Star Wars spacecraft designer Colin Cantwell visits Medford
You probably know at least one of these iconic cinema lines.
“That’s no moon. It’s a space station.”
“Two of them, coming right at us.”
“What a piece of junk!”
All three are descriptors for spacecraft from the Star Wars universe. Or galaxy, if you prefer, the one that’s far, far away. They refer to the ominous sphere-shaped Death Star, the blade-like form of a Star Destroyer, and sleek-but-weathered Millennium Falcon.
On Sunday, local Star Wars fans got to meet the man behind the original designs for those ships. Colin Cantwell, credited on the Internet Movie Database for “additional spacecraft design: miniature and 1977 optical effects unit” for “Star Wars: A New Hope” — the first movie to be released in the long-running series — stopped by Astral Games downtown. Fans got to see a video presentation in which he detailed back stories behind the famous ships. Afterward, anyone could stick around, purchase signed prints and snap a photo with the ship architect behind the famed science fiction franchise.
“It’s great to meet someone who is iconic and the inspiration (and) design behind a lot of the shows that were my childhood,” said Astral Games owner Aaron Hassell.
Now 88, Cantwell grew up in the San Francisco area then eventually moved to Phoenix with his family for health reasons, according to longtime partner Sierra Dall, who spoke on Cantwell’s behalf. Later in life, he was the first graduate of UCLA’s animation department, which he had suggested, according to his website, colincantwell.com.
With a keen interest in space and design, Cantwell eventually found himself working at NASA. Initially, he volunteered to work for the agency, getting his foot in the door and developing many of their public educational programs.
“It wasn’t any one set period of time,” Dall said of Cantwell’s NASA career. “It was on and off for a number of years. He would get on a job and then he would do something else and then come back again at a later time.”
He sat behind CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite during the first Apollo moon landing in 1969, feeding information to him based on the astronauts’ conversations he could hear in an earpiece. When other stations reported the astronauts had landed, Cantwell said, correctly, that they actually hadn’t yet.
“They were following the exact space manual. Theoretically, they should have landed on the timeline,” Dall said of the other station’s mistake. “The reality is they couldn’t land. The ground was too rough and they couldn’t set down where they thought they wanted to. So Colin was telling Walter, ‘No, they haven’t landed,’ and the station manager is yelling in his ear, ‘You’ll never work again the rest of your life.’”
But Cantwell stuck to what turned out to be the correct information.
He would also work with director Stanley Kubrick on “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Credited for “special photographic effects,” according to the Internet Movie Database, he designed many of the space scenes, including the film’s iconic opening in which the moon, Earth and sun align while Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” played.
“That was all Colin’s idea,” Dall said.
Cantwell’s work on Star Wars happened because of a messy method of model construction called “kitbashing,” where different pieces of multiple scale models are assembled later to make new designs.
“He wanted to show the movies how to make models differently than what they’d been doing,” Dall said.
A friend who was working on the movie “American Graffiti” — directed by George Lucas — introduced the two so Lucas could see some of Cantwell’s work. Soon, the two were working together, with Cantwell helping design what would later become the Star Destroyers, X-Wings, and numerous other ships battling in space.
In a video presentation given at Astral, an on-screen Cantwell recalled the inspiration for several of the designs. Regarding the Star Destroyer — or Imperial Cruiser — Cantwell said the size of the ship, at first, confused him.
“So I asked (George Lucas), ‘Is it bigger than Burbank?’” Cantwell said in the video. “And he said, ‘Yes, bigger than Burbank. Make it so.’”
Later, that bigger-than-Burbank spacecraft would be one of two ships in the opening scene of “A New Hope,” a dagger-shaped monstrosity chasing a Rebel Blockade Runner that had stolen Death Star plans on board over the planet Tatooine.
On the Rebellion side, the first design for Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon had to be almost entirely scrapped because of numerous similarities between it and the ship in the “Space: 1999” TV series.
“It had many strikes against it,” Cantwell said.
Other Cantwell movie credits include 1977’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” 1979’s “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century” and 1983’s “WarGames.”
Myles Stevenson, a longtime Star Wars fan who grew up collecting many of the toys and models, said he has long been interested in Cantwell’s designs.
“All of his work was awesome, and I always wondered how he did it,” Stevenson said. “I kind of knew he did stuff with model ships, like he kind of combined them together, but just to see some of the actual artwork that he did and how he came to it is just — it’s kind of mind boggling just how he was so creative and figured out just to combine all these pieces together.”
Cantwell is “pleased” by the enduring popularity of the Star Wars films, Dall said. He’s also not terribly surprised.
“I think he expected the movie to be something that had longevity,” she said. “Maybe not this long, but I think he expected it to have a major impact.”
Reach web editor Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanPfeil.