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Sci-Fi Legend Colin Cantwell Steps Out From the Shadows

The Best of Colin Cantwell’s Reddit AMA

(For those unfamiliar with reddit, an AMA is essentially a live, interactive interview. The redditors who asked questions we paraphrased are credited at the bottom of this article, and the full AMA can be found here.)

Even the most dedicated mega-nerds may not know who Colin Cantwell is, and that’s the way he likes it. Cantwell, though a sci-fi film veteran of double my lifespan, remains in the shadows in an attempt to lead not a normal life, but at least a private one.

The brilliant concept artist and spacecraft designer for Star Wars, 2001: A Space Odyssey, WarGames, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, and more has been a science enthusiast from a very young age. When he was a child, Cantwell was diagnosed with tuberculosis and partial retinal detachment. The cure at the time was to stick him in a dark room with a heavy vest compressing his lungs to prevent coughing fits for two years, with I presume only books and models to keep him company.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… Cantwell and Star Wars

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Colin Cantwell with Geroge Lucas, Image: Lucasfilm Archives

Colin Cantwell began his illustrious career designing spacecraft and other nerdy things for film when some friends who were working on American Graffiti introduced him to George Lucas. Cantwell showed Lucas some of his handcrafted miniatures, and “liked them well enough that he invited [Cantwell] to discuss a project, which eventually became Star Wars.

That’s No Moon!

Once Cantwell officially started working on Star Wars, Lucas assigned him the project of creating a space station the size of a small moon, with enough power to destroy entire planets: the Death Star. “I didn’t originally plan for the Death Star to have a trench,” Cantwell admits. “But when I was working with the mold, I noticed the two halves had shrunk at the point where they met across the middle. It would have taken a week of work just to fill and sand and re-fill this depression. So, to save me the labor, I went to George and suggested a trench. He liked the idea so much that it became one of the most iconic moments in the film!

Putting the X in Sexy

Cantwell’s genius has also permanently written him into nerd history with his easily recognizable X-Wing design. The powerful starfighter that led to the demise of the Death Star was actually dreamt up over a pint. The ship was designed to be “ultra-cool” and easily distinguishable from both real-life aircraft and other aircraft within the Star Wars universe, and its origin is simple: “A dart being thrown at a target in a British pub gave me the original concept and then it went forward from there.

Science Non-fiction?

Despite the generations of adoring fans who obsess over the finer aspects of various starfighters and space stations Cantwell has designed for Star Wars, his personal favorite creation is “an 8’x4’model of the [Coprates Chasma] on Mars in three dimensions created by using the shadow angles of the first images of the planet. I finished it in a few days then photographed it with a traveling snorkel camera for the San Diego museum.” His involvement in space isn’t limited to Star Wars and Mars; Cantwell had some creative input for 2001: A Space Odyssey that changed the film drastically for the better.

Colin Cantwell’s Involvement With 2001: A Space Odyssey

Cantwell claims that out of everything, he enjoyed working on 2001: A Space Odyssey the most. This may be because it’s a great movie, but it is most likely due to his relationship with director Stanley Kubrick: “I had great relationships with everyone. But Stanley Kubrick and I became friends. I used to go to his house at midnight and discuss events related to the film over turkey sandwiches.” After Kubrick has fired his fourth composer for 2001, a discussion between him and Cantwell nailed down many of the pieces of music featured in the film, including the very well-known theme song! What’s more is Cantwell’s suggestion for an alternate opening scene was incorporated into the final film. Kubrick originally had the film open with a 20-minute discussion seated around a table! Thanks, Colin, we owe ya one.

Cantwell’s love of space isn’t limited to the realm of science fiction either- “I was deeply involved in Apollo 11 both before and during the mission. I sat a few feet from Walter Cronkite and functioned as the ‘Hal 9000’ computer that fed information to Walter as he was broadcasting live online.” Cantwell’s unparalleled attention to detail also distinguished Cronkite from the other news stations reporting on the lunar landing. “Halfway through the final descent, I alerted Walter to my detection of an orbit change that would consume more fuel but allow coasting a little further than the planned target. When the other TV stations had the ships landed according to their NASA manual, I determined that the Apollo had not yet landed. This was later confirmed that I had the accurate version of landing.” Talk about a historically significant “Told ya so!”

Deep in the CoreFires…

Luckily for sci-fi addicts everywhere, Colin Cantwell hit 84 with no intention of slowing down. He recently published a sci-fi book series called CoreFires, available for free on Kindle Unlimited, or $8.95 otherwise. The novel follows various space pilots and explorers trying to protect humankind, or use the crystals that keep them alive for their own nefarious purposes. The epic story combines the artistic delicacy with which Cantwell designed his spaceships with hard science and a healthy amount of fantasy. Book one is out now, with more on the way!

It’s thrilling to learn more about the man who single-handedly designed many of our childhoods, and here’s to hoping he constructs more for us in the future! May the force be with you always, Master Cantwell!

You can see original Star Wars artwork here, and pick up CoreFires for free (and be entered to win a free signed print of his original Pre-Star Wars star ship designs!) here.

Thank you to /u/DoctorHelicopter, /u/liamquane, /u/Emorio, /u/slukenz, /u/Laf32569, and /u/Frajer.

Featured Image: Courtesy of Zahir Batin

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