Sunday, 17 March 2013


From the real life valleys of Wales to the fictional desert realms of Tatooine and beyond, UK talent Leslie (Les) Dilley’s TV series transfer to epic motion picture making career took off in a big way in 1975, working as an Assistant art director to the legendary Production Designer John Barry in Mexico on the film LUCKY LADY- a comedy adventure, written by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, starring Burt Reynolds, Liza Minelli and Gene Hackman, that would eventually, and sadly, bomb at the box office and critically wound 20th CENTURY FOX’s finances in the process. LUCKY LADY may ultimately have been unlucky for its backers and stars, but behind the scenes it was to prove the start of a British design renaissance, especially for Dilley. Once Barry, much liked in the industry and recommended by that films writers to director George Lucas and producer Gary Kurtz, was officially give the job as Production Designer on what was then being known as THE STAR WARS, his talented, dedicated art team quickly followed alongside him for the ride of their lives-Dilley soon becoming fully immersed as co-art director (with colleague Norman Reynolds) into the incredible and eventually revolutionary universe being planned for the big screen by Lucas, whom he enjoyed working with on a daily basis, noticing his great eye for detail and film-making.

Early design plans for Artoo Detoo.
George Lucas and John Barry work out Artoo Detoo's early feet prototypes/movements with Kenny Baker.

In those early days working on development with Roger Christian and Reynolds, at Lee Studios in Kenzell Road, London, everything had to be built from scratch. First off the drawing board was the huge task linked to the droid R2-D2 (which also had the considerable input of Practical Special Effects supervisor John Stears), then golden humanoid C-3PO (including the talents of sculptor Liz Moore (later Brian Muir), with further input from Barry, working from the early defining work of US conceptual artist Ralph McQuarrie), and the floating Landspeeder. Dilley would be heavily involved with the Art Department in the concept of the latter (again working from McQuarrie’s incredible concepts) and the design and development of R2. The first mock-up of the Landspeeder was ultimately made too big, cut down to a third of its size under orders from Lucas, and becoming the final vehicle we known and love today, built by the British-based Ogle design and manufacturing company.

George Lucas and Bill Welch watch Luke's Landspeeder in construction at Elstree-1975/76.
Another behind the scenes shot of the speeder at Elstree.
Generic image of the final Landspeeder, taken by Richard Edlund at ILM.
Another of the Landspeeder props used on location in Tunisia-March/April 1976.

R2 started off life as a cardboard drum, with cardboard arms developed from which a walking test was done. Development work continued over several months- a version that a small person could operate (in a very limited way with no major movements, as the legs were too short and didn’t have enough movement inside them), one that could be waddled about, and the later, often difficult to control, robot version with three legs (pioneered by John Stears).

It was also Dilley who helped Barry and Norman Reynolds to convince diminutive up and coming British cabaret/TV star Kenny Baker to play Artoo after much persuading, as the majority of the other little people tested with the prop weren’t strong enough to operate it. Baker also had the knack of adding personality to it, giving the little droid some emotional nuance, intelligence and cuteness across the Classic Trilogy.

The immense Sandcrawler prop/scaffold used on the first day of Tunisian filming in 1976.
Lucas with the final version of Threepio, played by Anthony Daniels, in Tunisia-1976.

On to bigger things, Dilley drafted the immense Jawa Sandcrawler prop into construction blueprints, eventually coming in at 120 foot long 20 feet wide and 40 feet high as Dilley supervised its construction in Tunisia.

The entire UK art/design team, with Ralph McQuarrie (far right), gather on the STAR WARS Soundstage at Elstree-June/July 1979 for THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.

Concluding his work on STAR WARS by the Summer of 1976, Dilley would help Christopher Reeve fly as SUPERMAN (again working with John Barry and Reynolds) into 1977, then opposite an impressed Ridley Scott, paired once more alongside Set Decorator Roger Christian, as the trio brought their considerable talents to bear on the sci-fi horror landmark ALIEN a year later, notably with the interior of the starship Nostromo. Then, on the opposite end of sci-fi/fantasy, it was straight back to George Lucas and Gary Kurtz in 1979 for THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK-an even greater design and construction challenge, against some very difficult filming circumstances, than the original STAR WARS. Here, Dilley was Art Director, whilst Norman Reynolds, following in the footsteps of the tragically passed John Barry (who had returned to the saga for a brief period as a Second Unit Director), was now an ambitious Production Designer.

The Millennium Falcon prop finishes assembly at Elstree-1979.
The Falcon, all alone in the abandoned Rebel Base hangar.
The dense bog planet and swamp crashed X-wing at Elstree-August/September 1979. 
Filming on the muddy Dagobah set was often quite precarious!

Dilley was in the process of supervising the all-important transfer to, and construction of props for, March 1979 filming in Finse, Norway when he fell ill with throat and breathing problems at the airport, resulting in him not going to the chilly location (replaced by a thrust into the position Alan Tomkins) and instead staying in the UK alongside Norman Reynolds in the hectic Elstree Studios, where work overseeing the films incredible sets was soon all-consuming, such as the rebel base hangar on the ice planet of Hoth, followed by the Dagobah bog planet (which saw in his apparently most embarrassing career moment- after supervising the metal dome being put on top of Kenny Baker within the Artoo shell, Dilley took a backwards step too far and fell into the dirty water swamp, directly in front of his crewmates!)

After EMPIRE, Dilley had the pleasure of working with another genre favourite movie director Steven Spielberg (and Norman Reynolds) on RAIDERS OF THE LOST Ark, which arrived at Elstree after the filming of the Sam Jones starring FLASH GORDON movie, then went on to a continuing and spectacular Hollywood career as Production Designer (thanks to Green Card support from Lucas and Spielberg), with hit films such as James Cameron’s THE ABYSS, family comedies like CASPER, THE FRIENDLY GHOST and HONEY, I BLEW UP THE BABY, and sci-fi disaster movie DEEP IMPACT.

With thanks to Chris Baker for selected images.

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