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‘Star Wars’ creator Colin Cantwell dies; made 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, designing and building prototypes for a fleet of epic starships, from the menacing TIE fighter to the sleek X-wing dart-shaped and killing The alien-looking star with the fatal flaw (a trench coat), died May 21 at his home in Colorado Springs. He was 90 years old.

The cause was dementia, said Sierra Dall, her 24-year-old partner and sole immediate survivor.

A veteran of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where he created educational programs to educate the public about early space launches, Cantwell went on to work with directors such as Stanley Kubrick 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).

But he was best known for his work on George Lucass Star Wars (1977), when he created the early designs for many of the films’ most memorable ships, helping to define the look of the hit franchise even if he only worked on his first opus. . He was a fairly quiet, very nice, and extremely talented man, said Craig Miller, former director of fan relations at Lucasfilm.

In a statement, Lucas said Colin’s imagination and creativity were evident from the start, adding that his artistry helped me build the visual foundation for so many ships that are instantly recognizable today. His talent was and remains evident to all.

When the filmmaker hired Mr. Cantwell in late 1974, Lucas was still negotiating financing with Twentieth Century Fox, working on concepts such as the Force and revising a script tentatively titled Adventures of the Starkiller, Ep. stars. The script mentioned a number of starships, but offered only vague descriptions of what they looked like and how they moved.

Mr. Cantwell was tasked with filling in the details, commissioned by Lucas to make the ships look realistic but with cartoonish 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 pill boxes, lamp parts and parts. of commercial model kits for airplanes, cars, and boats that he stored in a set of eight-foot-tall drawers.

Whether the spacecraft are shown individually 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 science of Lucas. fictional epic. My premise was that you instantly had to tell the bad guys from the good guys by how [a ship] look and feel, he says in a 2014 interview for the Original Prop Blog website.

His design for the X-wing, the Rebel Alliances’ signature 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 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 films. opening scene. (Other artists, including Joe Johnston and Ralph McQuarrie, eventually contributed to the Millennium Falcons’ worn-out, hamburger-like look.)

Mr. Cantwell also created prototypes for the Imperial Star Destroyer, the wedge-shaped ship that fills the screen in the opening moments of the film (to determine its size, he asked Lucas 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 capable of destroying entire planets.

The film’s climax included an attack across the Death Star equator, in which Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) flies through a canyon-like trench to fire torpedoes at space stations, a weak point. As Mr. Cantwell said, the scene came about by chance, after he had almost finished making the Death Star model from 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, 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 accepted 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, Mr Cantwell was bedridden with tuberculosis and a partially detached retina. The remedy was to confine myself to a dark room with a big vest over my chest to avoid coughing fits, it 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!

Mr. 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 communication line between the Apollo 11 astronauts and mission control so he could brief Cronkite on progress. space capsules.

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 recalls visiting Kubricks’ house one evening and, while dining on turkey sandwiches, suggesting the movies dramatic opening scenea celestial image of the sun, moon and Earth written for Richard Strauss. Also sprach Zarathustra, which became the main theme of the film.

Mr. Cantwell later wrote and directed Voyage to the Outer Planets, a big-screen journey through the solar system that took place in what is now the Fleet Science Center in San Diego, and contributed to technical dialogue for 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 the system to create graphics for the Cold War techno-thriller WarGames (1983), in which a dozen giant computer screens flash with the positions of Soviet nuclear missiles.

Mr Cantwell went on to conduct research in quantum physics, according to his partner, Dall, in addition to writing a two-volume sci-fi epic called CoreFires. He rarely talked about his Star Wars work until he reached his mid-80s, when he began appearing at fan conventions and selling prints of his concept art, after decades where many more fans seemed to know about the work of collaborators such as McQuarrie.

Interviewed by denver post, he said he felt Lucas underestimated his role in the creation of Star Wars because Mr. Cantwell 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 imagine, Dall told the Denver Post. That’s how he got into a lot of things: he would come up with ideas that were so original, creative, and clever that people looked at them, and then they couldn’t go back.

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