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Old jet bits, Vader's motorbike gear, sonic oddness: Hats off to Star Wars' creative heroes

You'll never believe Cantina scene's design

Star Wars special The Star Wars universe is undeniably George Lucas’ creation, but many, many other people helped realise his conception by designing and making the clothes, the devices, the environments and the starships of his imagination.

They contributed enormously to sense of physical reality the films project and which is just as much a cause of its success as the story and its characters. It takes a lot to get an audience not merely willingly suspend its disbelief but to do so to such an extent that they feel almost a part of the action.

Star Wars didn’t just succeed in that endeavour that once; it did so in five more films across almost four decades with film number-seven - Episode VII - The Force Awakens the latest.

That’s surely a testament to the series’ consistency of vision. Lucas always worked to ensure a continuity of experience though each of his two trilogies and even across all six films, even while allowing each movie’s creative team ample opportunity to bring something of their own to the series. Nothing jars like, for example, a sudden change of uniform – between Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Wrath of Khan, say – or of a key prop: witness how the redesigned Daleks have quietly withdrawn from the past few series of Doctor Who.

Ideally, of course, you hire the same creative people to work on all six films, but these folk are self-employed - they’re not always able to come and work on your latest picture, or may simply not want to. That’s even more the case when there are 16 years between the two trilogies.

Inevitably, then, you have to make use of what has gone before. That ultimately means going back to the very first film. Star Wars became the template for its two sequels and its influence reaches across the decades to the prequel trilogy. Ten years on from the release of Revenge of the Sith, a new team has produced the first of a third trilogy. Thirty-eight years on from the series’ debut and at least two decades on in story terms, the production team has naturally chosen to update the look. Yet The Force Awakens remains utterly true to the look and feel of the original.

millennium falcon

The fastest hunk of junk in the universe: The Millennium Falcon

It’s time, then, to celebrate some of the key creative minds who defined not only the look of low-budget sci-fi flick that was never expected to amount to much but in turn heavily influenced the six movies that followed it - and the many more to come.

Star Wars’ overall visual look was ultimately the work of John Barry: not the film composer best known for his Bond themes, but the architect-turned-stage designer who became Star Wars’ Production Designer.

Barry was born in London in 1935 and after school embarked on a career in architecture. But the young man also had an interest in the theatre and he became involved in designing sets for the stage. This led to design work in film and TV throughout the 1960s, including contributions to Cleopatra and Danger Man. In 1970, he got his first production designer credit, on Kelly’s Heroes, followed by A Clockwork Orange a year later and Phase IV in 1973.

Other projects followed, but it was a recommendation from his boss on Danger Man, art director Elliot Scott, that put him on George Lucas’ radar in 1975. Lucas met Barry on the set of Lucky Lady and discussed the sci-fi movie he was working on and his desire to present a "realistic" universe. “George wants to make it look like its shot on location on your average everyday Death Star or Mos Eisley Spaceport or local cantina,” Barry told American Cinematographer magazine in 1977.

“[Lucas] didn't want anything to stand out, he wanted it all real and used,” Roger Christian, who was working with Barry on Lucky Lady and met Lucas too, told Esquire in 2014.

Nuremberg rally, photo Everett Historical via Shutterstock

History's villains: the SS at Nuremberg during the 1930s

Barry "got" the goal Lucas was seeking to achieve and so was asked to be Star Wars’ Production Designer. Christian got pulled in too, as set decorator, and Barry’s art director on Lucky Lady, Norman Reynolds, came on board as one of two art directors (with Leslie Dilley, best known for his stunning production design work on James Cameron’s The Abyss).

From the stark white hi-tech interior of Princess Leia’s blockade runner to the grey passageways, lift-shafts, hangers and offices of the Death Star - those groups of lit lozenges are an iconic part of Imperial architecture - to the Millennium Falcon’s cylindrical corridors with its grimy padding, Barry sketched drawings and plans that the set construction and dressing crew would assemble in Elstree Studios, Borehamwood, ready for filming in the summer of 1976.

Barry and his team didn’t have much in the way of a budget, so they attempted to make use of as many "found" objects as they could. A fair few of the Tatooine props, not to mention the Light Sabre grips, were built from parts from early jet aircraft. “We bought thousands of pounds worth of aircraft junk and took it to pieces,” said Barry at the time. “You can imagine the complexity of drawing that would have to go into making those very complex sculpted forms. But when you just take apart a jet engine, you get wonderful things.

“All the bar equipment in the cantina, those are all the combustion chambers from jet engines, which we sprayed with a metallic gold process and put light in the bubbles and all the rest. But they have an interest, because somebody’s worked over it and some intelligence has gone into them, so they are far more interesting than anything you could have made from scratch in the time available.”

Star Wars storm troopers

Star Wars Episode 7's own Nuremberg look

This "make do" approach extended to entire locations. Matmata in Tunisia is home to folk who live in caves cut into the sides of huge pits, the better to shield themselves from the heat of the sun in summer and the sunless desert cold of winter. One of these, the Hotel Sidi Driss, was put to use as the Lars’ homestead.

There’s no doubt Barry’s approach helped create a genuine sense of place that went a long way to sell the shots on Tatooine, just as his architect’s eye resulted in entirely convincing hi-tech starship and space station interiors. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ judges thought so too and Barry, Reynolds, Dilley and Christian shared an Oscar for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration.

After Star Wars, Barry was much in demand. He worked on Superman and Superman II, both shot back-to-back though the sequel wasn’t released until 1980, two years after the first film. Even before Star Wars, Barry had a desire to develop a film of his own, and was given the chance to do so in Saturn 3, which he conceived but was persuaded to hand final scriptwriting duties to novelist Martin Amis at the suggestion of producer Stanley Donen, for whom he had been working when George Lucas came to call. The Amis script helped secure funding from ITC’s Lord Grade, causing Barry to stop working on The Empire Strikes back, then in pre-production.

However, shooting had barely begun when Barry was forced out. Whether he lost the support of the film’s star, Kirk Douglas, or of Grade, who was worried about a clearly lengthening production schedule - a result of the film’s highly complex humanoid robot prop; no mere man-in-a-suit like C3PO - isn’t known. Either way, Barry left the production early in 1979. But at least had a friend in George Lucas, who immediately took him back on as second unit director on Empire. Barry started work on set mid-May, but early in June, he collapsed with a high fever and was rushed off the set to hospital where he died early the following morning. He was 44.

Barry’s successor as production designer, Norman Reynolds, maintained his established aesthetic in Empire. Reynolds took over when Barry when Saturn 3 got the green light. He had just worked under Barry as art director on Superman and Superman II. As Reynolds moved up to become production designer, Leslie Dilley became sole art director. Both men reprised these roles on Return of the Jedi. John Mollo didn’t work on Jedi, but his costume design work on Star Wars and Empire left perhaps even a greater legacy.

TIE fighters

TIE fighters - ball, plus solar panels with Banshee-like scream

Mollo, like John Barry, was born in London, but four years earlier, in 1931. It was his boyhood fascination with Napoleonic militaria, rather than his training as a civil engineer, that brought him into the movie business: as a technical advisor on the 1968 film Charge of the Light Brigade.

He had been recommended to the film’s director, Tony Richardson, by his brother Andrew, also a director. Work on a number of other historical epics followed, including Nicholas and Alexandra, the movie that brought a certain Tom Baker to the attention of the Doctor Who production team.

Star Wars was next for Mollo. Lucas hired him because he wanted the Empire’s minions to look authentically military and to be clearly part of the same organisation. Lucas was also taken by Mollo’s understated work, his view that if the audience noticed the costumes, the production team had not done its job properly. The last thing he wanted was bright primary colours or silver and chrome, all staples of sci-fi costumes up to that point.

“Basically, George wanted the Empire to look like fascists, and the rebels casual Americans... Obi-Wan Kenobi to look like a cross between a monk and a Samurai... We agreed early on that the [Imperial] army should have a booted look, like the Germans in 1939, but actually their tunics look more like 1914-18 ones,” Mollo told Starburst magazine in 1981.

Star Wars rebel pilot

The rebel pilot's unform comprised parts of old overflow pipes

But what of the ultimate Imperial, Darth Vader? The Lord of the Sith’s look grew out of a painting made by artist Ralph MacQuarrie as part of Lucas’ pitch to movie studios. But it was Mollo who turned the sleek, almost 1930s-style concept into a costume at home in a realist film of the 1970s: “The first Darth Vader was wearing a motorcycle suit, a sort of opera cloak, a Nazi steel helmet, a gas mask and a medieval breast plate, all brought in from different departments and put on. It seemed to work.”

Like the sets, the Star Wars costumes were created with a "make do" ethos: rebel pilots’ air tubes were formed from bath overflow pipes; the Imperial cap badges from old record player pulley wheels. Darth Vader’s look would be refined and eventually constructed specially. Likewise that other iconic costume, the Stormtrooper, “white instead of black so it’s less obvious”. The prequel trilogy’s two types of Clone Trooper armour wouldn’t have looked the way they do without Mollo’s influence, which is just as clear in The Force Awaken’s evolved design.

Star Wars done, Mollo was asked by Ridley Scott to design Alien’s industrial workplace fatigues and spacesuits. Then it was back for Empire’s chillier, darker mood. Sci-fi thriller Outland followed and then a change of pace: Gandhi, for which he won is second Oscar - the first was, of course, for Star Wars.

Ben Burtt won his first Oscar for Star Wars too. Like Norman Reynolds, he’d went on to win another for Raiders of the Lost Ark. ET got him a third. Burtt is one of the few Star Wars creative crew members to appear in all the Star Wars films, including The Force Awakens. His contribution: the sound effects.

Sound effects are perhaps the least recognised creative input into a film or TV production, but they are as important to selling the picture as the look. It’s hard to overstate Burtt’s contribution. There are the obvious examples, of course: the hum of a forcefully swung light sabre makes and the crash when it ricochets off another one; the hiss of a Sith iron lung; the whistles, bleeps and bloops of astromech droids; the sting of assorted laser beams. But this is a universe where every device, every artefact has its own, unique sonic personality. The TIE fighter is as much its scream through space as a spherical cockpit and twin solar panels.

Imperials uniform Star Wars

The Imperial costume: old record-player bits with a dash of WWI German military

For me, stand-out sounds include the deep, whale-in-pain bellow of a Star Destroyer’s collision warning claxon. No mere clanging bell but a cry that echoes through the very fabric of the stricken ship; the little click as a Stormtrooper’s voice speaker switches on just before relaying his speech, and then as it goes off again; the whirr of C3PO’s limb motors; the throaty rumble of a passing sandcrawler - and the clank of its caterpillar wheels; the pulsing hum of Death Star interiors with just a hint of background computer chatter; the quiet hiss of the Millennium Falcon’s life support system; the ratchet-click of the Death Star tractor beam controls and chesty moan as the power falls. It’s subtle stuff: you have to listen carefully to notice them, but they’re always heard, always enrich the soundtrack.

It wasn’t just the sounds of machines and environments that Burtt created, but also every alien tongue you hear in the movie. But here’s the thing: Burtt’s way of creating his out-of-this world sounds was to make use of very down-to-Earth sources. Science Fiction films had come to rely on electronic sounds – think of Forbidden Planet’s “tonalities” - or essentially musical tones. Burtt went out into the outside environment to record sonic components he instinctively felt could be combined and processed into something never heard before: the sound of a mallet striking a mast support cable under tension, or a revving car engine.

It was a path trodden by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop since the early 1960s – the Tardis take-off was created using a key rubbed up and down a taut piano wire – but Star Wars’ early use of stereo sound, allowed Burtt a much wider canvas than Doctor Who could ever provide. ®


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