‘Star Wars’ designer Colin Cantwell dies; making TIE fighters and X-wings

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Colin Cantwell, a concept artist, animator, and computer engineer who helped bring the Star Wars universe to life, designed and built prototypes for a fleet of epic spaceships — from menacing TIE fighters to elegant arrow-shaped X wings — and gave the Death Star alien-looking and fatally disfigured (trench), died May 21 at his Colorado Springs home. He is 90 years old.

The cause is dementia, says Sierra Dall, her colleague of 24 years and only survivor.

A veteran of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where he created educational programs to teach the public about early space launches, Mr Cantwell continued to work with directors including Stanley Kubrick, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, developing miniatures, computer graphics and other visual effects. for films including “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) and “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century” (1979).

He is best known for his work in “Star Wars” (1977), when he created the first designs for many of the film’s most memorable ships, helping define the look of the blockbuster franchise even though he only worked on the first installment. “He was a pretty quiet guy, very kind and very talented,” said Craig Miller, former director of fan relations for Lucasfilm.

When Lucas hired Mr. Cantwell in late 1974, the director was still negotiating financing with Twentieth Century Fox, working on concepts such as the Force and overhauling the screenplay tentatively titled “The Adventures of Starkiller, Ep. 1: Star Wars.” The manuscript mentions a number of spacecraft, but provides only a vague description of what they looked like and how they moved.

Mr Cantwell was assigned to fill in the details, instructed by Lucas to make the ship look realistic but with “comic book royalty,” according to Brian Jay Jones’ book “George Lucas: A Life.” He swapped images with the director before landing on the final sketches he used to create his models, assembling plastic miniatures from thousands of pieces—including pill containers, lamp pieces, and parts of commercial model kits for planes, cars, and ships—that he kept in one. set of drawers eight feet high.

Whether the spaceships are shown individually or in bulk, gliding across the screen in formation or chasing each other in aerial combat, Mr. Cantwell wanted them to be recognized immediately, and elicited a sense of nervousness or excitement depending on their place in Lucas science fiction. “My premise is that you must immediately know bad people from good people… by means of [a ship] looks and feels,” he said in a 2014 interview for the website Original Prop Blog.

His design for the X-wing, Rebel Alliance’s signature starfighter, was inspired by the sight of arrows being thrown into a British pub and was intended to depict the image of a cowboy pulling his gun outside a saloon. His sleek early model for the Millennium Falcon, on the other hand, was meant to evoke a lizard ready to attack – and was used as the basis for the rebel blockade runner that appears in the film’s opening scene. (Other artists, including Joe Johnston and Ralph McQuarrie, eventually contributed to the hamburger-shaped look of the Millennium Falcon.)

Mr Cantwell also built a prototype for the empire’s star destroyer, the wedge-shaped ship that fills the screen in the film’s opening moments (to determine its size, he asked Lucas if it was supposed to be “bigger than the Burbank”; the answer was yes), and created Death Star, a space station equipped with lasers capable of destroying entire planets.

The film’s climax features an attack across the Death Star’s equator, in which Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) flies through a canyon-like trench to fire a torpedo at a space station’s weak point. As Mr. Cantwell, the scene came about by chance, after he had almost finished his model of the Death Star from a plastic ball measuring about 14 inches long.

The sphere split into two parts, which he turned into a Death Star by scraping features onto its surface, but the halves shrunk in the middle where they should have met. “It took a week of work just to fill and sand and recharge this depression,” he said in an interview with the Montecito Journal of California. “So, to save me from work, I went to George and suggested a trench, with weaponry projecting from the sides of the trench that resulted in a battle with starships flying in and out of the trench. Lucas agreed, and that’s a big point in the film.”

Colin James Cantwell was born in San Francisco on April 3, 1932. His father was a commercial artist, and his mother worked as rivets during World War II to support military efforts. One of his uncles was Robert Cantwell, a Time and Sports Illustrated journalist who wrote a pair of well-received novels.

As a boy, Mr Cantwell was bedridden with tuberculosis and a partially detached retina. “The cure was to lock me in a dark room with a thick vest over my chest to prevent coughing,” he recalled in a 2016 “Ask Me Anything” interview on Reddit. “I spent almost TWO YEARS of my childhood immobile in this dark room. Suffice it to say, nothing else could slow me down after that! ”

Mr Cantwell studied at the University of California at Los Angeles, where he made student films and received his bachelor’s degree in applied arts in 1957.

During the 1969 moon landing, he served as a liaison between CBS broadcaster Walter Cronkite and NASA, listening to the lines of communication between the Apollo 11 astronauts and Mission Control so he could update Cronkite on the progress of the space capsule.

By then, he had already started making scientific and commercial films and used his technical expertise for big-budget shots. Traveling to London, he helped Kubrick shoot the space scene for “2001” and became friends with the director; years later, he remembers visiting Kubrick’s house one evening and, while eating a turkey sandwich, suggesting the film’s dramatic opening scene, an image of the sky of the sun, moon and Earth being printed onto Richard Strauss’s “Also sprach Zarathustra”, which became the main film. theme.

Cantwell later wrote and directed “Voyage to the Outer Planets”, a feature-length journey through the solar system that takes place at what is now the Fleet Science Center in San Diego, and contributed technical dialogue to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).

He also worked as a computer graphics consultant for Hewlett-Packard, helping to develop one of the first color display systems for desktop computers. Cantwell used the system to create graphics for the Cold War techno-thriller “WarGames” (1983), in which a dozen giant computer screens flashed with the positions of Soviet nuclear missiles.

Cantwell then undertook quantum physics research, according to his colleague Dall, in addition to writing a two-volume science fiction epic called “CoreFires.” He rarely spoke about his “Star Wars” work until he was in his mid-80s, when he started appearing at fan conventions and selling prints of his concept art, after decades when far more fans seemed to know the work of collaborators like McQuarrie.

Interviewed by the Denver Post, he said he felt that Lucas had underestimated his role in the creation of “Star Wars” because Mr Cantwell had turned down an offer to run the director’s special effects shop, Industrial Light & Magic. He was far less interested in continuing his effects work, he said, than pursuing new avenues of discovery.

“Colin once told me that this is the way he lives his life, that he likes to create things that people can’t think of,” Dall told the Denver Post. “That’s how he gets into things: He’ll come up with original, creative and smart ideas that people will see, and then they can’t go back.”

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