I accompanied Claudia Wells, the present day-girlfriend of Michael J Fox in Back to the Future, to Starcom Italia 2018 to gather information for a biography she asked me to write. Claudia was a presenter at the event. I was eager to see how this show worked and observe Claudia’s role. Starcom Italia was held in Chianciano Terme, a small town in Tuscany where Italians flock to enjoy its thermal waters, just like the Etruscans and Romans did ages ago. Eager to explore the area, after stuffing myself at breakfast with prosciutto crudo, Percorino Toscano, fresh baked bread, yogurt, fruit, and heavenly pastries (I love food), we walked down the street to catch the Chianciano Express, a hop on, hop off tourist tram. That’s when I met Brian and Lindsay Muir.
Brian was also a presenter at the show. He’s worked on Star Wars, James Bond, Indiana Jones, and Harry Potter film sets, and was well known for sculpting Darth Vader’s helmet. In the Shadow of Vader, a book he sold at his booth, I got a peek behind the scenes of Brian at work.
Born 1952 in London, Brian’s interest in art kindled at 13 when he realized he could draw. Spending lots of time in the art room at school, he hoped he’d have a career in the arts. At 16 when he left school, his family expected him to enter an apprenticeship. The Associated British Picture Corporation, the local film studio, was advertising for a sculptor/modeler apprentice. Brian was thrilled to land an interview. For it, he brought his drawings and paintings.
A resident sculptor showed Brian the sculptor’s workshop and sculptural pieces from previous films. Brian was astonished at the huge array of detailed architectural items and figures he saw. Even though many other talented artists applied for this apprenticeship, Brian landed it. The apprenticeship was for five years. His pay for the first year was 4 pounds 15 shillings. This amount increased each year until in his last year when he would receive the same wages as a full sculptor.
Over the next seven months, he honed his skills on small pieces for budget productions. In his second year, he was enrolled at the City and Guild College, which focused on traditional skills, included life drawing, sculpting in clay from models, woodcarving, and stone carving. Brian attended classes there two days and three nights a week. At the same time he continued to work as an apprentice on various projects. What great training!
Last week while in an Uber, the young Nigerian man driving told me about me a major TV producer he met driving. This young man artist revealed his passion for animation. The producer asked him to bring a portfolio of his art to him. At the meeting, the two hit it off and the young man landed a position as an assistant. The driver told me how thrilled he was, how hard he would work to perfect his skills, and how he was looking forward to this once in a lifetime opportunity. I’d like to see more apprenticeships and entry level opportunities for young people, and they should grab any that come along. They are worth gold.
In the Shadow of Vader – Part 2
At the beginning of 1976, Brian Muir started to work on Star Wars. The first job he was given was to sculpt the Stormtrooper armor. The suits were needed in in Tunisia for a filming in March. They had to be sculpted, molded, cast in plaster, carved to sharpen the lines, remolded and cast in fiberglass to be used as tools in the vacuum forming process. At least fifty suits were required for the film.
He was given copies of Ralph McQuarrie’s concept paintings of the Stormtroopers to work from. Brian felt he could do a good job. The plaster department provided him with a full cast of an average male figure in plaster so that he could model the armor directly onto it in clay. He began with the chest piece. He was pleased when George Lucas and John Barry gave their approval when they saw it. That was then taken to the plaster shop to be molded.
Brain continued to sculpt the rest of the armor, which had the appearance of a complete suit with a gap between each piece. This space allowed for natural movement. The gap also helped fit actors of different sizes.
By the end of January Brian finished sculpting the armor. The majority pieces had been molded and cast in plaster, ready for Brian to to start carving to sharpen the suit. In order for Brian to finish by the deadline, he worked seventy-six days straight.
Because so many suits were required, the only way to produce them by the deadline was the vacuum forming process using ABS plastic. Brian watched an old plasterer operate the vacuum forming machines and see the sheets of armor produced and piled up ready for trimming. When ready, these suits were sent to Tunisia for the filming. At that point, many more suits were still needed. Unfortunately, the machine broke down. The molds were sent to an outside company to complete the remainder of the suits. What complexities involved in making these suits!
At the end of February, Brian was given a small sketch with a ¾ view of a mask and helmet which he was to create. This new character for the film turned out to be the now iconic Darth Vader. I’ve omitted many details of Brian’s story. To get the step-by-step process of Brian’s work, purchase his book. It’s available on Amazon. I loved reading it; you will, too.
After spending time with Brian and Lindsay on our excursion, during the show, at meals, and laughing a lot, I knew that I would see them again at another time. Before parting we exchanged contact information and promised to stay in touch. And we have. Using Touch Note we have been sending each other postcards. The last one I received came from New Zealand where Brian was attending another Starcom show. In retirement Lindsay and Brian are having a ball traveling the world as guests of Starcom, Comic-Con and similar shows.