Star Wars set decorator who 'cobbled together' props reflects on film 40 years later

Forty years after Star Wars first captivated moviegoers around the world, the film's set decorator still marvels over the challenges he faced trying to create a spaceship, weapons, droids and a Death Star, all on a shoestring budget.

Roger Christian used airplane scrap and much more to create spaceship, R2-D2 and lightsabers

Roger Christian was the set decorator for Star Wars. (Roger Christian)

Forty years after Star Wars first captivated moviegoers around the world, the film's set decorator still marvels over the challenges he faced trying to create a spaceship, weapons, droids and a Death Star, all on a shoestring budget.

Vacationing this week in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Roger Christian told CBC Radio's Information Morning Cape Breton how with "no money" he managed to accomplish that daunting task for the 1977 film.

Since 20th Century Fox had given the film's creator, George Lucas, a total budget of only $4 million US, Christian said he turned to the cheapest source he knew — airplane scrap — to patch together set pieces such as the Milennium Falcon.   

Christian, who now lives in Toronto, said he also helped develop R2-D2 from a simple concept in Lucas's script into the famous Star Wars character.

George Lucas, director of Star Wars, standing with the wooden prototype for R2-D2. (George Lucas)

A carpenter built a prototype out of plywood, and Christian took care of details, such as placing an old lamp on the droid's body to give him a rounded look. Kenny Baker, a three-foot-eight comedian, got inside the droid to make it move.

Not surprisingly, it was very uncomfortable for Baker. The inside had to be cut and reshaped several times to make it work, but the results weren't great.

"He could wobble it but he couldn't walk," said Christian.

Then came a breakthrough. Christian remembered that while buying airplane scrap, he'd also found a fighter pilot's harness.

"We fixed that inside the R2-D2, and he could wear him like a rucksack," Christian said. "He took about four steps and we knew then we had a film."

Roger Christian, left, and George Lucas on location in Tunisia. (George Lucas)

Based on that prototype, Christian had R2-D2 made out of aluminum. In some cases it was controlled by radio signal. But mostly it was managed by Baker or by using a thin wire, especially when the film was being shot in Tunisia.

"Most of the Tunisian shoot was done either with Kenny wobbling it or taking a few steps, or us pulling it on a fishing wire," said Christian, noting airborne sand particles in the desert meant the wire could not be seen.

Left to right: Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill are shown in a scene from Star Wars in this 1977 image provided by 20th Century Fox Film Corporation. (20th Century Fox Film Corporation/Associated Press)

It was the lightsaber — "the most iconic prop in the world of any movie" — which proved to be the biggest challenge, he said.

Time was running out and Christian was feeling the pressure since Lucas had been rejecting everyone's concept for a laser sword. "I had a bit of weight on my shoulders," he said.

He found the solution at a store he frequented in London. When he described what he was trying to design, he was directed to some old dusty boxes under a shelving unit that hadn't been opened for years. Inside he found some Graflex handles, which newpaper reporters used in the 1930s and 40s on their flash cameras.

"This was a flash unit that stuck onto the side of the camera with a grip. It had a red firing button," Christian said. "To me, it was like the music was rising and everything went in slow motion and I thought, 'I've found the Holy Grail!'"

He built a base for the lightsaber, including a small motor in which he inserted a long dowel he painted blue. With special effects, the rotating, vibrating dowel would jump to life as a laser blade.

R2-D2 and C-3PO on display in 2002 Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

By comparison, other weapons were relatively simple to devise. Since Lucas's concept was to create a sort of "space western," Christian took actual guns and augmented them by supergluing T-strips and old rifle scopes on them. For the Stormtroopers he used a Sterling submachine gun and created a "blaster." 

"It looked pretty cool," he said. "You could fire it. It wasn't like a science fiction film where they went 'beep, beep.' This thing would blast. You'd get smoke."

Christian, now 73, mused that because so much of what he did was "cobbled together" the film has a special quality. He believes it can't be replicated since there's so much pressure these days to "go bigger and better."

He recently published a book, Cinema Alchemist, which tells the story of his resourceful and creative set decorating in Star Wars and another sci-fi classic, Alien.