Case study


Design and make of Star Wars VII's Millenium Falcon

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Star Wars VII
Millennium Falcon

Key to the story, tone and style of Star Wars VII was the return of the Millennium Falcon (MF). An essential vehicle for the capturing of the original trilogy’s look and feel, Propshop was charged with recreating the MF as it appears in Return of the Jedi.

The look originally designed by artist Harry Lang, there are very few architectural drawings of the original MF. Lacking the original structure and individual props, Propshop was required to design, print or make, build, and finish Star Wars VII’s MF from scratch. We would work from original stills, research notes, found objects and other reference photographs, and create scaled CAD drawings based on those notes, objects and images. The design, build and finish included:

1) The cockpit, its mainframe mounted on a gimble, the design, make and finish of its interior fittings, the visual detailing (‘greebles’ or ‘space chutney’), and the pilot seats

2) The cargo bay, aspects of the interior, the iconic props, including chess table, corner sofa, navigation console and seats, and medical bed.

3) Other areas, including gun bay and corridors.

Apart from the challenge of authenticity, for the purpose of filming, the cockpit would need to be designed in such a way as to be mounted on a gimbal. It and the gun bay would also require detachable or ‘floating’ elements – ceiling, sides, individual panels – so as to allow for camera access.

Art Director: Mark Harris
Managing Director: James Enright
Project Supervisor: Ben Crooks
Structural Design: Gary Merrington
Graphic Design: Natasha Jones
3D Design / Model: Jet Cooper
3D Print: Scott Riley
Propmaker: Simon ‘Goose’ Gosling
Seats Propmaker: Ben Fitch
Electronics: Jono Waddell

Art direction provided design with detailed CAD drawings, reference stills and direction notes for the MF’s cockpit structure, and for the ship’s interior, freestanding props, fittings and greebles. All research, creative ideas, original design and direction came from Mark Harris.

Structural Design
Responsible for everything except the cladding and decorative aspects of the design, structural design refined Harris’s CAD drawings in Solid Works. The key to the design of the cockpit was to replicate its highly unique shape – described as a faceted cone – as faithfully as possible. In addition, as said, it would during filming have to be taken apart several times, meaning aspects were designed to ‘float’ away, while the mainframe, when required, would need to come off the gimbal. Finally, the designs for the cargo and gun bays interiors and freestanding features were also redrawn in Solid Works.

Graphic Design
Working off Harris’s CAD drawings, graphic design was responsible for replicating the original Lang-inspired aesthetic. This included look, colours, material choices and lighting for the arched sides and ceiling of the cockpit, the central control panel, elements of the cargo bay and corridor, and on the doors. Lang himself had been originally inspired by Germany’s Bauhaus movement, which served as a separate reference point. Dividing the work into panels, and further separating each panel into its various decorative or opal blocked components, the drawings were refined in Illustrator, creating two workflows: one, designs for parts that could be traditionally made up; and two, designs for parts that would need to be 3D modelled and printed. The panels on the final drawings were coded.

3D Model
Using mainly stills and reference photographs, 3D Model took charge of the design and / or modelling of the greebles, much of the cladding, and any of the non-structural props better suited to being printed than traditionally modelled. If an image was good, then a model was mapped directly from the photograph. If not, then it was modelled by eye. As well as working from photographs, some parts were created from found objects, either the same or very like those that would have inspired and / or been used by Lang  – for example, the tape deck from an old Volvo dashboard. Either which way, all 3D digital models were created in Lightwave and ZBrush.

<Make, Build and Finish>
Best understood as three layers, the MF’s cockpit consisted of an external skeleton (steel mainframe), a middle strengthening skin (dibond) and the inner decorative / visual panelled surfaces. The gun bay was similarly constructed, only the skeleton was made of wood and not metal. The Cargo Bay’s dibond layer, panelling, and freestanding props were installed in tangent with set design.

From point of receiving the various designs, the making of the parts took the two aforementioned traditional or 3D modelling routes, which then dovetailed into the build, beginning with the mainframe and ending with the in-situ fine-detail finishes.

The 3D parts numbered in their hundreds, ranging from screw-size to items as big as a breezeblock.  Each part was printed in three different sizes, compared against the original reference image, and then coded to their respective panels. All were printed on VX1000 printers. Printed yokes (u-bolts) used for the ship’s steering wheels were cast in aluminium.

Using the redesigned CADs, the mainframe was constructed by a specialist metalworker, largely using stock materials cut to size, though key brackets and fittings were laser cut. Once ready, the mainframe was tested for accuracy, strength and its ability to ‘float’ or come apart.

As well as the mainframe, a number of the visual parts were traditionally made, including the handles on the steering wheels (sculpted), the panelling, select cargo bay features, and much of the gun bay. Finally, the fixing designs on the base panels were made using Gravograph laser etching.

Working to a dressing plan, individual gravographed panels were backed with diebond and worked separately. Each panel came in a specific colour, most black, some red or white. Visually, the laser etching created a geometric effect akin to an artwork.

While each had its own specific build and finish requirements, the assemble route for the individual panels was as follows:

1) Design’s opal or ‘chocolate’ blocks were fixed – ‘chocolate’ because before being cut to size, the parts arrived in the shape of traditional chocolate bars.

2) Next, LED lighting was fixed, specifically 5mm lights individually wired to pre-drilled holes and LED tape affixed to the blocks, all in varying and pre-designated blues, reds and warm whites. In total, over 1,500 LEDs were used, controlled remotely in batches of 100s by custom built controllers, and in turn controlled by a DMX controller via a custom built lighting desk.

3) Then, non-lighting fixtures were affixed, including toggles and knobs, the latter in 5 different sizes.

4) Four, pre-cut vinyl lines were applied – like stickers – to a pre-designed greebles pattern.

Once the ready, the majority of panels were back-clamped and attached to the mainframe, while the remainder were attached to the MDF control and navigation shelving and tables.

An integral part of the look, the two pilot seats, three jump seats and the cargo bay’s ‘tractor’ seat were built separately, again from scratch.

The original pilot seats, front-located in the cockpit, were originally sourced from a 1970s Porsche. Propshop’s exact copies were made using custom built steel frames, MDF structural elements, polystyrene, sprayed in a polyurea finish and then draped in felt.

Meanwhile, modelled on exactly the same Martin-Baker ejection jump seat that was originally used by Lang, the three jump seats – two in the cockpit, one in the cargo bay – were constructed using an articulated steel base, MDF structural elements, and PT Flex (rubber cast prints).

Either printed or traditionally made, the cargo bay’s original features were installed once the interiors had been constructed and fitted, the gravographed panelling base fixed, the finals added. These included the chess table (printed), corner sofa, medical bed, navigation cons, navigation seat.