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ILM Veteran Marc Thorpe Passes Away

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The Star Wars and Indy modelmaker contributed to some of the studio’s most innovative work.

One of Industrial Light & Magic’s great early talents, Marc Thorpe, died last week. He was 77.

Thorpe joined ILM in 1979, working on Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) as a modelmaker and animatronic designer. It was the start of a long, fruitful run at Lucasfilm, which would include a dazzling array of credits on classic films of the era, including Dragonslayer (1981), Poltergeist (1982), Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (1983), the first three Indiana Jones movies, and more. Among the memorable props and miniatures that Thorpe contributed are the mine cart tunnel and cave interiors from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), the Death Star II surface from Return of the Jedi, and a spider-like creature from Explorers (1985).

His career would take a turn while developing products at LucasToys, when in 1993 inspiration struck. Thorpe came up with a pitch for “fighting vehicles,” which was rejected by a major toy company, and was also ideating a radio-controlled vacuum. These two concepts would meld to create something new and change Thorpe’s life. “One day I took the vacuum off the tank and as I looked at it, the 8-year-old boy in me envisioned its potential as a dangerous toy with battery powered tools mounted on it,” he wrote on his official site. “I had a vision of it cutting its way through a wall.” Thorpe imagined fans engineering their own mechanical creations, and he could host competitions in which they would do battle — essentially inventing the sport of robotic combat. Lucasfilm gave its blessing to this independent project, and Robot Wars was born. “I don’t know whether I came up with the idea for Robot Wars or the idea came up with me,” Thorpe said. He produced Robot Wars events through 1997 before losing the rights, though it evolved into a long-running, popular TV series, while building a thriving community of enthusiasts (that has included many other members of the ILM family).

“I got to know Marc while he was working in the ILM model shop on The Hunt for Red October. Marc was an amazing talent with a wonderful sense of humor,” John Knoll, executive creative director / sr. VFX supervisor, ILM, tells “A testament to his creative genius was his invention of Robot Wars. The way he spoke about it got me excited to attend, and that led to me competing in the event in 1997 and 1998. That he invented a new sport that continues to this day delighting children and adults all over the world is a fitting memorial to his legacy.”

Born in San Francisco in 1946, Thorpe grew up in San Leandro, CA, and attended the UC Davis graduate school for art; he received a Masters of Fine Arts in 1971. Thorpe was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1993, the same year he launched Robot Wars, and ultimately passed due to complications from the disease. In a post on Facebook, his daughter Megan Feffer maintains that will not be her father’s legacy. “But if there’s one thing I know for sure it’s that my dad would want to be remembered – and not for his Parkinson’s Disease,” she wrote. “He would want to be remembered for his art.”

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