle Transporter - right - Ralph McQuarrie's production painting featuring the original pirate ship
“They were all very upset that I changed the design because they had just finished building the other pirate starship,” Lucas says. “They had spent an enormous amount of money and time building that other ship, and I threw it out.  It’s one of those decisions that was very costly, but I felt that we really needed the individuality and personality of a better ship.”

Grant McCune was quoted as saying the model cost upwards of $25,000 because “it got billed for everything, it was seven feet long and had four hundred cycles of electronics going through it.”  Rather than scrap it altogether, it was redesigned into the Blockade Runner, with one of the key changes being the hammerhead-style cockpit.

Lucas sat down with Joe Johnston and John Dykstra at ILM to come up with new ideas for the pirate ship.  Their final decision was described by Grant McCune as “the round Porkburger” (a nickname that stuck in the modelshop for a while) and there is a popular urban myth that George Lucas himself came up with it, basing the design on his favourite lunch - as a half-eaten hamburger with an olive on a toothpick.  Johnston told Starlog magazine, “it was the quickest [design] we’ve ever done. The Falcon was designed in one day. We took some components from the blockade runner, like the cockpit, and stuck it on the side of a big dish with some mandibles out in front.”  There is a suggestion that since the full-size version had already started construction - with extremely tight costs - the new design apparently had to use the existing cockpit, another reason for the change to the Blockade Runner.
one of Joe Johnston's original drawings
“The flying hamburger was my favourite design,” Lucas says in The Making of Star Wars, by J.W. Rinzler.  “I wanted something really off the wall, since it was the key ship in the movie; I wanted something with a lot more personality. I thought of the design on the airplane, flying back from London: a hamburger. I didn’t want it to be a flying saucer, but I wanted to have something with a radial shape that would be completely different from anything else.”

The shooting schedule at ILM meant McCune and his team didn’t have a lot of time to construct the new model, so Johnston had to work fast.  “I spent about a day doing a series of very rough sketches,” he wrote on his Facebook page, “that soon evolved toward a disk-shaped hull with a long horizontal slot-shaped engine at the back instead of the traditional round nacelles seen on almost every other ship.”  He showed Lucas his sketches and they “agreed on the general direction, with the offset cockpit and the raised ‘waistline’ hexagonal structures, opposing gun ports and asymmetric details like the radar dish. Because of the time crunch there weren’t a lot of drawings done after this point, as the construction needed to get under way [and] I worked with the model builders to monitor the design as the ship began to take shape.  Even though the ship is supposed to be a ‘spice freighter’ I didn’t want the shape to give any indication of its purpose. It’s a big hot rod pure and simple.”
George Lucas looks over the shell of the pirate ship with Bill Welch
from left - George Lucas, Bill Welch, Jamie Shourt

The key model of the Millennium Falcon was 5 feet long.  Lorne Peterson, in his book Sculpting A Galaxy, wrote that it was made of a “four-foot ‘clamshell’ with two shallow hemispheres of wood and steel covered by two clear acrylic domes.  Because the form was so heavy, lightening holes were cut into the inner structure to help shed weight.  “Although two people could move it,” he wrote, “four were needed to best avoid any disastrous - and costly - crashes.”

Almost all of the modelshop team worked on the Falcon at one point with Peterson himself taking care of the rear quarter, the semicircle that housed the Falcon’s engine banks.  “These were made of oxidised brass louvered screens,” he wrote.  “The back slot of the Falcon was capped with a piece of high-heat milk glass, which would diffuse the glow of the multiple six-inch bar halogens.  Some of the surface detailing was a bit of a cheat as well.  The Falcon’s skin was a greeblie-rich cluster of kitbashed detail.  We used model Ferrari and tank parts to fill in what we called the waistband - the sandwich filling between the top and bottom halves of the ship.”
from left - Steve Gawley, Lorne Peterson and Joe Johnston work on the underside of the Falcon
Paul Huston (left) and Dave Grell 'kit bashing' the Falcon.  Look at all those Tamiya boxes!
‘Greeblie’ was a term Lucas coined, a design aesthetic of fine detailing (in models, sets and props) that would make the object appear complex and visually interesting.  John Dykstra introduced a technique to ILM that he’d used before called kitbashing where pieces from dozens of different model kits were used, applying them as if they had a purpose, knowing they would be unrecognisable to most.

The Industrial Light & Magic building at the time was in Van Nuys, California and located close to a model-kit distributor.  The team bought lots of packs from them, filling the shelves of their model shop with kits made by Revell, Tamiya and Monogram.  “We had a relationship,” said modelmaker Steve Gawley, “where we bought ‘returns’ that maybe had a part missing - chances are we wouldn’t need that part anyway. We’d get tremendous discounts on that kind of thing.”

It was quickly discovered that the best kits to use were those of World War Two vehicles because they were less recognisable, unlike car parts which most people see every day.  The hull of the Falcon is detailed with pieces of Panther and Tiger tanks, Messerschmitt 109 fighters, the Krupp K5 rail cannon and many more.

powered by Cummins!
With the model completed, the Falcon was then ready for action.  Mounted on a blue pole, it was filmed on stage by the Dykstraflex motion-control system, where the camera moves around the model on rails to give the impression of on-screen movement.
Lifting the model ready for filming (from left) John Dykstra, Joe Johnston, Richard Edlund, uknown, Steve Gawley (back to camera)
Grant McCune adjusts the model as it's mounted ready for filming.  Richard Edlund (far left) programmes the Dykstraflex, Steve Gawley (centre) looks worried the model might fall off
Using the Dykstraflex system to shoot the Falcon against blue screen
A major hit, the model was revamped for The Empire Strikes Back (1980) since the 5-foot version didn’t allow for as much versatility whilst filming.  The new model was 32 inches long and became the ‘definitive’ version of the ship, used for Return Of The Jedi (1983) and the Special Edition re-issue of Star Wars (1997).
Mark Hamill takes a close look at the model

The Making of Star Wars: The Definitive Story Behind the Original Film, by J.W. Rinzler
Sculpting a Galaxy: Inside the "Star Wars" Model Shop, by Lorne Peterson
Joe Johnston Sketchbook on Facebook

2017 marks the 40th anniversary of Star Wars, which was released in the US on 25th May though it didn't hit the UK until 29th January 1978 (following a 27th December release in London).  I was lucky enough to see it in early 1978 and it remains my favourite film to this day.

To mark the anniversary, I'll be running a year-long blog thread about the film with new entries posted on the first Monday of each month.

May The Force Be With You!

Find all the entries in the thread here

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