This past Friday, Roger Christian — the Academy Award-winning set decorator on Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope and director of Black Angel — participated in a Reddit AMA. He was gracious enough to answer a fair amount of questions in detail, and I’ve chosen a few of the highlights.
(Questions have been paraphrased.)
What was the inspiration behind the design for R2-D2?
It was a combination – Sir Ralph McQuarrie had painted R2-D2 and C-3PO pretty much like the finished one, the scales of the two together were similar. So we had to find a way to make R2-D2 smaller, like the painting that Ralph had. And we looked at early robots in SILENT RUNNING – there were 3 robots called Huey, Dewey, and Louis I believe. As a scale, those were tiny, but they were amputees, so he was able to do that that small – we couldn’t do that. Because R2-D2 was going to be quite heavy.
So the look of it came from Ralph McQuarrie and George. And I found old aeroplane nozzles for the air, from an old Viking plane, and I found lights that you could turn on to see your book, and I stuck those into his head, and they stayed ever since! That’s the same design – they got molded and placed, and that’s R2-D2. And his little arms on the front I carved out of wood myself.
And they stayed now. That’s always been there.
And we managed to build it ’round Kenny Baker – he was only 3 foot 8 inches tall – I don’t know what that is in meters – but he was able to work it. He was very strong, Kenny, he was the only person who could fit and make it work. Without him, we wouldn’t have had an R2-D2. Because he had very strong legs, and his physical shape, we were able to build it so he could move the two legs on the side. And I used an old set light, called a “rifle lamp,” for the head. I bought that for ten shillings from a scrapyard. And that became his head.
The body we made from plywood, the kind you could get for boats, so we steamed it and made it round.
And then that was taken to the shops in the studio, when we started, and they built aluminium ones, because that was lighter. And the one we used a lot in Tunisia, we built-in fiberglass, and we could pull that on a fishing wire – that plastic line – so you didn’t see it.
And I think that covers it.
Did you work closely with Ralph McQuarrie on Star Wars?
George worked very closely with Ralph McQuarrie when he was writing it. And Ralph’s – there were about 8 photographs of his paintings that we had right at the beginning, those four months trying to make the film, and we followed, really, Luke’s landspeeder, that he painted, that’s pretty much what we worked off of, R2-D2 was there, C-3PO was there, so where the freedom came, for me, was that I got a Sterling submachine gun (because I loved the look and feel of it) and I stuck the T-strip around the handle, and stuck some gunsights on it, and I found the Mauser (which I loved the shape of, and it had a wooden stock) so to me, it resembled the science fiction version of a Western gun – it’s a german automatic pistol – and I just built those on my own, and then showed George afterwards, and he loved them. And then I showed him – Ralph had painted a gun, for Chewbacca, and I showed George in the gun shop this beautiful crossbow with balls on the end of it. And it was called a Bowcaster. And I showed George that, and he immediately changed from what Ralph McQuarrie had done, and put that instead!
And when John Barry took George to Tunisia, and he saw (for instance) – Tatooine was not called that in the script, and there was a little tiny town that George loved the look of, with an ancient granary, and that town was called Tatooine – and so he changed the name of Luke’s home to Tatooine.
And then when John showed him this little town, on the island of Djerba in Tunisia, when he saw that, with the little domed roofs, George said “That’s PERFECT for Mos Eisley!”
And so that became the look for that.
So he was very open to changes, and concepts, if they improved, and if they made the world of Star Wars look correct.
He was very open to things like that.
There was a rough painting of the Cantina, and then we filled it up with airplane scrap parts, and made tables out of plastic tupperware. And dressing the sets – the Millennium Falcon cockpit, I was just adding in scrap to the basic design, and in the hold area, where the chess set was, that really was filled with airplane junk to make it look like a submarine interior in space.
So those things, I was just doing it out of instinct. There was no drawings, or plan, or anything.
What is it like being the creative force behind the lightsaber?
I feel really honoured, and proud, and kind of relieved that it worked, and it still works! Because when things are like CGI or something, they get dated. But the way the Star Wars universe is going, it’s held its – quite honestly, when I read the very first script, because King Arthur was my favourite story of all, I knew that this laser sword was going to be the iconic image of Star Wars. So I had to get that right.
And it caused me quite a lot of nervous angst to find the right thing.
And it was fairly late in the day. I’d made all the weapons. I’d made Luke’s binoculars. I’d made the rest of the things I’d needed. It was the laser sword that I needed. And it was the late in the day that I found it. And I love this object. I’ve got one in my hand now. I’m making some, exactly as I made my originals – I’ve had the t-strip made EXACTLY as I put on the first one, and I’ve had bubble strips made identically to the ones that I used. I’m making a few of those. I don’t know what I will do with them.
Maybe I’ll auction them off! I know people would love them. And they’re not saying they’re used in STAR WARS, but they are prototypes of what I’d made. So I think why not?
Having created the original lightsaber, what are your feelings on the crossguard lightsaber in The Force Awakens?
Well, it’s interesting – I’ve had a lot of questions on this, and I wrote about it in a blog online. They asked me about it, and I said when I first saw it, the blade itself is from an old Jedi one, you can see it’s flickering and ragged, that I like. So I think presumably what they’ve envisaged (and I’m only thinking this now, I haven’t detailed this before) but the original cross-fire on a sword was to prevent the sharp edge of your opponents’ sword cutting off your hand. So presumably, having this blade – like a lightsaber blade – if the opponents’ one went up there, it would block it or cut it. So I’ve been thinking about it quite a lot. So that’s my take on the thinking.
Do you agree with J.J. Abrams’ use of practical effects over CGI?
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One hundred percent.
I just think this is the way forward. I love CGI, and I love the effects, and the new films couldn’t be done without any of those effects – any of the big IRON MANS, or SUPERMANS, or BATMANS – but I think with STAR WARS, the more real that universe is, the better people accept it, and enter that world.