Designing Solo: A Star Wars Story, Part 2: The Film That Made the Kessel Run

Lucasfilm design supervisor James Clyne on battering the Falcon, extreme weather in Star Wars, and what the Kessel Run has in common with Indiana Jones.

Yesterday, James Clyne took us on a journey through the design of Lando’s elegant and sleek Millennium Falcon, from concept to glorious creation.

But after Lucasfilm’s design supervisor for Solo: A Star Wars Story perfected the fastest ship in the galaxy, he and his team were tasked with essentially tearing it apart to bring it closer to the piece of junk we first encountered in A New Hope. How could such a pristine specimen of fine craftsmanship become the bucket of bolts first glimpsed in Docking Bay 94? (Spoiler warning: This story contains some details and plot points from Solo: A Star Wars Story.)

Three words: The Kessel Run.

The record-setting mission that made the Millennium Falcon a legend in its time is, for the first time, seen on-screen in the new film. And it was Clyne and his crew that had to tackle the challenge of designing the treacherous course, the monsters lurking in the mist, and the gravity well that essentially demolished all their hard work piece by beautiful piece, using some real-world inspiration from extreme weather conditions and some help from Indiana Jones.

Concept art for the Kessel Run as seen in Solo: A Star Wars Story.

A piece of junk

“We started on two ends, really,” Clyne says. “On one end was the Han Solo Falcon [from the original trilogy] and then on the other end we’ve got the clean Lando Falcon. How do we get to the middle?”

The script called for the Kessel Run, and directed Clyne and his team to design ominous carbon bergs and other obstacles, including an Imperial blockade. But it was up to the designers to piece together the minute details, breaking down the sequence to account for every missing panel and broken-off radar dish. “I proposed this idea that the Falcon gets really battered up, more battered up than you’ve ever seen it,” Clyne says. “We had to design every progression, from the first panel coming off to the last panel coming off. We had to understand what that meant.”

The Millennium Falcon makes the Kessel Run, chased by TIE fighters.

In Clyne’s head-canon, the Falcon became the galactic version of a classic car that needed to be pieced back together from old parts salvaged off a junk heap. “I love that. I love seeing like, a red car with a blue hood on it. It’s just like –What happened there? And I see Han’s Falcon as the red car with the blue hood. And Lando’s being this beautiful pristine car….What I proposed was, after our movie, Chewie is spending his weekends putting panels back on. The poor guy is spending all his extra time and you see those orange pieces that go on, there’s yellow panels… He’s just going to every scrap yard he can to put this back [together].” So when Luke Skywalker first sees the beloved ship and remarks, “What a piece of junk!” — “If you would have panned the camera to Chewie, he would have been going, ‘Hey! It’s a work in progress. I’m spending all this time trying to get this thing back together.’”

But first, Clyne and his team plotted to tear the ship apart.

Extreme weather

In typical Star Wars fashion, the trouble starts while running from the Empire. To escape from the clutches of an Imperial blockade above Kessel, Han has to find an impossible shortcut and cut a route never before attempted.

As the Falcon disappears into the clouds, ominous flashes of lightning illuminate the atmosphere. “What are those really scary things that humans that live on Earth can relate to?” Clyne asked his team. “Not us being out in some far-off universe having to understand. We’ve all been in a plane that’s had some turbulence or been on a road where it’s just raining and you can’t see. The Kessel Run became a lot more visceral and believable when we hung onto this idea of extreme weather.”

Concept art for the Kessel Run. The Millennium Falcon flies above the clouds towards lightening and TIE fighters.

The script called for carbon bergs, planet-sized objects colliding into one another. “That was a fun thing to explore,” Clyne says. “They’re kind of hard to see. There’s a few of them kind of smashing together and then when they go down and they skim the ice, that is supposed to be a big carbon berg. They’re these big iceberg kind of things.”

Research included a search for footage of real-life tornadoes shot from inside the cyclone. “We looked up a lot of things on the interwebs,” Clyne says. “We always came back to, in true Star Wars fashion, ‘It’s not always science.’ You can get away with a little more in Star Wars.”

Making a monster

Like, say, a giant octopus-like monster floating through space. The creature, which also gives a nod to Indiana Jones, wasn’t in the script. “We called it Space-o-pus,” Clyne says. (Its official name is summa-verminoth.)

Concept art of the Falcon flying away from several Space-o-pusses.

“It was just one of these roundtable meetings to come up with a bunch of fun ideas for the Kessel Run. We had stuff that we knew, like the carbon bergs, but the Space-o-pus wasn’t in there. It was a little sketch of this monstrous jellyfish and the Falcon was hyperspacing through the head of it to get away. And [director] Ron [Howard] had seen that drawing.”

Clyne ran with the idea, sketching out a mockup of the Falcon flying up alongside the creature’s enormous eyeball. “Again, that was just me doing a drawing and being like ‘What if we did a big eyeball, guys?’ It was kind of terrifying.” But he could take it further.

The Falcon in front of a giant eye of a Space-o-pus.

Concept art of Han Solo and Chewbacca in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon as they fly towards a Space-o-pus, a creature that flies around the planet Kessel.

As the creature encounters the gravity well, Clyne and his team started spitballing ideas about how the pressure would impact an organic life form. “We were having these conversations with Ron about what happens to this space monster when he gets sucked into this gravity well. Does he just turn into a ball of light? Does he dissolve like water? Everybody was throwing out these ideas and it was one of these big conversations and I said, ‘Well, what if in true ‘80s Indiana Jones fashion, his skin just gets ripped off and we see his skull?’ And everybody was like, ‘Oh, that’s disgusting, James!’”

But Howard was intrigued. “A minute later, Ron goes, ‘I want to hear more about the skull.’ And I said, ‘Well, we’re Star Wars. Let’s have those fun moments where you’re a kid and you get giddy because there’s something really kind of gruesome that happens, but it’s not bloody….I wanted to have one of these moments where you kind of felt sad for it. He was just hanging out in space doing his own thing, minding his own business, just a little hungry for some space ship. And then it gets sucked into this thing. We were trying to figure out how to make that a little more fun.”

Gravity of the situation

With the creature vanquished, there’s still the devastating power of the massive gravity well to contend with before the Falcon can fly off to relative safety, and Clyne and his crew were tasked with choreographing the destruction. “The gravity well was such a huge challenge itself. It was a scale that we had to define. There was some science involved: What is the amount of gravity pulling on objects? Does it pull it straight into itself? And then just the animation behind taking an organic object like our Space-o-pus and dragging that in, how much tension is on the tentacles? Endless decisions.

Concept art of a Space-o-pus, a creature from the planet of Kessel, being pulled into a gravity well.

“We had to step-by-step understand what pieces came off, how much is exposed at this point, how much do we leave as a fun moment at the end where you really see it all ripped apart. There’s a really quick moment where the Space-o-pus slaps the top of the ship….And then there’s just the gravity well itself pulling pieces off. Just literally seeing one panel just peel back like a tin can and fly off.”

In designing the maw, “it did a couple things,” Clyne says. “We could have fun with ripping pieces off the Falcon and it gave us a visual cue of speed and danger of the gravity itself, so it worked in two respects. And then it showed the speed — if that’s one piece that came off, what’s going to happen if the whole thing gets sucked into it?”

Even the color of the gravity well and the Kessel Run storm was carefully scripted. “Color palette was a big part of not only the gravity well but the entire movie,” Clyne says. “The movie follows Han Solo’s mood. It starts very kind of gray and single dimensional and de-saturated, monochromatic, and it gets more and more colorful as the movie progresses, so you get to Kessel and it’s yellow. You get to the gravity well, it’s bright red.”

The Falcon flying through Kessel Run.

Beyond the magnificence of the special effects, Clyne says it’s the characters that truly give the Kessel Run its heart. “These characters come from all different places, walks of life, and they’re all having to work together. They’re all in this really scary situation having to work it out. Beckett’s in the back and Han’s in the front…L3 is now part of the ship making it happen. They’re all coming together, working together and without that, it would have been an interesting looking sequence, but have you wouldn’t have really felt much. I know what it’s like to work as a team to make something happen.”

Tomorrow — In our third and final installment, Clyne delves deep into designing the train heist sequence in Solo: A Star Wars Story.

The Millennium Falcon flies sideways through a tight squeeze.

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!

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