Welcome to From Concept to Screen, an ongoing series about the various stages of the production that your favorite character, vehicle, creature, location, or scene of the Star Wars saga had to undergo before arriving on the silver screen.
This time we take a close look to the ship that everybody wants to fly and returns in Star Wars: The Force Awakens this month: the Millennium Falcon. It turns out that the real-life history of this ship is just as rich as its movie counterpart.
The first time that a “pirate ship” for Han Solo is mentioned in any of the scripts was in the second draft, dated January 1975. In this draft Lucas had written a scene in which Han was serving onboard a pirate ship along with fellow crewmates Chewbacca, Montross Holdaack (a character who has been in almost every version of the story, yet still never made it to the screen), and Jabba the Hutt, who at that point was still a human. Han was able to steal the ship away from its captain by faking a reactor overload, causing everybody but him, Chewbacca and Montross to flee the ship. A later outline would remove this scene, making Han Solo the owner of this pirate ship from the start of the story. The revised fourth draft, dated March 1976, first named the ship as the Millennium Falcon.
The first designs of the ship looked more like a standard rocket ship with the long tube-shape and with a cockpit in front. Each further design would step away from that. To give the ship more a feeling of a racecar, eleven very big engine exhaust ports were added to the back of the ship. With this design locked as final, ILM began creating a detailed model of this ship. However when the ship began to look too much like the Eagle from Space: 1999, the design was modified with a new hammerhead cockpit and became the Tantive IV instead.
Lucas liked the round cockpit and kept it for the Falcon, which was redesigned in less than a week’s time. Lucas wanted the Falcon to have its own personality, and was thinking about the shape of a hamburger with a bite out of it to make it look different than the standard round UFO shape that everybody was familiar with. Something that would not make the cut was the idea that the cockpit could turn ninety degrees, an idea later re-used for the B-wings of Return of the Jedi.
For A New Hope, a four-foot model was made using the technique of kit-bashing in which real-world model kits were used for parts to create a whole new ship like the Falcon. This model was built with parts from Ferrari and tank model sets and, when completed, mounted on a blue pole. It was then filmed by ILM with motion-control cameras running around the model on rails.
For The Empire Strikes Back, Lucas decided that this technique could be improved upon and he upped the scale of what the ship models would have to do. For the Falcon this meant the more complicated asteroid chase scene, requiring a new model half the size of the model used for the previous movie. The crew of ILM was in luck, as the models that they had used for A New Hope were also available in the smaller scale that they needed now. Other newly made models for The Empire Strikes Back include the palm-sized Falcon that was used for scene where it docks on the Star Destroyer and a detailed model of the upside of the ship, used to complete the shot in which Lando rescues Luke from the weathervane on Cloud City. This model of the dorsal hull was scrapped after filming and does not exist anymore, unlike many of the other models.
Return of the Jedi would be able to re-use many of the models created for The Empire Strikes Back.
Quite a few sets were designed and built by the team of John Barry and Norman Reynolds. The biggest set of the Falcon for A New Hope was the exterior which was done on a nearly full-sized scale. To cut costs, they only made the half of the ship — the cockpit and the boarding ramp, visible in the movie during the Docking Bay 94 scene. When Luke mocks the ship by calling it a piece of junk, you can clearly see the half of the ship with the radar dish missing. The other scene in which the nearly full-sized Falcon was used was when the ship was standing in the Death Star hangar. Because the Falcon‘s exterior was too big to move they changed the set surrounding the ship instead. Smaller sets made for this movie include the cockpit, the hallway with the boarding ramp, the gun turret (which was made only once and did double duty for both Han and Luke), and, of course, the main hold with the dejarik holochess table.
The exterior was rebuilt for The Empire Strikes Back, and because of the Hoth hangar scenes in which we see Han and Chewbacca on the hull repairing the ship, it was built as a complete and full-sized set. Just like with the previous movie, the sets would revolve around the ship: the Hoth hangar, the cave slug, and the landing platform on Cloud City.
When filming started on Return of the Jedi they unpacked the full-sized Falcon for the first days of shooting, the scene that they filmed was the sandstorm scene. With this scene cut, the final appearance of the full-sized Falcon set went unseen until the Blu-ray release. In all the other instances we see the Falcon’s exterior with actors, matte paintings were used. The smaller sets that were rebuilt for The Empire Strikes Back like the cockpit, gun turrets, main hold, and hallways were also re-used for Return of the Jedi.
The last aspect that was needed to bring the Falcon to life was sound. Like all the ships in the saga, the Falcon started out with a base sound of a real plane: the piston-driven P-51 from World War Two played in slow-motion. Sound designer Ben Burtt recorded this sound during the California National Air Races with the planes passing by him as close as they could. For moments in which the Falcon passes by the camera, Burtt added a thunderclap, or the roar of a lion, at the exact moment that the ship was the closest to the camera. The sound of the Falcon jumping to hyperspace was the sound of a DC-3 plane (with added echo effect) combined with the sound that the motion-control cameras made on their tracks.
Another sound that came from combining many other sounds was when the Falcon fails to jump into hyperspace in The Empire Strikes Back. This sound consists of: a misfiring ’29 Waco biplane engine, water pipes from the San Anselmo studio where they worked, an arc light, and the hissing of a dentist’s tooth-polish machine.
The digital Millennium Falcon
For new scenes in the Special Edition of the Millennium Falcon in flight, like through Cloud City, a digital model was created by the team of ILM. The other digital version of the ship was seen in Revenge of the Sith while flying towards the Senate building in a small cameo.
Join us next in 2016 for more articles in this series!
Sources: Sculpting A Galaxy, The Making of Star Wars, The Making of The Empire Strikes Back, The Making of Return Of The Jedi, The Sounds of Star Wars & Star Wars: The Blueprints.
Sander de Lange (Exar Xan) from the Netherlands worked on the Rogues Gallery feature in Star Wars Insider and has written the back-story for Niai Fieso through “What’s the Story?”. He is an editor for TeeKay-421, the Belgian Star Wars Fanclub and an administrator for the Star Wars Sourcebooks page on Facebook.