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Colin Cantwell, the concept artist who designed iconic Star Wars spacecraft, including the X-wing Starfighter, TIE fighter and Death Star, died Saturday at his Colorado home, Sierra Dall, his longtime partner, told The Hollywood Reporter. He was 90.
Cantwell’s film credits included special photographic effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), technical dialogue for Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and computer graphics design for WarGames (1983). Yet he was most renowned for his work with George Lucas on Star Wars, designing and constructing the prototypes for the X-wing, TIE fighter, Star Destroyer and the Death Star, among others.
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“Colin’s imagination and creativity were apparent from the get-go,” George Lucas said in a statement to THR. “He was there at the very beginning and the first one to design spaceships and prototypes for A New Hope. His artistry helped me build out the visual foundation for so many ships that are instantly recognizable today. His talent was and remains evident for all to see.”
Read a Monday tribute to Cantwell on StarWars.com, “Leaving behind a powerful legacy, Cantwell blended art, science, and design in ways that impacted not just Star Wars, but the world around him. Thank you, Colin, for sharing your creative spirit with us.”
Born in San Francisco in 1932, Cantwell was diagnosed with tuberculosis as well as a partial retinal detachment in his youth. The cure, he said during a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” interview in 2016, was to be confined to a dark room with a heavy vest across his chest to prevent coughing fits. “I spent nearly two years of my childhood immobilized in this dark room. Suffice to say, nothing else could slow me down after that!” he said.
Cantwell graduated from UCLA with a degree in animation before being personally invited by Frank Lloyd Wright to attend his School of Architecture.
Before he made his way to Hollywood, Cantwell had already had an extraordinary career, as he detailed on his website bio. During the historic ’60s space race between the U.S. and Russia, he worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and NASA, creating educational programs for the public to better understand the flights.
That work culminated in Cantwell being a resource for the legendary Walter Cronkite during his historic moon landing broadcast in 1969. It was Cantwell who was on the communications line between NASA and the astronauts getting updates that he fed to the newsman, who in return broadcast that information to the world on live TV.
His love of architecture and fascination with space provided the perfect combination for Cantwell to make serious moves in Tinseltown, working on several space projects, his initial credited work being 2001: A Space Odyssey. “I worked closely with Stanley Kubrick and persuaded him not to start the movie with a 20-minute conference table discussion,” he said during his AMA. It was Cantwell who created the dramatic space opening that followed the dawn of man and bone thrown into the air.
It was Cantwell’s work on WarGames — programming the Hewlett Packard monitors to depict the dramatic bomb scenes on NORAD screens as the WOPR (War Operation Plan Response) computer nearly launched nuclear weapons — that led him to programming software that took the actual Hewlett Packard from just a few colors to 5,000.
In addition to his film work, Cantwell wrote two science fiction novels, CoreFires 1 and CoreFires 2.
Cantwell is survived by Dall, his partner of 24 years.
May 24, 6 a.m.: Updated with a statement from George Lucas.
May 23, 12:30 p.m.: Updated with a comment from an official Star Wars tribute.
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