The LEGO Star Wars Story
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To give you a taste of what’s in that LEGO magazine archive, here’s a classic interview from 2019. It was 20 years since the release of the very first Star Wars sets and Design Director Jens Kronvold Frederiksen provided a taste of how it all began…
‘I hate hearing people say, “I played with that as a kid”, because it makes me feel extremely old,’ laughs Jens Kronvold Frederiksen, speaking to Blocks magazine from his workspace in Billund. He is not the only one. It is an incredible 20 years since Star Wars: The Phantom Menace graced cinema screens, meaning it is also two decades since LEGO Star Wars became the first ever licensed LEGO play theme.
As someone who has worked on the theme since the very first batch of sets, and is now the LEGO Star Wars Design Director, Jens is uniquely qualified to talk about how the theme has developed over two decades. Having been there for the entire journey, he has seen it all – Podrace Buckets, midi scale sets and more Snowspeeders than an AT-AT’s targeting system.
Before he became part of the design team working in a galaxy far, far away, he was a freelancer working on protype elements. It was not long before he found himself in a permanent role, working as a Model Designer on Rock Raiders.
‘I actually found out something was going on the first day in the office,’ he recalls. ‘When I entered the building there were some LEGO Star Wars sketch models standing there, and I was of course very curious. They told me that they had been working on this because there were some negotiations going on about a potential contract between Lucas and LEGO.
‘It is many years ago, but I remember I saw an AT-AT that was pretty scaled down, I don’t think it was in minifigure scale, and I saw an Imperial Shuttle that was probably about the same size as the first play theme one we did.’
This was a big deal in Billund. The LEGO Group had only produced original products, devised completely in house, at that point. To partner with Lucasfilm would mark a departure from sticking solely to LEGO devised worlds. There were mixed viewpoints at the company, with some feeling that a licensed theme would lack creativity.
‘Another thing was bringing in a theme with “wars” in the title, that was extremely controversial,’ says Jens. ‘There were definitely people that were against it, but I think most were definitely positive about it, or else they ended being after they saw the final products and the success it had in 1999.’
He was definitely not one of the nay-sayers. ‘I was pretty excited because I really enjoy when we do these collaborations with partners. My personal favourite is Star Wars, so seeing something that you already know from a fantastic universe translated into your favourite product, that is just perfect.’
During the very first year of the theme, Jens was not part of the design team. A mix of talented designers were selected for the group who would work on the models. ‘The team was a group of designers, that had experience from working on previous product lines. It was not like it was Space designers, it was just experienced people.
He did get drafted in to work on the Y-wing in 7150 TIE Fighter & Y-wing, so was involved in one of the first products to hit shelves. ‘I remember we had a lot of conversations about the design direction in general. One thing that we agreed on very early, that has been extremely important for us ever since, is that you can tell that this is LEGO. So you would never ever see a LEGO Star Wars model without visible studs. It was things like that, that is even the same today, that we were discussing at that time.’
One of the key conversations when devising the first sets was determining what special elements might be needed for the theme. After all, the characters needed lightsabers, helmets and macrobinoculars. ‘We brought in quite a lot of new moulded elements for Star Wars. The first special wig for a minifigure was Qui-Gon Jinn’s wig, but there were of course a lot of things that needed to be solved. How do we make a lightsaber for a minifigure? How do we create an astromech droid?’
As is the case today, any new elements were intended to be as useful as possible, such as the new cockpit piece that was used for the Y-wing as well as 7130 Snowspeeder. The Battle Droid arm is a much more versatile example, with an element that seemed relatively bespoke turning out to be an invaluable piece in the parts portfolio.
From those early conversations, the importance of incorporating humour into the theme was identified. ‘I think that came automatically when we created the minifigures, because Darth Vader is the bad guy, but as a minifigure he is also a little bit funny. So that was one important thing because we were creating toys for children.
‘We have done it many times by adding small funny things in the sets that are maybe not expected, also we have always done it via our communication as well. Maybe you see it in a TV commercial, where there is a serious battle going on, yet there is always something funny happening. That is a way of explaining that this is something that is meant for children.’
To produce licensed LEGO sets, the design team needed something to work from. While they took the opportunity to re-watch the movies over and over, they would need more material to meet the exacting standards that Lucasfilm was renowned for at the time. ‘One thing back then, as today, is we were always using official reference when creating products. Of course, at that time the Internet wasn’t as available, so Lucasfilm supplied us with reference. It was pictures of studio scale models, the models that were used for the filming, sent that on a CD-ROM.’
Despite the need for detailed reference material, Jens does not see a great deal of difference between the design process on Star Wars when compared with a LEGO original theme like Rock Raiders. ‘With Rock Raiders, because it was new, we actually had some drawn sketches that we used for developing the models. The new thing – or the extra layer – added to this was that now we have an IP [intellectual property] partner who has to approve what we are creating.
‘We had to teach Lucasfilm about how we build LEGO models. Sometimes we are simplifying things a little bit, there might be details that we have to slightly change for playability or stability in a model. A ship in the movie that is completely grey would not just consist of grey pieces as a LEGO model, there would also be dark grey, maybe white, tan colour pieces, because as you can imagine a model consisting of only grey bricks would be impossible to build. All of these things were something we had to explain to Lucasfilm.’
The first batch of LEGO Star Wars sets comprised of five now classic LEGO sets – 7110 Landspeeder, 7128 Speeder Bikes, 7130 Snowspeder, 7140 X-wing Fighter and 75150 TIE Fighter & Y-wing. There was one notable omission – the Millennium Falcon, which did not come until the following year. ’That was certainly a much bigger and more complex model to create and also required more characters. For instance, it was the first time we did Chewbacca. We had a lot of discussions about how should we create Chewbacca? So we figured out we make this head and these plates that cover the front and back with fur, which also defined how we were going to create aliens in the future.’
Just one year into the LEGO Star Wars theme, something on a larger scale camealong– the Ultimate Collector Series. ‘It came out of inspiration from Model Team,’ Jens explains. Model Team was a theme in the 1980s and 1990s that offered more detail real-world vehicles than were found in Town. ‘Henrik Andersen is the designer that created the two first models, the X-wing and TIE Interceptor. It was almost a natural thing to try to create even bigger, more accurate models. We also knew that there was a huge adult fanbase for something like Star Wars.’
Famously, 20th Century Fox did not have a great deal of faith in the original Star Wars film when it was released in 1977, with the film’s success taking the studio by surprise. Despite the LEGO Star Wars theme being such a bold move for the LEGO Group, the Star Wars team had no such concerns. ‘Thinking back, I know in the design team we were super confident and there was no doubt this was going to be a success.’
This feature is from Blocks magazine issue 55, the next two parts of this extended interview feature can be found in Blocks Issue 56 and 57.