Star Wars set decorator Roger Christian tells Oliver Pfeiffer how he helped create a sci- fi classic
We chat to one of the creators of sci- fi’s most iconic spaceship.
If ever a spaceship became synonymous with a screen character it’s the Millennium Falcon. Just as veteran Star Wars space pirate Han Solo will make an eagerly anticipated return in The Force Awakens, so too will the ship that famously made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs. But the iconic bucket- of- bolts may have lost some of that essential appeal had its original, far more conventional design been brought to the screen back in 1977...
“The first concept was felt to look very similar to another ship seen on the TV series Space: 1999,” says Roger Christian, the Oscar- winning set decorator behind Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, who was tasked with the construction of the Falcon. “I think George [ Lucas] accidentally said ‘ make it like a hamburger!’ which was his favourite food at the time.”
Production illustrator Ralph McQuarrie’s originally linear Falcon design was instead modified into the Rebels’ Blockade Runner, Tantive IV, the first ship seen entering the Star Wars universe in A New Hope. In fact the only noticeable design aspect that was utilised from McQuarrie’s original concept was the cockpit, which derived from the Boeing B- 29 Superfortress – a fighter plane used in World War Two. Significantly, McQuarrie’s Falcon realigned that cockpit from a conventional front positioning to the rather irregular side of that “half- eaten hamburger” design. “I think that was great – it created a ship that had never been seen before or since and that round shape has become a very iconic kind of image,” reflects Christian.
From McQuarrie’s painting, miniature effects illustrator and designer Joe Johnston drew further sketches and made a miniature model, enabling the design process to evolve further. “He laughs about it now because it was literally making a hamburger into a ship!” says Christian. “We never met because we were on two different sides of the Atlantic and there wasn’t email. We’d just get a package once a week and we’d look and go, ‘ Oh my god this is what we gotta build!’ and we’d send back drawings. That’s how it was done in those early days.”
And it was from Johnston’s model that the set decorator inherited an apparent defect that was nevertheless built into the ship. “Joe was
constructing the model and he saw a piece he didn’t like and knocked it off but we inherited that and it got built full size,” he reveals. “There’s a piece of the Falcon that’s actually like bad glue, although you wouldn’t be able to tell now. Joe now says, ‘ You built our mistake into the full sized ship!’”
a new, old ship
Essential to the distinctive design and feel of the Falcon was achieving a lived- in look that was light years away from the clean- cut aesthetics of spaceships seen in countless films and TV shows. “George said the Falcon had been repaired and repaired and broken down numerous times, and that Han had no money so he constantly stuck bits onto it and bought second- hand parts to somehow keep it going,” reveals Christian. “It was like having an old racecar that’s still really fast and could do everything but it was on faith and string. We were never given the age of the Falcon but we knew it was older than Han and that it had been through the wars – so that was our take on it. It was the first thing in the film that looked really aged and set the tone for everything.”
Oscar- nominated art director Harry Lange, who was behind the interiors on Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 epic 2001: A Space Odyssey, was appointed to work on the Falcon’s cockpit. “He created the panels and switches slightly like 2001 was done and then I came along and
Concept art for the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy. Building the smaller version – although it was still pretty big!