September 25, 2023


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'Star Wars' designer Colin Cantwell dies;  Made TIE fighters and X-Wings

‘Star Wars’ designer Colin Cantwell dies; Made TIE fighters and X-Wings

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Colin Cantwell, a concept artist, animator and computer engineer who helped resurrect the Star Wars universe, design and build prototypes for an epic fleet of spacecraft – from the TIE fighter to the elegant arrow-shaped X-wing – and tender the Death Star with its bizarre appearance and fatal flaw (trench) in its May 21 at his home in Colorado Springs. He was 90 years old.

Sierra Dall, his partner of 24 years and only direct survivor, said the cause was dementia.

Mr. Cantwell, a veteran of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, created educational programs to teach the public about early space launches, and worked with directors including Stanley Kubrick, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, to develop 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 on 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 fairly quiet guy, very kind, and very talented,” said Craig Miller, Lucasfilm’s former director of fan relations.

When Lucas hired Mr. Cantwell in late 1974, the director was still negotiating funding with Twentieth Century Fox, working on concepts like The Force and fixing a script that was tentatively titled “Adventures of the Starkiller, Ep. 1: Star Wars.” The text mentioned a number of spacecraft, but gave vague descriptions of what they looked like and how they move.

Mr. Cantwell was tasked with filling in the details, with instructions from Lucas to make the ships look realistic but with “comic book nobility,” according to Brian Jay Jones’ book “George Lucas: Life.” He exchanged sketches with the director before landing on the final sketches he used to make his models, and assembled plastic miniatures from thousands of pieces—including grain containers, lamp parts, and parts from commercial model kits for planes, cars, and boats—that he stored in an eight-foot-tall stack of drawers.

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Whether viewed individually or collectively, gliding across the screen in formation or chasing each other in violent battle, Mr. Cantwell wanted them to be instantly recognizable, and to engender a sense of nervousness or excitement depending on their place in Lucas’ epic fantasy. “My premise was that you should immediately tell the bad from the good… by how [a ship] Look and feel,” he said at 2014 interview Website for the Original Elements Blog.

His design for the X-Wing, the superstar of the Rebel Alliance, was inspired by seeing an arrow thrown in an English pub and was meant to refer to the image of a cowboy drawing his rifles outside a saloon. On the other hand, his elegant Millennium Falcon prototype was supposed to evoke a lizard that was poised to attack – and was instead used as the basis for the rebel siege runner shown in the film opening scene. (Other artists, including Joe Johnston and Ralph McQuarrie, eventually contributed to the Millennium Falcon’s worn, hamburger-style look.)

Mr. Cantwell also created prototypes of the Imperial Star destroyer, the wedge-shaped ship that filled the screen at the film’s opening moments (to determine its size, Lucas asked if the ship was supposed to be “bigger than Burbank”; the answer was yes), and created the Death Star, The space station equipped with a laser and capable of destroying entire planets.

The film’s climax is marked by an attack across the Death Star’s equator, in which Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) flies through a canyon-like trench to launch torpedoes at the space station’s weak spot. As Mr. Cantwell told her, the scene arose by chance, after he had nearly finished making a model Death Star out of a plastic ball about 14 inches in diameter.

The ball came in two halves, which he turned into a Death Star by scratching features in its surface, but the two halves shrunk in the middle where they were supposed to meet. “It would have taken a week of work just to fill, sand, and refill this depression,” he said in an interview. Montecito California magazine. “So, to save my business, I went to George and suggested a trench, with armaments prominent from the sides of the trench resulting in fights with spaceships flying in and out of the trench. Lucas agreed, and it became a major point in the movie.”

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Colin James Cantwell was born in San Francisco on April 3, 1932. His father was a commercial artist, and his mother worked as a ripper during World War II to support the military effort. 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 treatment was confined to a dark room with a heavy jacket over my chest to prevent coughing fits,” he said. It was called in 2016 Reddit “Ask Me Anything” interview. “I spent nearly two years of my childhood paralyzed in this dark room. Suffice it to say, nothing else could slow me down then!”

Mr. Cantwell studied at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he made films for students and received his Bachelor of Applied Arts degree in 1957.

During the moon landing in 1969, he acted as a conduit between CBS anchor Walter Cronkite and NASA, listening for a line of communications between Apollo 11 astronauts and Mission Control so he could update Cronkite on the space capsule’s progress.

By then, he had started making science and commercial films and was using his technical expertise to shoot portraits on a big budget. He traveled to London, helped Kubrick shoot space scenes for “2001” and befriended the director; Years later, he recalled visiting Kubrick’s house one night, and while eating turkey sandwiches, he recalled that the movie Dramatic opening scenea celestial image of the sun, moon and earth recorded by Richard Strauss “also sprach Zarathustra”, which became the main theme of the film.

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Mr. Cantwell later wrote and directed Journey to the Exoplanets, a large-screen trip across the solar system that took 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 a desktop computer. Mr. Cantwell used this system to create graphics for the tech-savvy Cold War thriller War Games (1983), in which dozens of supercomputer screens flicker at Soviet nuclear missile sites.

Mr. Cantwell later conducted research in quantum physics, according to his partner, Dahl, as well as writing a two-volume science fiction epic called “CoreFires”. He rarely talked about his work on “Star Wars” until his mid-80s, when he began appearing at fan conventions and selling prints of his concept art, after decades more fans seemed to know the work of collaborators like McQuarrie.

interview by Denver Post, said he felt Lucas had diminished his role in creating “Star Wars” because Mr. Cantwell had turned down an offer to run the director’s special effects store, Industrial Light & Magic. He said he was less interested in continuing his influential work than in pursuing new avenues of invention.

“Colin once told me that’s the way he lived his life, and that he loves to create things that people can’t even think of,” Dall told The Denver Post. “That’s how he got into a lot of things: he would come up with original, creative, smart ideas that people would look at, and then they couldn’t go back.”