Star Wars Alum Series: C. Andrew Nelson

Inside Star Wars' films, games, and Vader mask

Last modification: 22 Feb, 2018
Duration
18 mins

The phrase, 'it changed my life' is often used loosely, but for C. Andrew Nelson, "Star Wars" quite literally did. As we excitedly brace for tonight's reawakening of the Force, he shares what life's been like inside the franchise's films, games – and a certain tall Dark Lord's helmet.


What was your first exposure to Star Wars?

I was just shy of 15 years old when I went to see it in 1977. It was in San Francisco and I remember standing out in front of the Coronet Theatre with my friends for hours. The line must’ve gone for three or four blocks, and that was just to buy the tickets. You had to get in another long line to actually get into the theatre. I don’t know how I managed it but I swear I got the absolute best seat in the theatre. It felt like the entire movie was surrounding me. During that first shot where that massive Star Destroyer went over my head, I immediately thought, “I want to do that for a living.”


How did you go about making it happen?

Visual effects was all just getting figured out then, there was no school that was teaching it. My Dad drove me to every magazine shop, comic book store and convention, anywhere where I could gather bits and pieces of information to try and find out how it was done. I subscribed to every magazine on filmmaking I could find, read every interview. None of it made sense at first, but I just kept immersing myself in it and experimenting constantly. Some of my stuff looked horrible, but some of it looked just good enough to keep me encouraged. You know J.J. Abrams’ Super 8? That was me with the exception of the alien invasion. I was that kid. I just kept going from that point forward.


“There was so much excitement and countless products started coming out, like the toys, et cetera. There was something new all the time. It felt like Christmas every day.”

 

What was the buzz on Star Wars at that time?

I had seen the initial trailer and I thought it looked so cool but I really knew nothing about it. Afterwards, though, it was everywhere. Everyone was saying, “Have you seen Star Wars?!” There was so much excitement and countless products started coming out, like the toys, et cetera. There was something new all the time. It felt like Christmas every day.


How do you go from being a fan to eventually working for George Lucas?

Perseverance (laughs). It was a weird, long road. During High school I volunteered at a local cable access TV station. I learned a lot about cameras and lighting. It was a great foundation. From there, I had a string of boring, inconsequential jobs. Just before I got hired at LucasArts, I was an accountant. I plotted to get out of there the whole time, sending my resume to every film studio, production company, and gaming studio in the Bay area hoping to get a foot in the door somewhere. I was doing everything wrong apparently, because I was amassing a huge stack of rejection letters. That’s when I noticed an ad for a Customer Support Representative at Lucas Film Games – it wasn’t called LucasArts yet. I thought, ‘This is it.’ I knew I had to apply.


“The interviewer was laughing at all my jokes and I felt like I was completely nailing it – until I discovered that she was just the screener.”

 

What went differently for you this time?

I changed my strategy. I wrote honestly about why I wanted to work with them on the games they were making. When I got the phone call for an interview, I was so excited. I didn’t want to screw it up.


How did you prepare?

I drove there the day before so I would know my route. I was shocked that the building was so non-descript, by the way. In my head, I thought it should look so much more…grand. Anyway, the next day when I woke up, the Emergency Broadcast System was going off. It had been raining all night and there were now flash floods on every single street I needed to drive on. Thankfully, the water receded enough that I could set out, and slowly but surely, I got there.


What was the interview like?

I was completely overdressed, but I was using all the techniques they tell you to use to ensure success, like mirroring and matching tone. The interviewer was laughing at all my jokes and I felt like I was completely nailing it – until I discovered that she was just the screener. I was so rattled by the time I was taken to the person who was actually hiring. I was fidgeting and sweating, and none of my jokes were working. She was a stone-cold slab. I thought I was blowing it and I left there dejected but the next day, the stone-cold slab called. She was now bubbly and happy, asking me when I could start. I started February 1, 1993, in the Lucas companies.


“By the end of the first week, I was creating the first matte painting I’d ever created in my entire career and bringing it to Dennis Muren, the granddaddy of visual effects. It was crazy.”

 

What was that position like?

I learned so much there. I started as the guy you called when you couldn’t get a game to run on your computer. When Rebel Assault came out, things went crazy. People were buying computers just to play that game. After a year on the phones, I submitted my art portfolio to the art director. She thought it was pretty standard stuff but then noticed my experience with video on my resume. She was designing a game that had a lot of video in it and there were only two guys in the company that knew anything about video: one was on sabbatical, the other was tied up with another project. So, I was hired, at the very bottom of the ladder. I wasn’t even creating art. I was an Art Technician, taking art the artists had done and putting them into a form that the programmers could use. I worked on my first game, Mortimer and the Riddles of the Medallion, an edutainment game. By the time it shipped, I was Lead Effects Animator.


Impressive. And how did you then transition to Industrial Light & Magic?

There was a rotoscoping position open so I interviewed for that. I was told I was completely overqualified but they hired me anyway. I didn’t have a desk there yet, I was still in the middle of orientation, but somehow, I got drafted into the matte painting department to work on the gun battle in Episode One: The Phantom Menace, between the Gungans and the droids. By the end of the first week, I was creating the first matte painting I’d ever created in my entire career and bringing it to Dennis Muren, the granddaddy of visual effects. It was crazy.


Dennis has this ability to figure out little problems by guiding you and finding the best in you. George, too. They find a way to pull your best out of you.”

 

What was that interaction with Dennis like?

I was standing at his desk and he’s looking at my matte painting on his monitor, making little comments here and there while I was thinking in my head, ‘Wow, dude, I used to cut pictures of you out of magazines and put them on my wall’ (laughs). Then, he did something I didn’t expect. He asked me, “Oh, I dunno… what you think?” My first thought was, “You have more Oscars than anyone alive, you tell me!” That was the cool thing about working with Dennis – and George, too. They didn’t put a tight grip on things, yet they had complete control over everything anyway. Dennis has this ability to figure out little problems by guiding you and finding the best in you. George, too. They find a way to pull your best out of you.


“I start putting two and two together and then breathed like this – *Darth Vader breathing* – into the receiver. And you know when you have someone on the phone and though you can’t see them, you can tell they’re smiling? That happened.”

 

 

So let’s get to it now: How did you become Darth Vader?

(Laughs) I was at the right place at the right time – at the right height. It was 1994. My phone rings and it’s the head of Public Relations at LucasArts. She asked, ‘Hey Andrew, how tall are you?’ She was 5’1 so I figured she needed something off a shelf. I said, ‘I’m 6’5, why do you ask?’ She asked, ‘Do you have acting experience?’ I’d had years and years’ worth at that point and I told her about that. Then she says, ‘Breathe for me.’ I start putting two and two together and then breathed like this – *Darth Vader breathing* – into the receiver. And you know when you have someone on the phone and though you can’t see them, you can tell they’re smiling? That happened. She explained there was a charity event coming up at the Murin County Fair for Big Brothers and Big Sisters of America, and they needed me to play Darth Vader for a Meet & Greet.


At one point, I look down a corridor and at the end, there’s a Darth Vader costume standing in a tall Plexiglas case. It was massive. I just thought, “Oh, there’s no way I’m going to fit into that.”

 

Do you remember the first time you put the costume on?

I was told to meet up with Don Beas so I could try on the costume. He was actually going to be in the model shop at ILM that week, so I went there. I was expecting loads of security but I just walked in. There’s all these incredible models from Ghostbusters II, DragonHeart, and a bunch of others. At one point, I look down a corridor and at the end, there’s a Darth Vader costume standing in a tall Plexiglas case. It was massive. I just thought, “Oh, there’s no way I’m going to fit into that.’ Finally, I find Don and he says, “Hey, nice to meet you. You’re not claustrophobic are you?” Then he introduces me to Paul Nelson, who shakes my hand and asks me exactly the same thing. Then they introduce me to Grant Imahara, and he also asks the same thing. They give me the nickel tour then lead me into the area with the Darth Vader costume in this Plexiglas case. I never thought it would fit, but it did. I figured it would be a one-off thing but they actually called me back for another and another, and I was lucky enough to go on and wear that costumes exactly 70 times.

At what point did the 15-year-old boy in you say, ‘This is amazing! This is what I wanted!’

(Laughs) I get that feeling over and over again. That’s the beauty of Star Wars and of working at these companies. I got it when I was hired at LucasArts, when I transitioned from Customer Support to the art department, when I got tapped to play Darth Vader, and every single time I put on that costume. I got it when I got hired at ILM and I was working on The Phantom Menace, then again on Attack of the Clones. It just keeps going. Now I get it when I’m invited to be a guest at a convention or I’m asked to lecture or teach. I get it when I sit on the Board of Directors at the Visual Effects Society. It’s a constant feeling that I’m very thankful for and I owe it all to Star Wars.


“…they called saying they wanted me for the special edition of Star Wars. It was amazing. I would be playing Vader for real.”

 

Do you have a favorite experience inside the costume?

I have two, actually. I had been playing Darth Vader for about two years at that point for video games like Dark Forces and Rebel Assault II, and for commercials, photo shoots and public appearances, when they called saying they wanted me for the special edition of Star Wars. It was amazing. I would be playing Vader for real. We were doing a scene that wasn’t in the original, where Darth Vader is leaving Cloud City to go to his shuttle. It was on one of the blue screen stages at ILM, and I was on a platform about 6-feet or so off the ground. It wasn’t very wide. There was me, four Stormtroopers and four Imperial Officers who were to traverse this gangway. Now, there’s very little visibility from inside the Vader mask. You can see a little bit directly in front of you and you can see your feet if you look through the breath screen – but Vader doesn’t look at his feet so I couldn’t do that. I had to memorize how many steps I could take keeping the same stride so that I don’t go too far left, right, or off the end. On the last take someone yelled, “Cut! Don’t move.” I was about two inches form the end of the platform. If I’d taken a half a step more I would have walked right off the edge. I don’t know if they were worried about me or the very expensive original costume, but they saved me from falling.


Photo courtesy C. Andrew Nelson

 

“...here I am, the Dark Lord of the Sith, crying. It was just amazing. That is the power of this saga. It touches so many people.”

 

And the second story? Something less dangerous, we hope?

This one is much more heartwarming, actually. LucasFilm had just done a deal with Walmart in Canada, so I flew to Toronto to do a Meet & Greet and pose for photos. At the end, they told me they had one more person for Lord Vader to meet. They lead me to this child who was about 10 years old. He had Cerebral Palsy and he was blind. He couldn’t speak much, but they told me that he loves Star Wars, that he listens to the movies all the time and has all the toys. He was holding a little Darth Vader action figure in his hand. They took his free hand and extended it up to place it on my mask. He started feeling around and realized by the shape of it who I was. He just lit up. He was so excited. And here I am, the Dark Lord of the Sith, crying. It was just amazing. That is the power of this saga. It touches so many people.


“When Star Wars first came out we needed heroes. We needed to know there was a clear difference between good and evil.”

 

Why do you think that is?

When Star Wars first came out we needed heroes. We needed to know there was a clear difference between good and evil. We were coming out of the Vietnam War where didn’t always know what was going on. Lines were blurred. We wanted to latch on to the good guys. We wanted something to aspire to.

If we needed and wanted the good guys, why did we still love Vader so much?

Everyone loves a good villain. We want the big bad. You want there to be a challenge for your hero to conquer. Also, Vader’s design, the work put in by the likes of Ralph McQuarrie, Joe Johnston, and Brian Muir, is so captivating. When we first saw him, we didn’t know who he was or how he got like that. He was imposing and mysterious. And with his force power and death grip, it’s like he was some sort of sinister, dark magician.


“I have made a very conscious effort not to watch any trailers or read any interviews. I want to go in and see the movie cold, just like I did in 1977. I want to see if I have that same sort of reaction.”

 

Are there lots of old Star Wars memories coming back now with “The Force Awakens” around the corner?

There are, definitely. I have made a very conscious effort not to watch any trailers or read any interviews. I want to go in and see the movie cold, just like I did in 1977. I want to see if I have that same sort of reaction. I’m staying off Facebook, everything, so that nothing can spoil it for me. I’m encouraged that it’s a blend of old school meets new school, lots of CG but also lots of practical effects, it’s shot on film rather than digital and so I’m curious if he can capture that same feeling again.

We talked to Star Wars alum, Ellen Poon, who said of working on the franchise: “I feel like a relative to someone great... I’m so proud.”

That’s a wonderful assessment of the feeling, actually. I remember when The Phantom Menace was released on video and I went into a video store and they were playing it on a monitor. I walked in the door just at the name where my name was rolling by in the credits and inside I was just screaming, “I was in that! I’m part of that.” You really do feel a part of something so big but you feel so proud just to be a small part. I’m so grateful for it.

What advice would you give to those inspired by films like The Force Awakens who are coming up in the industry?

When it comes to the work itself, don’t overthink it. Find the simple solution. When we were making The Phantom Menace, there was a shot where Jar Jar is coming out of the swamp, behind Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi. The camera was panning and there was this ever-so-slight hesitation in the pan that was throwing the animators and compositors off. They could get him where he needed to be at the right time but because of that hesitation in the camera movement, he would slide on the background plate. I remember George took one look at the shot and said, “Why don’t you just have him slip in the mud?” Of course, it fit perfectly with his character to have him do that and it fixed the timing. It was perfect.


“As Darth Vadar would say, 'The circle is now complete.'”

 

You said you owe a lot to Star Wars. Are there ways you look to give back to Star Wars and/or the industry?

Being a Fan Boy long before I was an employee of George’s is something I’ll never forget, and it’s why I played Vader at charity events and why I taught at the Academy of Art University. I wanted to give back and pay it forward. I worked on The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones and my students went on to work on Revenge of the Sith. How cool is that? As Darth Vader’s would say, ‘The circle is now complete.’



Andrew Nelson is an award-winning artist, actor, writer, consultant, and motivational speaker. His VFX credits at ILM include Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Galaxy Quest, Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle, The Perfect Storm, Jurassic Park III, The Time Machine, and Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. He has portrayed the infamous Lord Vader for commercials, television shows, print, games, and live appearances, and has spent more time in the official costume than any other actor.

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