Star Wars at 40 | Paul Huston on Making Models and History for Star Wars: A New Hope talks to the ILM veteran about building models for Star Wars, blowing them up, and much more.

This article is part of a special series in honor of Star Wars 40th anniversary today, May 25.

Paul Huston has roamed the halls of Industrial Light & Magic for more than 40 years, with the distinction of lending his artistry and leaving his mark on all eight Star Wars films so far. Huston started out on the original trilogy as a model maker and storyboard artist, returned for the Special Edition of Star Wars: A New Hope as a digital matte artist, and continued to use those skills throughout the production of the prequels and beyond. But back in August of 1975, he was just a 24-year-old kid one year out of architecture school taking a job to work with his former professor Jamie Shourt. The artist, now “66 and almost a half” recently sat down with to reminisce about the early days of ILM, discuss how the hot-rod aesthetic influenced the saga’s iconic ships, and explain how plastic egg packaging for a line of pantyhose helped shape the rebellion’s Y-wing fleet. Your first task was to help storyboard artist Joe Johnston put together the “bidding” storyboards that would help put a cost on the visual effects shots for A New Hope. What was it like working on the original Star Wars film in those first weeks and months?

Paul Huston: Well, it was really exciting! It was kind of a revelation to walk into a little warehouse and then have it be full of all of these really interesting drawings and blueprints, [concept artist] Ralph McQuarrie’s drawings, and Joe’s drawings. It was really something that I never imagined that I would ever be able to do. And I was nervous about being able to keep up at the level, to keep up with Joe on storyboards. And I worked really hard to do that. It was a pretty small group at that time. I think there was maybe 10 people in the place. They were just starting to hire people and just starting the model shop going and we had a little room upstairs. The art department was this little plywood-floored room with wooden doors on sawhorses for drawing tables and cinderblock and plywood walls, and it was all really pretty rough. It kind of added to the charm. The most important thing was more the work that was going on there rather than location itself. What does your office space look like now compared to, you know, a wooden door on a sawhorse?

Paul Huston: Well yeah… [Laughs] Now the [Letterman] Digital Arts Center that was built, I think they finished it in about 2005, and it was one of the most prestigious office locations in San Francisco since it opened. It’s right on the edge of the bay. You can look out and see Alcatraz. You can see the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s just a beautiful 180-degree view from the upper floors and it’s almost a park-like setting surrounded by landscaping and the Palace of Fine Arts is just to the north. It’s just spectacular. And really nothing like its beginnings for sure. Right, although, I imagine the work that’s going on inside is nothing like its beginnings either.

Paul Huston: Yeah, it’s always really what the business demands. People aren’t that interested in seeing something that they’ve seen over and over again. You can only fool them for so long until you have to change your act. So the bar is constantly being raised and then also, fortunately, so are the tools. Computers are getting faster all the time and the software is being improved constantly and directors keep coming up with incredible ideas of what they want, how they want to impress people with their vision. And it’s been that way since I started. What we were doing in 1975 was pretty advanced for the state of the art in Hollywood at the time. And to the extent that they weren’t really able to hire people from the traditional disciplines to do it. It required a lot of experimentation. You couldn’t know then that we’d still be talking about this movie 40 years later. But was there a sense inside ILM that what you were doing was cutting edge? 

Paul Huston: Oh yeah. You know, at the time some of the studios had small visual effects or special effects departments, but they were pretty much using traditional, not-as-high-tech approaches in the materials and the machines they used at the time to make miniatures and make props, just partly because of the amount of miniatures that we had to make and the number of versions. For the film industry, it was unusual to use epoxies and resins and silicone castings, and we did a lot of development in that area, trying different kinds of molding techniques and techniques for the way that we would blow up the ships, how we developed the materials for blowing things up, and the materials and the processes that we used to make the exploding models. Up to that point, there had been a lot of blue screen and yellow, sodium screen shooting for matting elements together, but I think at that time just the number of shots that we had to do it was way higher that what had been attempted before. And then also the computer motion control that was kind of the heart of the whole place was really state of the art. I went to Disney and saw their motion control camera system — they had a huge room that was full of those old wheel-type, tape-drive computers to run their track and they had all kinds of stories about how the cameras would get out of control, which never really worked out well. Our system was really compact and effective and efficient and repeatable. And it was all designed and built there and everybody knew the same group of people who were building the motion control system were also building the motion control system for Douglas Trumbull for Close Encounters [of the Third Kind]. So those were the two facilities in L.A. in Hollywood and the world that were doing motion control at the time. And it was that group that did it all, designed it all, and fabricated it all. So yeah, I think it was well known within the company that we were on the edge of things. When you were trying to get the shot of blowing something up, like the Death Star, how many models were you making for that and how many times are you able to film it?

Paul Huston: When I started, [special-effects supervisor] John Dykstra’s main emphasis was on getting storyboards for the sequence because a script has a description that can be really general or specific, but it’s not really visual. Once the storyboards are done and the director has signed off on them, those are the shots that he’s going to do, that’s how he’s going to tell the story, and that’s the progression of action.

A storyboard shows you how far the camera is away, how much it’s moving, how much detail you see, how long the shot is, if there’s different moves, all that kind of stuff feeds into the general knowledge of the crew. And they decide, or we would decide, “Well, we need this kind of miniature for this, this could be a matte painting, or this could be two or three different scales of miniature,” if you have a sequence where you’re getting closer and closer and you know you’d have the blue screen.

The blue screen at that time was not that big, what would fit in that stage in that small warehouse, and that was kind of your maximum dimension that you could build anything and shoot it in blue screen. Or some of the sets we would build on the stage and just have black curtains behind them. But the planning was all based on, you know, specifics of the shot and how long it would be and what the camera movement would be, what’s the motion blur, how much you would actually see. What the lighting might be. Whether it’s daytime or nighttime, all of that stuff determines what the technique would be and how it would be approached. How were you blowing things up back in those days? What were you using?

Paul Huston: Well, we built the initial models for stage photography and some of them we knew would be one-off models and they could just be assembled from materials and kit parts and they’d be standalone models. But we knew there were a lot where we would need to do a bunch of duplicates and then also that we’d do explosion models. At the time I started, it wasn’t really decided how we’d approach things. I think they were still even thinking if they had to do lots of models, just assemble a bunch of them. As things developed, we started molding them because it was a lot faster than doing individual assemblies, and then just from that it dawned on people that, well, we could make all these so we could cast them and then we could cast the entire model. And from that point it got a lot more complicated.

We did experiments with different kinds of explosives including acetylene gas and powder to find out how fast an explosion that we needed to get and for them to be long enough to be impressive. It turned out that the acetylene went so fast that sometimes you’d not even get one frame at 48 frames-per-second, so that one kind of went out the door. We also tried different ways of putting things together. In the explosion tests we found out the explosions are really not very powerful. It’s a big bang, but it’s not very forceful, so from that we knew that we had to make pretty fragile explosion models. Because of the size of the blue screen, they all had to be pretty small and for the explosions to look very good on a small size they had to be shot high speed with a lot of light, so then we kind of figured that all out from doing different tests. It ended up that we used a lightweight foam that mixed together, put it into a mold, and then it expands and forms a real hard outer surface against the mold surface. It’s full of air bubbles or gas bubbles inside so it’s very light and it has a hard outer skin that can be painted, but it’s very light and it’s fairly fragile. After we cast the parts and put them together we cut them in the way that they would break apart. Different explosions would have different kind of cut patterns to have them break apart in different ways.

We rented another stage that had a dirt floor and it had a different fire clearance, and it was in a different neighborhood so that they could get permission to blow things up. And while they were in the process of preparing the models there right before they’re being blown up, the pyro guy Joe Viskocil would say, “Well, let’s have one where it’s a lot more fragile than that,” or “Cut this area a lot more.” So there’s a lot of customization of it. But that was mainly the TIE fighters and the Y-wings and the X-wings. The gritty “used future” feel of the Star Wars universe has made it so accessible. For A New Hope, you were one of many model makers creating the now iconic look of the ships. Can you walk us through the process of taking the sketch of one of these ships and finding the right parts, the right media, and the right feel to create the model for the production?

Paul Huston: First, there would be a drawing, an art department sketch by Joe, and for some of the models Steve Gawley would do a three-view plan with the dimensions. I think most of the spaceship models for A New Hope were done that way. And then Joe would say, “Well, just disregard all that [Laughs] and make it better.” That was his way. He wanted people to have input and try to make things better. It was fun working that way, too. You couldn’t go wrong at all by just following what he drew, but there was freedom to make things up.

Then there would be a phase of building an armature, which at the time was various kinds of aluminum, either like a machine block of aluminum or an aluminum pipe or something that could be mounted on the blue screen pylon. When that armature was built, then we would start kind of assembling plastic parts around it that were supported by it. So, for example, the Y-wing, the armature would be a pipe from the front to the back of the center engine piece, and then a cross brace of aluminum between the two rocket engines. The engines were plastic kit parts from some rocket kit and then the front part was — remember L’eggs, the hosiery product? So the front egg shape was a L’eggs container. We just bought a bunch of those and stuck them on. That’s part of model making. Half the time you’re just trying to find something that’s already been made that is the shape that you want.

And then there’s a really long phase of adding tiny, little details from kit model parts to make the bigger shapes look like they actually do something or are connected visually to the other pieces. Part of George [Lucas]’s brief on all this stuff was to make it simple and geometric so it could be read easily and he thought those shapes were really more interesting, anyway. You know, that things weren’t too complicated, so a lot of it was basic geometric shapes modified a little bit and with a lot of small details that didn’t really change the shape, but added the feeling that there was some kind of a function that all these parts had. Like an engine would have vents and pipes going into it and the body parts would have panel lines. Was it George’s directive that if you put a pipe in it had to go somewhere adding to that authenticity?

Paul Huston: No, there wasn’t any direction. That was just something that was kind of understood. The people that were there doing it, all those guys were kind of closet hot rodders. I call it a hot-rod aesthetic, where it’s really cool to see the exhaust pipes coming out or to have a big hole in the hood so you can see the supercharger. John Dykstra had a Mini — you could eat dinner off the roof of it. To open up the hood and look at the engine, you would see polished bright, brilliant copper fuel lines and a perfectly clean air filter. Just really kind of an appreciation for mechanical art or engineering function and materials. Joe Johnston had motorcycles when he was a teenager and I had raced motorcycles for awhile. And it’s California car culture, anyway. John and Joe and Steve Gawley all went to Long Beach State for industrial design and it’s an industrial design aesthetic as well.

I think the only place I’ve ever really seen that description of how you create a mechanical look was from Syd Mead. He was describing his technique and he said that was how he went about it — you do basic geometric shapes and then add details to make it look like the things had some kind of function. I read that way after we actually did it, but it just makes sense. I think we just came upon the same technique.

And there’s an interesting aspect of it, too, that’s really abstract. Not only do you want to make it look like it has some kind of mechanical function, but you want to break up the space in interesting ways so it’s not too regular and not too chaotic. It’s kind of an abstract sculpture in a way. During those earliest phases of production, you and the rest of the art department were really taking George Lucas’ vision and Ralph McQuarrie’s concepts and turning them into something tangible. What was it like working with George and Ralph, who both seemed to have very clear visions working in accordance with each other? How did you fit into the equation and add your own creativity into the mix?

Paul Huston: The guiding vision was Ralph’s paintings and they had photocopies of them there in the model shop. Ralph would, occasionally, especially when he did a new one, bring it by and we would look at it. It would be on illustration board with a tissue cover and he’d roll the tissue cover back over and everyone would crowd around and “ooh” and “aah” at it for awhile. Just these very small, one-foot-wide and incredibly detailed paintings. We’d be looking at storyboards and thinking, you know, what is this part going to look like? And then Ralph would come in with a painting and you’d go, “Oh!” He had a head start on us, but then eventually he was starting to put what we were building into his paintings. I’m thinking specifically about a painting they did of a TIE fighter over the Death Star and he pretty much followed Joe’s drawing that Joe did for making the mold pieces for the Death Star.

I think Ralph did a group of paintings to help get funding, to help give people an idea of what George wanted to achieve and the direction he was going and those had a slightly different look. When were actually building the models, there were a lot of technical restraints that we had to follow that forced some changes. Like some of the concept models had really spindly parts. They were more delicate. And most of the things that we did had to be supported. You know, we’re supporting actual on-set mechanical devices that had a certain weight and size and everything, so things tended to get a bit thicker and more sturdy. Especially the Y-wing. The Y-wing had a really delicate little neck where the cockpit fuselage joined on to the main engine part. It was really thin and we had to beef that up just to make everything more sturdy. And another thing was that John Dykstra was adamant about not having curved or reflective surfaces because he was afraid that you wouldn’t be able to pull good blue screens — the blue would reflect off a curving surface and you’d always have a bad edge or areas that would get blue and then fall out of the matte. So everything became really cubic and flat-surfaced, which kind of made everyone happy anyway because it’s a lot easier to build flat-surface models than to build models with a lot of curves and compound surfaces. There had to be a lot of trial and error, especially at the beginning. Can you describe one of the biggest technical disasters of your early days of model making and, conversely, what you feel is your greatest achievement for A New Hope specifically?

Paul Huston: I think that there was just a huge amount of experience there. Even though it was new, John Dykstra worked on Silent Running. Jamie Shourt [of the optical effects unit] worked on Silent Running. [Model maker] Grant [McCune] and [camera and mechanical designer] Bill Shourt worked on Jaws. And, you know, John and Joe went to Long Beach State, where one of the classes they had for industrial designers was that you design some kind of product and then you also design the machines, or whatever the process is, that make that product. And I came from architecture school and knew the building systems and design methodologies. And then also, Jamie and John on Silent Running worked with Doug Trumbull, who had an enormous amount of experience in visual effects from starting with 2001. I think that, you know, the process of design and the process of problem solving was really strong and robust, even at that time.

The thing that stands out most to me for A New Hope was just how starting from nothing in a warehouse, how things got built up over time and also what a long time it took because there weren’t a lot of people and things were just done as they needed to be done and as money was available. Just the way the whole thing came together for me was really amazing. Very few people knew what was going on. The initial group that had come from Silent Running all knew the whole process and what the intended outcome was, but if you walk into a darkened stage with a few lights on and a blue screen, most people would have no idea what was going on.

And model makers would have their focus on model making. They wouldn’t really think about how the model was going to be photographed and we wouldn’t see 50 percent of the detail that was on it, and people in roto were doing roto work and they’d be looking at some tiny little dot of an X-wing and trying to make a matte around it and they’d have a different outlook. Somehow that all came together. And also I was a newbie then, too, and I was learning, so that part of it made a big impression on me.

In the years subsequent it seems like the biggest transition in the business has been the fact that many more people now know all about it. Like a production assistant or a producer knows all about visual effects. And in those days people didn’t really know and everything had to be explained and it just enables a much higher level of aspiration, really just a much higher level of things that you try to do and the things that you have time to do and the number of people that have ability to do a lot of different things.

Paul Huston, furthest left behind the table, with ILM’s army of model makers. You have the distinction of working on the original trilogy, the Special Editions, and the prequels, as well as so many other films outside of the franchise. Over that time, you’ve also transitioned from the model shop to digital matte painting. How has your role with ILM changed over the years and what inspired you to leave three-dimensional design for matte artistry?

Paul Huston: I became interested in illustration when I was in architecture school. I started doing storyboards and I just kind of I went from department to department just to keep working, because I wanted to stay there [at ILM] and I wanted to learn, but my initial interests were more in illustration and photography and I was always trying to get into those areas. The matte department kind of combined everything together, plus it was the only department that did everything for a shot, and I thought that was really fun. That was a great way to learn because if you’re only doing a part sometimes you never even know all the changes that things go through to finalize the shot. But in the matte department they did everything, and it also combined painting and photography and I had gotten along really well with the guys in the matte department, so I made an effort to work more and more with them. And then, when digital came along, it was just everything kind of fell into line and all the things that I could do were just all made a lot easier and faster, and my desire to kind of do everything myself — I could suddenly do it. It didn’t require a whole bunch of different people to do something. A single person could do a lot on their own. I just found an area where I could do all the things I was interested in, you know, in one area. Considering the technological advancements in the industry, do you ever find yourself nostalgic for those early days of more physical model creation?

Paul Huston: While it is interesting dealing with physical materials and processes and I occasionally miss those activities, in general they were much more difficult, costly, time consuming, unhealthy, and imposed huge limitations on what could be accomplished. The drawbacks far outweigh any nostalgia I might have. I usually refer to that period as “the bad old days.” As an artist, your passion is to realize a vision, and that is much easier these days! Looking back, what was your favorite part about working on that first film?

Paul Huston: After the first few months of chaos, and the starting phase of building and detailing the first Millennium Falcon and the hiring of some key model builders, there was a period when the model shop came together as a team and we worked together very efficiently and in harmony. New models just seemed to flow out of the shop. One in particular was the sandcrawler model that I think almost everyone in the shop had some part in building. At that stage there wasn’t much discussion as everyone knew just what to do, it seemed. It was very enjoyable to be a part of that. Did you have a favorite model that you built or is there a particular scene that stands out?

Paul Huston: I’m very proud that a model I built with Stuart Ziff was the key model in the first shot that ILM produced. That was the Death Star cannon. I also drew the storyboard for the shot earlier when working on the bidding boards in the art department with Joe Johnston. What does A New Hope mean to you 40 years later?

Paul Huston: It is an over used word, but “amazing” is how I consider the impact Star Wars has had. Nearly every big tentpole VFX blockbuster follows some part of the framework created by George Lucas with Star Wars. Not to mention the impact it had on the videogame and toy industries. It is particularly clear if one experienced the landscape of film entertainment pre-Star Wars.

So when I go to movies I can’t escape that realization and it makes me feel very humble to have been a part of it, and to marvel at the fantastic improvements that have been made to what seems now to be a simple and almost crude original realization.

Kristin Baver is a writer and all-around sci-fi nerd who always has just one more question in an inexhaustible list of curiosities. Sometimes she blurts out “It’s a trap!” even when it’s not. Follow her on Twitter @KristinBaver.

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