Colin Cantwell, the artist who designed the iconic starships of “Star Wars” including the X-Wing, TIE Fighter and Death Star, died Saturday at the age of 90, according to reports.
A graduate of UCLA with an animation degree, Cantwell spent much of the 60s and 70s with his mind in space, working on both real-life NASA projects exploring the final frontier and sci-fi imaginings of what might be out there. Before entering Hollywood, Cantwell got a job at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, using his animation skills to help create educational programs to explain the Apollo missions to the public.
This work caught the attention of CBS News, leading Cantwell to get a job as a liaison between NASA and the famed newsman Walter Cronkite during the Apollo 11 Moon landing in 1969. As the landing was broadcast to the nation, Cantwell relayed and interpreted the communications between the Apollo 11 astronauts and mission control, providing Cronkite the information that he shared with millions watching on television.
“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,” Cantwell wrote in a 2016 Reddit AMA. “When the other TV stations had the ships landed according to their NASA manual, I determined that the the Apollo had not yet landed. This was later confirmed that I had the accurate version of landing.”
Just a year before that, Cantwell worked with Stanley Kubrick on his classic film “2001: A Space Odyssey,” not only developing concept art that influenced much of the film’s spacecraft but also many of its iconic moments. It was Cantwell who pushed Kubrick to open the film with Richard Wagner’s “Thus Sprach Zarathustra” after the director had fired four composers, suggesting that he instead score the film with famous classical compositions.
After serving as a consultant on technical dialogue for Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” in 1973, Cantwell got a call from George Lucas asking him to be a concept artist on “Star Wars” after seeing his work on the spaceships in “2001.” All of the ships seen in the legendary 1977 film, from the X-Wing fighter and Rebel cruisers to the Star Destroyers and Death Star, came from Cantwell’s prototype designs.
In the Reddit AMA, Cantwell said that the X-Wing was inspired by the flights on the back end of a dart he saw during a night at a bar, while the trench in the Death Star that Luke Skywalker flies down to destroy it came from a bit of laziness.
“I didn’t originally plan for the Death Star to have a trench, but when I was working with the mold, I noticed the two halves had shrunk at the point where they met across the middle,” Cantwell said. “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.”
Cantwell didn’t stop there, going on serve as a computer programmer on John Badham’s 1983 Cold War thriller “WarGames,” designing the monitors that depict the flight paths of the nuclear missiles that the NORAD supercomputer nearly launches after a teen hacker played by Matthew Broderick unwittingly accesses it. Cantwell’s work on those monitors became a major part of computer history, as he would later use it to design the first ever color monitor.
Despite his wide-ranging achievements, Cantwell preferred to live a quiet life away from the spotlight, working as a computer engineer in Colorado in the later years of his life and turning down a job to run Lucasfilm’s famous special effects studio Industrial Light & Magic.
His work only returned to public attention after his longtime partner, Sierra Dall, discovered Cantwell’s “Star Wars” drawings and other artifacts from his past — including one of the first “Star Wars” scripts — in the basement of his apartment in 2014. At Dall’s urging, Cantwell began making public appearances at various comic book and sci-fi conventions in the last years of his life, sharing his long-ignored story.
“When we started at Galaxy Fest in Colorado Springs, we had all these banners that people would come in and completely ignore,” Dall told The Denver Post in 2017. “They’re so focused on where they’re going they don’t pay any attention. So then I started standing there and saying, ‘Are you a Star Wars fan? Here’s Colin who designed the Death Star.’ And they’d go, ‘Oh, wow!’ We’ve heard from people who say he changed their lives, and he had no clue.”