Inside the Mask

One of the most haunting images of Revenge of the Sith is the fearsome black mask that lowers over Anakin Skywalker’s ravaged face, forever sealing him in an implacable armored shell, marking a seemingly irreversible transformation into Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith.
Though the Sydney-based Costume Props Department developed a full suit of armor for Hayden Christensen, the shot of the helmet lowering was achieved separately in postproduction by Industrial Light & Magic. The ILM Model Shop was tasked with building the separated helmet, and Practical Model Supervisor Brian Gernand assigned the task to Don Bies, for good reason.

“He knew of my affinity for movie history and Star Wars lore,” says Bies. Years ago, Bies worked as the archivist for the Lucasfilm Archives, the repository of the props, costumes and models used in various Lucasfilm productions. In that role, Bies had actually rescued the original Vader helmet used in for the unmasking in Return of the Jedi.

“The original prop I found at the bottom of a crate with a bunch of junk on top of it — shredded papers and stuff like that,” recalls Bies. “The crate almost got tossed, but I decided to check it and pulled out this brown flannel bag, and inside were the pieces of the mask.”

The mask became one of Bies’ favorites pieces in the Archive, and he studied it extensively, unknowingly preparing himself years in advance for the assignment of recreating it for Revenge of the Sith. The original mask, on a museum tour in Japan at the time of Episode III production, did not have much inner detail, allowing considerable artistic freedom in designing the inside of the mask.

“Ryan Church had created a design that was very manufactured and more medical,” says Bies. “I started making suggestions as to how to build it. His direction was that it’s supposed to look painful; it goes easy but it doesn’t come off easy. Having that freedom allowed me to start playing around with different materials. I used the readers from computer hard drives in there — it made it look like if you slipped this thing on your face that it would cut into your cheeks.”

Bies worked off of extensive photographs of the original prop, discovering that many of the “found” objects used to dress the original could not be found locally. “A lot of must have been from England surplus stores. I ended up having to laser cut almost all of it,” says Bies.

Some of the material he did find included electronic molex connectors, stainless steel studs from punk rocker collars, and parts from a Tamiya tank model kit. The two silver knobs bracketing Vader’s mouthpiece, nicknamed the “tusks,” came from a surprising source. “We were running short on time, so I actually bought them from a fan.”

Joining Bies on the project were John Duncan, who built the “harmonica” mouthpiece and Carol Bauman who helped paint the helmet. The helmet deviated from the original in that it used the Episode III mold which had a symmetrical face, and the new incarnation was solid black as opposed to the two-tone paint job seen in Episode VI.

“They had a heck of a time shooting the thing,” explains Bies of the shot looking at the mask coming down. “Kim Marks, who shot it, tried to get the angle right. When you get it over the lens, it distorted crazily because of the wide angle. So they had to tilt it. It’s really angled forward and looks more ominous.”

For the side angle shot of the mask lowering onto Anakin face, it was actually a composite since Hayden Christensen had already been photographed in Sydney separately a year earlier.

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