Star Wars Legend Artist Colin Cantwell Visits

By Joanne A Calitri   |   June 6, 2019
Computer engineer and concept artist-model maker for Star Warsand more, seated center is Colin Cantwell with his partner Sierra Dall, and Metro Entertainment store manager Jim Tourville

Pinch me indeed, and thanks to the Force that brought Colin Cantwell to our town Saturday, May 25, greeted by a fleet of Storm Troopers and fans like Montecito Rotary Club President John Lucchetti with his sons, at Metro Entertainment: Comics, Games, Toys & More store on Anacapa Street. A computer genius and inventor, he is also the concept artist behind George Lucas’s iconic cult movie, Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope.

Basically a recluse until 2014, Cantwell, at 85 years young, started touring and merch’ing his art works and books, at the urging of his long-time domestic partner Ms Sierra Dall. The two live in Boulder, Colorado. He never told her about his work in the film industry, while he worked in computer engineering and was writing his sci-fi novel, CoreFires, but when they had to move, she found boxes of his art drawings, models, scripts, computer monitors, and more in the basement. This led to an auction of some goods for much needed income, and then a tour.

A UCLA grad in animation, Colin’s resume lists working with George Lucas to design the X-Wing, TIE Fighter, Y-Wing, Death Star, Millennium Falcon, and Star Destroyer ships. He stayed on until Lucas started Industrial Light and Magic, a breakup which caused his name to be erased from its history. Other projects include Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and its theme song, “Also sprach Zarathustra,” Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, War Games, Buck Rogers, Mars, The Search Begins, Around the World in 80 Days, being Walter Cronkite’s “Hal 9000” NASA connection during live broadcast of the first moon landing, 1969, owing to Cantwell’s live audio feed of NASA and astronaut communications, designed the first IMAX theater for the San Diego Hall of Science, and Hewlett Packards’ multicolor computer monitor.

Rolling in on his chair, with his black leather cowboy hat and big smile, he spoke gently and with great wit about his work. Highlights from his talk and video presentation were:

The Death Star’s infamous “trench” at its equator was created by default. Colin said, “We didn’t originally plan for the Death Star to have a trench, but when I was working with the mold, I noticed the two halves had shrunk at the point where they met across the middle. It would have taken a week of work just to fill and sand and re-fill this depression. So, to save me the labor, I went to George and suggested a trench, with armaments projecting from the sides of the trench resulting in battles with starships flying in and out of the trench. Lucas agreed, and it became a key point in the film.”

Parts for the ship models were taken from other models, and scraps like panty hose containers, pill bottles and lamp pieces.

The initial Millennial Falcon design was a lizard, but the idea had to be scrapped as the film Space 1999 was using a similar model. Other artists re-worked his design and kept the WWII style cockpit with gun turrets.

The X-Wing originally had wheels for take-off, later replaced with landing pads.

Lucas wanted the Imperial Cruiser to be “bigger than Burbank.” Colin designed it like a paper airplane with a vanishing point that when filmed from underneath in the opening scene would get larger as it faded into the distance of space, and it actually takes a full 12 seconds to show the entire ship as it passes above the camera.

Metro store manager Jim Tourville told me at the shop, “I received a call from Colin’s agent asking me if we ever heard of him. I was like, YES! It happened that Colin’s visit here is on the anniversary of the film’s 1977 release, official Star Wars day! We were so glad to have him come to the store and talk about his creative work in the film industry, especially for George Lucas, not just because it brought in a big, passionate crowd, but I think it’s important for people to see that these entertainment franchises like Star Wars or Batman all started with an individual’s passion to show the world a new way of telling stories. It’s humbling to realize that some of the most iconic elements of 1977’s Star Wars happened as a result of trial and error, experimenting with new mediums and thoughtful solutions to production challenges. What Colin Cantwell represents is that we all have the potential to stoke a creative fire that could someday swell to Star Wars heights.” 



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