Friday, 5 October 2018

John Stears: the man who built R2-D2

John Stears with the landspeeder

There are a few Star Wars personnel whose names were mentioned a lot when the film was released, yet who don’t seem to get the attention today. 

One of them is John Stears, the British film industry veteran who was the film’s special production and mechanical effects supervisor. He once described his work on the film as “everything that moves, breaks or falls apart” – including R2-D2, the landspeeder, the garbage masher, and hundreds of other effects. 

John Stears before Star Wars 

The Aston Martin adapted by John Stears for Goldfinger

John Stears had something in common with Alec Guinness and John Williams: he had won an Oscar before working on Star Wars. His was for the James Bond film Thunderball

Stears was a former draftsman who had been a dispatch rider during his National Service, before making models of buildings for a firm of architects. He also made model aircraft, which led to him being picked to create miniature planes for the biopic of World War Two pilot Dougals Bader, Reach for the Sky (1956).

Stears was signed to work for the Rank studios, who used his model-making talents on A Night to Remember (1958), Roy Baker’s film about the Titanic; Carve Her Name With Pride (1958); Sink the Bismarck! (1960); The One That Got Away (1957); Sea Fury (1958); and HMS Defiant (1962).

Then as a freelance, he created effects for The Guns of Navarone (1961) and the Disney productions In Search of the Castaways (1962) and Three Lives of Thomasina (1962).

All this brought him to the attention of Harry Saltzman and Albert R Broccoli, who were bringing James Bond to the screen in Dr No (1962). He created the effects for three more Bond films: From Russia With Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964), including the creation of that modified Aston Martin with the ejector seat; and Thunderball (1965), the one that bagged him the Academy Award.

Stears helped make a car fly in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), worked on O Lucky Man! (1973) and Theatre of Blood (1973) and continued with the Bond series (You Only Live Twice, 1967; On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, 1969; and The Man With the Golden Gun, 1974) before getting tired of that franchise.

It was Peter Beale, the UK head of 20th Century-Fox, who asked the 41-year-old Stears to meet producer Gary Kurtz about working on Star Wars. Stears recalled that he was the first British person to be hired for the movie.

“I think the start date was something like April 22 and I had to get all of these mechanical effects together,” he told a 1981 issue of Starlog magazine. “As it turned out, everything worked … on that date and not before.”

He added then: “Peter Beale came to me after several weeks of filming had been completed and asked: ‘Johnny what should we do? Should we get out or stay in?’ I told him: ‘Stay in! Stay in! This is going to be a terrific film and Fox is going to make a lot of money.” 

How the landspeeder, the X-wing take-off and the garbage masher worked 

John Stears interviewed for the
Star Wars Official Poster Monthly

Issue three of the Star Wars Official Poster Monthly contained one of the relatively few interviews with Stears. In it, he revealed some of the ways by which the Star Wars universe was brought to the screen.

We can still read a lot about how the miniature effects were done on Star Wars, but I find it equally fascinating to know how the practical effects were achieved on set. In that word before digital effects, someone had to create working simulations of robots, vehicles and trash compactors.

The effects we learned about in that interview included: 

The landspeeder:

I remember reading in Star Wars Weekly that the landspeeder effect was created by putting mirrors around the wheels of the vehicle. But that's not the whole story. 

The poster magazine described how the landspeeder was supported by “a counter-balanced boom, pivoted, so that with the speeder on one end the entire 5-ton rig could swivel in n arc above the ground.”

It added: “A neat piece of movie trickery – the camera moved in the opposite direction to that of the speeder – made it look as if the speeder was moving in a straight line.”

As for the speeder itself: “John got hold of the smallest automobile he could find (a British 3-wheeler called a Bond Bug) and chopped the chassis down by 2 feet, bringing the wheels in at the same time. The speeder body was specially built from fibreglass.” 

The x-wing taking off:

“Everybody thought it was a great problem to make the thing flt, because the stage the set was built in, you can only hang 30 hundredweights from various parts f it, and the X-wing weighed five tons – a superb model when it was being used, really beautiful,” Stears said. 

He went on: “But I couldn’t see any problem – all I did was remove some of the studio roof, bring a hundred ton crane up to the side of the building, and up went the X-wing.”

The garbage masher:

The garbage room was built over a studio tank, half full with water and rubbish, the poster magazine said. The contents were selected to collapse easily “but you’d be surprised how even a bit of plastic takes an incredible amount of pressure to make it crunch", Stears said.

The walls were plywood, mounted on tracks and linked by a series of wires and pulleys to a tractor. “As the tractor winch picked up,” said the magazine, “the walls slid along the tracks.”

The sandcrawler:

Only the bottom half of the Jawa sandcrawler was built full-size, Stears explained. For long shots, a radio-controlled miniature was used, although Stears had suggested building a complete vehicle by lashing together ten tanks.

Even the half-sandcrawler “was enough to attract the attention of the Libyan army on the other side of the border”, the magazine said.

The only man injured on Star Wars:

Stears also told in that interview how he was injured during the shooting of the attack on the Rebel blockade runner, as he sat detonating the squibs in the stormtroopers’ armour. 

“I was sitting in my corner, happily firing off explosions. Because the stunt boys had limited vision through their stormtrooper helmets, one of them tripped, came over me and I got clobbered by a gun. I was the only casualty.” 

John Stears after Star Wars


Publicity at the time put Stears’ contribution to Star Wars as very much equal to John Dykstra’s, and they were both among the recipients of the film’s visual effects Oscar.

Stears was not asked to return for The Empire Strikes Back. Instead, he went on to work on Outland (1981), The Bounty (1984), F/X: Murder by Illusion (1986) and Navy SEALS (1993), before retiring to California. He sold his country home in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, to Ozzie Osborne.

He was tempted out of retirement to work on a couple of Babylon 5 instalments and on The Mask of Zorro (1998), but was said to have left that production over artistic disagreements.

Stears died on April 1999, aged 64. I think he is increasingly looking like one of Star Wars’ unsung heroes. He was one of that endangered species of artists who had to create solid, believable alien environments at 1:1 scale – and make them work.

1 comment:

G. Stears said...

Wonderful article, thank you.