When James Clyne first envisioned remaking the Millennium Falcon, he pictured the ship that made the Kessel Run having its perfect and pristine hull stripped away, panel by panel, to reveal the hunk of junk beneath the shiny exterior.
The move would be a combination of movie magic and something of a parlor trick. “The way I saw it, it’s like ripping a tablecloth off, you know those magicians that rip a tablecloth off and everything is still there? All the things that we know and love about Han Solo’s ship is underneath that. That was kind of the starting off point.”
Clyne, Lucasfilm’s design supervisor for Solo: A Star Wars Story, and his team ultimately created about 60 iterations of the fastest ship in the galaxy before landing on the design that’s featured in the new film, out now. The process took Clyne back to his childhood and essentially transported the entire crew back to the 1970s to explore muscle car culture, model building, and the original concept art that inspired the creators of Star Wars in 1977.
“I think the big exciting thing about doing a new Falcon was the question of, we all know what an old Millennium Falcon looks like, but what does the new Millennium Falcon look like? That was really exciting,” Clyne says. “What does a clean Millennium Falcon look like? I think that was the big thing that I always wanted to see going into the movie. As a kid, I just loved it for what it was. I thought it was perfect. But when it was proposed that you would see a cleaner, newer Lando version, I couldn’t get more excited about and more scared about that prospect,” he says with a laugh. “There was a certain level of sheer terror in taking this on. I mean, it’s like the most beloved thing you’ve ever seen in the Star Wars universe. It’s like somebody asking you to change the Eiffel Tower or something.”
A 40-year mystery
“We went kind of crazy in the beginning with ideas,” Clyne says, with designs that at one point called for adding another cockpit to the craft to make the unmistakable silhouette more symmetrical and “huge spoilers on the back like a hot rod.”
The script called for an escape pod, “and we knew we wanted the escape pod on the nose. Is it just another spaceship, just superglued on the front of it? Does it integrate with the ship perfectly so that when it comes off it’s a big surprise?” Clyne asks. “And that was definitely the story dictating the design. For me, even though I deal in the world of design, I think story should be first and foremost. It’s our job to certainly service the story and not the other way around.”
In reimagining the iconic ship, Clyne had the chance to answer something he’d been wondering about since he was a kid playing with his own toy version. “It always had that funny little gap in the front — the mandibles — and even as a kid, I remember getting the Millennium Falcon toy and I always wondered, why is it shaped this way? Was there something that was supposed to go there? Was there more to it? It was always kind of a mystery to me and here I am 40 years later actually having to solve that problem.”
It’s an opportunity his eight-year-old self never could have even dreamed of. “People ask me, like, is this a dream come true? And I say it’s not because it’s a dream I never simply had. It didn’t seem possible, but, in fact, I think Star Wars is the reason I work in the film industry…The one thing that sparked it off was having those toys. Those toys were so influential on understanding not only film but design.”
The Falcon of Clyne’s childhood, especially rendered in plastic, “was like an RV for your toys. They can play in the back, they can play in the front, they can do some holochess in the middle. The X-wing was great because you could get one pilot in there, but the Falcon was like this big RV that you get to put all your characters together and they go on little adventures.”
In designing Solo, Clyne referred back to the Star Wars design equivalent of a Jedi Master — Ralph McQuarrie. In McQuarrie’s original sketches and paintings of the Falcon, the ship was simple yet distinct, and sleeker than the piece of junk that ultimately ended up on screen.
“We are constantly pulling from every little sketch that we can possibly find,” Clyne says. “And in fact one of Ralph’s earliest Docking Bay 94 paintings of the Falcon was a big influence because it had less detail. We just went right back to the well and looked at all the Ralph McQuarrie stuff…a lot of the early designs were pretty clean, were pretty slick.
“I love doing my homework. I love research. So we found a lot of old storyboards when they didn’t quite know what the Falcon was and it was just a little cleaner. You could see a little bit of the influence and again I think this stuff is just gold. You can’t make this stuff up, it’s already there. And we’re making movies that are based on the history of all this stuff.” In that way, the new Falcon honors the tradition of the legends who created the original. “It looks like something Ralph McQuarrie could have come up with and did in part.”
As a child, Clyne pored over the Star Wars sketchbooks to better understand how designers arrived at the final creations on the screen. “I had this Empire Strikes Back sketchbook. They did three books that were just Joe Johnston and Ralph McQuarrie sketches and I got that when I was like 8 and it showed that ideas can come from the simplest places, like pencil on paper. It was kind of mind blowing to see the origins of that. It’s like seeing like [Leonardo] da Vinci’s drawings before the Mona Lisa,” Clyne says, his voice filled with awe. “Seeing the painting, the Mona Lisa, or seeing a Ralph McQuarrie painting, I’m just so intimidated by all of that. But seeing a sketch…It gave me a way into it and I still have that sketchbook. I drew in the sketchbook. You’ve got a beautiful Joe Johnston drawing and you’ve got this like terrible, you know, remake of it.”
Back to the model shop
Clyne encouraged his team of artists to use muscle cars as inspiration for bulked up hulls and paint schematics, even jokingly rendering the Falcon emblazoned with flames and another souped up like a Pontiac Trans Am. “I think everybody was just at that point like, ‘OK, are they blue stripes, are they yellow stripes, or are they red stripes?’ And I just threw this into one of our reviews. Very Smokey and the Bandit… I think everybody got a good laugh and I was able to lighten things up a little bit.”
Clyne’s Falcon had to be accessible, organic and intuitive, memorable but believable. “I always wanted the spoilers to be bigger. You’ll notice that there is a bigger spoiler on it. As a kid coming from the ‘80s, spoilers were quite the thing, and in fact a lot of the influence on Solo design came from the muscle car generation. It came from the ‘70s and ‘80s simply because I think these movies…they’re more historical dramas than they are futuristic sci-fi movies. They’re influenced by what George [Lucas] was influenced by, like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, and car culture, so we should be influenced by that. If we’re not — if we’re influenced by other things — then I feel like it’s not Star Wars. So early on I showed a lot of reference of muscle cars and ’70s bike culture, motorcycle culture, which is what goes into Enfys Nest and then just car culture. There were a lot of other things, too, like New York in the ‘80s punk rock.”
Clyne’s approach for Solo also honored the original film’s model makers with some hands-on design work to ensure the Falcon they built felt realistic. “I always ask myself what would ILM or these artists and designers be doing…[in] 1971, 1970? What if they were around and they made this movie before A New Hope, what would they be building? What would it look like? How would they be building it?”
Clyne and his team bought some of the 1:72 scale Millennium Falcon model kits available on the market today, and three model makers gathered in a little shop at Pinewood Studios where they started adding parts and removing others, the next step in visualizing the ship they’d been trying to draw out of their heads. “To do it in a physical way, rather than a digital way, that really got us into the conversation. We’re always going to take this and put it in the computer, but as a design tool, what if we just went old school and built it from the kits? I think everybody really appreciated seeing something physical and holding it and being able to look at it as a tactile thing rather than spinning on a monitor.”
Beyond using some of the original techniques, Clyne says he is always cognizant of how the design capabilities and contemporary pop culture of the 1970s influenced the Star Wars aesthetic.
“Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should,” he often reminds himself. “At ILM and Lucasfilm, we have the technology to do just about anything. Back then they were pretty limited in what they could do, but out of those limitations became what it was. Out of those limitations came the Star Wars aesthetic. If we just give ourselves some ground rules then those rules help guide us into what it should ultimately be.
“I’m always trying to find the most distilled basic solution to our problems,” Clyne says. “The old [Falcon] is just beautiful…an eight-year-old can sketch the Falcon. That’s the tough part with all of this. It’s so tough to do something really distinct and on the other side do something very simple.”
That’s precisely how McQuarrie and George Lucas first envisioned the galaxy far, far away — by starting with basic shapes and adding exhaust ports and other myriad details to create a piece of machinery that seemed like a believable method for traversing the stars. “We dealt in very simple shapes,” Clyne says. “Those shapes become iconic and then it just becomes, I think, Star Wars. So with that in mind, [Lando’s] Falcon had to be unique, but it had to be simple, and I think we started with a lot of detail and a lot of different options and it eventually just got distilled further and further down into a very simple shape.”
Next up — Clyne takes us on a journey behind the scenes of designing the Kessel Run sequence in Solo: A Star Wars Story.
Solo: A Star Wars Story is in theaters now.
You can see many of the stunning images included here and more in The Art of Solo: A Star Wars Story.
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. Do you know a fan who’s most impressive? Hop on Twitter and tell @KristinBaver all about them!