The spaceship roars overhead, a huge bulk pale against the inky depths of space. It’s an Imperial Star Destroyer, its surface spiky with an incalculable number of spiky outcroppings. As the craft’s multiple engines rumble into view, we can only guess at its size.
Except, of course, the Star Destroyer isn’t really a colossal military ship, but a scale miniature, one of the dozens expertly crafted by a team of artists and builders at Industrial Light and Magic. Those spiky outcroppings, which hint at all kinds of mysterious scientific applications, are in reality tiny pieces of plastic, cunningly applied to the model to suggest a ship of unfeasible size.
It worked, too: when the Star Destroyer made its grand appearance in Star Wars‘ opening shot in 1977, it set the tone for the entire movie: this wasn’t just another low-budget sci-fi B-picture. This was a film with a scope that audiences hadn’t seen before. Star Wars was a hit on the scale of the Star Destroyer itself, and the movie landscape – not to mention visual effects – would never be quite the same again.
Star Wars introduced the idea of a “used future” that small films like Dark Star could only imply. Special effects artist John Dykstra, then aged just 29, led the team responsible for building Star Wars‘ huge array of exotic craft. Stretched in terms of both time and budget, they came up with all sorts of ingenious ways of making futuristic and believable-looking ships using materials readily at hand.
One of the techniques Dykstra’s team used is now commonly known as kitbashing: they took small pieces from dozens of model kits and applied them to their scale miniatures in ways that made them look unrecognizable to all but the most eagle-eyed. Parts from World War II flak cannons, US Navy battleships, fighter planes, T-34 tanks, and submarines all made it onto the ships and vehicles in Star Wars and its sequels, from the Star Destroyer to Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon.
Among the ILM artists working on Star Wars, the finest details on the movie’s craft were dubbed “greebles” – they’re the network of tiny tubes and mechanical-looking parts that break up the surface of a miniature and give it the feeling of a real, working machine. According to Frank Burton, who was a department head on The Empire Strikes Back, “Greeblie is a word George Lucas coined on Star Wars for something you can’t otherwise define.”
Some call these details greebles or greeblies. Others call them nurnies. But where did the ingenious idea of adding them come from? We asked visual effects artist and production designer Fon Davis, who’s worked with some of the industry greats at ILM since the mid-90s, and has a remarkable list of movies on his CV. He’s worked as a model maker on the 1997 reissues of the original Star Wars trilogy, the Star Wars prequels, Starship Troopers and Guardians Of The Galaxy to name but a few. So did George Lucas really coin the term greeble, or greeblie?
“It’s possible,” Davis tells us. “It came out of his group – it was the Industrial Light and Magic model makers that started calling them greebles. The legends of the model making world – that would be Steve Gawley, Lorne Peterson, Paul Huston – all those guys. They’re probably the most well-known model makers in the world.”
In creating the effects for Star Wars, Dykstra and his team were building on the pioneering advances in effects that had come before it, most famously in Stanley Kubrick’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey, released in 1968. The extraordinarily inventive Douglas Trumbull worked on that film for several years, devising all kinds of groundbreaking models and sequences that would ultimately win the film a Visual Effects Oscar.
Brian Johnson, who was handed an Academy Award for his work on Alien (1979) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980), recalls using kitbashing techniques to create some of the miniature effects for 2001 – and even suggests that the technique may predate that film.
“Derek [Meddings, effects designer] and I certainly did use plastic kittery in large quantities,” Johnson told Space1999.org, “and I am sure Douglas [Trumbull] used kit parts before 2001. We both knew what to do when we modified the MoonBus. I went to the World’s Toy Fair at Nuremberg and met German kit makers Faller and Volmer, and persuaded them to let me pick out the specific injection moulding machines that were doing Girder Bridge parts, etc […] It saved us thousands on buying one particular kit with hundreds of bits to extract one precious item.”
“2001: A Space Odyssey was probably the first huge milestone in terms of greeble details,” Davis agrees. “What it comes from is very practical. There’s always budgets and schedules, right? So the need for greebles has more to do with budgets and schedules than anything else. You want to put all your creative energies into making really unique designs and shapes, and spend less time on all the greebly details. But you need that rich detail to make science fiction or mechanical things look like they do something.”
Creating fine details from pre-existing kit parts is, therefore, a practical and quick means of allowing a model maker to create a miniature quickly, without spending hours – or potentially weeks – individually conceiving and crafting those details by hand.
“The main difference between a professional and hobby model maker is, a hobby model maker takes pride in the year they spent on making a model,” says Davis. “Whereas a professional takes pride in the day or week they spent on making a model. So it’s about making it look as though you’ve spent a long time without actually spending a long time.”
This isn’t to say, however, that all those greeble details are simply glued on a model without a moment’s thought. Rather, the goal is to carefully choose pieces which will imply some sort of scientific function.
“A lot people really underestimate how much attention is paid when doing this,” Davis continues. “It’s not a random collection of pieces – you’re actually trying to connect hoses to boxes to fans to vents to things that look like they’re serving a purpose. The other part of it is to make it look aesthetically pleasing, so one of the biggest mistakes you’ll see on relatively a low-budget movie made by people who are not professional model makers is, you can spot that they don’t put that thought into it. They also try to fill entire areas.”
There can be a practical aspect to applying greebles to a space craft, too. Take the Millennium Falcon, for example – that incredible detailing you can see running around the side of the ship? That’s there, in large part, to disguise a seam where the top of the miniature can be lifted off between takes.
“We have to work with the lighting and some of the details we put inside the model: we have to paint all that, we have to light it, we have to put electronics in it, we have umbilical cords coming out of it running to the power. So the way you do that is, you have two shells of the spacecraft that are body panels, and you can separate them. If you can take the whole top off, then you can get to the inside of the spacecraft. So the best way to do that is to have a seam that is really noisy and filled with detail, so you can’t tell there’s a break. That’s part of what drives where we put the details. We want it to be aesthetically pleasing, but we have to balance that with functionality.”
The use of parts from model kits not only speeds up the building process but also provides the audience with a subconscious link between the real world and the fantastical one on the screen. The use of utilitarian-looking bits and pieces, reworked and put together in new ways on a miniature, creates a subtle bond between the military vehicles most of us are familiar with and the more outlandish mecha dreamed up by George Lucas and his artists.
The At-St Scout Walker’s feet, for example, are said to be taken from a Tank Destroyer. The engine panels on the back of the Millennium Falcon, Fon Davis tells us, are the shovels from a bulldozer model. We may not recognize those parts for what they actually are, but they immediately give the craft and vehicles a sense of weight and presence, just like a real tank or a bulldozer.
“You want to lay it out in a way so no one will recognize what its original form was, and you give it a new form by how you lay it out on the model. Like, those bulldozer shovels, if you’d have just put a single one on there, you’d probably have said, ‘Well, what’s that?’ But someone did a kind of array pattern with them and put some little gun parts, little things that looked like pistons next to each one, and suddenly it now looks like some kind of aileron or some kind of vector thruster thing. That’s always the goal – to make it look like it does something, and not make it recognizable.”
So of all the parts used for greebling in Star Wars, why are so many of them taken from military model kits? Because military kits are less recognizable to most of us than the pieces from a car – the kind of vehicle most of us see every day.
“Car model kits, as it turns out, don’t have a lot of great greeble details, even in the motor,” Davis explains. “That’s because it’s too recognizable as pieces from an automobile. I know veterans from the military can spot some of the greebles that we have, but outside of that, not a lot of people can, because we’re using military kits. That’s very intentional. If you use a military kit, it’s less recognizable to the general public. But if you use something like an automobile part, you can see coilovers, or air filters, or fan belts.”
Model kits proved so useful to ILM’s model making department that it had an entire room stocked with model kits and other useful parts.
“We had a room that had on one side had all Evergreen products, which were also very popular with model makers, and then on the other side of the room just a shelf of model kits,” Davis recalls. “We had set budgets for all these [miniatures], so we would try to find model kits that cost the least amount of money but had the most useful parts.”
Some of those parts were regularly used in the Star Wars franchise and other effects sequences created at ILM. Adam Savage, who used to work at ILM as a model maker and now co-presents the popular TV show MythBusters, jokes about something he calls the universal greebly in a video posted on Tested.com.
“There’s this German [cannon] that has all these little beautiful parts that went into almost every spaceship ever,” Savage says. “There’s this little dome with four pips that we called the universal greeblie […] The universal greeblie – the UG – was on, I think, every single Industrial Light and Magic model almost ever. In fact, we used it on every model that came out of that shop. We used it in Space Cowboys on some part that, later on, they built a full-size set of our model, and on it they had universal greeblies this big! We went, Yes! It’s there!”
According to Fon Davis, the kit Savage refers to is the Krupp K5 rail cannon, a scale replica of a particularly deadly piece of ordnance from World War II sometimes nicknamed the Leopold. And as Davis also points out, those parts, which are tiny and easily-missed flourishes on the original miniature, would often be noted by other departments – the set-building team, for example – and scaled up to full size:
“We always felt kind of bad for them, because we’d just grab these kit-bashing parts and make the models, and they’d have to replicate that same part full-scale. So we would have little greebles that were, say, maybe a few eighths of an inch tall, that we would see in photographs for live action that are, like two feet tall.”
Further down the line, those same greebles would then wind up on the numerous Star Wars toys that lined shelves in the wake of the franchise’s success.
“The greebles themselves kind of had lives of their own,” Davis says. “We would take these random shapes and create this detail on the back and side of a spacecraft, and then that would be photographed to be in the movie, and then they’d make toys. So on the toys they’d take these same details, and as the quality became higher, they’ have these same greebles that we had on the original models!”
The CGI boom of the 1990s might have led you to believe that things like kitbashing, greebles and miniature building, in general, have fallen out of favor. Far from it. The Star Wars prequels, released between 1999 and 2004, made extensive use of miniature effects (“We actually did more miniatures for the prequels than were done on the original series – a lot of people don’t know that,” Davis says). In more recent years, Davis has built miniatures for such hits as Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium and also contributed to the miniature work in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (which had miniatures built and photographed by New Deal Studios).
In fact, not only is model building still a major part of the visual effects industry, but Fon Davis is now busier than ever.
“I hear it all the time,” laughs Davis. “People are like, ‘Don’t you ever miss [model making]?’ And I’m like, ‘What are you talk about? I never stopped working!'”
Even the advent of 3D printing hasn’t replaced those kitbashing techniques pioneered in the 60s and 70s – nor has it seen off the humble greeble.
“We do pretty much 3D print 24 hours a day for all the projects we’re working on,” Davis says, “But we still have a hallway in the model shop filled with model kits. Any time you can get something off the shelf, it’s going to be less expensive and take less time. If you save a bunch of time and money on a model in the areas you can that really don’t matter as much as the overall feel of the model, you can spend the time and money on making really unique portions of that model.”
More than 38 years after that Imperial Star Destroyer first roared over our heads, the Star Wars franchise is set to return to our screens with this December’s The Force Awakens. Like the earlier Star Wars movies, its ships and exotic vehicles will be brought to life with a hybrid of miniature and CG effects – and Davis believes the new movies will be as inspiring to other effects artists as A New Hope was in 1977.
“It’s exciting to see what they’re doing with these Star Wars movies,” Davis says enthusiastically. “I think Star Wars will again be a big game-changer, think people will start looking at how they did those shots and want to do it the same way.”
The approach to creating visual effects may have changed over the decades, but once again, creating the illusion of a huge, believable universe will all come down to those fine, greebly details.