Top 75 spaceships in movies and TV part 6

You hear me, baby? Hold together...


Continued from PART 5

10: Slave 1 – Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)| RETURN TO INDEX

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There must be some street-lamps in America with designs very unfamiliar to me, given how many people have commented that bounty hunter Boba Fett’s bizarre spaceship looks like a street-lamp. In Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays by Laurent Bouzereau, Slave 1 designer Nilo Rodis-Jamero sets the record straight:

“Joe Johnston showed me some of the ideas he has for Boba Fett, and I remember asking myself what his spaceship would look like. I remember seeing a radar dish and stopping to sketch it very quickly to see if I could get something out of it. The original design I had was round, but when you looked at it from the side, it became elliptical. For some reason, when I drew it, George thought it was elliptical, so that’s what it became. When we were building the ship at ILM, somebody looked at street lamps and pointed out that they looked like Boba’s ship. So everyone began to think that was where I got the idea for the design.”

Not me. I thought he dreamed it up while he was ironing. Can’t you see yourself getting a nice crisp collar-seam out of Slave 1? Despite their many flaws, one of the great pleasures of the Star Wars prequels was the very welcome return of this popular ship, which, in my opinion, almost entirely accounts for the popularity of Boba Fett (and, paradoxically later, his dad Jango) himself. I mean, the Fetts aren’t exactly chock full of personality or even attitude, but they have rocket packs and a ship that looks like evil personified (and when ‘standing up’, like a character in its own right). I’m surprised Vader didn’t just mind-choke Fett on the spot when he turned up looking for the Han Solo bounty in The Empire Strikes Back, and nick his ride.

‘Sinister’ doesn’t remotely cover the cowled and slightly art-deco aspect of Slave 1, nor is ‘cool’ adequate to describe the way the vehicle plays with orientation and moves through space in cruciform glory.

It should be mentioned that Lorne Peterson worked on the original Slave 1 miniature alongside Nilo Rodis-Jamero. Regarding toys, models and CG, Slave 1 is predictably well-represented, to the point where you can even get the ship as a transformer. Here’s a Starship Modeller build of the AMT/ERTL kit, and a look at the Revell SnapTite kit. Since there were (wisely) so few changes between the ships in the original Star Wars films and the prequels that followed, the Jango Fett edition from Fine Molds and others is arguably a bit redundant. CG-wise, SWMA and Marv Mays have a nice Slave 1 in 3DS here. And you can find a downloadable Slave 1 for Bridge Commander here; there seems to be a bit of effort going into a new German Slave 1 as well.

Info: Fictional Life | More fictional Life | IMDB |

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9: Gunstar – The Last Starfighter (1984) | RETURN TO INDEX

Trust futurist Ron Cobb’s amazing design sensibility to find itself in the vanguard of CGI spaceships; the eponymous vessel of Nick Castle’s SF Disney outing became the first of its type to reach the big screen. As with the previously ground-breaking Tron a couple of years earlier, the film’s plot uses a video-game premise to bridge the visual gap between the photo-real and the more stylised renderings of the spacecraft and battles, and the conceit sells the concept.

The ship itself is a dream – more armed than Kali, with a sexy cylindrical fuselage tapering off into a forward-moving cockpit. The Gunstar is also one of only a handful of ships in this list that take off vertically. The cowling on the rear hull, the insouciant curves of the thrusters and the patina of high-engineering makes the design compelling. It’s also very rear-heavy, which practical design concept (the rear is where the space-consuming boosters and fuel are likely to be) adds to the sense of practicality.

Digital Productions created twenty-seven minutes of CGI footage for the movie, rendering out the ray-traced scenes on a Cray X-MP supercomputer. Every frame of CGI in the movie had an average of 250,000 polygons, and was rendered at 3000×5000 pixels in 36-bit colour. You know what? I could handle a remake of this. Lucky, since I’m going to be getting one anyway. I would love to see the Gunstar done justice with current VFX technology.

But the most appealing form to have this ship in is arguably that in which it has never existed – the real world. Frontier models have a beautiful mounted hobby resin kit available. Here’s a superb Lego Gunstar. Unsatisfied with another kit version, Randy Cooper scratch-built a Gunstar and sold it to Monsters In Motion (scroll down a bit). As for CG hobbyists, it’s not inappropriate that there be a basic mesh of the ship available. But if you’re looking for class CG work on the design, check out this project, with appropriate procedural textures.

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Info: Fictional Life | IMDB |

8: Vulcan warp sled ‘Surak’ – Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)| RETURN TO INDEX

The Surak shares that ’70s flares’ look that the nacelles of the re-fitted Enterprise display in ST:TMP, but it works very nicely. This ship is a model (literally) of Vulcan austerity – it’s basically just two warp nacelles welded onto a short-range shuttle.

What’s the appeal then? The shuttle section isn’t welded; the sequence where the central section of the Surak breaks away and then flips round through 360 degrees to dock with the Enterprise is so jaw-droppingly graceful that even Kubrick must have been nodding in approval. I can’t figure out to this day what kind of armature and model combination made that manoeuvre possible or even remotely filmable – I just know it’s one of the coolest things I have ever seen a screen spaceship do.

Those of us who are fans of the ship and want to know more about it have lucked out about as much as we could hope for: Star Trek and Phase II designer Andrew Probert has provided a full behind-the-scenes look at the concept, development and execution of the Surak at his site.

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“In order for this new shuttle to catch up to the Enterprise, Gene Roddenberry explained that it needed (logically) large warp engines. Since the Enterprise we were developing featured a brand new warp engine design, I thought these engines should look like the original versions from the television series. I soon began to wonder just how this shuttle would be able to hard-dock to the Enterprise, so the engines were moved forward, allowing a clear space around the ‘docking ring’. The rear-mounted docking ring was a continuation of Gene’s Travel Pod docking scenario. Designs continued until I hit on the idea of the “Personnel Pod” separating from the ‘Light Speed Unit’ mount in order to better maneuver into a docking approach.

“Building on the 2-in-1 concept, I began to refine the shapes and also advanced my warp engine concept to a new level. I incorporated the impulse engines into the back of the warp engines and then, wanting to suggest a Vulcan design influence, changed the engines’ cross-section to the shape of the ceremonial gong that was seen on Vulcan in the original series episode: ‘Amok Time’.”

There’s far more than the above detail at Andrew’s site, with tons of photos and early concept sketches, and I really recommend a click on that link.

AMT produced a very nice Surak, which I well remember building (though you can see a far better build here), and which keeps its lines in the face of quite a structural challenge. There’s also a new 10-inch model coming out in late December of 2009, and it looks very cool indeed.

CG modeller TallGuy has turned in a first-class Surak warp sled at this thread.

Info: Fictional Life | IMDB |

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7: Millennium Falcon – Star Wars (1977)| RETURN TO INDEX

I know I shall be Bantha fodder for not putting this at number one, but these are the breaks. Of all the ships in this list that have tried to bring a new wrinkle to the ‘saucer’ aesthetic, none have been more successful in movie history than the Falcon. Within the canon of Star Wars, the ship is unique and uniquely loved, and it’s no different in the real world. The bisected forward section give the Falcon a real sense of forward movement, and putting the cockpit, itself a beautiful design, on the side of the ship is a lovely NASA touch, as is the off-set communications dish. George Lucas describes the visual dynamic of the ship as ‘a hamburger with an olive on the side’. Like the original Cylon Raiders, the ship is a joy to behold when it’s performing an ambitious manoeuvre, such as the about-face for Cloud City in The Empire Strikes Back or the acrobatic loop-de-loop into the asteroid cave earlier in the movie.

The sheer amount of detailing on the ship would ordinarily be absurd, but this baby has spent far more time in the custom-shops of its various owners than it ever did in the factory, and whoever designed it probably wouldn’t even recognise their creation by the time of Han Solo. The Falcon shares the lateral ‘nurney-strips’ of the Star Destroyer, but its stroke of design genius is the placement of defensive gunner positions in a central column throughout the ship, and this section has perpendicular artificial gravity too.

It’s often not clear in the Star Wars movies exactly what the Falcon’s boosters look like. We mostly get to see the ‘mouth’ from the side, and a rear view only when the boosters are blindingly ablaze. In the Revell model kit I built in the early eighties, the boosters were represented with a bent strip of white Perspex-like plastic – very effective when illuminated from behind, but problematic when the model was in repose.

This is simply one of the most marketed SF toys ever, and among the most popular designs in the considerable field of Star Wars merchandising. It would be a Quixotic task to list the various replicas, kits, scratch-builds and other representations of the Falcon here, and in any case has done a pretty good job on the matter itself (I would only draw your attention to these nickel-sized Falcons as a departure from the usual work). The site also has a fantastic full-length article about the creation and shooting of the impressive on-set Falcon for Star Wars.

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Info: Fictional Life | IMDB |

6: Thunder fighter – Buck Rogers In The Twenty-Fifth Century (USTV, 1979)| RETURN TO INDEX

Well, here it is – the craft that was supposed to be helping the ragtag fleet keep the Cylons at bay in the original Battlestar Galactica, but found itself instead in a world of bad disco-dancing, tight spandex and endless corridors. Buck Rogers, like Galactica, was a Glen A. Larson production, and the concept sketches that had been turned down for that show were available property for this one. The Thunder Fighter is slim and unbelievably sleek and sexy, and it moves and manoeuvres with incredible charm in the series (and, like Galactica, the European cinematic release – boy, Larson had a formula going there for a while, didn’t he..?).

This is an incredibly aggressive design that, in my opinion, had no small influence on the snow-speeders of The Empire Strikes Back the following year. The two fixed forward gun-turrets use a recessed and counter-sunk styling familiar to us from Vietnam war footage, and they’re absolutely huge. The fins are highly stylised and the whole thing seems like it would be as happy underwater as in space (the producers never went that far, probably just through lack of time). Also of note are the bell shaped rear-thrusters and the aerodynamic cockpit visor. Here was a design that was waaaay cooler than the show it was in.

You can see a photo of the original wooden mould from which the production miniatures of the Thunder Fighter were struck here. has a gallery of great photos of the recovered full-size Thunder Fighter on-set prop, and loads of background about it. And there are some nice video loops of the fighter in action at conceptships.

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Scroll down a bit on this page to see the box for the late 70s Mego toy; you can find some pics of the Monogram Starfighter model kit at this page (I remember it well!); and here’s an all-in-one Thunder Fighter complete with Buck!

The 4-inch Dinky Toy of the starfighter had a lot of problems, even by Dinky’s standards. Added to the company’s reliable tendency to screw up the original colour schemes in favour of garish colours, for some reasons the side-fins folded back into the body in their 1979 release (scroll down to the last quarter of the page). Though I was also disappointed as a kid to note that the impressive forward cannons had been ‘neutered’ by a safety bar, I had to concede even then that the original design could have had someone’s eye out…

In the CG hobbyist arena there’s a Thunder Fighter at Turbosquid; a nice render of a Thunder Fighter leaving the atmosphere; and a phaseworld game conversion.

Info: Fictional Life | IMDB |

5: Aries 1B Earth-Moon shuttle – 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) | RETURN TO INDEX

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Much as I love this design (from the same team that generated the Discovery – see earlier entry on that), it’s actually the interior full-size set that sold me on the model. Seeing William Sylvester sequester this enormous spacecraft on his top secret mission and sit in the vast circular set among rows of empty passenger seats, I felt the reality of the ship sink into me, and even the jaw-dropping ‘rotating hostess’ didn’t impress me that much.

To a large extent the Aries-1B resembles a severely truncated Discovery, comprised primarily of a spherical body with a pilot viewport slit cut into the front fuselage – a design conceit invented for 2001. The rear boosters are idle as we join the flight, having already made their one big burn to gather acceleration towards the moon, and we get a sense that the ship is coasting, gliding

But the sequence that really sells the Aries B and seals the deal is the extraordinary landing at Tycho base. Though I can’t see the practical aspect of having a dome split into six ‘star destroyers’ instead of just sliding to one side, the Tycho extendible landing platform itself is beautifully industrial. The deployment of the Aries’ landing legs as it approaches the base is a beautiful piece of miniature engineering (and you can find out more about the landing gear at this page).

Captain Cardboard did a great model kit of the Aries 1B for a while, though ironically it’s been out of production since 2001. Starship Modeller have taken a good look back at the kit. They also previewed the Stargazer Aries 1B kit (though I must say that it looks a little rough around the edges). There is a new Atomic City version of the Aries which even has a beautifully detailed interior, and it looks to be the best representation of the craft ever.

Maurice Biolo provides a 288-texture CGI model for Bryce, Lightwave and 3D Studio Max at the 2001 3D Modelling Archive, and illustrator Simon Atkinson has prepared many drawings of the craft in 2001: A Space Odyssey for commercial projects, including the Aries 1B.

Info: Fictional Life | IMDB |

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4: U.S.S. Enterprise – Star Trek (US TV, 1966-69)| RETURN TO INDEX

Like the Millennium Falcon, the Enterprise offers a genuine innovation on the ‘saucer-ship’ that was becoming so repetitive in spacecraft design. The naval motif that threads starfleet emerges in the rough configuration of the vessel, which seems to have a ‘keel’ of sorts, as if it was made to be submerged from the ‘neck’ down.

The story of how Matt Jefferies’ design was okayed by Gene Roddenberry while he was looking at the ship upside-down has become part of Trek lore, and the lines of the Reliant from Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan, itself a beautiful ship, give us some idea of how that intended dynamic would have worked out. The Enterprise was first mocked up by the Howard Anderson company in 1964 as a proof-of-concept piece, with a subsequent 11-foot miniature being made by Richard Datin, Vern Sion and Mel Keys for the Volmer Jensen model shop. The ship was modified a couple of times throughout the original three-year run of the show, but not so distinctively as to stop the producers mixing, matching and re-using the various footage at will.

Since TOS, the ship has evolved and ‘prevolved’ endlessly, from the Andrew Probert Phase II refit (ultimately destined for 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture) to the atavistic ship of the short-lived (and somewhat under-rated) EnterpriseTV series in 2003 and the ‘alternate reality’ Enterprise of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek. For a while I preferred the Probert refit, and Doug Trumbull certainly made it look gorgeous, but a recent re-acquaintance with the remastered Star Trek TOS has restored my love for the original!

The Enterprise is majestic rather than imposing, and it’s an endlessly interesting thing to look at; there may be no other spaceship in the history of screen spaceships that has so many interesting angles to offer. It corners like a twenty-ton tanker, but that’s not its strength – this is a cruise ship built to the highest specifications in the galaxy. I have been, and always shall be, its fan…

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Key-rings, model-kits, flying kits, die casts, resin moulds, mouse mats…at this stage in the list, it is going to become increasingly pointless for me to indicate merchandising and hobbyist pursuits. These projects have been fun to hunt out for the more obscure ships, but, – as with rats – you’re probably never more than ten feet away from a version of the Enterprise in some or other form. Brief mentions, then, of the legendary AMT kit, a true modellers’ classic, which you can see a lovely build guide for here. There are also some great behind-the-scenes photos of the 11-foot model during the rough motion-control work of the original series available here. And a reminder that, as when I was a kid, you can still launch the Enterprise into space yourself…

Info: Fictional Life | IMDB |

3: Klingon Bird of Prey – Star Trek III: The Search For Spock (1984) | RETURN TO INDEX

The Klingon configuration for starships is perhaps consciously the reverse of the federation’s, with the warp nacelles tucked under the main body of their craft. Like constellation-class federation cruisers, Klingon vessels up until Search For Spock would have looked pretty silly trying to do any serious manoeuvres, like oil-tankers attempting a three-point turn. The Bird Of Prey changed all that…

The wings now pointed aggressively forward and descended like an eagle’s when going in for ‘the kill’; STIII provides a truly blood-curdling and spectacular introduction to the ship, as captain Kruge destroys the unwitting merchant vessel containing his faithful and beloved spy Valkris (could he not have beamed her aboard and said no more about her snooping at the Genesis information? Oh well, I’m not a Klingon and I guess I wouldn’t understand) and flies through the scattered debris of his ‘kill’. It’s one of the best moments in any of the Star Trek movies.

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The Romulan vessel from the TOS episode Balance Of Terror is the basis for this formidable Klingon war-machine, and an early draft of Search For Spock suggested that Kruge (Christopher Lloyd) and company had stolen this new and terrifying weapon from the Romulans. Director Leonard Nimoy conceived of the predatory aspect of the ship, demonstrating the stance of the Bird Of Prey’s wings to ILM. Though the final script for Search omitted the Romulan connection, the avian marquetry and decal detailing remained on the miniature as a testament to its origins, even through later versions seen in Star Trek V, Star Trek VI and The Next Generation.

Nilo Rodis and David Carson realised Nimoy’s vision of a radical new look for the classic Klingon ‘sumo’ stance (check out this picture of a muscleman which informed the creative process on the ship), with Bill George outputting a prototype production miniature. Regarding the Bird’s aggressive green colour scheme, Star Trek movie producer Harve Bennett commented: “They had a lot of fun designing that one! And I think the color selection – a kind of serpentine kind of green – went on to help us, not only there but later. We utilized it in Star Trek IV, because it is so dramatic a look.” Of course the Bird Of Prey went on to have huge influence in Star Trek canon, both in the movies and on TV.

Ex Astris Scientia calls into question various issues regarding the size of the Bird Of Prey relative to its own various iterations, the Enterprise…and whales!

AMT/ERTL produced a legendarily great kit of the Bird Of Prey, and there’s another by GRP. Lego’s not to be left out of the fun as usual, and neither is origami. You can get a Bird Of Prey pin; a CGI Bird Of Prey; another from Sketchup; and a really cool transparent desktop miniature from Science Fiction Miniature models.

Info: Fictional Life | IMDB |

2: Eagle transporter – Space: 1999 (UK TV, 1975-77) | RETURN TO INDEX

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Could this be the spaceship of my dreams? It certainly was in the 1970s. Designer and visual effects supervisor Brian Johnson has re-used the notion of an interchangeable midriff section from Thunderbird 2, but combined it with a gloriously balanced combination of NASA-clunkiness with the kind of elegance on display in the hardware of 2001: A Space Odyssey – another movie credit for Brian Johnson. Note the attitude adjustors, which are practically identical to those used on the lunar module during the Apollo missions, and later on in the history of space-flight. The boxiness of the landing legs and tubular spine suggest a vehicle carried up in sections from Earth, whilst the enormous bells of the booster rockets at the rear seem set to give the fleetest alien craft a run for its money.

There were 4 versions and scales of the Eagle, at 44″, 22″, 11″ and 5 1/2″, equating to 1/24th, 1/48th, 1/96th & 1/192nd scale respectively. Designed by Johnson, most of the Eagles were built by Arthur ‘Wag’ Johnson, though Derek Freeborn associates are also credited with the final 44″ version for season two of Space:1999. Many variants on the strong core design were displayed in the series, and the basic model itself could change appearance simply by picking up a new centre-section for extra functionality. These facts and many more can be pored over at the ultimate resource for fans of the Eagle, over at, which has expanded to cover other TV and movie franchises since opening, and whose forums are the first port of call for Gerry Anderson modelling enthusiasts and fans.

EXCLUSIVE: Gerry Anderson chats exclusively with us about the origins of the Eagle Transporter:

“The Eagle was designed by Brian Johnson I talked to Brian and told him how I saw it, and he went off and he came back with something utterly, utterly different, inasmuch as it didn’t look like either a rocket, or a vehicle or a car or anything. Because it was designed to move around in space, it didn’t have to be aerodynamic, and therefore there was no point in carrying all the extra weight of a fuselage. But that was very much his idea, and I didn’t contribute to that at all. As a toy, it certainly did sell very very well indeed.”

Click here for the full-length, exclusive interview with Gerry Anderson.

Gerry isn’t kidding – the Eagle was a phenomenon as a plaything in the 1970s, available as a very popular Airfix kit (and proving a pretty good resource for new spaceships too), as well as a robust and uncompromised Dinky toy. The prodigious Small Artworks in Canada have of course created a superb Eagle, complete with illuminated cockpit. The Eagle was a very early project for the CGI modelling community, and there are many versions out there in all kinds of format, from .OBJ to .3DS. You can download an Eagle add-on for the Orbiter Space Flight Simulator here, and there’s a nice mesh on display at James Murphy’s classic Eagle mesh for 3D Studio Max and Lightwave is downloadable here, and if you scroll down a bit on this page, you’ll see just how many modellers share my love of this classic spacecraft.

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Info: Fictional Life | IMDB |

1: Dropship – Aliens (1986) | RETURN TO INDEX

Anyone who loves making as well as enjoying spaceship models must reserve a special place in their heart for this design, as it is barely able to hide its roots as a cobbled-together Apache AH-64 helicopter combined with sections of cowling from various British war-planes (the proper name for the dropship is actually the UD-4L “Cheyenne” dropship, keeping that residual native-American connection). The genesis of the drop-ship ran a peculiar tandem with that of Alien‘s Nostromo, in that highly talented artists (in this case including Syd Mead) were outputting fantastic concept designs without quite hitting on what the director wanted, and the final design was kit-bashed from raw materials, jettisoning most of what went before. The radically different Syd Mead dropships were a visual match for the superb APC vehicle that made it to Aliens virtually unaltered, but lacked the tactile connection with 20th-century warfare that Cameron was working so hard to establish in the live-action production.

EXCLUSIVE: ‘Aliens’ Production designer Syd Mead on the Drop-Ship…

“Here’s what happened. The production moved to Pinewood pretty early in process. The drop ship was first designed as a full-sized prop piece inside my drop ship bay set (using every inch of Pinewood’s largest sound stage) and the model was made to look like it. The drop ship prop only had to be photographed from the left side as the shot looked down the length of the set. The assault tractor was a dressed 747 towing tractor with the lead removed. I also was asked to start designing the look of the off-world installation; pressure exterior doors and some of the interior laboratory sets that had originally been started by Ron Cobb. That never happened. I also designed a start on the hospital room where Sigourney Weaver’s character was being revived. That never happened either.”

Click here to read Syd’s exclusive insights to us about his movie spaceships

Anyone who has ever hacked up or kit-bashed regular model-kit editions has made the Aliens dropship or something very similar, and wondered what it would look like if Hollywood were to put it in a movie. Aliens actually showed us. And it was cooler even than our wildest dreams.

The dropship is bad-ass Vietnam firepower years before the fall of Saigon; it’s Thunderbird 2 with attitude; hell, with those extending missile launchers, it’s even part Transformer. The decoration is a wonderfully familiar military green painstakingly adorned with all those decals that mean ‘war’ to the 20th-century mind; Ron Cobb laments slightly, in the Aliens quadrilogy documentary extras, that his Bug Stompers/’We Endanger Species’ logo/decal never gets a resolvable close-up in the movie, the same fate as his occasionally hilarious ‘industrial warning signs’ in Alien. Never mind, Ron – we know it’s there. The back-up dropship which Bishop must crawl through a sewer to summon is apparently called ‘Smart Ass’, and its contrasting motto is We aim by P.F.M. [Pure Fucking Magic].

Where possible James Cameron shot the dropship ‘in camera’, though naturally the shots of it in space are motion control, including this jaw-dropping descent from the Sulaco. Check out The Power Of Real Tech documentary on the Aliens quadrilogy to see some great out-takes of visual effects supervisors the Skotak brothers trying to get the miniature dropship to land in the rain on the miniature set of LV426 – they’re using models, strings and wind machines, so quite why it doesn’t all look like Thunderbirds is a testament to the ingenuity and determination of Cameron, Skotak and all concerned with the ‘practical’ visual effects. VFX cameraman Harry Oakes recalls some of his exploits with the 1/6th-scale dropship in this interview at Oakes reveals in this interview that the famous rear-projected dropship crash was based on a similar VFX crash in Gerry Anderson’s Journey To The Far Side Of The Sun (which Oakes worked on). VFX camera operator Michael Anderson was also interviewed about the dropship.

Fantastic Plastic do a dropship kit. Halcyon have unfortunately discontinued their model kit of the craft. Aoshima do a 1/72 scale die-cast 13-inch Dropship, which – if you scroll down a bit – you can see at this site. There’s a superb dropship cutaway from Acme Creations here, and some great diagrams here; a Lego dropship; a scratch-built dropship here, and another here. And if you don’t believe that anything as ferocious as the Cheyenne could ever be cute, think again. In the CG sphere, here’s the dropship for Max; and for Sketchup; and finally…a real-life dropship?

Info: Fictional Life | IMDB |

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