At their best, modelmakers create houses and cityscapes and space ships so convincing, we believe they're 100 feet tall when they're only one, or a thousand feet tall when they're really on a miniature set surrounded by other models. They build tiny houses in such excruciating detail, we think they're real when they explode into a million pieces. They build space ships so convincingly, we buy into the universe--even if, upon closer inspection, the white hot engines of a Star Destroyer look an awful lot like aluminum clip-on lights.
Or when R2-D2's holo projector looks like the spitting image of a reading light from a vintage airplane. Or when Luke Skywalker's lightsaber is a dead ringer for a 1940s camera flash with windshield wipers stuck to it to serve as a grip.
At this year's Bay Area Maker Faire, veteran modelmakers from ILM sat together on a panel to talk about the tricks and techniques of professional modelmaking. Like, for example, how they use found objects--just about anything they can get their hands on--to build iconic props like Luke's lightsaber or Han Solo's blaster.
"You can take things that you throw away, like the bubble blister packs that everything comes packaged in nowadays, pop them off, cut them apart carefully, and you've got little domes and cool shapes," said Sean House, a prop maker who's recently worked on the upcoming Pacific Rim and The Lone Ranger. "The things that the razor blades come in--you can plant these things on models and make the most amazing things and nobody will ever know. And yet it adds an air of realism that's grounded in reality. I think that's what made the Star Wars universe work, because people could sorta kinda recognize these things even if they didn't know what they were."
The hour talk included some really interesting modelmaking techniques and more than a few great anecdotes from the making of the original Star Wars trilogy. Two of the other panelists, Lorne Peterson and Charlie Bailey, spent 30 years at ILM, working on Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and dozens of other films. Don Bies, who began working at ILM in the mid-80s after remote controlling R2 units for Lucasfilm, also sat on the panel. Fon Davis, a younger ILM veteran, moderated the talk.
Here are some of the best Star Wars behind-the-scenes stories and tips from modelmakers with more than 100 years of combined experience.