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Between 1999 and 2009 Lightsabre.co.uk brought news, fanfic, podcasts and much, much more to the masses. Our one hundred and first guest won an Oscar for his work on Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom –  Lorne Peterson.

Lightsabre – Lorne, welcome to Lightsabre.

LP – Ok, well thank you.

Lightsabre – It’s now over 30 years since you first walked into the fledgling ILM facility in Van Nuys to start work on Star Wars. In your wildest dreams did you ever imagine still being involved with this line of work thirty plus years later?

LP – Not at all. You know, I use this as an example. The first Star Wars was done in LA, and then we moved up to northern California to do Empire. Well, northern California was colder than Los Angeles. Here the wintertime we sometimes have frost, LA you’d never have ice. So we move up here and we get a warehouse and start working away. Well, wintertime sets in. We have no heat, no heater in the building and I ask the producer, I said ‘Well, it’s getting really cold in here, we’re wearing down jackets inside the building and everything’, and he said ‘We’ll only be here for one year and we’ll be finished and move on to someplace else’, he wasn’t even beginning to suggest we’d be moving on to another film. And so I thought I was going to move back to LA, but the whole wintertime people wore down jackets, and wore those little fingerless gloves. If it hadn’t have been really successful, it wouldn’t have continued on. I thought we’d be moving back to LA after we did Empire. By the end of it, when Spielberg came along, he wanted projects, it became evident that we were gonna be there for a while, but not necessarily thirty something years.

Lightsabre – Would that be Close Encounters with Spielberg?

LP – No, LA was Close Encounters, we did that in LA. I switched over from Star Wars a little bit, right near the end of my work on Star Wars, they needed some help on Close Encounters. It was only about ten miles away. The projects that we started up here were Indy, Poltergeist, Dragonslayer and E.T. Actually E.T first. All of a sudden it was the goose that laid golden eggs, at that time, so then it became obvious, they make one hundred million plus, near two hundred million they’re gonna keep doing this. And actually we got overworked at that time because we were kind of the only ones doing it and every producer who was a friend of Spielberg’s or Lucas’ wanted to have the goose. They thought that that was the charm, anything with special effects in it at the time was going to be a big high roller movie. But me personally, no I never did.

Prior to Star Wars I worked in industrial design and had a small shop myself, just two of us, and we struggled, it was really a struggle. The energy crisis happened in ’74, I started on Star Wars in ’75 so it meant the economy was not so hot. At that time a long phase of work was a year, six months or a year and before I had my own business you’d go to one shop, work on a show, go to another one, so it kind of seemed like that was what I was going to be doing. And I don’t know if you know but the only reason that I worked on Star Wars was that I was on a studio lot working as a sculptor. You may not have it in England but here McDonalds have these things called McDonalds Land and they would have a slide coming out of the mouth of a giant Hamburger. And they would have the Hamburglars, the swings, things like that, so I would sculpt those things. And I just happened to come across a friend of mine that I went to college with, and we came nose-to-nose down a hallway and he said we’re working on a science fiction film and we can’t find any model makers, do you think you’d wanna do that, help out? I said ‘Well, I guess, maybe.’ And at the time science fiction didn’t…I’d probably only read four science fiction books in my life.

Lightsabre – It wasn’t your thing really?

LP – It really wasn’t my thing, so the word ‘work’ pricked my ears up, the word science fiction didn’t necessarily, because prior to that the year before that was Logan’s Run was the big film.

Lightsabre – From those early days, when you were doing your early model making right through the spectrum to today, what has essentially changed, is it the equipment and materials that you use? What has really changed in the model making world?

LP – Technology wise there is one big deal that has changed a lot. We still use tools that cut and slice your finger and machines you get caught in, and we do, but we have a laser cutter now and we have two of them, and they’re big. One’s four foot by eight foot. You can programme it to cut multiple parts, where you couldn’t do that easily before. We used to bash model kits and make one part and then mould it. The tank treads on the Jawa Sandcrawler had to be moulded, there was 280 of them and it was quite a task, I did those things.

Lightsabre – Do you still do kit-bashing like you used to?

LP – Not very much, only a little bit. Here’s one of the things that happened. We tend to make models that are bigger in an action film, rather than say when we started Star Wars we were doing spaceships that could fit on a desk. Well, what happened is computer graphics came along and I naively thought that the role that they would fulfil would be to get budgets down, bring us up to date storyboards and scheduling. I thought that was what they would excel in, and I naively thought that’s what they were doing, because I’m not a computer person. So no, they wanted the artists too, and they were artists, and the thing that was best for them was to do desktop models. They weren’t good at having something that was still and didn’t move, but if it was moving through the air with a blur, that was up their alley. So more and more of that kind of work went to them and what the model shop started to do was more bigger models and more action filled. By that I mean we would do the equivalent of the big water tunnel for Indiana Jones, although at that time computer graphics wasn’t so rampant. Or the lava for the last film, on Mustafar.

It’s a misperception to think that the model shop actually diminished during that time. What happened was we diminished in percentage but not in numbers so by the time we did Sith the company was around 1200 people and 100 of those were model makers. But back on Star Wars there were seven model makers and about 70 people, and then by the time we did Empire the model shop was the largest it had ever been, it was 23% of the whole. But it was maybe 15 people. So you can see we jumped from 7 people on the first show, 15 to 18 people on Empire and then by the time Jedi came there were about 25 model makers. So then by the time Sith comes along we were almost a hundred.

Lightsabre – I remember reading that there were more models made for Episode One than the whole of the original trilogy put together, and yet the perception is that The Phantom Menace was made in the computer. Was it gratifying to you? Well, I guess it wouldn’t be gratifying to you, it would be gratifying to the CG guys.

LP – It was gratifying as a whole. It’s still very satisfying. One of the ways I compare it is by the time you reach Sith some people would ask is it better to work on something like Mustafar or better to work on, say an X-Wing. Well, an X-Wing is like your individual effort, it requires two or three people, but no one or two people can make the pyramids at Cheops, so you have all these people doing this massive co-ordinated thing costing more than the most expensive Ferrari there is and then you achieve this thing and you step back and see it in the film, and their jaws drop and they’re amazed, so there’s a great satisfaction in that kind of thing too. It does sometimes tend to be physically harder, that’s true, there’s more up ladders and down here and things swinging and sculpting and that kind of thing. Not that we don’t sometimes do smaller things too.

One time on Men in Black they needed a close up of a cats neck, and you can’t hold a cat still so I went and got reindeer fur, and reindeer fur is really thick and the underneath part of a reindeer is creamy white which this cat was creamy white around the collar. Then we made a large jewel and this thing was only 18 inches across, but that was a detail that had to be done, so we don’t always make big things but in the same movie we were doing the crash into the earth, the two guys were standing there as the ship comes crashing into the earth. And that was very big, it was the size of Mustafar really, it was sixty feet long and twenty feet wide.

Lightsabre – Do you think the day will ever come where CGI effects supercede model making, or do you think there’s always going to be the need for the practical, from a director’s point of view, so they can look and direct around? Do you think that will ever happen?

LP – Well it already seems like the obituaries being written, at least right now. It never did fifteen years ago, but it’s always being predicted and years come around and that’s not the case. But there is this thing, younger and younger directors are unfamiliar with model work really but they’re very familiar with CG. And CG, even though it costs more money the iterations of everything you’re doing, if you want to make a hot pink, you push the hot pink button and that kind of thing. That can be very appealing to a director who has many things on his plate. It’s like ‘At least that I can can have control over’. So there is that tendency that younger directors who are not familiar with models at all and what they can do, they can more easily be on the premises and point and say ‘Do this, do that’, it’s more like growing crystals in a cave, it happens over a period of time, you have to put a bit of trust there. but who knows, maybe it will swing back. I’m not absolutely sure, younger people when they see a film like Beowulf are not critical in the same way that older people are.

Lightsabre – Yeah, I quite agree with that.

LP – Somebody called Beowulf ‘Cadaver Vision’. I thought that Beowulf was pretty incredible but it does have that quality of a video game. Who knows, myself I’ll be retiring within a year.

Lightsabre – You’ve done your stint.

LP – I’ve done my stint, that I have. Quite frankly I belong to a union and we do get a pension and all that stuff, and there’s other things I’d like to do. I thought of myself as an artist, I studied art and that kind of thing and yet there’s that thing where you’re in the service of someone else’s art, you lend your art to it for sure, and there’s a lot of satisfaction to it but it’s a communal kind of effort and yet we as human beings have a tendency to want to do individual efforts. Although looking back on it I’d have to admit that rather than being a wildly solitary person I’m better being in the service of someone else.

Lightsabre – You seem very collaborative. I guess you’ve got to be in your line of work haven’t you?

LP – Yeah, well I can come up with my own ideas but as far as administering a company, doing books, rustling up business, I work much better and happier when someone would come up and say ‘would you solve this problem?’

Lightsabre – You mention books, and Sculpting the Galaxy came out not too long ago, how pleased were you with that, because it’s a fantastic effort.

LP – Well thank you. I’m not a born and bred writer, as I said to the publishers, I said I probably couldn’t write my way out of a wet paper bag. Not that I can’t turn a clever phrase, it’s just that I have permanent writer’s block. Blood and sweat, and then finally it comes, and then the writers block returns again. It really was a big effort, but then without the editors I had and the art directors I had it wouldn’t have happened. By cell phones and computer they would communicate with me and say ‘Well, next Tuesday you have to have the beginning of chapter two rewritten again so it only takes 200 words, and then there’ll be a meeting on Wednesday, have that with you’. It was tough sometimes.

Lightsabre – Different kind of pressure?

LP – A different kind of pressure, and yet after the way it came out, especially the really big book, I don’t know if you’ve seen the one that’s five inches thick, we did that one little step at a time. It originally had to be a little bit bigger to have the Death Star pieces, they were two inches thick, and then needed to be three inches thick. Then we had to bite the bullet, get the little speeder in there, get the book in there, it has to be this high.

Lightsabre – I was going to ask you about the speeder, that must have been a real blast from the past going back to that because it was the original concept of the speeder wasn’t it?

LP – Yeah, you know the speeder that’s in there is modelled after the one where the Tusken Raiders are following Luke and Ben along when they’re looking for R2-D2. We did that because you only have so much stage space, and the arc that it travels, we used the two foot one, the arc would be quite large, twenty five feet or so. So we built that little speeder, and the speeders not perfect too. If you look at it we didn’t want to make it so that it was perfect. The original one wasn’t, it would be seen from quite some distance away.

The original of that, I don’t know if you know the story, George Lucas came to me in ’79, ’80, and he was going to Japan to meet the head of Toho Studios, who did Godzilla, and he wanted to bring a gift he could carry on a seat on the Airplane and hand to him in a very nice case, and so he said ‘Try to find one of the models that would fit that bill’, and so that’s the one that did. So the original exists in Japan. That was one of the reasons, not only the size but the fact that it no longer exists here. We have no idea where it is in Japan, the man would probably be deceased now because he was an old man.

Lightsabre – There’s probably a black market of all these missing things around the world.

LP – Oh, you’re absolutely right. You get phone calls once in a while. I got one from France recently from some collector wondering ‘What items do you have?’ There are people out there that are almost rabid, after anything, and some of them have an amazing ability to latch on to things.

Lightsabre – Some of these guys must live next to the dumpster.

LP – There have been. I mean it’s gone past the dumpster phase now but during the late ’70’s and ’80’s for sure. I pulled up one night and out popped a couple of teenagers from behind the dumpster. Somebody got the very original Death Star that way.

Lightsabre – Out of the dumpster?

LP – Yeah. Well, it was just used for that one shot, it was an incredibly well detailed, and it got a little bit scratched and damaged while cleaning things up and there wasn’t this thought of preserving everything. And so it got thrown in the dumpster and somebody happened to get it and eventually it wound up in Seattle in somebody’s collection.

Lightsabre – Are there any ambitions in the film industry that you’ve not yet fulfilled, or do you feel, now that you’re nearly at the end of your time that you pretty much did everything you wanted to do?

LP – Well I never, me personally, people like Dennis Muren asked me ‘What is it you really want to do here?’ Because his ambition at that time was to direct, he wanted to direct a small film. And I didn’t. I told him I think being in the model shop fits my skills exactly. It was a perfect fit for me, for the skills that were there, the aesthetic sensibilities, that kind of thing. The things that I do like, it’s almost like I need to get my fingernails dirty, that kind of work. There’s zillions of people who have written a script, they want to get their ideas across, and that’s so far from anything I’d ever thought of. It’s just so distant. There’s even a bumper sticker in L.A, L.A is the hotbed for film, and the bumper sticker says ‘Honk if you’ve written a script’, honk and wave, and everybody probably has. But I don’t have a story idea in my head, a different type of film that I want to do. I mean fantasy of fantasy, if I lived my life doing artwork like Francis Bacon, that would be ‘Oh man!’ I wouldn’t want to be Francis Bacon, but something like that. I think long ago I aspired to those people at the vanguard, they are people I really admire. They are explorers out there with nothing but a paintbrush.

Lightsabre – You won your Oscar in 1984 for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. How much are you looking forward to the new Indy movie, it’s got to be quite an exciting time.

LP – Yeah it is, it is. I haven’t participated as much on it. We did some it it. Oh it wouldn’t be giving away anything to say that there’s a flood, that word all by itself is not literally a flood like Noah’s Ark or anything. It’s such an interesting challenge to take it to the ’50’s, the Cold War, Russians, Indiana Jones in the same outfit. It’ll be interesting to see.

Lightsabre – And Harrison still looks the part?

LP – He certainly does, yeah, and that wry humour that he has. I’ve seen little bits of the footage, but I wasn’t involved in it to the same level that we were on the other films, especially Temple of Doom. Quite frankly the reason that I got the Oscar for it was that at the time everybody’s cousin that knew either Spielberg or Lucas and was a director wanted to do films with ILM. So the house was already full, but our mandate was to basically never turn down Spielberg. If Lucas wanted something or Spielberg wanted something there was no saying ‘Well, we’re too busy’. That was a Lucas mandate, down from him. So I got together with Dennis Muren and we thought what was necessary, and he had the idea to shoot the whole effects as if you were shooting a live action movie. So we needed to make large miniatures and shoot them with all the elements in it. The only element in the water tunnel added is Indy and Short Round and Willie running, and we did a lot of shots like that. The lava with the slave being dropped in it, that kind of thing. They couldn’t go through optical, there was a bottleneck, and we were doing everything we could to do as many elements all at once as possible. And then I said it’s really going to fall on the shoulders of the model shop, so be sure to put my name up somewhere. And so here we are with that, I was kind of surprised. It was a very model intensive show.

Lightsabre – I remember watching a programme on BBC2 as a kid called Horizon and it focused pretty much just on Temple of Doom. Being a kid back then it was clear the amount of work that went into that particular film, almost more than any other. From a modelshop point of view it must have been huge?

LP – Oh yeah, and a factor that isn’t so much of a factor in LA is the weather, and since they were big giant sets that involved lots of water we had to do them outside, and of course it was winter time, and shooting through the night time we had to make big plastic tents, to be able to work, and then the wind and the rain would rip the tent around, rip parts of it off, and to hear it flapping all the time would drive you crazy. The tent fighting the storm. It was an intense time, and that was the reason, it wasn’t that they loved me that they gave me the Oscar, it was really model intensive.

Lightsabre – That’s got to be the high point of your career, accepting an Oscar?

LP – Well, when I say the high point, there almost has never been a low point.

Lightsabre – Looking at your CV I’d say there hasn’t been.

LP – Most people in the world, if you’re working and you have a smile on your face for about five percent of your day, you’re pretty happy. You’re satisfied, you’ve just told someone something, they’ve just told you something, there’s a few ping pong balls going in the brain, if you can walk away from a day like that and five or ten percent of it you’ve had a smile on your face you’re quite satisfied. And I feel incredibly lucky because it’s more than ten percent for me. There were very satisfying things that happened with employees, the pattern that I laid down and the people I employed, it wasn’t that we were all happy-go-lucky trying to be friendly people all the time, but even people that are a little bit rusty can get the blood going and visa versa. It was very fun.

And let me tell you, there’s this Chinese guy, a cynic-comic, and I know a lot about history, both Islamic and European, and I’m telling this story and relating something that happened, something historical and he’s just there in the background and says, just loud enough “Does anyone think Lorne just makes this shit up?” He probably had to listen to that story dozens of times, he can’t believe – ‘Is that really true?’ Did the Neolithic people really rub sticks together to make fire? I worked with people I had major arguments with, but everyone really respected everybody else’s work, and it was a challenge, it was always…in selfish times you gave the advantage by presenting a problem, and they just took the bit in the mouth. The problem would be snatched right out of your hand and they’d run with it. So it was very satisfying that way, and not that there weren’t down times. I very rarely have a nightmare but there was one nightmare, a consistent nightmare I had of having a high-powered rifle and waiting for this one employee to come off the freeway. I knew where he came to a stop (Laughs) I’d wait in the bushes, the light on his face would show up in the rifle sights. (Laughs) I had that dream over and over again during this one phase.

Lightsabre – Did you miss him?

LP – Well I haven’t pulled the trigger! (Laughs) It’s always the same set-up and it never went further than that. I’d see him the next morning, same as usual. But even that, I look back fondly. He certainly was a character, he certainly was a character, he just bridled at every bit, he was very cantankerous.

Anyway, I’d want to say that there weren’t down times but even a project as mundane as when Wild Wild West came out, which was not a terribly good movie, the part that I did was the collapse of Monument Valley and that was very difficult. They asked me to split off from Phantom Menace to do that one part, and it was like how do you make miniature rocks that were actually 12 feet high, how do you make them act like multiple tonne boulders, because boulders don’t bounce they just kind of pile their way into the earth, the inertia of them just keeps them going, they don’t bounce back, whereas foam rocks do. I don’t know if in England you have dead blow hammers, they’re like a mallet and it’s plastic, and on the inside is lead shot and oil, so when you lift the hammer back and you hit something the hammer doesn’t bounce because the lead shot is still travelling through the thick oil and inertia is causing more energy to be expended on the object you hit, so what I did was I took the plastic jars of different sizes inside of different rocks and then put lead shot in them with thick oil, and so each of them was like a dead blow hammer, and it fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Then when it hit the sand, which was grounded walnut shells, it did bounce. So I got an incredible amount of satisfaction out of that , because they asked me to do it because they figured ‘he’s gonna know how to do it somehow, I have no idea how he’s going to do it,’ and I did it. And the people who asked me to do it still don’t know how I did it.

Lightsabre – I won’t tell them!

LP – It’s wasn’t their job to dwell on how it was done, they just say ‘Ok, it was done, and on to the next one.’ So that was a very satisfying thing to have that happen.

Interview originally posted on www.lightsabre.co.uk in three parts, on 23rd March, 20th April and 1st June 2008.

Sculpting a Galaxy: Inside the Star Wars Model Shop
  • Used Book in Good Condition
  • Hardcover Book
  • Peterson, Lorne (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 224 Pages - 11/14/2006 (Publication Date) - Insight Editions (Publisher)