Star Wars Concept Artist Enters TAM’s Atmosphere

Long lines formed as children in costumes waited patiently to get their own taste of history, dating from a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far, away.

The Tacoma Art Museum hosted a night dissecting the inspirations of Colin Cantwell, renowned set designer and concept artist for films like George Lucas’ Star Wars IV: A New Hope, Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Stanly Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and John Badham’s War Games.

Fans were able to purchase signed prints of Cantwell’s original concept illustrations for A New Hope, the film that launched the Star Wars franchise, at the event and take photos with him.

Cantwell, the first person to graduate UCLA with a degree in animation, was a trailblazer in several different lines of work. He worked on creating the first ever Omnimax theater for the San Diego Hall of Science, which are now commonly used for planetariums and other unique presentation settings.

Untitled concept art by Colin Cantwell. Copyright 2014 Colin Cantwell.

Additionally, Cantwell worked on one of the first real color monitors sold to Hewlett-Packard (HP). This made it possible for computer screens to display a multitude of colors, instead of two or three colors, which subsequently changed the way people used computers in their everyday lives.

What has immortalized Cantwell to many, though, was his iconic creations, set, and sound design for some of the most famous movies set in space, ever.

“The things you shoot in space are generally shot in the studio, which means simulating the flight characteristic and things. The lighting has to be insanely different to appear to be happening out in natural space in various complex scenes,” Cantwell said.

Cantwell is also known in the film industry for his pioneering design technique, which he calls “kit-bashing.” He describes the process as disassembling previously used models and items, and reassembling them into something new. Fans at the event got to look at some of the original kit-bashes he presented to George Lucas, which got him the job on A New Hope as the creator of all things that flew. Some kit-bashes, Cantwell said, contained pieces from over 200 different other models.

Those in attendance also got to listen to him describe the inspiration behind some of most identifiable starfighters and cruisers from the Star Wars franchise, including the X-wing, the Millennium Falcon, the Death Star, TIE Fighters, and more.

Cantwell remarked how the lack of description from Lucas allowed him to have freedom to create the space scenes the way he envisioned, so long as it kept with the vague description in the film’s script.

“It wasn’t clear at all, how it would get ready for battle,” Cantwell said when he described his creation of the X-wing. “It had to be able to fly in formations, organized, and to maneuver and get out of danger. And it had to be extremely effective, and had to sort of be WWII [esthetic].”

With those details in mind, Cantwell began creating the design for the starfighter’s look.

“I pictured that when it was going into battle it had to kind of open like a kite, and that it had to be powerful, to survive battle, and had to transform at the will of the pilot,” Cantwell said. “When it opened up, it would be like the cowboy drawing his guns.”

Cantwell also went into detail about his experience working with Stanly Kubrick, who he referred to as “the best nerd in the business.” Cantwell worked with Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey and was responsible for all space scenes, and eventually the film’s score, since Kubrick hired and fired four different composers during the filming process.

“He was the greatest filmmaker alive at that time and he was using his power every day, every hour, adventuring into territory that no one else would touch,” Cantwell said.

Cantwell actually talked Kubrick into changing the opening scene of the film to the shot of Earth with the legendary theme track coming in quietly. The scene has since been parodied over and over again throughout society, and is often used as an everyday pop-culture reference.

“Kubrick’s filmmaking made that very powerful change appropriate, in my mind, that would give life to the stature of what the audience was about to experience.”

To stay up-to-date with more events and exhibits at the Tacoma Art Museum, visit this website.

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