Most Impressive Fans: Jason Eaton’s Star Wars Model Magic

Meet the fan who painstakingly recreates Star Wars models, including Luke's T-16 Skyhopper.

Most Impressive Fans is a feature highlighting the amazing creativity of Star Wars devotees, from cosplay to props. If there’s a fearless and inventive fan out there, we’ll highlight them here.

A reckless flight through Beggar’s Canyon left Luke Skywalker’s T-16 Skyhopper grounded, his dreams of escaping dusty Tatooine momentarily relegated to a handheld model of his spacecraft.

But it was that model, along with the fleets of TIEs and X-wings and hulking Star Destroyers, that sparked Jason Eaton‘s imagination.

For years, the 43-year-old has spent his free time meticulously recreating models to authentically replicate builds direct from the Lucasfilm special effects workshop. He’s so dedicated to accuracy, he’s quizzed the likes of ILM legend Lorne Peterson and others for hints on what vintage model kit, now procured on eBay, has just the right pieces to complete every last detail. Sometimes the answer sends him scavenging for vintage tape wheels and other detritus, and his works are often labors of love, including some that must be stripped down and repeatedly rebuilt as new information comes to light.

But Jason never gets tired of walking in the footsteps of the original model makers.

“What I wanted to be when I grew up was the guy who built TIE fighters and blew them up,” Jason says. “This is the closest thing to that.”

‘I would swear that’s the original’

Among his staggeringly detailed replica creations, each arguably ready for its closeup, is a model for the elusive Death Star crane, which was glimpsed only briefly and from a single angle in one shot during the trench run in A New Hope. Jason and his like-minded hobbyists backwards engineered the piece to identify the details they could, then made up the rest as they went along. “I take a perverse pleasure in building the things no one loves,” Jason jokes, calling it “perhaps the greatest model I’ve ever made” after Peterson himself complimented it. “If I didn’t know better, I would swear that’s the original,” he told Jason.

But most of the time, Jason scours books and the web for images, studies the original models when he gets the chance, and, yes, calls in the ILM model makers he’s connected with over the years when he needs an expert opinion. “When Star Wars fans realize there are a small dedicated group like us out there remaking or expanding on what was done in a hot Van Nuys warehouse 40 years ago, they really get excited,” Jason says. As for the original special effects masters he’s met along the way? “They’re kind, but they say that we’re crazy,” he laughs. Peterson once told him, “It’s bananas that you guys figure all that out.” The Baltimore, Maryland, graphic designer by day also moonlights creating paint masters for Sideshow Collectibles, and on occasion that work has brought him into the heart of Skywalker Ranch where he’s encountered his model muses up close. Altogether, it’s the perfect formula for Jason’s models to be most impressive.

Take, for example, Jason’s T-16 Skyhopper. “It’s a model. It’s a prop. It’s the only Colin Cantwell prototype that made it into the film,” Jason says, referring to the scene at the Lars homestead where a young Luke is seen idly dreaming with the model in hand.

The original was one of the first models built for Star Wars, part of the process that had the people behind the future ILM trying to visualize George Lucas’ vision and make it a reality. Jason notes that Cantwell’s  Skyhopper still exists in the Lucasfilm archives, where it’s been damaged and repaired over the years. And he once got close enough to press himself against the glass case the model was being displayed in when it was part of a museum exhibition at the NASA complex outside Houston. He could barely contain his excitement. “Oh my god, Skyhopper!”

Close enough?

All told, Jason estimates he built this model about five times before he was satisfied with the level of authenticity, and continued to work on the project over four months in between two carpal tunnel surgeries he had last year.  “It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for probably, I mean, honestly, 20 years.”

Jason and his team, helpers Craig Underwood and Ed Minto, relied on archival photos and reference images to ID and reconstruct the original build of the T-16, right down to the vintage 1970s 3M hair tape spool at the dead center of the craft’s back. (And, yes, tape spools have changed over the years and a contemporary roll just won’t do.) That became an important point of reference as they scanned in and sized other images of the craft to come up with the laser cut acrylic parts to form the base. Jason talked to John Goodson, a prequel modelmaker working at ILM who had been involved in restoring the original prop, for tips. “Someone was able to put a ruler on the actual model,” Jason says, and when his replica was completed, “I was only off by 6 mm in one place! For a fan build, it’s pretty dang good.”

But even mid-build he realized some things weren’t quite exact. “There were a couple moments where I glued something down and realized I was slightly off.” That minute 2 mm distortion gets compounded as other pieces are added on. “Everything sort of shifted tectonic-plate style,” he says. “If you held the real one next to mine, you would see visually in two spots where things are wrong.”

‘Exceedingly, stupidly rare’

Jason credits Craig with assisting on the 3D work, while both he and Ed are masters of the art of identifying kit parts and other pieces — the original model makers were experts at scavenging pre-packaged miniature warplanes and other model kits for plastic pieces to reuse in their own works. For Jason’s Skyhopper, he had to hunt down and collect 38 (!)  kits in all, including some repeats, to have enough multiples of the tiny plastic parts necessary for every last detail. They include the Airfix Spitfire 1/24, four of the Revell Mercury / Gemini 1/48, and a pair each of  Revell Apollo Lunar 1/48 and Lindberg Blue Devil Destroyer kits. “It’s not a cheap hobby to do,” Jason warns. “It gets expensive fast.” But “Once you buy everything for the Skyhopper, you have 40 percent of what you need for the X-wing.”

A personal push to keep his Skyhopper to entire original kit parts drove the costs up to $2,000, he says. “There was this one kit in there that was exceedingly, stupidly rare,” he says. “In a year, one popped up on eBay and I was lucky enough to grab it.”

But many model hobbyists, including Jason, cast the parts off vintage kits — especially for expensive and rare kits where he needs a few on hand — or purchase those pre-fab pieces from other model makers as a way to make the work more affordable and accessible. With casting, another Skyhopper would cost just $300-400 to make, he estimates. Some even glue parts together before casting the larger pieces to save time in the next project, but for Jason that feels like a cheat. “It’s more satisfying to scratch build. I prefer to have everything cast separately. It’s almost meditative because you’re putting all the parts down.”

Yet even his perfectionism has its limits, as he’s trying to decode a final piece or match the perfect coloring for the hull. “The TIE fighters were painted this blue-gray color, but in A New Hope they looked straight-up ghostly gray…I hit this weird breaking point where I’m like, ‘Eh, it’s gray.’” And Jason says he isn’t happy unless he’s faced with a new challenge. Once he’s mastered a vehicle, he moves on to something completely different rather than building a fleet. “The excitement and the satisfaction comes from the build, not necessarily the owning it. If I’m not making something I feel like I’m wasting my time.”

Pill bottles and lamp parts

Jason credits his parents for getting him interested in Star Wars and model making as a kid. “My parents are hippies and the first model they bought me was the Falcon,” he says. Then his mom taught him how to weather Han Solo’s piece of garbage, er, fastest ship in the galaxy to appear more authentic. As Jason got older, he fell into league with the Replica Prop Forum, back when it was a simple website run by Brandon Alinger, who grew up to run The Prop Store in L.A. and write the definitive tome on original Star Wars costume finery. After so many years of model making, Jason says he’s amassed a collection of kits and parts, and he’s always looking for a new challenge. Of course, the flip side is that Jason can no longer watch a movie without identifying some of the parts used on a ship or model.

Recently, Jason tasked himself with building the Falcon as seen only in Ralph McQuarrie and Joe Johnston’s concept art, a model that otherwise only existed in an alternate reality. “It’s never been built so there’s nobody to tell me it’s wrong,” he says.

But when it comes to recreating the film-used pieces, part of the thrill is learning the backstories behind the weird and wonderful model-shop techniques, where pill bottles, lamp parts, and even the plastic eggs from pantyhose could become integral parts of iconic ships. “I would never want to know everything because then you’re done…I’ve been to lamp shops and I’ve had some weird talks,” Jason says, and he hunts for brass pieces and tries to explain to perplexed shop owners. “It’s for a space ship!”


The Most Impressive Fans Q&A

Who is your favorite Star Wars character?

I’m going to have to go with the Millennium Falcon — the original, sleek five-foot Pork Burger, without the extra landing gear boxes that were added for Empire. I don’t know if it’s cheating to label a model/design as a “character,” but I can’t think of any thing else that resonates more powerfully with me, imbued with so much quirkiness and lovable instability, that ferries our heroes out of and into danger. If I had to pick a droid it’d be Artoo without hesitation, and if you said “stop cheating” I would probably reflexively pick Boba Fett, because he was a blank slate for my imagination in the early ’80s, from the moment I pulled him out of that mailing box and thought “WHY IS HIS MISSILE STUCK?” Star Wars has been thrilling me and breaking my heart for a long time.

Which Star Wars film ranks highest on your list?

Star Wars. Unfettered, warts and all. It’s the first love. It’s your favorite band’s first album.

What’s your first Star Wars memory?

That blockade runner being followed by an impossibly long Star Destroyer. I couldn’t quite process what I was seeing at five years old… but I was hooked. 

Do you have a favorite scene?

It’s usually tied somehow to whatever I am researching and working on, model-wise, so the trench run sequence. The flashes of white, the swoops of the Dykstraflex entering the trench, the TURRETS…it’s all so exciting, still.

If you had to choose: join the rebels or live the Imperial life?

I have bad teeth and I feel like the Imperials would have a more robust dental plan, but the Rebellion seems more fun…so, caution to the wind, I’m Rebel Alliance.

Kristin Baver is a writer and all-around sci-fi nerd who always has just one more question in an inexhaustible list of curiosities. Sometimes she blurts out “It’s a trap!” even when it’s not. Follow her on Twitter @KristinBaver.

TAGS: , , , , ,