Stop someone and ask them what they love about Star Wars, and it’s likely to be a moment or character that was born largely thanks to the creativity and expertise of the artists, engineers and technicians behind George Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic. With distinctive props and models, the then-fledging visual effects company gave the movie franchise its look, its ingenuity – and as many would argue – its lasting appeal. One such admirer is WIRED Chief Photographer Dan Winters, an award-winning artist with work in The National Portrait Gallery and whose clients have included TIME, Vanity Fair, The New York Times and W.
On a recent assignment for WIRED, Winters gained unprecedented access to the ILM archives to photograph the original props (think Stormtrooper helmets and Death Stars) that would spawn a pop culture phenomenon, as well as an entire industry of collectibles, many of which can be seen in Sotheby’s upcoming Star Wars-dedicated auction Return of the NIGO.
We spoke to Winters about his once-in-a-lifetime experience ahead of Condé Nast and Sotheby’s collaborative private exhibition Dan Winters: Star Wars, featuring Winters’s photography for WIRED and Sotheby’s Return of the NIGO collectibles at The Condé Nast Gallery in New York City.
PHOTOS: SHEA KASTRINER
Do you remember the first time you saw Star Wars?
Even when I was a kid, I was really into science fiction and would go to every movie I could see – you know, all the D-list sci-fi films like The Fly and Invasion of the Saucer Men. 2001: A Space Odyssey was my favourite. Then Star Wars came out in 1977 and it was a total game changer. It was so unbelievably unique and unlike anything anybody had ever seen. 2001 had these beautiful space crafts waltzing across the screen to Strauss and Star Wars was like a WWII dogfight in space.
So you were a big fan – did you collect any toys or memorabilia?
My brothers were more into that. When Star Wars came out I had already started making Super 8 movies and building miniature models for film. So I sent some samples to Industrial Light & Magic, and actually went down to meet the people who had worked on New Hope and got hired as a model builder there in 1979. I was still in high school at this point. This photography project was very full-circle for me.
What was it like going back to photograph the ILM archives?
I really pressed hard to get access and Kathleen Kennedy graciously let us in there to see these amazing artefacts. It’s like a giant warehouse. It was incredible. I’ve photographed everybody under the sun and I very rarely get nervous, because I’m in my element when I shoot. But this time I was so stressed out. And it’s inanimate objects, right? It was pretty amazing.
What do you think sets Star Wars props and costumes apart from other movies?
Lucas is a consummate archivist – he’s a collector. He recognized early on the relevance of this stuff and saved every little thing from his films. Now, because Star Wars is such a cultural phenomenon, these pieces have taken on a life of their own. They’re almost like religious relics because of their impact. With them, you see the beginnings of something that has become part of pop culture. These miniatures are works of art in and of themselves – beautiful pieces of craftsmanship, beautiful pieces of machinery.
Was there something you wanted to capture in your photos of the archive?
My idea of documenting them was similar to taxonomical photography. It’s the purest form of representation. So this is more sort of a reverent look at these objects than anything to do with my abilities.
Did you have a favourite piece to shoot?
I think maybe the walker, the AT-AT, only because that sequence at the beginning of Empire is probably the finest piece of stop motion animation ever committed to film. It’s flawless and was incredibly time-consuming to produce. You watch it now and it’s still absolutely masterful.
Highlights from Return of the NIGO will be on show from 4–9 December alongside Dan Winters: Star Wars as part of a private exhibition at The Condé Nast Gallery in New York City. Click on for a virtual walk through the show with Shawn Waldron, senior director of the Condé Nast archive.