Remembering iconic sci-fi designer Colin Cantwell (1932-2022)…

Colin Cantwell, Rocket Man.

This morning, I woke up to read that Colin Cantwell–a name I’ve known since my teens, and a man I had the pleasure of meeting three years ago–passed away at age 90, after a struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. No, his name may not be a household name in special effects, like Ray Harryhausen, and his IMDb credits list is not terribly long, but his work is unmistakable and iconic. Cantwell’s work has been permeating pop culture for decades and is still reaching new generations, as I’ve seen firsthand.

Making kit-bashed models of early Y-wing fighter prototypes for George Lucas’ “Star Wars”, circa 1976.

While I’d seen George Lucas’ “Star Wars” at the perfect age of 10 in the summer of 1977, I first recall reading the name Colin Cantwell in a book I bought at a used bookstore in my teens. That book was Jerome Agel’s “The Making of Kubrick’s 2001” (1970), which mentioned Cantwell as one of the designers of the iconic spaceship Discovery. I’d first seen “2001: A Space Odyssey” at a revival screening at age 16 in 1983. I was desperate for any and all behind-the-scenes info on this amazing movie that unfortunate birth timing caused me to miss in its initial 1968 release. Cantwell’s name sounded familiar, and leafing through my old issues of Starlog magazine (the internet before the internet), I’d see his name again, repeatedly, as one of the original designers of Star Wars (pre-“New Hope,” which was added in 1981).

Note: I was not quite a year and a half old in April of 1968, when “2001: A Space Odyssey” was first released, so 1983 was the first time I actually remember seeing the film in a theater, though my late father insisted I saw it as a baby–and promptly fell asleep.

Colin Cantwell posing with his initial sketches for Star Wars spacecraft; the Death Star, the Star Destroyer, the TIE fighter and yes, the iconic X-wing. His legacy lives on in Star Wars designs today.

While Cantwell’s credits include the aforementioned “2001: A Space Odyssey,” he would also work on 1979’s reboot movie and subsequent TV series of “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.” He would later do visual effects for John Badham’s Cold War comedy-thriller “Wargames” (1983). His career as a designer began in earnest when he was personally invited by iconic architect Frank Lloyd Wright to attend his School of Architecture. In the 1960s, he would work on educational films about space for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. Cantwell also provided live feedback for Walter Cronkite’s iconic CBS news coverage of the “Apollo 11” landing broadcast. The artist/designer would even dabble in sci-fi writing, publishing two books in a fledgling “CoreFires” series.

Cantwell’s concept model of “the Death Star”; a more visibly textured model than the final result seen onscreen, which had much finer detail to denote even greater size.

While Cantwell may not be so widely known for his other accomplishments, his work on “Star Wars” will live on for generations. As one of the first artists hired to work on the film back in 1975, he was tasked with realizing some of the iconic ships and vehicles for the film. Those designs would be crafted in both illustrations and three dimensional models, using parts of existing model kits to “kit-bash” together into shapes pulled from his imagination. While the “Death Star” was always conceived as a giant, moon-sized (and shaped) armored battle station, Cantwell would embellish it with surface details to accentuate its artificial origin, including a trench across its equator and a large dish for the main super-laser weapon.

The original dish-on-the-equator design can be glimpsed as technical schematics in “Star Wars” (1977), though it doesn’t match ILM’s final shooting model.

The original design featured the dish placed on the equator, but this was changed during the final model-making phase, for practical reasons. That original equator-dish design can still be seen in the film when the astromech droid R2-D2 is plugged into the Rebel base’s computer and the Death Star’s stolen technical schematics are downloaded from the robot’s memory.

Cantwell’s earliest design for Han Solo’s “Millennium Falcon”; with the cockpit remained the same, nearly everything else was changed, as some felt this design too closely echoed the Eagle transporter for “Space: 1999.” This design eventually founds its way into the Rebel Blockade Runner, aka “the Tantive IV”, fitted with a new cockpit.

Colin Cantwell’s design for Han Solo’s “Millennium Falcon” was radically redesigned from its original conception as a long-axis spacecraft with the cockpit conventionally placed up front, an elongated midsection and an array of engines clustered in the aft section. According to the late Jonathan W. Rinzler’s “The Making of Star Wars” (2007), the design was thought to be too similar to the TV series “Space: 1999”‘s “Eagle” transporter, and changed. The Millennium Falcon’s rounded redesign was inspired from a hamburger eaten by (future director) Joe Johnston, while he worked at George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic (ILM). The bulk of Cantwell’s original design, though changing the cockpit module into a hammerhead shape, evolved into the Rebel Alliance’s “Tantive IV” spacecraft…the very first spaceship seen onscreen in the 1977 film, as it is fleeing from a massive Imperial Star Destroyer, in that memorable shot that arguably changed cinema forever…

Top: Colin Cantwell’s near-final design for the Imperial Star Destroyer; the spacecraft whose massive, screen-dominating introductory appearance in 1977 changed my life forever.
Bottom: Another iconic Colin Cantwell design; the rebel Y-wing fighter–conceived as an older style spaceship, pressed into service for a desperate rebellion.

That iconic wedge-shaped Imperial Star Destroyer was also based on an initial design from Colin Cantwell, and would survive, more or less, into the final design seen in the film. In addition to the Imperial TIE fighters, Cantwell would also work on more heroic fighter ships, such as the X-wings, whose wings could fly together or opened into an “x” configuration–aka “attack formation.” Cantwell also created the Y-wing fighters, which were conceived as older, fixed-wing spacecraft pressed back into service by a desperate Rebel Alliance. Cantwell would later tell me (when I met him in 2019) that the Y-wing was one of the first spacecraft designs he created for the film shortly after he was personally hired by George Lucas, before the founding of ILM in 1975.

An early and very different design for the landspeeder. While the color and open canopy would remain the same, the circular design would give way to something slightly more automobile-shaped.

Another of Cantwell’s early vehicle designs for the film that didn’t survive in a recognizable final version was the floating ‘landspeeder’, which was conceived as a floating land vehicle which traversed alien desert terrains on a cushion of air created by Star Wars universe’s imaginary “repulsorlift” technology. While the final design of Luke Skywalker’s landspeeder would appear a bit more automobile-inspired (with three jet engines for forward thrust), Cantwell’s initial study model was a ring-shaped platform with a forward cockpit and two large tail-fins near the rear of the craft. It looked more like a futuristic airboat that you might see riding the Florida Everglades, circa 2250. The only element that would survive into the final version was the open canopy cockpit.

“The Star Wars” was released as a graphic novel in 2014, and features many of Colin Cantwell’s earliest spacecraft and vehicle designs in its pages.

Rounded landspeeders would eventually find their way into the aforementioned J.W. Rinzler’s faithful graphic novel adaptation of George Lucas’ original early draft scripts for “The Star Wars” (IDW, 2014). The illustrations of the graphic novel would also include Cantwell’s earlier designs for the Death Star, Star Destroyers, the X/Y-wing fighters, and the Imperial TIE fighters.

An original Cantwell sketch of the Earth Directorate starfighter from “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.”

Colin Cantwell would, as mentioned above, also work on “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century,” and is credited officially as a designer of ‘computer graphics’ for the display screens seen in the series. Computer graphics as a means of delivering photo-realistic images were not yet a thing, and wouldn’t be for a few more years. Cantwell would also do production artwork for the series, as seen in the Earth Directorate Starfighter sketch above. He would also do illustrations of the enemy Draconian fighters as well.

In short, Colin Cantwell designed a large chunk of my childhood and teen years.

Meeting Colin Cantwell, May, 2019.

I had the sincere pleasure of meeting Colin Cantwell at Comic Con Revolution 2019, in Ontario, California. Cantwell was in his late 80s and wheelchair-bound, but was well enough to meet with his fans, and we had a nice chat. My longtime friends Kathy and Adam brought their young son Joshua, who was only eight at the time, to the convention as well. Even at that age, Joshua was already a huge Star Wars fan, so I took him over to meet Cantwell.

My friend Kathy and her son Joshua posed with Colin Cantwell in 2019 at Comic Con Revolution. Joshua (in full Ghostbusters regalia), only 8 at the time, was and is a huge Star Wars fan. He found Cantwell’s credential as the Death Star’s architect very impressive.

Joshua was a bit shy, though he was properly awed when I introduced him to “the man who designed the Death Star.” That statement carried some serious cred. The Ghostbuster-cosplaying Joshua posed with his mother next to Cantwell for a photo. It was lovely to see Cantwell smile for a new Star Wars fan. In that moment I realized that Cantwell’s work would live on for new generations.

Colin Cantwell leafed through my copy of J.W. Rinzler’s “The Making of Star Wars” (2007) before signing it. It was slightly surreal to hear Cantwell pointing out designs he worked on personally for a movie that changed my life.

The next day, I returned to the convention to talk more with Cantwell, and also to have him autograph my 2007 copy of Rinzler’s “The Making of Star Wars.” With a smaller Sunday crowd, I was able to talk a bit more at-length with Cantwell, and I handed my book over to him, which he’d placed on his lap and leisurely flipped through, pointing out the various designs he’d worked on in those days. I must say, as a Star Wars fan for 45 of my 55 years, it was slightly surreal to relive the origins of the film with one of the actual designers. This is one of the reasons I enjoy smaller conventions; you get to have in-depth conversations with those people you want to meet, allowing for more personal encounters than the typically rushed meet-and-greets of larger conventions.

While Colin Cantwell’s struggle with Alzheimer’s was saddening to hear, I’m at least grateful to have met and shared insights with the man who designed so many spaceships and vehicles that reified my childhood science fiction dreams … dreams I’ve held onto ever since.

Thank you, Colin Cantwell. You will be missed.

Images: StarWars.net, Author, various.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. firemandk says:

    I got a big smile on my face when you described the first time seeing the “Cruiser” as I called it at the time on screen ….. it was too awesome at the time and in the world of over done CGI movies it still has the same affect in full on THX sound ……. I was 7 or 8 when we all went , while on vacation at Clearlake , CA, to the Lakeport theatre to see this new movie called “2001: A Space Odyssey”… it was a lot to take in , not only for me as a child , but it left my parents and our friends scratching their heads trying to make sense of “what did it all really symbolize !!??!!” …. You were fortunate to have met Mr. Cantwell ….. once again, a very nice write up !

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks so much for the kind words, and for sharing your own memories of seeing “2001” in first run! I’m officially envious! 😉

      Liked by 2 people

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