This article is a preview of WIRED magazine 01.16, our Star Wars special issue featuring J.J. Abrams, on sale from December 10 2015. Follow our Star Wars: The Force Awakens hub page for all of our web, print and behind-the-scenes coverage.
As one of The Force Awakens two production designers, Darren Gilford was tasked with resurrecting Star Wars’s most iconic space ship: the Millennium Falcon. “We quickly realised that there wasn’t one design of the Falcon, there were three,” Gilford explains. “It was subtly different in each of the original films. For example, the cockpit’s bigger in The Empire Strikes Back — they extended it by two or three feet because they had to get so many people in it.”
Fortunately, as well as having on-set expertise from veteran crewman Mark Harris, who actually built the Falcon for Empire, Gilford’s team has access to all the original photographs and blueprints. “So we got to build the perfect Falcon,” says Gilford. “Making sure all the dressing, the ageing, every detail was as close as possible to the original.”
He was also given a personal request from ex-carpenter Harrison Ford: “The set decorators chintzed out — they didn’t put springs in the toggle switches [in 1976],” Ford told Gilford. “Make sure the springs are in.” He did, and was pleased to later see Ford flip the switches without a hitch.
Instead of relying on pixelated world-building, some scenes used old-fashioned painted backdrops. “That’s really a lost art,” says Gilford. “It was the perfect reason to return to Pinewood, to connect with that style of craftsmanship. It’s the only place in the world where you can do that kind of work. We built this incredible, huge forest on set, and the entire stage wall was 360 degrees, a giant painting of the forest that extended off to infinity. And it works so beautifully.”
Such work, he says, leads to better performances. “Any time you can put an actor in an environment where they’re not having to second-guess what’s going to be composited around them is going to help. That’s always the desire, but it’s not always the case, financially. But here we were really able to find that blend.”
X-Wing: The Spirit of Ralph McQuarrie
Original trilogy conceptual designer Ralph McQuarrie died in 2012, but his legacy looms large. “When we were updating the X-wing we put two engines on either side and split them in the middle,” says Gilford. “Then something in the back of my mind said, ‘I’ve seen that before.’ Sure enough,
I went back to one of Ralph’s classic paintings, and he had done a version like that. I pulled that image out in the next meeting with J.J., and he said, ‘That’s it. If Ralph had that idea, it’s good enough for us.”
Constructing a new lightsabre
“In the original films the lightsabers were metallic and they had to rotoscope glowing lights on to them,” explains Gilford. “It was all comped in afterwards. This time, however, with LED technology, they were able to make real light-up lightsabers that would interact.
“When they clashed with each other they would flash and spit. I’m sure they’ll be touched up in effects, but you get this incredible interaction, light bouncing off the characters in-camera, so it feels so much more real. It’s pretty spectacular.”
What a piece of junk: the used universe
George Lucas’s original philosophy was that Star Wars should feel like a “used universe” — worn, torn and battle-bruised, and Abrams challenged his crew to reclaim that. “He wanted to make sure that things blended seamlessly, to feel real and tangible,” says Gilford.
“Rey’s speeder is supposed to look like some kind of tractor: the goal was to give her a vehicle that felt like a beat up, broken- down, hand-me-down piece of junk. She’s not driving a Ferrari, she’s driving her old pick-up truck that’s on the farm.”