The Millennium Falcon Flies Again

by Graham Edwards

The Millennium Falcon speeds over the Jakku desert in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

What’s your favourite movie starship? If Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon isn’t on your shortlist, there’s something wrong with you. And if you haven’t yet enjoyed the crazy aerobatics of the galaxy’s most iconic hunk of junk in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, there’s something really wrong with you.

For the latest film in the staggeringly popular space saga – featured in the February issue of Cinefex – the Falcon gets a new pilot in the form of Rey, a lonely scavenger from the desolate planet of Jakku. However, just as Rey isn’t the first person to sit behind the controls of this much-loved spacecraft, so the Falcon seen in The Force Awakens is hardly the first version of the ship to have graced cinema screens over the years.

So just how many Falcons have there been?

ILM modelmakers work on the original Star Wars "pirate ship", later repurposed as the Rebel Blockade Runner.

ILM modelmakers work on the original “Star Wars” pirate ship, later repurposed as the Rebel Blockade Runner.

The very first Falcon of all was created for the original Star Wars in 1977. To begin with, she didn’t even have a name – Lucas and the rest of the crew referred to her simply as the “pirate ship”. What’s more, she didn’t look one bit like the retrofitted saucer now familiar to fans around the world.

Constructed by the model department at Industrial Light & Magic, that first Falcon was long and thin, with a cluster of chunky engines at the back. Late in the day, when the lovingly-created six-foot miniature was more or less ready to go in front of the camera, director George Lucas decided the ship looked too much like the Eagle transporter from TV show Space: 1999. Suddenly, it was all change on the Falcon front.

The final Falcon design, worked up by effects illustrator and designer Joe Johnston following a brainstorming session with Lucas and mechanical effects supervisor John Stears, reimagined the vessel as a souped-up hot-rod shaped like a hamburger. With the production clock ticking, the complete design was turned around – incredibly – in less than a week.

Rather than waste all the work they’d already done on the prototype pirate ship, ILM repurposed their model to become the Rebel Blockade Runner seen in the film’s opening scenes, fitting a new hammerhead-style prow to replace the original glass-fronted cockpit, which now sat proudly on the flank of the new, improved Falcon.

Although the Falcon redesign came together quickly, it took a little longer to decide just how the new ship should fly. Interviewed in issue 65 of Cinefex, ILM model shop supervisor Lorne Peterson revealed:

“The original concept called for the Falcon to sail like a giant sunfish. It would lift off on its horizontal axis, then rotate into a vertical configuration and fly upended on edge with the front mandibles pointing forward. We never actually shot it that way, though, because George decided he liked the look of it flying horizontally.”

The ILM crew prepare the four-foot diameter Millennium Falcon model for a motion control bluescreen shot in "Star Wars".

The ILM crew prepare the four-foot diameter Millennium Falcon model for a motion control bluescreen shot in “Star Wars”.

ILM built their hero Falcon model at a large scale, to ensure the detail held up under close scrutiny. Indeed, at around four feet in diameter, it could hardly be called a miniature at all. Mounted on a pylon in front of a bluescreen, the model performed a dizzying series of manoeuvres in front of ILM’s revolutionary Dykstraflex camera, flying not by the seat of Han Solo’s pants, but under strict computer control.

Under the supervision of production designer John Barry, the Star Wars production art department replicated ILM’s Falcon model as a full-size set built on a soundstage at Elstree Studios in the UK. Well, they built the right-hand half of her, at least. The poor dear was so big she wouldn’t fit on the stage in her entirety. Furthermore, the partial ship was so darned heavy that it couldn’t be moved around. So, after scenes had been shot of the Falcon sitting in Docking Bay 94 on the desert planet Tatooine, the surrounding scenery was torn down and replaced with the shiny interior of the Death Star hangar.

Barry also constructed interior sets for the fast-moving freighter. Add those to the full-scale exterior, and ILM’s miniature, and that brings our initial Millennium Falcon count to three. But it doesn’t stop there. For a wide shot of the Falcon in the Death Star hangar, artist Harrison Ellenshaw created a detailed matte painting to flesh out the partial set.

Then came the sequels.

ILM's smaller, more manageable two-foot model of the Millennium Falcon was used extensively in "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi".

ILM’s smaller, more manageable two-foot model of the Millennium Falcon was used extensively in “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi”.

When The Empire Strikes Back went into production, the ILM team took one look at the script and decided that the four-foot Millennium Falcon they’d built for the original movie was just too unwieldy for all that mucking about in asteroid fields. So they complemented it with a smaller, two-foot version that was easier the throw around. For really wide shots, modelmaker Mike Fulmer fabricated a truly tiny Falcon no bigger than a half dollar coin.

While the miniatures got smaller, the full-scale ship got bigger. Based at Pembroke Dock in Wales, Marcon Fabrication constructed a complete, 65-foot-diameter Falcon. Weighing in at over 25 tons, the giant vessel broke into sixteen pie segments, and had to be moved around on the Elstree stages using compressed air pads.

Artists Harrison Ellenshaw, Mike Pangrazio and Ralph McQuarrie took up the matte painting reins for The Empire Strikes Back, with the department turning out artwork showing the Falcon in locations including the Rebel base on Hoth, the asteroid cave, and the sun-drenched landing platform in Bespin’s Cloud City.

For a shot in "Return of the Jedi", visual effects supervisor Richard Edlund lines up the four-foot Millennium Falcon model, preferred for its extra detail whenever the ship appeared in closeup.

For a shot in “Return of the Jedi”, visual effects supervisor Richard Edlund lines up the four-foot Millennium Falcon model, preferred for its extra detail whenever the ship appeared in closeup.

The full-size Falcon came out of mothballs for one last trip to Tatooine on the first day of shooting for Return of the Jedi, appearing briefly in a scene that was ultimately deleted from the theatrical cut, in which Han and his buddies reunite following the fight on Jabba the Hutt’s Sail Barge. A few weeks after the set was struck, the enormous spaceship was ceremoniously burned.

The miniatures used in the previous films also came out of storage, for use by ILM in their space scenes, while the matte department delivered a pair of paintings planting the pirate ship neatly in the hangar of a Rebel cruiser.

In the years following the release of the original Star Wars trilogy, the use of computer generated imagery steadily supplanted the traditional optical techniques used by visual effects artists. Little wonder, then, that the next incarnation of the Millennium Falcon was in digital form.

For the Special Edition versions of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi, ILM created a CG asset of the classic Corellian freighter. Seen briefly in a few shots in the first film, it swooped to centre stage when Han Solo flew it in spectacular fashion through a digital Cloud City in the revised edition of Empire.

ILM's digital Millennium Falcon soars over Cloud City in the Special Edition of "The Empire Strikes Back".

ILM’s digital Millennium Falcon soars over Cloud City in the Special Edition of “The Empire Strikes Back”.

As for the prequel trilogy, well, in a narrative set many years before Luke Skywalker walked into the Mos Eisley cantina in search of an ace pilot with a fast ship, there’s no place for a spacecraft that allegedly made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs.

Or is there?

If your eyes are sharp, you probably noticed a pair of shots in which a suspiciously familiar starship appears. The first, from Attack of the Clones, is a wide shot of the Naboo spaceport. Look carefully, and you’ll see a pair of parked YT-1300 freighters on the far left of frame. Could one of them be the Falcon. You’ll find the second shot in Revenge of the Sith, when another such vessel coasts into the Coruscant docking facility. Are these blink-and-you-miss-it appearances just Easter eggs to please the fans? Or is there a young Han Solo at the controls?

Could one of those Corellian freighters glimpsed on Naboo in "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace" be the Millennium Falcon?

Could one of those Corellian freighters glimpsed on Naboo in “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace” be the Millennium Falcon?

A quick tally of the overall Falcon count suggests that, across the first six Star Wars films, the Millennium Falcon exists in over a dozen different forms. If you count all the variously configured versions of the interior sets, gimbal-mounted cockpits, and all those secret corners where Han, Chewie and their companions hung out, that number rises to well over twenty.

As for the new movie, well, over a year ago, leaked photographs of a new, full-scale Falcon under construction at Pinewood Studios sparked excitement around the globe, as fans woke up to the knowledge that Han Solo’s interstellar hot-rod would soon be carving up the spacelanes again. When teasers and trailers made good on that promise, showing the Falcon speeding through the ruins of a crashed Star Destroyer on Jakku, the excitement went through the roof.

Now that the film is out – and breaking box office records the world over – the time is ripe to explore how teams led by visual effects supervisor Roger Guyett, special effects supervisor Chris Corbould, and makeup effects supervisor Neal Scanlan brought the many worlds of Star Wars: The Force Awakens to life … and helped the Millennium Falcon to flyagain.

That’s a story for another day. But you don’t have long to wait. We’ll be bringing you extensive coverage of the visual, practical, and creature effects of Star Wars: The Force Awakens in our next magazine issue, Cinefex 145, out in February. Preorder your copy at our online store.

All photographs copyright © 1977-2016 and courtesy of Lucasfilm Limited and Industrial Light & Magic.

3 thoughts on “The Millennium Falcon Flies Again

  1. Very interesting article. It’s always good to learn more about the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy.

    One slight correction, though. It was Harrison Ellenshaw that did the matte paintings for both Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. The error is easily made since Peter Ellenshaw was a famous matte artist, most notably for Disney, before and even through the time of the Original Trilogy. His son, Peter S. Ellenshaw, listed as P.S. Ellenshaw in the end credits of Episide IV, started using the name Harrison Ellenshaw shortly before The Empire Strikes Back. He was the Matte Painting Supervisor on the latter movie sharing the work with McQuarrie and Pangrazio.

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