When you think of the creation of Star Wars, George Lucas is obviously the first name that comes to mind. After all, it was his imagination that birthed the whole universe; from Jawas and lightsabers to Yoda. Or perhaps you’ll think of John Williams’ famous score, that made a permanent impression with the first title crawl?
What you probably won’t think of as you’re watching Han and Chewy in the cockpit of the Falcon, getting ready to hit the Hyperdrive button, is the name of the man who put the button there. A new autobiography, Cinema Alchemist: Designing Star Wars and Alien, from Titan books, is the firsthand account from Roger Christian, Oscar Winner and set dresser on Star Wars: A New Hope.
Cinema Alchemist: Designing Star Wars and Alien (Titan Books)
Cinema Alchemist covers the entire arc of the original Star Wars film and continues to follow Christian’s career as he subsequently goes to work for Ridley Scott as Art Director on the first Alien. Some words of caution to those of you hoping for behind-the-scenes gossip; Cinema Alchemist is less about juicy anecdotes and mudslinging on the set and more a detailed, exhaustive recounting of what went into the design choices in the films and how the look and tone of each prop and costume were decided/crafted. Christian does mention certain conflicts that have arisen in the years since the films were first made, such as conflicting reports of how the lightsaber came to be, but it reads more like a production journal, and tiffs and dust-ups between personalities are mentioned only matter-of-factly.
Nonetheless, the details divulged in Cinema Alchemist should sate even the most avid Star Wars aficionado. For instance, I never knew how close the movie came to not being made because of a constantly shrinking budget and an unwillingness by 20th Century Fox to commit and greenlight the film. It’s hard to imagine movies today, especially FX heavy affairs, dealing with the same hindrances that Star Wars did and remaining successful. Constant reductions to an already slim 8-million-dollar budget, particularly to the art department, left the movie in constant danger; Christian recounts how he and Art Director, John Barry, worked around these limitations. There was no CGI to make Star Wars come to life; instead, it was trips to haul scrap from airplane graveyards and the remnants of a foreclosed telecommunications building that made the sets and starships of that universe so real.
Christian’s recounting of how the tight constraints of a too short pre-production schedule led the art department to use anything they could get their hands on is fascinating. When a proper part couldn’t be modeled, R2-D2’s head was made from an old lamp. The tubular device just below and to the right of R2’s eye that looks like one of the small overhead lights above an airplane seat? Yep, that’s exactly what it was. You’ll find Christian’s handiwork in every shot of the movie when you look at the tubes and pipes that run down the wall in the Falcon, or the space heater painted black in the background of one of Darth Vader’s meeting with an Imperial Officer. The famed lightsaber started as just an old photo tube collecting dust in a camera shop before it became the focus of every kid’s imagination. It’s an unlikely start to a sci-fi epic that has been acclaimed for its look and special effects and Christian lays out each day working on the movie with astounding recall.
Once you see R2D2’s protruding eye as an airplane seat overhead light? You can’t unsee it.
The middle of the book follows Christian as he leaves Star Wars behind and details, in a brief chapter, his work with some of the Monty Python members on The Life of Brian, before being hired on by Ridley Scott. The detail and explanation Christian gives of how he actualized H.R. Giger’s singular artwork and designs into the now classic Alien parallels the first part on Star Wars; again, we’re given a masterclass by the author on how he transformed sets and worked with the director on a tight budget and schedule. There are interesting tidbits about Sigourney Weaver’s screen test and the fact that most people disliked the script for it’s simplicity, but the meat of the text is a very thorough timeline of how each set and prop came to life.
Is It Good?
Cinema Alchemist is a fascinating and comprehensive book for someone who appreciates the detail that goes into making a movie. This isn’t light entertainment or gossip and actually reads more like a textbook on film art direction. Those who pick it up solely because they are fans of the Star Wars or Alien franchises and want to know every detail behind the series will find rare insight into the making of their beloved films. However, the pages are dense with information and a step-by-step layout of the art production process, which could become repetitive for some. There are sections in which the author repeats himself as to how something was built or why. Even if necessary for explanation, I found I had to take quite a few breaks to get through it all.
The book is a wonderful resource for those interested in the movie business. Christian writes with great authority on the films, but I found his voice to be very humble in giving praise to the directors and artists he worked with; the ideals he embraced, such as making concepts work in the cheapest way and giving directors what they wanted whether it seemed possible at first or not, are a great contrast to the mega-budget blockbusters that rule the cinema of today. His autobiography is worthy of a book. There are a few great photo sections from Star Wars and Alien, too. However, as I said, I would suggest this book more to those interested in filmmaking, rather than someone curious for behind the scenes anecdotes.