Monday, 24 April 2017

Old School Horrors 6: The Intruder, by Thomas Altman

The sixth, in an occasional thread, of blog posts celebrating those cheesy, sleazy old-school pulp paperbacks from the 70s and 80s, which are now mostly forgotten.  Yes, we’re not talking great art here but these books have their place - for better or worse - in the genre and I think they deserve to be remembered.

This time around, I'm looking at a novel that isn't quite as it appears...
cover scan of my copy - published in 1986 by Corgi
A stranger is bringing a gift to Las Cosimas... A gift no woman can endure

Caroline Cassidy is beautiful and bored.  When a wealthy, attractive stranger enters her life, she has no reason to fear.

Tobias Manning, sharp ex-cop and now security officer in Las Cosimas, is bored too - but he likes it that way.  Until, one by one, the women of this wealthy, fashionable community begin to die, some in compromising positions.

Soon boredom seems like paradise, as the town is trapped in a nightmare of fear.  And now, with the killer due to strike again at any moment, Manning is afraid too - especially for Caroline.  Her new lover's face is starting to look frighteningly familiar.

A suspense novel that is slightly mis-sold by its glorious mid-80s cover art (though that’s not really a problem), this was written by Campbell Armstrong under his 80s genre pseudonym and works well.  The new coastal town of Las Cosimas - built around an old Mexican village by the millionaire J M Dunbar - is home to the rich young executives and experts of the burgeoning computer industry, as well as a small population of Mexicans who have their own quarter.  Caroline Cassidy is marketing chief for Dunbar, young and beautiful and fiesty, who is seduced by newcomer Daniel Romero, a man who enjoys his sexual kinks and might not be who he says he is.  Tobias Manning is an ex-New York city cop, now pounding the beat and trying to live with the grief of losing his son to a heart condition that later killed his wife.  His other son, Paul, is a medical student who is studying away but comes home to visit for the Fourth Of July weekend.  When the wife of a software executive disappears, it’s the most action the town has seen in a while and when she’s later found dead on the beach, stabbed through the heart, panic ensues.  Two more women die in similar circumstances, the list of suspects grows and includes local doctor Andrew Conturas who only treats patients with cardiac issues (the only link between the three deaths) - he also treated Tobias’ wife and came to the town under a cloud after an illegal medical procedure saw him temporarily struck off.  Tobias makes the link and realises that if his suspicion of the pattern of victims is correct, Caroline Cassidy is next...

I enjoyed this a lot, though it took me a while (thanks to the cover) to realise it wasn’t going to be as sleazy as the artwork suggested.  Tightly written and paced, the characters are well rounded - Tobias’ grief is affecting and not over-done whilse Caroline is more charismatic than most sensual 80s young women were portrayed - and surrounded by a decently drawn supporting cast.  Las Cosimas is nicely constructed, there’s a good sense of atmosphere (the early morning mists and cool evenings especially) and the climax, which takes place during the Fourth Of July fireworks display and the light/dark conditions that allows, is gripping and brisk.  The band of red herrings aren’t overdone, the authority figures - especially the town Sheriff who is clearly out of his league - have more depth than normal and as the noose tightens and Tobias tries to save Caroline the last few pages fly by.  As ever, your enjoyment will depend on your tolerance but as a mid-80s suspense novel, this was well written and enjoyable and I’d very much recommend it.

* * *
Campbell Armstrong/Thomas Altman
Campbell Armstrong was born (as Thomas Campbell Black) in Glasgow on 25th February 1944 and received a degree in philosophy from the University of Sussex.  He was married to Rebecca, they had three sons and a daughter and he died in Dublin on 1st March 2013.

His first novel, Assassins & Victims was published in 1969 and three years later he moved to New York where he taught creative writing at the State University at Oswego before moving, in 1975, to teach at Arizona State University.

Growing to dislike teaching, he moved into fulltime writing in 1979, remaining in Arizona until 1991 when he moved to Ireland (living in an old house that was reputed to be haunted).  He once said his work was mainly influenced by R L Stevenson, attributing darker aspects of his wrinting to the opening scenes of Treasure Island.

His novels Assassins & Victims and The Punctual Rape both won Scottish Arts Council Awards, whilst The Last Darkness and White Rage were nominees for the Prix du Polar.

As Campbell Black:
Assassins and Victims (1969)
The Punctual Rape (1970)
Death’s Head (1972)
The Homing (1980) (written as Jeffrey Campbell)
Dressed To Kill (1980) (movie novelisation)
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) (movie novelisation - the first time I was aware of him)
Mr. Apology (1984)
Letters from the Dead (1985)
The Piper (1986)
The Wanting (1986)
The Trader’s Wife (1997) (written as Thomas Weldon)
The Surgeon’s Daughter (1998) (written as Thomas Weldon)

Written as Campbell Armstrong:
Asterisk Destiny (1978)
Brainfire (1979)
Agents of Darkness (1991)
A Concert of Ghosts (1992)
Silencer (1997)
Blackout (1998)
Deadline (2000)

As Campbell Armstrong (featuring his character Frank Pagan):
Jig (1987)
Mazurka (1988)
Mambo (1990)
Jigsaw (1994)
Heat (1996)

As Campbell Armstrong (featuring his character Lou Perlman):
The Bad Fire (2001)
The Last Darkness (2002)
White Rage (2004)
Butcher (2006)
 
Written as Thomas Altman:
Kiss Daddy Goodbye (1980)
The True Bride (1982)
Black Christmas (1983)
Dark Places (1984)
The Intruder (1985)

For a few years now, I've been collecting old 70s and 80s paperbacks (mostly horror), picking them up cheaply in secondhand bookshops and at car boot sales and slowly building a collection.  My friend (and fellow collector) Johnny Mains once told me that charity shops sometimes pulp old books like this because the market for them is so small - I understand why but I think it's terrible.  We might not be talking great art here but on the whole, I think these books deserve to be remembered.

To that end, on an irregular basis (too much cheese isn't good for anyone's diet), I'm going to review these "old-school" horrors (and perhaps include some bonus material, if I can find it).

Monday, 17 April 2017

Switching Genre, a guest post by Sue Fortin

To mark the paperback publication of her latest (and best-selling) novel, Sister, Sister, here's a guest post from my friend Sue Fortin.

Whenever I tell someone I’m a writer, the next question that almost always follows is ‘What sort of books do you write?’. I find this question a tricky one to answer, not because I don’t know what I write, but because I’ve written in two or three different genres, yet there is a cross-over in all of them.

The first book I had published by Harper Impulse was a contemporary romance. I’ve always enjoyed reading romance and relationship stories; how the hero and heroine conquer all and finally get together for their happy ever after or at least hopefully ending.  However, I always had a yearning to write a thriller. They are the books I love to read. I’m a bit of an armchair-thrill-seeking junkie and action, mystery adventure films and books are always to ones I gravitate to.

So, when I came to write my second novel, Closing In, I decided to combine romance and crime together, giving it my own personal tagline of Crimance. I later learned that it was, in fact, officially known as Romantic Suspense. I thoroughly enjoyed writing that book, I loved the different aspects of suspense and tension alongside a relationship and this encouraged me to adopt the same style for my next book, The Half Truth. There I brought in a Russian crime element and a police investigation, as well as romance. I have to say, it was one of my favourite books to write.

Fast forward to my next book The Girl Who Lied - this had originally started off life as a contemporary romance which I had shelved several years earlier after grinding to a halt with a storyline which seemed to be doing nowhere. There was something missing and I didn’t know what. I think writing two suspense novels while this one was on the back-burner, made me realise that bringing in an element of suspense would give the book the legs it was otherwise missing. Although it was billed as a psychological thriller, in my mind, it was always a romantic suspense.

When I wrote my latest book, Sister, Sister, I had intended there to be a romantic element and to write another romantic suspense, but as the story evolved, I realised my hero didn’t really have much to say for himself and the romantic element wasn’t a key part in the story. His point of view was taken out and the book then became much more about the heroine and her struggle. Ultimately, it meant Sister Sister ticked more of the boxes psychological suspense readers expected and it slipped into that genre with ease.

Having now stepped into new territory, I’ve found there are still subtle boundaries within the broader suspense genre, which I have roughly divided into three categories.

The Twist. Where the writer delivers an unexpected surprise/turn in the story, typically at the very end, just when the reader thinks they know everything.

The Whodunnit. Where the reader has to work out who the bad guy is as the story progresses. They only have as much information as the good guy.

The He’s Behind You. Where the reader is privy to who the bad guy is and what they are up to, thus giving a nail-biting read where the reader urges the main character not to go downstairs in the dark as they already know the bad guy is down there and what they have planned.

I think it would be fair to say that my move from contemporary romance to suspense has not been a conscious decision, but a more organic process where I’ve written the type of books I would enjoy reading myself and who knows where it will lead – perhaps one day I’ll get to write that historical novel I’ve always wanted to.

* * *
My review:

Claire Tennison leads a happy life, living with her husband Luke, two small daughters and mother and working as a solicitor.  The only dark cloud is her missing sister Alice, who was taken on holiday twenty years ago by their father but he absconded, moving to America and starting a new life.  Claire and her mother have tried for years to find the girl but now she’s made contact.  Overjoyed, Claire can’t wait to meet her long-lost sister but the young woman who arrives isn’t the person she was expecting and the joy of reunion turns sour.  It seems that Alice is different and strange, playing mind games that are pulling her into the bosom of the family whilst pushing Claire out - and she’s the only one who can see it.  She turns to her boss, Leonard, who appears to have more than a passing interest in events and her colleague Tom, with whom she had a relationship at Uni, but can they help her uncover the truth?

This is an intriguing novel, setting up the pleasant and routine life of Claire and her family before introducing Alice, who steadily begins to upend things in a beautifully played, insidious fashion that never feels overly constructed.  The characters work well and are clearly-defined (I wasn’t too keen on Luke and agreed with Tom that he was a bit of a free-loader), the children are excellent and the tense relationship between Claire, Alice and their mother is well observed and detailed.  Brighton is a well-used location, especially towards the end and the pace is strong throughout as the twists start to come (one of them is very obvious, the others less so).  With a gripping last act - I raced through it - and a clever denouement, this is a smart and very capable psychological thriller and I’d recommend it.

* * *
Me, with Sue (on the right) and Jan Brigden, at the London Blogger/Writer
meet-up, 19th March 2016 (which I wrote about here)
Published by Harper Collins' imprint Harper Impulse, Sue Fortin writes romance, mystery and suspense.

Sue is a USA Today and an Amazon bestselling author. The Girl Who Lied reached #1 in the Amazon UK Kindle chart and her latest novel, Sister, Sister, reached #2, with both books securing international publishing deals.

A lover of cake, Dragonflies and France; a hater of calories, maths and snakes, Sue was born in Hertfordshire but had a nomadic childhood, moving often with her family, before eventually settling in West Sussex.

Sue is married with four children, all of whom patiently give her time to write but, when not behind the keyboard, she likes to spend her time with them, enjoying both the coast and the South Downs, between which they are nestled.

Sue is represented by Kate Nash of Kate Nash Literary Agency.

You can catch up with Sue at
Sue Fortin Author Facebook page
Twitter @suefortin1
Website & Blog
Amazon Author Page


Monday, 10 April 2017

Nostalgic For My Childhood - Comic & Magazine ads

Following on from my Nostalgic post about Christmas catalogues (which you can read here), I started  thinking about the ads of my childhood.  Not just the ones we saw on TV, but those in comics and magazines too, for toys and sweets, posters and books, bikes and things you look at now and don't quite understand.

There was a charm to them certainly - as you'll see, they were often hand-drawn and the hyperbole was fairly muted - and they also carry with them a lovely sense of innocence - though maybe that's me reflecting back on talk of stamped, addressed envelopes, postal orders and things costing pennies.

Here are a few, I hope they spark some memories for you...
through the 70s
These weren't even British ads (the whole concept of a zip code used to fascinate me, until my Dad explained it was the US version of our post code) but if you read any Marvel comics during the 70s, I can guarantee you saw this ad.  Charles Atlas himself (born Angelo Siciliano on 30th October 1892, he took his name from a statue of Atlas his friend said he resembled on a Coney Island hotel) died on 24th December 1972.

1974
A fantastic toy that me and most of my friends had - he didn't jump like the adverts on TV showed (he kept falling over which, thinking about it, was probably closer to reality), nobody ever got a second stunt rider and the noise the rev-booster made was perhaps the coolest thing about it all.  I'd love to have another go on one...

1976
In my experience, roller skates were never "self guiding", unless that meant deliberately aiming you towards the road, holes in the pavement or at little old ladies who couldn't get out of the way quick enough.  For those who don't remember these, you put your feet on the plates and then buckled that loop around your ankle - how more of us didn't hobble ourselves, I'll never know...

1976
So I buy a book, draw you a picture and I get a free badge?  I was seven in 1976, this would have sent me rushing to table with my pencil case full of colouring pens and a pad!  And I might even win a Raleigh Chopper (trust me, that was a big deal back then)...  The John Menzies shop chain was sold to W H Smith in 1998 and the stores rebranded.

1976
The Chopper was quite a regular prize, wasn't it and just look at that cassette recorder and those watches!  And to be in with a chance of winning, all you had to do was make a Christmas card and only use a Pritt stick.  If you look at the wording in the rules, that's a wonderful snapshot of how things were done before electronic communications...

1977
I remember being really excited about this at the time, though I don't recall ever getting a poster (maybe I spent so long trying to figure out which friend to use as the second name the deadline had passed).  And, wonder of wonders, this requires a postal order (are they still a thing?)!  The actual Matchbox vehicles themselves (which I wrote about here) were cool too (and go for a pretty penny these days...) and tied in with a Judge Dredd storyline (The Cursed Earth) in 2000AD comic
1977
My childhood hero.  I was a huge fan of Steve Austin, the Six Million Dollar Man and had posters on my bedroom wall, the Bionic Crisis game (though I don't remember ever playing it) and the figure (complete with the engine block for him to lift).  Never got the Transporter & Repair Station though.
1978
The Texan, by Rowntrees, was a nougat/toffee bar covered with chocolate.  A major point of the advertising was that it took a long time to chew, inspiring the cowboy's catchphrases "A man's gotta chew what a man's gotta chew" and "Sure is a mighty chew!".  It was withdrawn from sale in the 80s but relaunched as a limited edition by Nestle in 2005 after being voted 'the favourite sweet of all time' in a 2004 survey of sweet-shop customers.  I loved them but if I tried to eat one now I'm sure it'd pull out every single one of my fillings...
1978
Horror was big back then, clearly.  And I love the fact you could get the game for 30p, when it was worth 75p!

1979
Arguably the GameBoy of my generation, Palitoy released eight Pocketeers games in 1975 under licence from TOMY - Cup Final, Fruit Machine, Crossbow, Blow Pipe, The Derby, Grand Prix, Pinball and Golf .  They were joined by more over the years (including three Smurf-related titles in 1980) and by 1982, 46 different games were available.

I had the Grand Prix one (long since lost to the sands of time), though I recently picked up a replacement at my friend Joe's Vintage Toy Shop in Leicester.  Dude was intrigued by it, I showed him how it was played and he was hooked for the evening.

1979
"Do you need to get petrol, Dad?"
"I will at some point, yes."
"Can we keep going until we see a National Garage then...?"
During the late 70s, this was certainly a ritual in our car and, I imagine, loads more - if you bought fuel from National, you either got a car sticker ("no, we're not sticking Smurfs all over the car...") or a little blue figure and they were a big deal then (even though some came with the attendant rumour that lead-based paint was used on them).  The National chain, part of BP since 1957, was phased out through the 80s.  You can still buy Smurfs.
1979
Apart from the Lemonade Dipper (which was always my favourite), you can still buy these today.  I never liked liquorice so didn't bother with the fountains.

1980
BMX bikes were big news in the late 70s and going into the 80s - Look-In was championing them, we'd seen people doing stunts on TV and they were hellishly cool!  And expensive too, I assume, since I don't think I ever knew anybody who owned one.  Instead, we had our regular bikes (or racers, if we were very lucky) and tried to do jumps on them.  I remember we didn't try jumps for long...
1982
Still available today and pretty much exactly the same.  I love that Dracula is so prominent on this!
1982
In contrast to Top Trumps, 1982 also saw the introduction of Game & Watch handheld games.  I don't remember seeing Donkey Kong at the time, but I did have one featuring a little man who caught balls and there was also a Snoopy one my sister had.

early 80s
It Tapes Tapes!  
The little copyright act notice would have been much better served, I think, with the cool Home Taping Is Killing Music! logo you got on the inner sleeve of most LPs in those days.  I explained to Dude that this was a portable cassette player when I was a teen - he knew what a cassette was (he's a cool kid) but laughed at the idea of it being portable.  So cruel.  Also, I'm still not sure why Amstrad thought we'd be swayed by Terry Venables.

1983
Return Of The Jedi was hugely anticipated and even though I wasn't making Airfix kits any more by this time (I was 14), I can imagine the poster would have been a huge draw!

1984
Around this time, we started to study computers as a subject at school (in the computer room, none of this IT mullarkey in those days) and used BBC Micros, which I remember as being very good (I had a ZX81 at home and loved programming on that).  £399.90 in 1984 would equate, inflation-adjusted, to £898 today and all that for 32k RAM.  Different times, as they say...


If you're interested, more of my Nostalgic For My Childhood posts can be found here

Monday, 3 April 2017

Star Wars At 40 (part 4) - The Topps Cards

Back in 1977, I was very much aware of Star Wars and eager to get my hands on anything related to the film (since I wouldn't get to see it until 1978).  A couple of years before, I’d collected the Topps Planet Of The Apes TV show cards and so, whenever I saw one of their boxes in a corner shop, I took a look.  One day, when we were in Rothwell visiting relatives, I went to the corner shop and saw a box of trading cards with Star Wars art on it.  Thrilled, I bought a pack and I can still vividly remember how I felt then, excitement running through me as I walked back in bright sunshine, looking at those cards.

I only collected the first series (I didn’t even realise there were more until much, much later) and loved them.  With that in mind, for the 4th entry in my Star Wars At 40 thread, I thought I’d take a look at the Topps Stars Wars cards.
Point of sale box (right) and the series one wax wrappers (left)
The Topps Company Inc. was founded in Brooklyn, New York, in 1938 and grew out of the American Leaf Tobacco Company, which was started in 1890 by Morris Shorin but hit difficulties during World War I and the Great Depression.  Shorin's sons decided to focus on a new product, chewing gun - still a relative novelty then - selling it through their existing distribution channels.  Their most successful product, Bazooka Bubblegum, was packaged with a small comic on the wrapper and in 1950 the company tried to increase sales by teaming the gum with trading cards featuring popular TV cowboy Hopalong Cassidy.  In 1952, Topps released their first baseball set, making their name and allowing them to branch out into other sport, TV, film and music brands.

Gary Gerani joined Topps in 1972 as a copywriter and ‘ideas man’, hired by NPD (new product development) creative director Len Brown, who created the Mars Attacks series.  Impressing Brown with his love and knowledge of popular entertainment, he began working with screen properties that could be developed into a child-friendly format of cards and stickers.

“Movies were generally considered an iffy proposition for trading cards prior to Star Wars, because they came and went so quickly,” Gerani said in interview.

With renewed interest in Star Trek, he created a card set of the TV show in 1976 that didn’t sell at all, which cast a pall over future SF-orientated sets.  In 1977, when 20th Century-Fox merchandising executive Marc Pevers pitched Star Wars to Topps, it was an uphill struggle, even though Gerani and Brown could see potential in the images they were presented from Charles Lippincott of Lucasfilm.  Topps president Arthur Shorin said no initially but as he began to hear more about the film in pre-release buzz, changed his mind.  After an initial period of confusion - Fox had sold the toy rights to Kenner who had their own card company, Donruss, but they passed on the idea - Topps was awarded the licence and the creative team watched the film.

"What a memorable experience that first viewing was," Gerani wrote in Star Wars: The Original Topps Trading Card Series, volume 1 (which I reviewed here).  "It was as if Walt Disney had made the grandest futuristic fable of all time, freshly alive with colour, music, jaw-dropping special effects and heart."

Wax wrapper for the series 1 cards, complete with
"It's Palitoy for Star Wars Toys" banner
As quickly as possible, they put together a 66-card set (along with eleven stickers), wrapped in wax paper with a stick of pink bubblegum and released it to coincide perfectly with the pop culture explosion Star Wars enjoyed on its release.

That first set was printed from 35mm slides but because there were so few photographs available, a lot of the images were, by then, iconic, having appeared in newspapers and sci-fi magazines like Starlog and Starburst.  Also, since the images came from the unit photographer (ie, taken during filming) there were no special effects shots, apart from a couple of airbrushed images.  In addition, to keep a sense of mystery about the sequence, no images of the cantina scenes were released.

As well as choosing the photographs and designing the cards, Gerani also wrote the captions and back cover copy.  The first set, released in 1977 and the one I collected, was blue bordered and 'flecked’ with stars and a black outlined star burst showed the card number and Star Wars logo.  The point of sale box used artwork designed around the famous Brothers Hildebrandt poster but painted by Topps staff artist Augie Napoli (his widow apparently still hangs the artwork proudly in her home), who also painted the artwork for the wrappers too.

The first series went through the roof in terms of sales, vindicating Gerani and Brown’s faith in the project and Gary went to California to meet with Lucasfilm and go through their photo archives, looking for images for series two and beyond.
Series 1 cardbacks - Story Summary and Movie Facts
“Charlie Lippincott turns up often in the ‘movie facts’ card text,” wrote Gerani, “as he was feeding me sound bites at every opportunity back then.”  With regards to the images, he said “We did everything possible with what we were given but our need for additional pictures was extraordinary. We tried flopping, cropping, airbrushing… anything we could to stretch the soup. The redundancy of image content bugs me to this day.”

All of the series featured 66 cards and 11 stickers.

Series one, with C-3PO on the wrapper, had the cardbacks split with a Story Summary (11 cards), Movie Facts (11 cards) and two puzzle pictures (the box cover art and the classic Millennium Falcon cockpit shot of Chewie, Luke, Ben and Han).
card 31 - the classic Millennium Falcon shot, also one of the puzzle images on the cardbacks
Series two, with Darth Vader on the wrapper, had a red border with no flecking.  The cardbacks were split with Actor Profiles (11 cards, replacing the story summary), Movie Facts (11 cards) and two puzzle pictures (Chewbacca and a Tusken Raider).

Series three, with R2-D2 on the wrapper, had a yellow, unflecked border.  The cardbacks were split with Official Descriptions (22 cards, replacing the Profiles and Movie facts) and two puzzles (Luke, Leia and Han in a Death Star corridor and R2 being loaded onto Luke’s X-wing).
card 148 - one of my favourite series 3 images
Series four, released in 1978, featured Ben and Luke on the wrapper and the cards had a green unflecked border.  This time around, there were 22 Movie Facts cards and one big puzzle (Han and Chewie outside the Millennium Falcon).  This set also included the now-notorious card 207, which features a visibly excited C-3PO (the image was released but replaced, though ironically it’s the replacement card that is more valuable today).

Series five featured Luke’s X-wing on the wrapper and a starburst proclaiming “New!  Cantina Scenes!”.  Since most of the photographic resources had been mined, this set included a lot of behind the scenes images, both of the production in London and also the special effects work at ILM in California.  There were also plenty of cantina images which, looking back on them now, feel even more warmly nostalgic since several of the monsters were replaced in the Special Editions.  As with Series four, there were 22 Movie Facts cards and one big puzzle (the Duros aliens from the cantina, who are only glimpsed for a few seconds in the film).
card 24 - one of my favourite images (which also appeared in the photo-insert of the novel) that I looked out for in the finished film.  It doesn't appear, we only get to see this Stormtrooper on his dewback from a distance.
In his book, Gerani wrote, "One of  the cool things about Topp’s Star Wars trading cards was that they froze a specific moment from the movie and fanciful elements could be analysed at length.  This was the pre-video age, so what flashed by on the big-screen was all you had to savour until you saw the film again - or bought some of our trading cards”  And I couldn't agree more.

“I have a special fondness for our first series,” he said in interview, “the one with little hand-drawn stars within the blue borders. It brings me right back to ‘the good old days’.”  Looking at these images does exactly the same thing for me today.  Not only are most of these iconic, but they also transport me back to that excited eight-year-old kid, looking at each image and trying to figure out how it all fitted together.

Thank you, Topps and thank you Gary Gerani!
sticker 1
card 3 - R2-D2 (for some reason, the droids names were written phonetically)
card 7 - the first appearance of Darth Vader
card 18 - look how grubby this seems, we weren't really used to that in sci-fi films at the time
card 25 - you're 8, you have a vivid imagination and you see this...
card 29 - another of my all-time favourite images
card 30 - look at that set design!
card 39 - 8-year-old me is looking at this trying desperately to fit it all in.  Han & Luke in Stormtrooper outfits?  What's that bar?  What room are they in?  What's going on?
One of the most famous publicity shots from Star Wars, this was staged and doesn't appear in the film.  JJ Abrams 'quoted' it in The Force Awakens, as Han Solo and Chewbacca find The Millnnium Falcon again
card 53 - the only space battle/special effects shot in the set
card 65 - how cool is this shot?
card 163 - series 3 - a composite special effects shot
card 167 - our heroes on the Death Star
card 172 - a beautifully reproduced image of the escape pod (and droids) heading for Tatooine
card 178 - trivia question - where did Han's holster go?
card 308 - series 5, from 1978 - George Lucas directs some of the cantina aliens
card 320 - series 5, from 1978 - Richard Edlund, at ILM, adjusts the Millennium Falcon model


all blue and yellow border cards scanned from my collection

sources:
Star Wars: The Original Topps Trading Card Series, volume 1, by Gary Gerlani
Comicmix interview with Gary Gerani and Robert V. Conte

2017 marks the 40th anniversary of Star Wars, which was released in the US on 25th May though it didn't hit the UK until 29th January 1978 (following a 27th December release in London).  I was lucky enough to see it in early 1978 and it remains my favourite film to this day.

To mark the anniversary, I'll be running a year-long blog thread about the film with new entries posted on the first Monday of each month.

May The Force Be With You!

Find all the entries in the thread here

Monday, 27 March 2017

Star Wars At 40 (pop-up 1) - Millennium Falcon

I have long been a fan of The Millennium Falcon (as I mentioned here) and even though I wrote a post about it before (in 2014, which you can read here), I decided I couldn’t let my on-going Star Wars At 40 celebration slip by without further mention of the ship that “made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs.”

Colin Cantwell (left) & George Lucas.  A Y-Wing model is on the bench
Colin Cantwell was one of the first designers George Lucas brought onto the project, starting a couple of weeks before Ralph McQuarrie.  Cantwell, who had worked with Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), was hired to create preliminary models of spaceships and vehicles - the Y-Wing, X-Wing, Luke’s landspeeder, the Death Star, the Jawas Sandcrawler as well as the Blockade Runner and what was then called ‘the pirate ship’.  At one of their meetings, Lucas - working on his usual yellow lined legal pad - made a series of sketches, the last of which is labelled ‘Pirate Ship’ though the image could also clearly be the ‘Rebel Blockade Runner’.
George Lucas' sketch
“Colin deserves a lot of credit for the initial vision of what ‘A New Hope’ looked like, in forms of its hardware,” said Joe Johnston, who came aboard the project later as effects illustrator and designer.

Both Ralph McQuarrie and Johnston worked on the ship - adding an engine cluster, the radar dish and a rounded cockpit - before the design was signed off and blueprints made, for both the set construction team at Elstree Studios in England and the modelmaking department at ILM, led by Grant McCune.

In late 1975, the Gerry Anderson TV show Space: 1999 appeared on British television, featuring a ship called The Eagle Transporter.  When Lucas, working in England at the time, saw it, he realised the pirate ship design looked very similar and, not wanting to appear to have lifted the idea from TV, immediately insisted the pirate ship should look very different.
left - the Eagle Transporter - right - Ralph McQuarrie's production painting featuring the original pirate ship
“They were all very upset that I changed the design because they had just finished building the other pirate starship,” Lucas says. “They had spent an enormous amount of money and time building that other ship, and I threw it out.  It’s one of those decisions that was very costly, but I felt that we really needed the individuality and personality of a better ship.”

Grant McCune was quoted as saying the model cost upwards of $25,000 because “it got billed for everything, it was seven feet long and had four hundred cycles of electronics going through it.”  Rather than scrap it altogether, it was redesigned into the Blockade Runner, with one of the key changes being the hammerhead-style cockpit.

Lucas sat down with Joe Johnston and John Dykstra at ILM to come up with new ideas for the pirate ship.  Their final decision was described by Grant McCune as “the round Porkburger” (a nickname that stuck in the modelshop for a while) and there is a popular urban myth that George Lucas himself came up with it, basing the design on his favourite lunch - as a half-eaten hamburger with an olive on a toothpick.  Johnston told Starlog magazine, “it was the quickest [design] we’ve ever done. The Falcon was designed in one day. We took some components from the blockade runner, like the cockpit, and stuck it on the side of a big dish with some mandibles out in front.”  There is a suggestion that since the full-size version had already started construction - with extremely tight costs - the new design apparently had to use the existing cockpit, another reason for the change to the Blockade Runner.
one of Joe Johnston's original drawings
“The flying hamburger was my favourite design,” Lucas says in The Making of Star Wars, by J.W. Rinzler.  “I wanted something really off the wall, since it was the key ship in the movie; I wanted something with a lot more personality. I thought of the design on the airplane, flying back from London: a hamburger. I didn’t want it to be a flying saucer, but I wanted to have something with a radial shape that would be completely different from anything else.”

The shooting schedule at ILM meant McCune and his team didn’t have a lot of time to construct the new model, so Johnston had to work fast.  “I spent about a day doing a series of very rough sketches,” he wrote on his Facebook page, “that soon evolved toward a disk-shaped hull with a long horizontal slot-shaped engine at the back instead of the traditional round nacelles seen on almost every other ship.”  He showed Lucas his sketches and they “agreed on the general direction, with the offset cockpit and the raised ‘waistline’ hexagonal structures, opposing gun ports and asymmetric details like the radar dish. Because of the time crunch there weren’t a lot of drawings done after this point, as the construction needed to get under way [and] I worked with the model builders to monitor the design as the ship began to take shape.  Even though the ship is supposed to be a ‘spice freighter’ I didn’t want the shape to give any indication of its purpose. It’s a big hot rod pure and simple.”
George Lucas looks over the shell of the pirate ship with Bill Welch
from left - George Lucas, Bill Welch, Jamie Shourt



The key model of the Millennium Falcon was 5 feet long.  Lorne Peterson, in his book Sculpting A Galaxy, wrote that it was made of a “four-foot ‘clamshell’ with two shallow hemispheres of wood and steel covered by two clear acrylic domes.  Because the form was so heavy, lightening holes were cut into the inner structure to help shed weight.  “Although two people could move it,” he wrote, “four were needed to best avoid any disastrous - and costly - crashes.”

Almost all of the modelshop team worked on the Falcon at one point with Peterson himself taking care of the rear quarter, the semicircle that housed the Falcon’s engine banks.  “These were made of oxidised brass louvered screens,” he wrote.  “The back slot of the Falcon was capped with a piece of high-heat milk glass, which would diffuse the glow of the multiple six-inch bar halogens.  Some of the surface detailing was a bit of a cheat as well.  The Falcon’s skin was a greeblie-rich cluster of kitbashed detail.  We used model Ferrari and tank parts to fill in what we called the waistband - the sandwich filling between the top and bottom halves of the ship.”
from left - Steve Gawley, Lorne Peterson and Joe Johnston work on the underside of the Falcon
Paul Huston (left) and Dave Grell 'kit bashing' the Falcon.  Look at all those Tamiya boxes!
‘Greeblie’ was a term Lucas coined, a design aesthetic of fine detailing (in models, sets and props) that would make the object appear complex and visually interesting.  John Dykstra introduced a technique to ILM that he’d used before called kitbashing where pieces from dozens of different model kits were used, applying them as if they had a purpose, knowing they would be unrecognisable to most.

The Industrial Light & Magic building at the time was in Van Nuys, California and located close to a model-kit distributor.  The team bought lots of packs from them, filling the shelves of their model shop with kits made by Revell, Tamiya and Monogram.  “We had a relationship,” said modelmaker Steve Gawley, “where we bought ‘returns’ that maybe had a part missing - chances are we wouldn’t need that part anyway. We’d get tremendous discounts on that kind of thing.”

It was quickly discovered that the best kits to use were those of World War Two vehicles because they were less recognisable, unlike car parts which most people see every day.  The hull of the Falcon is detailed with pieces of Panther and Tiger tanks, Messerschmitt 109 fighters, the Krupp K5 rail cannon and many more.





powered by Cummins!
With the model completed, the Falcon was then ready for action.  Mounted on a blue pole, it was filmed on stage by the Dykstraflex motion-control system, where the camera moves around the model on rails to give the impression of on-screen movement.
Lifting the model ready for filming (from left) John Dykstra, Joe Johnston, Richard Edlund, uknown, Steve Gawley (back to camera)
Grant McCune adjusts the model as it's mounted ready for filming.  Richard Edlund (far left) programmes the Dykstraflex, Steve Gawley (centre) looks worried the model might fall off
Using the Dykstraflex system to shoot the Falcon against blue screen
A major hit, the model was revamped for The Empire Strikes Back (1980) since the 5-foot version didn’t allow for as much versatility whilst filming.  The new model was 32 inches long and became the ‘definitive’ version of the ship, used for Return Of The Jedi (1983) and the Special Edition re-issue of Star Wars (1997).
Mark Hamill takes a close look at the model

sources:
The Making of Star Wars: The Definitive Story Behind the Original Film, by J.W. Rinzler
Sculpting a Galaxy: Inside the "Star Wars" Model Shop, by Lorne Peterson
Joe Johnston Sketchbook on Facebook
kitbashed.com
starwars.com


2017 marks the 40th anniversary of Star Wars, which was released in the US on 25th May though it didn't hit the UK until 29th January 1978 (following a 27th December release in London).  I was lucky enough to see it in early 1978 and it remains my favourite film to this day.

To mark the anniversary, I'll be running a year-long blog thread about the film with new entries posted on the first Monday of each month.

May The Force Be With You!

Find all the entries in the thread here