Monday 5 June 2017

Star Wars At 40 (part 6) - Production Design

For the sixth entry in my Star Wars At 40 celebrations thread, I thought I'd look at the design work which not only elevated the film but also shifted the way sci-fi would look forever afterwards...
The Millennium Falcon, showing off the design work on the hull
Until the 1970s, most sci-fi films tended to see the future as looking pristine, a trend that was bucked by Silent Running (1972) and Dark Star (1974).  Going into Star Wars, George Lucas wanted everything to look like it worked and had done so for a long time, introducing a 'used future' concept where rebel ships looked secondhand, well-used and beaten up against the clean designs of the Imperial ships.

“The Star Wars future was not showroom shiny but dented and rusty, as if it had hard use on the back roads on innumerable galaxies. Lucas told an interviewer during production in England that the Apollo capsules may have looked brand new when they soared away, but it was clear when they returned that the interior was littered with candy wrappers, empty Tang cans, and other trash, just like the family station wagon.”
 - Charles Champlin - George Lucas: The Creative Impulse

Whilst previous films had hardware that looked as if it had been built at the same time, Lucas wanted a “a future with a past”.  He told John Barry, his production designer, that the Millennium Falcon should look like a ship from 2001 “that had aged two hundred years”.

“George wants to make it look like it’s shot on location on your average everyday Death Star or Mos Eisley Spaceport or local cantina,” Barry told American Cinematographer magazine in 1977.
The design team, 1976 - from left: Roger Christian, Leslie Dilley, John Barry, Bill Welch, Norman Reynolds
After a recommendation from Production designer Elliot Scott, George Lucas travelled to the Mexico set of Lucky Lady (1975), which was written by his friends Willard Huyck & Gloria Katz (who also did a polish on the Star Wars script).  There, he met Production designer John Barry and set dresser Roger Christian and was so taken by the sets that he offered them both a job.  "He looked at the set and couldn’t believe it wasn’t real,” Christian told Esquire magazine in interview.  Once finalised, the design department was made up of Production designer John Barry, Art Directors Norman Reynolds and Leslie Dilley and Set Decorator Roger Christian.  Norman Reynolds defined the job roles in an interview with the BBC.

“The Production designer," he said, "comes up with the ideas for the sets and does some of the drawings and sketches. The director will have some ideas of his own, as was the case with George Lucas, who had some of his people in the U.S. come up with some sketches as well. The final execution of the sets is the responsibility of the production designer.  The art director...helps execute the designs because sometimes the designer has to travel to see the various locations. [An Art Director is basically] the production designer's right-hand man.”
John Barry (left) and George Lucas examine photographs from location scouting expeditions
The designers started work on the film before it had been approved by 20th Century Fox, with Lucas covering expenses from his American Graffiti (1973) earnings.  For four months, the team worked in a studio in Kensal Rise, London, trying to figure out how to make the film and since the project had so little money (the eventual design budget would be $200k), Barry directed his team to use as many ‘found’ objects as they could.
Blueprints - from top left clockwise - Blockade runner corridor, R2-S2, Millennium Falcon cockpit and landing gear
At the time, some thirty years after World War 2, old Rolls-Royce aircraft engines were obsolete and being sent to scrapyards.  "Nobody wanted it,” Christian said in interview.  “They sold it by weight, I could buy almost an entire plane for £50 so I went around Britain buying up scrap aircraft, jet engines — all sorts of stuff. Out of that we did most of the set dressing.”

The added advantage was that the aircraft parts not only saved time and money, they added great complexity to the designs.  “We bought thousands of pounds worth of aircraft junk and took it to pieces,” said production designer John Barry in interview.  “You can imagine the complexity of drawing that would have to go into making those very complex sculpted forms. But when you just take apart a jet engine, you get wonderful things.”

“I taught the guys how to break [them] down,” said Christian, “and we made bins of different objects. They learned how to identify things that might look good on set.”

Working closely with Ralph McQuarrie, Barry embraced the idea his environments needed to look like real places and infused his work with striking architectural designs, focussing on function rather than creating elaborate, futuristic looking structures.  In total, 30 sets were produced for the film and the production took over all nine of the soundstages at Elstree Studios, whilst the massive Yavin-4 hangar set was built at Shepperton Studios (the exterior for which was filmed at Cardington Sheds in Bedfordshire).

For Tatooine, Barry used the environment as his design.  Since the summer heat is so intense in Tunisia, the locals live in caves cut into the sides of huge pits and Barry took advantage of this, using the Hotel Sidi Driss in Matmata as the Lars homestead.  It therefore felt real because it was real and he repeated the process with Ben Kenobi’s dwelling.
Set dressing in a real location - the Hotel Sidi Driss in Matmata, Tunisia
He also apparently enjoyed working on the Death Star as it suited his preferred minimalist style, allowing him to create environments of power that were appropriately cold and stark.  Taking inspiration from an aircraft carrier, the walls were painted matte grey and inset with grid patterns to help light the set.  The black floors were highly polished and allowed Gil Taylor, the director of photography, to “pull back and make the spaces feel expansive without compromising their functional intent as hallways.”
Three views of the Death Star corridors
The Cantina was imagined as a combination of a Casablanca bar and a turn-of-the-century chemistry set.  Barry said, at the time, “All the bar equipment in the cantina, those are all the combustion chambers from jet engines, which we sprayed with a metallic gold process and put light in the bubbles and all the rest. But they have an interest, because somebody’s worked over it and some intelligence has gone into them, so they are far more interesting than anything you could have made from scratch in the time available.”
A key part of the design aesthetic were what George Lucas called ‘greeblies’, which are basically items of fine detailing to make a surface - of a prop, set or costume - appear more complex and therefore more visually interesting.  They also add a sense of scale to models (ILM described them as “guts on the outside”), hence the Millennium Falcon and Star Destroyers are covered with them.  There is a possibly apocryphal tale that Tunisian customs asked what part of C3PO’s costume (listed as ‘assorted greebles’) was.  They were told “Something that looks cool but doesn’t actually do anything.”
Top - John Barry sketch of the Millennium Falcon
Bottom - the set, including a lot of greeblies
The Millennium Falcon was one of the most challenging sets to design and decorate, but benefited greatly from the scrap greeblies as once-pristine walls and doorframes were covered with pipes and parts, giving the ship a functional, well-used look.
top - Han Solo (Harrison Ford) - and bottom - Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) - in the Falcon gun turrets
(note how 'busy' but perfectly functional the walls look)

Whilst C3PO was originally sculpted by Liz Moore and finished by Brian Muir (as I wrote about here), Roger Christian supervised the construction of R2-D2 working from designs by Ralph McQuarrie and Norman Reynolds.
left - George Lucas with the Roger Christian, Leslie Dilley & Bill Harman prototype R2-D2
right - George Lucas and John Barry (far right) measure up the R2 legs for Kenny Baker (centre)
Christian and Les Dilley hired a carpenter called Bill Harman who’d built props for Monty Python - "he was brilliant - you could give him anything and he’d make it work.”  The body was made of marine plywood, bent around a frame they’d built with an old 1940s lamp fitted on top; Christian carved prongs for the front and more aircraft greeblies were attached.  After tests with 3ft 8” actor Kenny Baker, the design was approved and R2-D2 was built for the production by Norank (Tony Dyson of The White Horse Toy Company built them for The Empire Strikes Back, thanks to Millennium Falcon Notes for the correction)

Even so, creating the droids went to the wire and Reynolds has since admitted to finishing C3PO’s hands the night before shooting began in Tunisia.  “We had the glove part of it and metal tips for the fingers, but it needed to be made to look authentic.  Adding those little 'greeblies' made it all finally came together.”

Top - Anakin's lightsaber, as given to Luke
Bottom - Obi-Wan's lightsaber
The iconic Star Wars weapon is, of course, the lightsaber.  Whilst a huge part of the appeal was the sound (by Ben Burtt, subject of a future blog-post), they looked fantastic too and were put together by Roger Christian, based on designs by Ralph McQuarrie.  Several mock-ups were rejected and, under pressure to have the props ready for Tunisia, Christian visited a camera-shop the production used and asked if they had any spare parts.  Directed to some old dusty boxes, he found “several Graflex flashgun handles. They were perfect, heavy, and had a red button for firing the flash.  I just sat in my office with superglue, stuck a T-strip round the handle, put a D-ring on the end and stuck on bits from a pocket calculator. It was weighty and it looked beautiful. I think I made it for about £8."  The lightsaber emitter at the top of the sword was another greebly, a balance pipe from a Derwent engine.

Top - Han Solo's blaster (prop)
Bottom - the original Mauser gun
George Lucas had a specific idea for the style of the Star Wars blasters and said in interview, before the film was completed, “I’m trying to make props that don’t stand out. I’m trying to make everything look very natural, a casual almost I’ve-seen-this-before look.”  What he didn't want was something that resembled the Buck Rogers style of ray-gun.  Roger Christian suggested adapting real guns, since they’d look used and natural.  “We could afford to do it that way, plus they worked, you could fire them and get the  recoil on-set, and not have the actors going, 'Beep beep'.”

“We went to one of the big weapon-hire companies that had endless rows of arms and armour," John Barry said.  "George, Roger Christian, and I got together a lot on those things. Rather than have your slick streamlined ray guns, we took actual World War II machine guns and cannibalized one into another.”

Han Solo’s iconic blaster, for example, started life as an antique broom-handled Mauser pistol.  Christian fitted it with a rifle telescopic sight, a custom mount and modified the barrel with a flash hider from a German M-81 machine gun.  Greeblies were added to the magazine block and the base to make it look more complex.

Christian wrote a 'memoir', Cinema Alchemist, which details his work on Star Wars and it's very informative and in-depth.  My review of the book can be found here.

At the 1978 Oscars - from left:
John Barry, Norma Reynolds, Greer Garson &
Henry Winkler (presenters),
Leslie Dilley, Roger Christian
In my opinion, George Lucas chose his collaborators well, none more so than the design team and the little kid version of me loved what they did, accepting the look readily.  By taking ‘found’ items and adding detail, they created a world that was realistic, lived-in and something altogether different that, crucially, hasn’t aged the film at all - it looks as fresh now as it did 40 years ago.

The design team of John Barry, Norman Reynolds, Leslie Dilley and Roger Christian shared the 1978 Academy Award for Best Art Direction.  You can read John Barry's speech here.

Harrison Ford on the Millennium Falcon set

John Barry was born in 1935 and trained as an architect, entering the film business as a draughtsman on Cleopatra (1963), while his first film as production designer was Kelly’s Heroes (1970).  Stanley Kubrick offered him a job on his never-completed film Napoleon then hired him again for A Clockwork Orange (1971).  Whilst working on Lucky Lady (1975) he was approached to work on Star Wars and, following that success and his work on  Superman (1978) and Superman 2 (1980), he was offered his own film, Saturn 3 to direct.  Unfortunately, he fell out with the star Kirk Douglas and was sacked, replaced by Stanley Donen.  Lucas hired him as second-unit director on The Empire Strikes Back but on 31st May 1979, two weeks into filming, he collapsed on-set and died at 2am on 1st June from meningitis.

Norman Reynolds was born on 26th March 1935 and began his career as an assistant Art director on Battle Of Britain (1969), before becoming Art director on The Little Prince (1974).  He performed the same role on Star Wars, Superman (1978) and Superman 2 (1980) before moving on to Production designer with The Empire Strikes Back (1980).  He stayed with Lucasfilm for Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981) and Return Of The Jedi (1983) and retired after making Bicentennial Man (1999).  He also directed two episodes of Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories - The Pumpkin Competition (1986) and Gather Ye Acorns (1986) - and was 2nd unit director on The Exorcist III (1990) and Alive (1993).

He won two Academy Awards - Best Art Direction 1978 for Star Wars and Best Art Direction 1982 for Raiders of the Lost Ark (shared with Leslie Dilley and Michael D. Ford), as well as being nominated for four more.
He won one BAFTA - Best Production Design 1982 for Raiders of the Lost Ark (shared with Leslie Dilley and Michael D. Ford), as well as being nominated for one more.

Leslie Dilley was born on 11th January 1941 and started his career as Art director on The Three Musketeers (1973).  He worked with John Barry on Lucky Lady (1975), which led to him becoming Art director on Star Wars and Superman (1978).  He was Art director on The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981), An American Werewolf In London (1981), moved up to Production designer with Bad Medicine (1985) and still works in the industry.

He won two Academy Awards - Best Art Direction 1978 for Star Wars and Best Art Direction 1982 for Raiders of the Lost Ark (shared with Norman Reynolds and Michael D. Ford), as well as being nominated for three more.
He won one BAFTA - Best Production Design 1982 for Raiders of the Lost Ark (shared with Norman Reynolds and Michael D. Ford)

Roger Christian was born on 25th February 1944 and worked in the art department on Oliver! (1968).  After working with John Barry on Lucky Lady (1975) he became set decorator for Star Wars and worked as Art director for Alien (1979) and Life Of Brian (1979).  He moved into directing with the short Black Angel (1980), under the mentorship of George Lucas and still directs.  He also served as 2nd unit director for Return Of The Jedi (1983) and Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999).

He won one Academy Award - Best Art Direction 1978 for Star Wars and was nominated for another.  His second short film, The Dollar Bottom (1981) was nominated for a BAFTA.

Esquire magazine
Laurel & Wolf Spotlight on John Barry
Den Of Geek
Skywalking, by Dale Pollock
George Lucas: The Creative Impulse, by Charles Champlin
Star Wars Modern blog
Star Wars insider interview with Norman Reynolds
Star Wars: The Blueprints, JW Rinzler
Cinema Alchemist, by Roger Christian

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


  1. Nice summary! Just one correction - the original aluminium Star Wars R2 units were built by Norank. The White Horse Toy Company built the fibreglass R2 units for the Empire Strikes Back only.

    1. Thanks very much - and correction made! :)

  2. Correction to a correction! I've since heard that Norank's contribution to the original droids was limited, and that Peteric was the company that did the bulk of the mechanical work. That said, the White Horse Toy Company was still just involved with the Empire droids only.