Tuesday 29 May 2018

Return Of The Jedi: Models, Matte Paintings & A Big Set

This week marks the 35th anniversary of Return Of The Jedi and, although I've already written a retrospective on the film (at 30, which you can read here), I wanted to do something to mark the milestone.  As regular readers of the blog will know, I'm endlessly fascinated by the behind-the-scenes process on films, especially special effects work with miniatures and/or matte paintings and I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to indulge in a little bit more by taking one item - the Imperial Shuttle - and showing how all of these various disciplines can combine to visually sell the story...
Vader's shuttle, en route to the Death Star
Return Of The Jedi, a Lucasfilm Ltd production, opened in the UK on 2nd June 1983.  It was directed by Richard Marquand, produced by Howard Kazanjian, Robert Watts & Jim Bloom and written by Lawrence Kasdan & George Lucas (from a story by Lucas).  Alan Hume was the director of photography, Norman Reynolds was the production designer, John Williams composed the music and Richard Edlund, Dennis Muren and Ken Ralston supervised the special effects.  The film was edited by Sean Barton, Marcia Lucas and Duwayne Dunham.

According to Wookieepedia, the "Lambda-class T-4a shuttle, or Imperial Shuttle, was a multi-purpose transport...considered an elegant departure from the standards of brutish Imperial engineering. The shuttles were often used by high-ranking Imperial officers and dignitaries such as Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine, but were more commonly found ferrying stormtroopers or cargo."

In real life, the Imperial Shuttle was a combination of full-size prop, miniature and matte painting.

Norman Reynolds was the production designer and his department built a partial, full-size mock-up of the Shuttle - The Tydirium, in this case - which was extended with the use of matte paintings (see below).  The mock-up stayed on the same stage at Elstree Studios, with the Death Star hanger set and then the Rebel Fleet set built around it.
At Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), Bill George (standing) and Charlie Bailey begin work on the model (prior to kitbashing).  According to J. W. Rinzler's The Making Of Return Of The Jedi, Bailey "made the bulk of the craft [while] Bill George built the wings."
Bill George paints the wing

Don Dow, effects cameraman at ILM, sets up a shot of the Shuttle
Matte painting by Frank Ordaz - the only "live" elements are the guards in the foreground
Chris Evans' excellent matte painting of the Death Star hanger for Palpatine's arrival.
top image - the painting / bottom image - screengrab
Han Solo: Keep your distance though, Chewie... but don't look like you're trying to keep your distance.  I don't know, fly casual...
The Imperial Shuttle, as it appears in the finished film

I wrote extensively about the various matte paintings in Return Of The Jedi on the occasion of the 30th anniversary and you can read that blog post here

Monday 21 May 2018

Sue Moorcroft: One Summer In Italy

Regular readers of the blog will know I’ve been friends with Sue Moorcroft since 1999 after meeting her at Kettering Writers Group.  As genre writers (the group leader had more of a literary persuasion), we were sat towards the back of the room and had great fun, especially since we were the only ones publishing regularly.  Since then, she's gone from strength to strength and I've been fortunate to interview her several times on the blog (you can read them herehereherehere and here).  Her latest novel, One Summer In Italy (the second in her three-book deal with Avon Books), was published last week and I thoroughly enjoyed it, especially since having read it during the winter months (to critique), it was a real treat to escape into Sofia's Italian adventure.  Sue & I took some time at one of our regular Trading Post meet-ups to have a chat about this wonderful new book...

When Sofia Bianchi’s father Aldo dies, it makes her stop and look at things afresh. Having been his carer for so many years, she knows it’s time for her to live her own life – and to fulfil some promises she made to Aldo in his final days.

So there’s nothing for it but to escape to Italy’s Umbrian mountains where, tucked away in a sleepy Italian village, lie plenty of family secrets waiting to be discovered. There, Sofia also finds Amy who is desperately trying to find her way in life after discovering her dad isn’t her biological father.

Sofia sets about helping Amy through this difficult time, but it’s the handsome Levi who proves to be the biggest distraction for Sofia, as her new life starts to take off…

MW:   Thanks for agreeing to the interview.  A lot of action in One Summer in Italy takes place in Il Giardino, the café in front the hotel Casa Felice. If you were sitting at Il Giardino, enjoying the twilight, what would be your choice on the menu?

SM:   As I created it, I’ve been able to fill the menu up with all my favourite goodies and since there are no calories on ‘my’ menu I’d begin with Pizza Margarita — I love the basic pizza and rarely order one with additions. I’d follow up with gelato cioccolato (chocolate ice-cream). I’d also want a couple of large glasses of Orvieto Classico, an Umbrian wine that I’ve developed a real taste for. It’s especially good when drunk in Italy, of course.

I wouldn’t want to be served by Davide, because I don’t like the way he behaves with young female staff members. He’s protected by his status as son of the owner, Benedetta, but I’d express my disapproval of him by asking for Sofia or Amy to serve me instead.

MW:   So as a big F1 fan, would you make the trip to Imola to enjoy the race?

SM:   That would be awesome! I’d love to be on the start-finish straight and have the commentary (in English) on my headphones.

To be honest, I have borrowed a lot of names from F1 in the book. Sofia’s surname is Bianchi as a tribute to the late Jules Bianchi; Uncle Gianni and Benedetta Morbidelli come from Gianni Morbidelli; Freya’s maiden name is Williams as a nod to Williams Grand Prix; Amy’s surname is Webber for retired driver Mark Webber. Even Davide comes from Davide Valsecchi, who only made it as far as test and reserve driver in F1 but is now a commentator for Sky Italia. I should say, giving a name to a likeable or unlikeable character is not based on whether I like the F1 personality involved.

MW:   Levi Gunn is riding across Europe to get to Montelibertà. Is that something you’d like to do?

SM:   It’s something I’d certainly like to have done in the past. I used to work for Motor Cycle News in a part time capacity and members of the editorial staff often seemed to ride off to cover a European race. The nearest I got was to be sitting on the dock in Dover, a young mum in a sensible car, while a group of bikers whizzed up and down the dock looking cool (and probably getting on the nerves of other passengers.)

The terrace at Arte Umbria, complete with Sue's laptop
MW:   Levi’s hobby is painting water colours.  Where did that come from?  Do you indulge?

SM:   I did at one time think my career would lie in art, but I didn’t make the grade. I just wanted Levi to paint the view from the terrace at Arte Umbria where I head up writing retreats. I wrote nearly a quarter of the first draft there last year and it was wonderful to be gazing at the view he was painting.

Levi’s a website developer in his day job, which is a painstaking occupation. I wanted to give him a chance to do something more free-flowing as a hobby. It also gave him an excuse to be in Montelibertà, because he needs one.

MW:   How much do you identify with Sofia, with her taking a gap year (or two)?  Would you have liked to do that, take off and explore Europe?

SM:   Yes, I would. When I left college the gap year concept hadn’t really taken hold but I’m sure I would have loved it. I feel she was particularly due some ‘me time’ so gave her two years.

MW:   What leads Sofia into this?

SM:   She’s had a close relationship with her Italian father, Aldo. He looked after for half of her life and then she looked after him for the other, as his heart failed him. He asks six promises of her for when he’s gone - and one is to visit Montelibertà, where he was brought up. She’s to lay flowers for his parents and to say sorry to his brother, Gianni. As she doesn’t know what she’s apologising for, the latter gets a bit dicey.

Having chatted to seasonal workers at Arte Umbria over the years I thought it would be great for her to work in Il Giardino, as she’s been stuck indoors with Aldo for so much of her time. Unfortunately, her employer, Benedetta, has her own ideas where Sofia will be most use.

MW:   In typical fashion, you address a serious topic with the novel, in this case homelessness.  I liked that Amy, one of the lead characters, collects McDonald’s free drinks stickers to give to the homeless.

SM:   I do this myself. The gym I attend is next door to a McDonald’s, and I often have a cup of tea before or after a class. Each hot drink cup has a card to tear off, and a coffee bean sticker. When you’ve filled a card with beans (six) you can go into a McDonald’s and exchange it for a regular-sized hot drink. Rather than take advantage of it myself I often give these completed cards to street people so they can get a cuppa next time they’re near a McDonald’s.

Unlike Amy, I don’t go so far as to go through the recycling bin in search of coffee beans that others have left behind!

MW:   Did your research (or your stay at Arte Umbria) inspire you to research the local wine?

SM:   I’d been to a vineyard a couple of times when I’d visited Arte Umbria. Last year they were organising a trip to a vineyard I hadn’t visited so I joined the party. Stefano, our guide and one of the owners of the winery, answered several of my questions about Italian wine in general and Orvieto Classico in particular. It’s because of him that Sofia knows about different nationalities having different palates and that white wine shouldn’t actually be served cold. (This has not stopped me drinking white wine cold because that’s how I like it.)

MW:   Levi runs the Moron Forum.  As we’re both seasoned social media users, where did you find the inspiration for this forum?

SM:   My son. We were discussing discussion forums and, to illustrate a point about keyboard warriors he began a sentence with, ‘If I owned, say, The Moron Forum …’ I thought it was a real thing. When I discovered he’d just said it off the top of his head I asked if I could use the name. It’s a satirical and humorous forum that has earned Levi, the hero, quite a bit of money. I needed help with research and my own web guy, Neil Hesman of The Village Websmith, was kind enough to give me the information I needed. It’s one of those cases where I needed to do a lot of research but not that much of it shows in the book.

MW:   Last summer’s book, Just for the Holidays, is based in Alsace; One Summer In Italy is in Italy, where would you like to go - in a literary fashion - next?

SM:    The jury’s out. I keep thinking of Greece, but I think my next summer book is going to take place in a tiny village on the coast of Norfolk. It’s ages since my characters spent a summer in England.

Thanks for inviting me onto your blog, Mark. As ever, it has been a pleasure.

Sue Moorcroft is a Sunday Times and international bestselling author and has reached the coveted #1 spot on Amazon Kindle. She’s won the Readers’ Best Romantic Novel award and the Katie Fforde Bursary, and has been nominated for several other awards, including the Romantic Novel of the Year Awards.

Her short stories, serials, columns, writing ‘how to’ and courses have appeared around the world.

Website: www.suemoorcroft.com
Blog: https://suemoorcroft.wordpress.com/ 
Facebook: sue.moorcroft.3
Facebook author page: https://www.facebook.com/SueMoorcroftAuthor
Twitter: @suemoorcroft
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Google+: google.com/+Suemoorcroftauthor
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/suemoorcroft
Amazon author page: Author.to/SueMoorcroft

Monday 14 May 2018

Nostalgic For My Childhood - Starlord comic at 40

In 1978, sci-fi was big in the UK following the release of Star Wars in January and nine-year-old me was eager to explore it as much as I could.  I'd already started reading 2000AD (and enjoyed it) and then saw ads for a new comic IPC were launching (they already published 2000AD but decided to capitalise on the craze and try to monopolise the market at the same time) and thought I'd give it a go...
The first issue of Starlord appeared on Saturday 6th May (cover dated as the 13th).  Originally planned as a monthly title, with longer stories and higher production values than 2000AD, the company got cold feet late in the planning process and changed their minds.  Lew Stringer reports he was told by an IPC editor that monthly comics were considered too risky back then, the thinking being the target audience, accustomed to weekly comics, would either forget the new issue was due out or lose interest between installments.  To accommodate the change, story episodes were shortened and the number of colour pages reduced but the better quality paper and printing were retained, showing a marked improvement on 2000AD’s newsprint quality.  This did, however, make Starlord slightly more expensive than its competition at 12p per issue - 2000AD was 9p while Marvel’s Star Wars weekly cost 10p.
2000AD’s then editor, Kelvin Gosnell, was asked to launch and edit the new title but apparently found it hard to keep both comics running simultaneously to the same standard.  “I allowed myself to be sucked into this Starlord bollocks,” Great New For All Readers reports him as saying, “when I should have stuck with the core characters of 2000AD, watched them, done the editor thing.”  With Gosnell occupied, chief sub-editor Nick Landau took over most of the responsibility for 2000AD which apparently didn’t make for an always happy working environment.

In keeping with 2000AD’s Tharg, the comic had a fictional editor and Starlord (drawn by Ian Gibson) introduced himself and warned readers of an imminent alien invasion but, on the bright side, they got one of six free badges (which were randomly taped to the cover).  The free gift on issue 2 was a ‘Space Calculator’, a cardboard slide giving information on the planets, whilst issue 3 had a ‘Starblast’ game, a version of Battleships with a re-usable wipe-clean laminated card.
The first appearance of Johnny Alpha and Wulf - written by John Wagner, art by Carlos Ezquerra
The first issue opened with “Planet Of The Damned”, written by R. E. Wright (2000AD stalwart Pat Mills), drawn by Lalia and it was followed by “Time Quake” , written by Jack Adrian and drawn (as beautifully as ever) by Ian Kennedy.  After an editorial came “Strontium Dog”, written by T. B. Grover (John Wagner, who also created Judge Dredd amongst many others) and drawn by Carlos Ezquerra - Johnny Alpha, the Dog of the title, would prove to be a hugely successful character who still appears in 2000AD now.  “Ro-Busters”, written by Pat Mills and drawn by Carlos Pino, takes up the remainder of the magazine (11 pages!) and would prove to be another successful strip (certainly it’s lead robot characters, Hammerstein and Ro-Jaws).
Ro-busters from issue 19, written by Jack Adrian, art by Pino.  The baddies name looks vaguely familiar, doesn't it?
Of the strips, “Strontium Dog” ran for the life of the comic with seven adventures, all written by John Wagner and all but the last drawn by Carlos Ezquerra.

“Ro-Busters” also ran for the life of the comic with eight stories written by Pat Mills (1, 2, 4), Bill Henry (3), V. Gross (5) and Jack Adrian (6, 7).  The artwork was split between Carlos Pino (1, 2, 4, 6, 7) and Ian Kennedy (3, 5).

“Planet Of The Damned” ran for 10 episodes, all written by Wright/Mills.

“Timequake”’s first story ran for three issues, it’s second (also written by Jack Adrian) ran for six and its third (written by Ian Mennell) lasted four.

“Mind Wars” debuted with issue 2 and ran for the life of the comic, written by Alan Hebden and drawn by Jesus Redondo.

“Holocaust” ran for nine issues from number 14, written by Alan Hebdon and a variety of artists.

There were also several one-off stories.  “Good Morning, Sheldon, I Love You!” and “Earn Big Money While You Sleep!” were written by Wagner and drawn by Casanovas, while “The Snatch” and “Skirmish!” were written by Alan Hebden and drawn by Pena
from issue 1
Although it appears (as reported online) that Starlord was the better seller of the two comics, it was also more expensive to produce with its larger format, higher grade of paper and greater use of colour.  Since neither comic was a big success for IPC during the summer of 1978, the decision was taken to merge Starlord into 2000AD, after 22 issues for the former.  Although it could be argued that was the better decision (2000AD had a stronger format, with shorter serials and a younger target audience and merging the two helped it mature into the cultural icon it is now), at the time I was cheesed off.  In the late70s, most of the comics I enjoyed ended up merging into something else which often meant, within a few months, I found myself reading a comic with none of my favourite strips left in it.  Thankfully, as mentioned, that didn’t happen with Starlord as 2000AD successfully ported over Strontium Dog and Ro-Busters (leading onto The A.B.C. Warriors), where they ran for decades.
As the titles merged, Starlord’s final editorial (and the cover) announced that his mission on Earth had been successfully completed and he was heading off to battle the evil Instellar Federation on other worlds but urged us readers to “keep watching the stars”.  In 1999, a reader asked about Starlord’s whereabouts and 2000AD editor Tharg wrote: “While Starlord has not been sighted on Earth since 1979, rumours that he was seen in a McDonalds in Basingstoke cannot be entirely discounted.”  He also claimed, on another occasion, that Starlord was “out in the Rakkalian Cluster, singing lead soprano with an Alvin Stardust tribute band”.
Starlord ended its run with issue 22, dated 7th October 1978 though there were also three annuals (cover dated 1980, 1981 and 1982) and a Summer Special (in July 1978).

The end of the line...
One of the banes of my childhood life, as a much-loved comic gets absorbed into another...
I have very fond memories of the comic and the great cover art and stories still stand up really well, making for a thoroughly entertaining read.

Happy 40th, Starlord - keep watching the stars!

Great New For All Readers
Lew Stringer's Blimey blog
British Comics Wiki (annual information)

Tuesday 8 May 2018

The 1978 Star Wars Annual

Star Wars mania was in full grip during 1978 and we fans at the time were so eager for anything associated with the film we grabbed it with both hands.  The Marvel comic (which I wrote about here) had already appeared, serialising the film in twelve black & white parts and Look-In (which I wrote about here) had done its best to keep the excitement going.

Then, in the summer, we got something else when Brown Watson released the first Star Wars annual.

Me, at Widemouth Bay Holiday Park, summer 1978.
Star Wars Annual not pictured...
As I’ve written before (see here), annuals were a popular Christmas gift for kids of the 70s and most of them appeared over the Christmas period.  I imagine, at some meeting, that was the original plan for the Star Wars annual but the pop culture explosion and the demand for new product must have been overwhelming and so this edition appeared around May.  My parents bought it for me when we set off on holiday that year, driving halfway down the country to Widemouth Bay in Cornwall and whilst I only have vague, fleeting memories of the holiday - the beach and Tintagel, mostly, as well as the holiday camp where we stayed - I clearly recall sitting in the back of Dad’s Ford Escort and reading this.

The annual reprinted the comics adaption (though left out Biggs and friends on Tatooine, Jabba meeting Han and all of the garbage masher sequence) but the bulk of it - from Luke encountering the Tusken Raider right through to the first wave of the Death Star assault by the Rebels - is in glorious colour.  And the colouring (credited to Marie Severin) is wonderful - Ben Kenobi’s hovel has purple, orange, blue and red walls and the Death Star often has dark pink floors.
Click on the image to see it more clearly
Even better than the adaption (which I'd already read, of course) - and perhaps the reason it was so truncated - were the behind the scenes articles, which I loved.

Another Time Another Space gives some background to the film and explains who the various characters are.  “Can our heroes triumph over such seemingly insuperable odds?  Do the good guys ever lose?  Read on… and may the force be with you!”
There are profiles of Alec Guinness, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford (who, I discovered, was older than my Dad!), Peter Cushing and ‘A Galaxy Of Co-Stars” (Kenny Baker, Anthony Daniels, David Prowse and Peter Mayhew).

Best of all, though, is Star Wars: The Evolution Of An Epic! which goes into a decent amount of detail (as much as it can over three pages) of the making of the film, from George Lucas’ path to starting the script, through the production, design process and the special effects.  Even read today - after the various Cinefex and Rinzler books - it still holds up well.
The annual cost £1.50 (you can probably still pick it up for that much from ebay today) and, to me, it was a solid investment especially since I used it to find new things I wanted to see (what was Night Gallery and 2001, how cool did Apocalypse Now sound, what on earth was American Graffiti and why didn’t I see Chewbacca in Sinbad & The Eye Of The Tiger?) and you can’t ask for more than that!

In the end, we Brits would get to enjoy nine annuals between 1978 and 1985 (along with an Ewoks one in 1988) while only three were released in the US (in 1979, 1982 and 1983).  I've read a few of them but none, to my mind, are a patch on that 1978 one, which I still proudly own.

My 1978 Star Wars Annual, by Brown Watson (all images scanned from this)

2017 marked 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 ran 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