Q&A with Colin Cantwell


With Colin Cantwell & Sierra Dall

When did you start getting interested in space?

When I was in the first grade, I told my teacher that I had already read all the first grade books and asked if I could please read the second grade books and so forth. By the end of the first frade I had finished all of the books in all six grades.. Later when I was still very young, I had stack access to 2 libraries. I was reading in all subjects of interest including most fields of science and technology both present and past. So that was the beginning of my interest in space.

I understand that you suggested UCLA's Animation Major and that you were the first graduate from the program. Can you tell us how that came about?

I was running the animation camera for the classes and making some student films. I then suggested that they add an animation major. I was the first graduate.

How did you get into the movie industry?

After college, I worked with NASA & JPL to create the public information footage explaining NASA's mission goals and its then unfolding results for each rocket launch. Every time there was a mission, I did the graphics and technical background. In addition to NASA I also created some science and commercial film projects.

2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY - 1965

How did you end up working with Stanley Kubrick on the iconic movie "2001 A Space Odyssey"

I had friends that were working with Kubrick on 2001. The film was way behind schedule when they suggested to Kubrick that he invite me to London to help finish the space animation. The film was two thirds completed, but the space scenes had not yet been started. The film up to this point had actually consumed most of their budget. One day the executives from MGM studio came over expecting to see the final film. However, when they came hoping to see the completed scenes, the movie had actually only been finished up to the Intermission. Stanley said "We have to have a meeting"

Even at this point in the movie it was clearly beyond any film that had been made, or in this case not quite made. So they brought me on the day the 60 foot wide front projection system and its shooting stage were physically completed and ready to start testing. Stanley wouldn't allow me to work. His policy was that people from the states had to sleep 24 hours before they could begin production. First thing I did was make folders for all the space scenes. Then I had to start filling the folders for a 24 hour shooting schedule.

I understand that you were responsible for most of the music for 2001 A Space Odyssey" including suggesting the now famous theme song "Also sprach Zarathustra". Can you tell us more about how you worked with Kubrick?

Stanley and I had become friends. One night I was having turkey sandwiches with Stanley at midnight and he had just heard the sound track and it was a total loss. He seemed really distraught, so I asked what was wrong. He said he had fired his fourth composer. I had already spent some time thinking about the music, so I suggested to Stanley "what if …" that the opening scene of the film would be one minute long with title graphics of the Earth in space at sunrise and the "Also sprach Zarathustra" music playing for a dramatic opening. It would then it go into the Dawn of Man sequence with apes on the 60 foot stage.

What was it like working with Kubrick?

I was frequently meeting with Kubrick in his private home across the street. He had a projectionist come in and a few other people for collaboration. But then after everyone had left, he and I often worked until midnight discussing the special effects and the aspects of it. It may have been difficult for others to work with his intensiy but we understood each other and were very compatible.


You were sitting behind Walter Cronkite as the Hal 9000 Computer as he broadcast the First Moon Landing on live TV. Would you tell us about this event and how it unfolded.

Before I got involved, I obtained the mission manual and a stack of detailed mission documents. I studied the mission for quite some time months ahead. If that were a page it would reach for 20 to 30 feet of map pages of the lunar surface with lots of information.

Durimg the landing, I was sitting behind Walter Cronkite as the Hal 9000 computer feeding him the information that he was then broadcasting live on TV. I had continuous access to visuals from the capsules viewpoint from first view of the moon's surface all the way to the landing site. I had to become familiar with the terrain.

There were two people in the capsule. The other astrounaut was orbiting the moon. He was only able to communicate to the other astronauts when he was on the same side of the moon, so they didn't have any way of relaying information.

They had to start with discent from the opposite side of the moon in a curved orbit. From the start of the descent they had to go half way through the landing before they could talk to Earth. They still had to go half way from their current location to the landing spot. At that point in the orbit I realized that there was an unmentioned serious problem. As they got closer, they could tell visually that the terrain was much was much more rugged than they had expected at the landing spot. The closer they got the more urgent the problem. The only solution was to coast past the landing spot and hope that they would find smoother terrain for the landing. So that would mean that they would have to be conserving their fuel enough to still be at a safe altitude before the could be close enough to see the landing space. They had to make the decision early and only the crew and NASA would know how urgent it was. None of that was being discussed over the air. This problem was completely private with the crew during that descent. So I told Walter of the situation and he said he would take care of it.

At this time the other two stations were following the original NASA plan and stated that the Apollo had landed. The station manager was shouting in my ear. "you'll never work again the rest of your life." However, Walter took a risk on me and said "This is interesting, our Hal 9000 Computer says that they are prolonging the orbit to coast over the landing spot"

At this time, we wouldn't know if it was safe to land until they had a good view of the terrain from much closer up. So it was only after they cleared the rough terrain they could complete their descent. I was listening to NASA and waiting for the words "Low Gate" which would indicate they were 300 feet over the landing spot and ready for the vertical descent to land. They were still descending when I heard mission control saying 30 and then 15. That was how many seconds they had to land before before they ran out of enough fuel to take off again. Then we heard the famous words "The Eagle has Landed." At this point the station manager realized that I was right and the other two stations were wrong. He was now yelling "WE WON !! WE WON!!

What was Walter like to work with?

Walter was totally aware of the mission, but totally aware of his unique viewpoint and responsibility regardless of how the mission was going. He was extraordinary to work with. I remember him sitting down before the broadcast smoking a cigarette and putting it out as the last signs of smoke disappeared seconds before the live broadcast began.

How did you get this job?

I had done many mission launches for NASA so I had a good background for this experience.


I also understand that you worked for NASA on some of its space projects. Can you explain what you did?

On the first trip to Mars, two different Mariner space ships were in orbit around Mars taking photos that overlapped slightly in the middle. As a result, the National Geographic Magazine had created a rendering of the Mariner Mars mission in which the magazine had read the photos incorrectly and reversed Mars peaks and valleys in their version of the rendering.

That started me thinking about how I could create a relief map of Mars by using the shadows from the different perspectives from the two Mariner photos that would show the peaks and valleys. The first two photographs from Mars showed equatorial terrain and I thought of a way to map a three dimensional version of it. So my first step was to make a 4 foot by 8 foot table and light the whole thing to cast shadows and then sculpt the third dimension to match the shadows. So on the 4x8 foot table I used side lighting and the two photos to create a plaster sculpture that turned out to be a quite accurate rendering of the terrain.


I understand that you started the concept of kit bashing in which you took pieces from existing model kits to build your models.

Early 70's I had some models that I wasn't going to finish so I threw them in a box. I then looked at the box and decided to put all the pieces together into a Ground Superiority Machine. It only had one gun because it didn't need to establish its superiority very often. I then created the 2nd one by going to poor neighborhoods to find already opened boxes of models. I could then see what types of parts were available to buy for my 2nd model. One of the small people on board was the Captain of the 2nd ship. He was also a philanthropist who donated his fortune to extablish world peace in 1860.

STAR WARS - 1974

How did you meet George Lucas?

My friend Hal Barwood and I had worked on animation in some mutual smaller projects. Hal introduced me to George.

I understand that you showed George your two ship models. Is that what encouraged George to hire you? Tell us how that came about.

George came over to see my work. They were the the first two models practicing my technique. Very shortly George was looking through a camera lens to see different angles of the complex models. He kept exploring how they would look through a viewfinder for camera shots. You could see down passageways and up stairs. He was very interested in the different angles and how realistic the shots were . That is what got George interested in working with me. He then said that he would get back to me and don't tell anyone about the project.

What was it like to work with George Lucas? Did he come up with the ideas and tell you specifically what to do or were the ship designs your ideas?

There was quite a gap between showing George the models and my actually working for him. During this time George had decided to change studios. George was turned down by the first studio. But George saw great potential in the movie and persisted to get an agreement with a studio to proceed with the film.

While Lucas was developing a relationship with a new studio, I came up some concept sketches of what the ships might look like.

After I was hired by Lucas, I had a few meetings with Lucas in which George and I discussed the different kinds of ships.

While you didn't contribute to later scenes, you were closly involved with the opening sequence. Tell us about how you saw that coming together.

The beginning of the film after the scroll, the ship coming by was like one giant dart. It kept coming and it kept coming. Then it had a hatch on the bottom and things kept coming out of the hatch but this was only half way. Then the stern came up and it had the same exaggeration. This is what had to compound itself in the first ½ hour of the film. It had to be all so absurt and different and insanely joyous and perioulous that the audience wouldn't leave. They would want to be in it. The first half hour had to be extraordinaly successful and beyond reason. It had to be a strange kind of joyous. It is all the impossibilities that are playing together and that is what makes it Star Wars. It is so many layers that the different characters showed that they are different but doing this giant parady at the same time.


You said that you came up with the idea of the X-Wing from watching darts being thrown in an English Pub. Can you comment on this?

The X-Wing was the first ship I designed. The X-Wing had to be different from anything previous. So that also meant that it had to do things that were unique. Part of the environment was that it was sort of a single or two person ship with a pilot and possibly a second person on board. It would have wheels and start by being taxied around.

It would also have to take off and land from the ground. It had to engage in combat in a completely diferent way than before. Plus it had to be in scenes from a friendly viewpoint where people were saying their goodbyes while it was on the ground as the characters were preparing to go into combat. The pilot would then get into it and once the captain had the lid down, he would be taking off like an airplane. So it would climb using power and then it would have to arm itself. It would also have to fly in formation and maneuver to avoid in the changing tide of battle.The X-wing had to be unique, I achieved this by having the wings flat while it was on the ground and then they would rotate to split into two pairs in an X shape. Maneuvering had to be very expressive. So the ship was armed by bringing the wings into an X shape. I realized soon that the x shape had to be shallow enough so that it could operate near the ground and then also go to the extreme open X shape so it could fire its weapons. It also had to dive into combat in various situations.

The X wing concept was based on a WWII plane that was highly maneuverable. I thought it had to be slender. which would accentuate the shape on the ground looking like an aircraft crossed with a dragster. It would have to fly in formation and then also be able to do complicated expressive maneuvers. The firing would be from the tips of the wings. This was important because the subliminal aspects had to be symbolic like a cowboy drawing its guns as in a gunfight outside of the saloon. When it was in combat it had to excentuate in a very expressive way. It had a very different combat maneuverability. It owes a lot to the cowboy.

The relation to the darts was months before, but the dart was sender and its success depended upon the target completing a shot. The action of the X-Wing had to be as good as that, but way better.

Putting together the opposites was a very important way to make Star Wars stylistic, but self consistent. The self consistency had to be dramatic but alien. The emotions had to be expressed in spite of the humurous origins. Its like a comic in a super comic book that is so consistent and so much fun that the unfolding of the scenes was so absurd.

What materials did you use to construct the X-Wing model? I understand part of it was consructed from roadster kits?

Before I made the models, I made my nurney drawers with thousands of kit pieces. The drawers were from the floor to about 8 feet high. This was my library. The X-Wing had a roadster body on the main part. The back was like the wings of an airplane. The wings were made from a sheet of plastic.

I used pill containers on the X-Wings and some of the other ships. That became the symbol of the engine part. It was good because from one direction it was capped and the other direction it was hollow.

You also designed the Imperial Cruiser - It was an ominous beginning to the movie. What was your conversation like with Lucas over this?

I had a brief meeting with George in which I asked questions to see how he would answer.

I asked George about the scenes. We had a few words in which he described the scenes. I then asked "Is it bigger than Burbank?" to determine the size of the Imperial Cruiser and the opening scenes of the movie. The hatch concept was developed in terms of the need of actual scenes later in the movie. In the opeing I was describing something WWII ish of a concept with a gunner in the fuscelage. The ship was designed with a lot of thought on what the viewer would experience related to the massiveness of the ship. This involved thinking of things and creating relationships between all of the ships and their interactions with each other.

George and I also discussed several other topics in which I asked qualifying questions. This gave me enough information to start designing the ships. It also gave him the information to continue with his work. I was separate from George for most of that time and worked on the final products.

How did you construct the model?

I was creating what had to be in the middle of it and things were added on and so forth. I basically designed this ship and other ships around the function and the impact of the ship on the viewer. The sequence of function and the emotion and it had to feel like it was already there, but in the beginning I didn't know what it would be.

Death Star

You designed the Death Star. Did George tell you what it should look like or did you come up with the design?

The Death Star design came about because there had to be a Death Star. It had to be that kind of isolation in its simple form. The important aspects had to be known and understood for the nature of the movie.

My initial conversation with George established that the Death Star was a globe of small world size.

How the Death Star got its trench.

The Death Star model was about 14 inches across. I knew what I wanted to do, so I bought one half of a plastic hemisphere and scratched on the surface to try different features. . I ordered the entire sphere, but the order for the two hemispheres took a long time to come. When the two pieces of styrene finally arrived, I realized that the edges had shrunk. When the two half spheres were connected, the shriking equator would be visible when lit from the side.

I realized that it would be an ernoumous amount of work to smooth out the equator when the two halves were connected together, if it could be done at all without showing a ridge during filming. So I called George and asked ". How would you feel about having a trench in the middle of the equator? This way the good guys could dive into the trench while being shot at by the bad guys in some very dramatic scenes." George said, "Let me think about it" A while later he called back and said. "Let's do it, Can you do the extra work?" So that is how the Death Star got its trench.

How did you come up with the idea of the TIE Fighter's unique design?

The TIE Fighter was the last ship that I designed. I had characteristics of the TIE Fighter in my mind for quite a while. I knew that it had to be extremely different. I waited for quite a while after I did other ships to see how the TIE Fighter would fit in. It had to be as strange in its own way and it had to be ecentially different from the good guys. It had to be another world that was deadly in its own world and as strange as the Death Star. To achieve that it had to not be in the start of the film. There were about 5 lines of constraints regarding what it could or could not be seen doing. It was in the script that it could not be used in the same kind of shots as other ships. It had to emerge from its den full form and fully armed.. But you never saw it come out of its hanger. It was always occupied, but there was no way to tell how people got into or out of the ship.

I did many days and hours with myself alone, emerging how these various ships could populate an adventure. And yet drawing on things as primitive as a western gun fight. The style of the whole thing had to have a non verbal unity of its powerful styles. The TIE Fighter was the last ship I designed because I had to see how it fit into the story. It had to have its place with the power of the aliens.

How did you make the model for this? What kit parts did you use?

It was made of plastic sheets

You designed the first Millennium Falcon in the style of a lizard. What happened to that design? Did any of the original design survive to the current design?

The Millennium Falcon was also designed later. The original design was a lizard shape. It was not used because the lizard like gesture was also used by another studio on a different film. So suddenly we had to pull the my model apart and discard the parts that looked like a lizard. When that was discovered, 3 or 4 of the model makers tore the ship apart. Quite a bit of the story had accumulated for several scenes with the millennium falcon. The model makers took the parts of the ship and had to create a ship that fit the story. Some of the elements had to be put together in a different way. One of the parts that survived from my original design was the cockpit and the turrets with the guns.

What is your favorite ship design?

For different parts of the film there had to be as many favored answers are there are sections of the film. It there weren't the film would fail.

If you could fly any ship which one would you want to fly?

It has to be the X-Wing. As soon as I get strapped in, I am hitting that hyper-speed button.


What advice could you offer anyone who might want to start a career in art and film?

Learn as much as possible about your subject. i.e space
Create a short quality original movie for demo purposes
Do many small projects well to build up your reputation
Network with people in the industry



You worked with Stanley Kubrick on 2001. How did that come about and what sort of work did you do on that picture?

Stanley imported me to rescue 2001's lagard "Dawn of Man" and "Space Climax" sections. We quickly established a 24-7 working relationship, both on the lot and at Stanley's midnight London studio. Progress was rapid, and on-screen dailies excellent.

As the months flew by, excellent footage was the norm, and final deadlines loomed. That is until that midnight Stanley told me he'd had to fire his fourth composer because the film's score was unusable. "I've been considering a bold alternative," I told him; "a one-minute triple-eclipse opening scene set to "Also Spract Zarathustra", which would also recur for 2001's "StarBaby" conlusion.

He was even more shocked when I'd played footage of my new opening and closing themes, and additional compositions ready for all the remaining scenes. Two days later he'd OKed them all.

2001 was in many ways a visual precursor to Star Wars. George Lucas himself has called it the “ultimate sci-fi movie” and it has often been cited as a reference for many aspects of Star Wars. Did your work on 2001 influence the look you helped create for Star Wars at all?

Not directly.

It had already led me to create, test, and advance my own key techniques for a this series of feature films.

You were brought on to Star Wars very early. What was the approach like in the early stages before the movie started filming? Were you free to create based on the possibilities your imagination could come up with or did George Lucas have a lot of parameters for you to work within?

After finishing American Grafiti, George arranged to visit my shop and examine the first and second miniature ships that I had created on my own to develop the kit-bashing technology. Peering through his magnifying view finder, he kept finding the potential for shot after shot as if the ships were in a movie. After examining the miniatures and determining that he wanted me to be a part of the film, "Don't tell anyone about this," were his parting words.

I had initial discussions in which George described the storyline. At that point, I used my imagination to create the ships and their appropriate scenes for this new kind of film. We collaborated on the concepts. and there was very little guidance from George.

During shooting of ANH, what was the "Feeling" on the set amongst the crew while shooting a movie with such groundbreaking "technology" at the time? Did you think at the time that ANH would turn out to be something so huge?

It was created, from first to last, to be unique. But who could have foretold it's actual success? And it's eventual progeny?

You were responsible for building the original Death Star model. Did any of your design choices early on in the production have any impact on how things played out on screen?

Yes, time and again.

The creation of the trench at the equator, was pivitol to the development of the storyline.

The models used in Star Wars are known for their high level of detail. Entire segments of fandom have been built on knowing the functions of every nozzle and every button on every ship. How did you approach building these early models and how did you contribute to that sense of realism where every detail has meaning?

In Star Wars each ship was created for its unique role in the massive and complex adventure even into future films. Each ship had specific characteristics and details to make them come alive on the screen.

Which of your Star Wars designs are you most proud of?

I'm most proud of them all, each individually, fervently playing it's own part in becoming "Star Wars"

It's still alive and well, thanks to it's world wide fan support.

How did working on the world building of the Star Wars universe compare to some of your other big productions at the time? Did the process of creating Star Wars really feel as revolutionary in its scale and scope as it gets credited for?

My other projects such as sitting behind Walter Cronkite and giving him the information that he broadcast on live TV during the first Moon landing and also working closely with Stanley Kubrick on "2001, A Space Odyssey" were equally, if not more revolutionary than Star Wars. But, that being said… Star Wars is still alive with releases yet to come.

Have you seen either of the two new Star Wars films (The Force Awakens and Rogue One) ? If so, did you enjoy the new films?

Yes, I saw them and I was very pleased with the quality.

With the evolution of the Star Wars Saga over the years, we’ve seen the aesthetic of Star Wars ships and technology radically change, but for these most recent films it seems to have gone back to the designs you originally worked on. Have any of the more recent developments in the design of the films stood out or impressed you?

Both have impressed me and I'm Looking forward to the next one.

You worked on a number of iconic films during your career but 1983’s War Games was your last credit. Why did you choose to leave the business?

After War Games I focused on writing my book CoreFires.

What are you up to now? Any projects you are working on or recently completed?

Part 1 of my book CoreFires was finally published last year and at this point I am attending ComicCons and other events to promote my book. CoreFires Part 2 will be out sometime next year.