Colin Cantwell, the concept artist who designed iconic Star Wars spacecraft, including the X-wing Starfighter, TIE fighter and Death Star, died Saturday at his Colorado home, Sierra Dall, his long-time partner, confirmed to The Hollywood Reporter. He was 90.
Cantwell’s film credits include special photographic effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), technical dialogue for Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and computer graphics design consultant for WarGames (1983). Yet, he was most renowned for his work with George Lucas on Star Wars, designing and constructing the prototypes for the X-wing, TIE fighter, Star Destroyer and the Death Star, among more.
Born in San Francisco in 1932, Cantwell was diagnosed with tuberculosis as well as a partial retinal detachment in his youth. The cure, he said during a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” interview in 2016, was to be confined to a dark room with a heavy vest across his chest to prevent coughing fits. “I spent nearly two years of my childhood immobilized in this dark room. Suffice to say, nothing else could slow me down after that!” he said.
Cantwell graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles with a degree in animation before being personally invited by Frank Lloyd Wright to attend his School of Architecture.
Before he made his way to Hollywood, Cantwell already had an extraordinary career, as he detailed on his website bio. During the historic ’60s space race between the U.S. and Russia, Cantwell worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and NASA, creating educational programs for the public to better understand the flights.
That work culminated into Cantwell being a resource for the legendary Walter Cronkite during his historic moon landing broadcast in 1969. It was Cantwell who was on the communications line between NASA and the astronauts getting updates that he fed to Cronkite, who in return broadcasted that information to the world on live TV.
His love of architecture and fascination with space provided the perfect combination for Cantwell to make serious moves in Tinseltown, working on several space projects, his initial credited work being 2001: A Space Odyssey. “I worked closely with Stanley Kubrick and persuaded him not to start the movie with a 20-minute conference table discussion,” he said during his AMA. It was Cantwell who created the dramatic space opening that followed the dawn of man and bone thrown into the air.
It was Cantwell’s work on WarGames — programming the Hewlett Packard monitors to depict the dramatic bomb scenes on NORAD screens as the WOPR (War Operation Plan Response) computer nearly launched nuclear weapons — that led him to programming software that took the actual Hewlett Packard from a few colors to 5000 colors.
In addition to his film work, Cantwell’s wrote two science fiction novels, CoreFires 1 and CoreFires 2.
Cantwell is survived by Sierra Dall, his partner of 24 years.