The cause was dementia, said Sierra Dall, his partner of 24 and sole immediate survivor.
A veteran of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where he created educational programs to educate the public about early space launches, Mr. Cantwell has worked with directors including Stanley Kubrick, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, developing miniatures, computer graphics and other visual effects for films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979).
He is best known for his work on Star Wars (1977), where he created the initial designs for many of the film’s most memorable ships and helped define the look of the blockbuster franchise, although he only worked on the first installment . “He was a pretty quiet, very nice, and extremely talented man,” said Craig Miller, a former director of fan relations at Lucasfilm.
When Lucas hired Mr. Cantwell in late 1974, the director was still negotiating funding with Twentieth Century Fox, fleshing out concepts like The Force, and revamping a screenplay tentatively titled Adventures of the Starkiller, Ep. 1: Star Wars .” The script mentioned a number of spacecraft, but offered only vague descriptions of what they looked like and how they moved.
Mr. Cantwell was tasked with filling in the details, instructed by Lucas to make the ships look realistic but with “a comic nobility,” as stated in Brian Jay Jones’ book George Lucas: A Life. He exchanged drawings with the director before arriving at final sketches, which he used for his models, and assembled plastic miniatures from thousands of pieces – including pill cases, lamp parts and parts of commercial model kits for airplanes, cars and boats – which he kept in a row of drawers eight feet high.
Whether the spacecraft were shown individually or en masse, whizzing across the screen in formation or chasing each other in a dogfight, Mr. Cantwell wanted them to be instantly recognizable and evoke a sense of nervousness or excitement, depending on their place in Lucas’ science fictional saga. “My premise was that you had to immediately tell the bad from the good… by the how [a ship] looks and feels,” he said in a 2014 interview for the Original Prop Blog website.
Inspired by a dart thrown at an English pub, his design for the X-Wing, the Rebel Alliance’s signature starfighter, was intended to suggest the image of a cowboy drawing his guns in front of a saloon. His sleek original Millennium Falcon model, on the other hand, was intended to evoke a lizard ready to strike – and was instead used as the basis for the rebellious blockade runner who appears in the film’s opening scene. (Other artists, including Joe Johnston and Ralph McQuarrie, ultimately contributed to the worn, hamburger-shaped look of the Millennium Falcon.)
Mr. Cantwell also created prototypes for the Imperial Star Destroyer, the wedge-shaped ship that fills the screen in the film’s opening moments (to determine its size, he asked Lucas if the ship should be “bigger than Burbank”; the answer was yes ) and created the Death Star, the laser-equipped space station capable of destroying entire planets.
The film’s climax was an assault run across the Death Star’s equator, during which Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) flies through a canyon-like trench to launch torpedoes at the space station’s only weak point. As Mr. Cantwell said, the scene came about by accident after he had almost completed the Death Star model from a plastic sphere about 14 inches in diameter.
The sphere came in two halves, which he turned into the Death Star by scratching features into its surface, but the halves shrank in the middle where they were supposed to meet. “It would have taken a week of work to fill, grind, and backfill that sink,” he said in an interview with the Montecito Journal of California. “So, to save myself the work, I went to George and suggested a trench where guns were sticking out the sides of the trench, leading to fights with spaceships flying in and out of the trench. Lucas agreed and it became a key point in the film.”
Colin James Cantwell was born on April 3, 1932 in San Francisco. His father was a commercial artist and his mother worked as a riveter during World War II to support military efforts. One of his uncles was Robert Cantwell, a journalist for Time and Sports Illustrated who wrote two well-received novels.
As a boy, Mr Cantwell was bedridden with tuberculosis and a partially detached retina. “The cure was locking myself in a dark room with a heavy vest over my chest to avoid coughing fits,” he recalled in a 2016 “Ask Me Anything” interview on Reddit. “I spent almost TWO YEARS of my childhood immobilized in this dark room. Suffice it to say, nothing could stop me after that!”
Mr. Cantwell attended the University of California, Los Angeles, where he directed student films and received a bachelor’s degree in applied arts in 1957.
During the 1969 moon landing, he acted as liaison between CBS broadcaster Walter Cronkite and NASA, tapping the communications line between the Apollo 11 astronauts and Mission Control so he could update Cronkite on the space capsule’s progress.
By this time he had started making scientific and commercial films and was using his technical expertise on big-budget films. Traveling to London, he helped Kubrick shoot space scenes for 2001 and became friends with the director; Years later he would recall visiting Kubrick’s house one evening and, while eating turkey sandwiches, hinting at the film’s dramatic opening scene, a celestial imagery of sun, moon and earth composed to Richard Strauss’ Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which became the film’s main subject.
Mr. Cantwell later wrote and directed “Voyage to the Outer Planets,” a large-screen journey through the solar system that took place at what is now the Fleet Science Center in San Diego, and provided technical dialogue for “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977 ).
He also worked as a computer graphics consultant for Hewlett-Packard and helped develop one of the first color display systems for a desktop computer. Mr. Cantwell used the system to create graphics for the Cold War techno-thriller WarGames (1983), in which a dozen giant computer screens flashed the positions of Soviet nuclear missiles.
Mr. Cantwell later conducted research in quantum physics, according to his partner Dall, in addition to writing a two-volume sci-fi epic titled CoreFires. He rarely spoke about his “Star Wars” work until he was in his mid-80s, when he began appearing at fan conventions and selling prints of his concept art after decades, after which far more fans seemed to know the work of collaborators like McQuarrie.
In an interview with the Denver Post, he said he felt Lucas underestimated his role in the making of “Star Wars” because Mr. Cantwell turned down an offer to direct the director’s special effects shop, Industrial Light & Magic , to direct. He said he was far less interested in continuing his effects work than in exploring new avenues of invention.
“Colin once told me that through life he loves to create things that people can’t make up,” Dall told the Denver Post. “That’s how he got into a lot of things: he had such original, creative and intelligent ideas that people looked at them and then they couldn’t go back.”