ILM Modelmakers Share Star Wars Stories and Secrets

By Wesley Fenlon

ILM veterans gathered at Maker Faire to talk about their Hollywood modelmaking memories. Here are some of the best Star Wars behind-the-scenes stories and tips from modelmakers with more than 100 years of combined experience.

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.

Modelmaking Tips

Lorne Peterson: I have a small story about superglue that is kind of interesting. It's hard to imagine a world without superglue, but in the early 70s it was a pretty rare item. It was an industrial product. I was originally hired as a modelmaker for two months, at the end of '75, just to do one particular project. When I went there, every day, I realized, my god: I was involved with industrial design, so I knew about super glue, but they'd use five minute epoxy with masking tape to do [Princess Leia's] ship. That's the way they were doing it. I knew that there were other ways to do it.

So I brought a bottle of superglue, and I told everybody in the model shop to stop for a minute and take a look, and I took a pencil and I cantilevered it out over the edge of a tabel and shot a little bit of Eastman 910, is what it was called at the time, and then I moved my hands away, and everybody gasped. In a way it changed modelmaking completely. Nobody used five minute epoxy anymore for putting models together, for kit bashing. In late '75 we switched over instantaneously to super glue. Maybe that's why I was still there after the two months were over with.

Also, I got some gasps when I took baking soda, and you fill in gaps--you shoot in a little bit of super glue, then get a puffer thing and shoot some baking soda in. It makes, like, cement that will fill gaps and fillets and it will take a very small contact joint that you can fill from the back side and make it very very strong. A lot of people don't necessarily know that, either, but I guess I came up with a lot of tricks since I stayed for 35 years or something like that.

To create model debris, you can stick pasta in a blender, grind it up, and paint it with different colors.

Fon Davis: One of my favorites is for creating debris when you're blowing up a model. You need a lot of stuff that's going to fly out of the model, and I actually learned this when I was working with these guys at ILM. You can actually take pasta, because pasta comes in these great shapes and a lot of different varieties. You stick it in a blender, grind it up, and paint it with different colors. And you just fill your model with pasta, and that's what you're actually seeing flying out at you in a lot of these different visual effects shots.

Peterson: Just thinking of pasta, I did the imploding house for Poltergeist. One of the problems was I took balsa wood and made little two-by-fours, about 3/8ths of an inch across, as a two-by-four. I realized they actually bend almost like a bow and arrow, it's really springy, and I knew that if the house was to get imploded, these two-by-fours would bounce out of the scene like crazy as soon as some tension was put on them, they'd fly away. I knew that I could oxidize the thing with bleach, so I took 50/50 bleach water and put big lead weights, and I put the two-by-fours overnight under water, and the bleach oxidized all the balsa wood so then when you'd go to bend it, it'd break just like pasta. Pasta reaches that stage where it snaps and just gives up. It was a way of making balsa wood weak, but you could still construct things with it.

Charlie Bailey: The two things that are really hard to work with are water and fire. All the physical things like space ships and buildings we can cheat in scale and sometimes force perspective, putting smaller things in the background, larger things in the foreground.

Peterson: You can always put in a ladder, a scale ladder, and it'll always sell the shot, how big it is.

For water, to get droplets in scale, we would add detergent or alcohol to break up the surface tension to get smaller droplets or smaller splashes.

Bailey: For water, to get droplets in scale, we would add detergent or alcohol to break up the surface tension to get smaller droplets or smaller splashes. For fire we always depended on pyrotechnicians to come up with new chemical compounds to make flames in different sizes and colors.

Peterson: For the crash of the ship into the dock in Jurassic Park...I had a super soaker gun with alcohol. Just before they were ready to shoot I'd wet down...the whole dock which was about 15 feet by 12 feet. Alcohol is much less dense than water, and the meniscus with alcohol is much flatter. And so the alcohol wouldn't last very long, but it looked very much like a wet dock and didn't give away the scale.

Making Star Wars

Bailey: We were really lucky to work with Joe Johnston as our art director. He showed us all how to age models to look like they were old. Before Star Wras all the space ships and aeroplanes you ever saw were brand new. And through Joe and the other art directors, they came up with an aging process, so the rebels all look like they have junkers. Because of that, you can look around here and see robots with aging on them. 40 years ago they would've looked brand new.

Peterson: Theed City [on Naboo] had these very long waterfalls. When it was first drawn up and proposed, usually it's like several racehorses heading to the finish line--there's the model, there's digital--who can do it fastest, who can do it best on budget? Me and this other guy experimented, and we used sugar coming off a little trap door we made coming down in front of velvet. And then we filmed that with side lighting, so all you saw was the sugar falling about four feet and hitting another piece of velvet and falling again, and that could be used over the top of Theed City as an element.

We did that the first day, and we left it set up, and the next day there were ants all over the place because of the sugar. We had to clean it all up and use salt instead. It turned out that Theed City eventually--some of it was digital, a very small amount of it was still salt coming up over the top of the velvet and spilling down the front of a velvet cliff. You can see how easy that would be. Anybody could go home and take a piece of black velvet and a salt container and make a reasonable looking waterfall shot at the right framerate. There's a lot of things like that that we did over the years that were both very complicated, but every once in awhile very very simple. Things you could easily do at home.

Bailey: When we built Theed City, this was a city that was about 100th scale, so a foot tall building would equal a 100 foot building. Doing the miniature greens for it we needed little tiny flowers because Theed City was covered with flowers. We found that little colored candy sprinkles you'd put on a birthday cake were just the right scale for flowers, so we'd decorate the set with those. On the second day of shooting we went out in the morning, turning the lights on, and we noticed all of our flowers were moving. There was a whole army of ants that came in overnight and were carrying off all our candy flowers. If you watch the movie carefully, you can see as time goes on there are fewer flowers, as though autumn set in.

Peterson: On a big stage, you wonder, why would there be ants there? Another funny thing that happened along those lines is, it's a big studio like this, with doors that lock and everything. For Mission Impossible we had a big desert sequence, a desert set with lots of sand and rocks and helicopters. And you arrive in the morning, and cats have used it as a catbox. The perfect catbox. And I'm thinking, we're in the middle of an industrial park, in a locked building, where do those three or four cats come from? And I finally found a hole in the wall about that diameter, and the cats must've been slipping through there and found it the perfect spot to use as a catbox. We had to use it every morning.

For the Mos Espa arena, there were something like 450,000 q-tips painted multiple colors [to simulate a crowd].

Don Bies: One of the cool things, whenever we're working together, is people thinking outside the box, and trying to come up with practical solutions. And in the early days, certainly it was 'let's see if we can beat the CG guys at their own game.' Michael Lynch, one of the modelmakers--he was always really good at looking at things this way--he was looking at the crowds. And when you see a crowd in a stadium you're really just seeing shapes and colors, you're not really seeing people or individual faces.

So he came up with the idea...of using q-tips, cotton swabs, colored, in the stands of the Mos Espa arena. So there were something like 450,000 q-tips painted multiple colors, and he even researched it to find out how many reds versus yellows and blues and greens that should be in there.

And it was a process of just days of painting. Think about 450,000 cotton swabs, how you paint them, and then how you put them in. Everyone took turns at one point sticking them into the stands. And by blowing a fan underneath they kind of twinkled, like people moving around. Ultimately they did put some CG people on top of it, but I always thoght it would be funny if they caught to a close-up of the stands and you saw a cotton swab sitting in the stands next to the aliens.

Peterson: 450,000 is a lot to paint, even if you have a crew of four or five people. So he had to come up with a way of, a slightly downhill trough with oscillating sanders attached to it that would cause the q-tips to vibrate and align themselves, and then they were grabbed as a group and they'd be dyed in large groups so you could do 100 at a time rather than one at a time.

Star Wars Easter Eggs

Bailey: I think the-all time iconic story for special effects came from Ken Rolston when we were working on The Empire Strikes Back. There's a big asteroid belt scene, and Ken was our director of photography. And he put an Idaho potato in the asteroid belt. And we've seen it hundreds of times and could never spot it on the screen. And then on Return of the Jedi, the final battle scene has about 100 space ships or something flying around. One of those ships is Ken's gym shoe. And once again, I've seen it dozens of times and I can never pick out his shoe. But it's in there in the battle scene.

One of those ships in Return of the Jedi is Director of Photography Ken Rolston's gym shoe.

Peterson: I remember a story from the shield generator [in Return of the Jedi] now. Like I said, we always had to work on budget, so if you could find a way to save thousands of dollars, that was a great idea. There were pine trees, it was in a pine forest, so I thought, ah, instead of making all those pine trees, I'll go to an architectural model store, and they had these, oh, 6-7 inch pine trees. I said, well, I'm going to use them at ILM, but I could bring them back exactly as they are. How about we make a deal--I'll pay you a quarter of your price, and then I'll bring them back and you'll get to sell them for full price. They thought that was a great idea.

I talked to the pyro guys and said "The flame isn't going to be very big, is it?" Cause these are just little lead tree trunks with foam on them. And they said oh no, we'll contain it, it'll just be over here. Don't worry about that. I asked, you're not going to come over to our part of the model, are you? The flames aren't going to shoot over there? Well, pyro guys have restraint, but not necessarily as much restraint as modelmakers. The flame of course shot over, and they were lead, they had foam on them, they had spray glue, and a couple thousand dollars worth of miniature trees went up. I had to go back and pay full price. They weren't going to get the litte trees back.

Bailey: My first job at ILM was to build the rocket engines for the big white Star Destroyer. I went off to the hardware store to see what I could find so I wouldn't have to make something, and I found some little aluminum clip-on work lights, took the reflectors off, put projector bulbs in them, decorated them a little bit and stuck them on the Star Destroyer. If you look closely you can see there's a little aluminum reflector in there. A couple years later I used the same concept on E.T.'s little spaceship. All the little domes around the ship are soup ladles of different sizes. Stainless steel soup ladles. It's always fun to look at all these little details and see how we cheated.

Bies: This one I wasn't around for, but it's been told, and I can't verify it for sure. In the original Star Wars they filmed most of it in the UK, but when they came back George wanted to pump up the cantina sequence with the creatures and everything, so they hired Rick Baker and a team of essentially, at that time, stop motion artists, [including Phil Tippett]. They also wanted Greedo to talk. They wanted his mouth to move...But the story goes that they were about to shoot it, the inserts with Greedo talking, but the little mechanism that moved his mouth broke. Quickly someone looked around, and there's always what we call C47s, spring-loaded clothespins, on set. So somebody pulled the mechanism out, hot-glued a C47 in there, put the other end in his mouth, and that's how they made the mouth move.

Peterson: Usually we build more interior than you'd originally think, for explosions, just in the possibility, in anticipation that something might show. Many times it doesn't, the explosion covers it. An example of that is when the Ewoks crush the head of the chicken walker with the logs. We actually made two characters with helmets and all that kind of stuff and a little light inside. We sculpted one to look like George Lucas and one to look like the director of the film. They actually looked like them, because they were about 16 inches tall. The heads got crushed and you never saw them. Most of the time it wasn't necessary, but every once in awhile we did at least a partial interior.