Star Wars interview: Marc Thorpe

The man who built the TIE Bomber shares his secrets to celebrate the release of the Star Wars Complete Saga on Blu-ray

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Primarily an artist rather than a commercial model maker, Marc Thorpe was snapped up by the fledgling Industrial Light & Magic due to similarity between his own sculpture, and the clean, angular buildings of Bespin Cloud City. As a model maker on The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi, he was at the heart of the special effects process as Star Wars boomed, and now works for the brilliantly named Stupid Fun Club, engineered by Will Wright, creator of The Sims and SimCity. Marc Thorpe recalls the years he spent building a galaxy far, far away…

How much of Star Wars’ success was down to these really iconic, clearly defined locations like Bespin Cloud City?

“I think a lot of it was a result of hired creators, contributions by a number of people. [Artist] Ralph McQuarrie in particular. It has an archetypical presence now, it’s iconic.”

Aside from the Cloud City buildings, what else did you work on?

“I worked on a lot of the Death Star II surfaces, there’d be different altitude views with a different level of detail for the shot where the Super Star Destroyer crashes into the Death Star, and I made the TIE Bomber in The Empire Strikes Back.”

How much freedom did you have in adapting the individual designs?

“That was not the typical project for me, there was a lot of freedom – probably the most freedom that I had while I worked at ILM. I was really happy working on that project.”

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Can you think of any examples of designs that you were able to alter in a major way from how they were originally handed to you?

“I tried to stay within the confines of what was being presented to me. Usually the designs and look was established by precedent – there’s a certain Star Wars look that things have and it usually came from Joe Johnson or Nilo Rodis, and I would look at those sketches that they drew, and if it was too general I would go and ask them ‘What do you mean here? Does this angle like this?’ I would try to stay within the confines of what they really wanted.”

How would you sum up the design aesthetic of Star Wars?

“It was industrial, kinda derelict, that made sense in an abstract way. There was nothing that actually worked, I mean everything that needed to would work or move, but there was lots of pipes and tubing and vents and levers, and it had an industrial credibility that made it ring true.”

Do you think that’s been influential in science fiction?

“Yes, definitely. It was another brand of that, I’d say, was the Giger look in Alien, that kind of thing but a more mechanical and organic version of it.”

Was there anything that just didn’t work the way it was supposed to?

“Actually, the thing about The Empire Strikes Back is there were no limits on budget – the main objective was to make it look as good as it could. Time was precious, but with money not being an issue you could just put more people on it. And everybody was so good at what they did. That’s the thing about Star Wars, at least the first three in my opinion – Episodes V, IV and VI – is that there’s very few weak links, everything’s strong and everything holds its own in an aesthetic standpoint, and from a story standpoint. It’s hard to criticise the design because everything’s really strong.”

Empire was famously over budget, were you aware of any of that at the coalface?

“There’s always the concern, there’s always financial pressure in any production but in this case it felt like the priority was that quality first.”

What were you the most proud of on Star Wars?

“Well, probably Cloud City and the TIE Bomber. There was a lot of stuff but Cloud City was the most reflective of my own personal work as an artist.”

What was it about the TIE Bomber that you were especially proud of, is it because it’s a self-contained little thing?

“It’s hard to say why you like it, I guess most of the models were a team effort – there were some other people who worked a little bit on the TIE Bomber, but there were a few models that pretty much one person works on.”

What was your first step in bringing it to life?

“I’d look at the sketch, the drawing – I think it was Joe Johnstone’s and I just interpreted it. There’s basic materials that you use, certain kinds of tubing, certain kinds of pipe – like oil refinery components, caps and domes, things like that. Trade materials, sheet materials – styrene, things like that. So you’d just be interpreting the storyboard and it just kind of evolved, you end up going beyond the storyboard and fleshing out detail that’s implied, but not really specified. That was one of things that made it so enjoyable and so successful – there was a lot of material, and we used model kit parts of detail and things like that. There was a wall of model kit parts, an abundance of materials in variety that made it a joy to work with.”

Marc Thorpe's self-portrait

You joined ILM just as they were booming after A New Hope, what was the atmosphere like at the company?

“When I first started there the atmosphere was of unbridled enthusiasm, and co-operation, support, everybody was extremely good at what they did. It was a new company so there weren’t that many people there – about 90 people at most, I think. There were other periods when there were a few hundred or more. Everybody was focused on what the task at hand was and there was no political tension, or other conflicts that are inherent in most companies. The atmosphere was great, I used to work there after hours – without pay!”

What was the environment on Return Of The Jedi different or did it feel like a continuation?

“There were more people on Jedi, it had a different feeling to it – it was still as great place to work as when I first started. On Jedi I worked on the tunnels, the ones Luke flies through at the end of the movie [, and I also worked on the shield unit on Endor, on location, working with the little people who were dressed as Ewoks. It was strange because it was beautiful environment, just expanse of Redwood trees kinda close to Oregon, and there was a lot of idle time when you’d set up. So you were sitting in this idyllic situation, on the coast of Oregon, and waiting for something that was needed and you couldn’t read a book or go do something else, you had to pay attention and it was sort of exhausting to have to pay so much attention to so little that was going on – it was a real strange vibe.”

Did you have any contact with George Lucas?

“He would come down to the model shop quite frequently, look at stuff that was going on with Joe Johnson and Nilo Rodis. He would mostly just listen and go, ‘Great!’ [laughs] That was it! He would comment about things that weren’t quite what he would like, or his interpretation of things, but he wouldn’t be shown something unless it was at a pretty advanced state, something that Joe or Nilo were satisfied with. It was good, it was recognisable – he would see that and think, ‘Great!’. Where he would have some issues would be with the dailies, with the shot – with the trajectory of motion, or there’d be some technical print-through where you see behind the structure to one of the other elements. Their were a lot of shots that I had nothing to do with, I was there watching because the shots that I was there for hadn’t come up yet – and I’d see them talking about some issue with the shot, and the shot looked perfect to me. And they’d show it over and over and over, and they’d keep talking about it and finally after I’d seen it like 20 times, I finally see this faint image of one of the elements that’s gotten printed through and you could sorta see it. And they’d come up with a solution for it and mark it down as CBB – Could Be Better.”

What was your favourite movie of the trilogy?

A New Hope, by far. I like them best in the order they were made, I like A New Hope best, I like Empire Strike Backs second best, and I like Jedi third best. I thought that the ending was outstanding, and probably it was something you couldn’t surpass – it was so good. Luke’s efforts to ward off all the tacks, going down the trench and Obi-Wan tells him to turn off the computer and go with instinct to try and get this one vital shot in this one small hole, and the mercenary has a change of heart and comes back… you know, it was just loaded with references and associations, and very high level implications about life, and heroism and bravery and ethics, and everything. It was the best movie that I’d ever seen.”


Star Wars Complete Saga Blu-ray box set is available September 12 from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, price £67.49, and SciFiNow’s collector’s edition Star Wars issue is available now from all good newsagents and online from the Imagineshop.