Colin Cantwell: concept artist behind the Death Star


Colin Cantwell, a concept artist, animator and computer engineer who helped bring the Star Wars universe to life, designing and building prototypes for a fleet of epic starships – from the menacing TIE fighter to the sleek X-wing dart-shaped – and giving the Death Star, her alien looks and her fatal flaw (a trench coat), died at the age of 90.

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

He was best known for his work on star wars (1977). He created the early designs for many of the film’s most memorable ships, helping to define the look of the hit franchise, even though he only worked on its first installment.

When Lucas hired Cantwell in late 1974, the director was still negotiating budgets with 20th Century Fox, working out concepts such as the Force and revising a script tentatively titled “Adventures of the Starkiller, Ep. 1: Star Wars The script mentioned a number of starships, but offered only vague descriptions of what they looked like and how they moved.

Cantwell was tasked with filling in the details, instructed by Lucas to make the ships look realistic but with “comic book nobility”, according to Brian Jay Jones’ book George Lucas: A Life. He swapped drawings with the director before landing on the final sketches which he used to make his models, assembling plastic miniatures from thousands of parts – including pillboxes, lamp parts and parts. of commercial model kits for planes, cars and boats – which he stocked. in a set of drawers 8 feet high.

Whether the starships are shown singly or en masse, zipping across the screen in formation or chasing each other in dogfight, Cantwell wanted them to be instantly recognizable and generate a sense of jitters or excitement based on their place in the scene. Lucas’ sci-fi saga. . “My premise was that you instantly had to tell the bad guys from the good guys…by the way [a ship] looks and feels,” he said in a 2014 interview for the Original Prop Blog website.

His design for the X-wing, the Rebel Alliance’s iconic starfighter, was inspired by seeing a dart thrown at an English pub and was meant to suggest the image of a cowboy firing his guns outside a a saloon. His sleek initial model for the Millennium Falcon, on the other hand, was meant to evoke a lizard that was about to strike – and was instead used as the basis for the rebel blockade runner that appears in the opening scene. of the movie. (Other artists, including Joe Johnston and Ralph McQuarrie, eventually contributed to the Millennium Falcon’s worn-in, hamburger-like look.)

Cantwell also created prototypes for the Imperial Star Destroyer, the wedge-shaped ship that fills the screen in the film’s opening moments (to determine its size, he asked Lucas if the ship was meant to be “bigger than Burbank”; the answer was yes), and created the Death Star, the space station capable of destroying entire planets.

The film’s climax was an attack across the Death Star’s equator, in which Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) flies through a canyon-like trench to fire torpedoes at the only weak point in the space station. As Cantwell said, the scene came about by chance, after he was almost done making the Death Star model out of a plastic sphere measuring about 14 inches in diameter.

The sphere came in two halves, which he transformed into the Death Star by scratching strokes on its surface, but the halves shrunk in the middle where they were supposed to meet. “It would have taken a week of work just to fill and sand and fill that depression,” he said in an interview with the Montecito Journal of California. “So, to save myself some work, I went to George and suggested a trench, with armaments protruding from the sides of the trench, which resulted in battles with starships flying in and out of the trench Lucas agreed and it became a key point of 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 a riveter during World War II to support the military effort. One of his uncles was Robert Cantwell, a journalist for Time and Sports Illustrated who wrote a pair of well-received novels.

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

Cantwell studied at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he made student films and graduated with a Bachelor of Applied Arts in 1957.

During the 1969 moon landing, he served as a link between CBS broadcaster Walter Cronkite and Nasa, listening in on the line of communication between the Apollo 11 astronauts and mission control so he could brief Cronkite on the progress of the moon landing. the space capsule.

By then he had started making science and commercial films and was using his technical expertise for big-budget pictures. Traveling to London, he helped Kubrick shoot space scenes for 2001 and befriended the director; years later, he recalled visiting Kubrick’s house one evening and, while dining on turkey sandwiches, suggested the film’s dramatic opening scene, a celestial image of the sun, moon, and de la Terre scored “Also sprach Zarathustra” by Richard Strauss, which became the main film. theme.

Cantwell later wrote and directed Journey to the Outer Planetsa big-screen journey through the solar system that took place in the current Fleet Science Center in San Diego, and contributed to the technical dialogue for Dating 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 a desktop computer. Cantwell used the system to create graphics for the Cold War techno-thriller War games (1983), in which a dozen giant computer screens flash with the positions of Soviet nuclear missiles.

Cantwell then conducted research in quantum physics, according to his partner, Dall, in addition to writing a two-volume sci-fi epic titled Core Fires. He rarely spoke of his star wars work until he reached his mid-eighties, when he began appearing at fan conventions and selling prints of his concept art, after decades when many more fans seemed to know the work of collaborators such as McQuarrie.

Asked by the Denver Posthe said he felt Lucas underestimated his role in creating star wars because Cantwell had declined an offer to run the director’s special effects shop, Industrial Light & Magic. He was much less interested in continuing his work on effects, he said, than in pursuing new avenues of invention.

“Colin once told me that was how he went through life, that he loved to create things that people couldn’t forget,” Dall told the Denver Post. “That’s how he got into a lot of things: he was coming up with ideas that were so original, creative, and clever that people looked at them, and then they couldn’t go back.”

Colin Cantwell, concept artist and computer engineer, born April 3, 1932, died May 21, 2022

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