Twenty years ago, on the eve of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace — the start of an all-new Star Wars trilogy chronicling the fall of the Jedi and the rise of the Empire — two worlds collided. Lucasfilm’s licensing division sought a whole new universe of colorful merchandise to delight fans and drum up excitement for Episode I, and there was one toymaker that presented an especially awesome opportunity: the LEGO Group. The multi-colored bricks, minifigures, and playsets of LEGO Group’s unique world were, after all, an entire galaxy of their own. Here was a brand that empowered children (and people of all ages) to create and tell stories on a canvas that combined the act of building with the raw power of imagination.
Now, two decades later, LEGO Star Wars is one of the most recognizable toy lines to ever exist. There have been full-length films and TV series featuring Star Wars characters in LEGO form; there’s an entire video-game franchise based on the partnership; there have been LEGO kits depicting events from nearly every canonical Star Wars movie and show to date. Several select models and playsets were recently released to celebrate the 20th anniversary of LEGO Star Wars.
To mark the occasion, StarWars.com spoke with Design Director Jens Kronvold Frederiksen, who’s been a part of the legendary collaboration since 1998.
StarWars.com: Looking back, what can you recall about the very beginning of the partnership?
Jens Kronvold Frederiksen: When I started at LEGO in 1998, one of the first things that I saw were some draft models of LEGO Star Wars. And I have to say, I was totally surprised, and very, very curious what that was about. There wasn’t a contract yet, but it was in negotiations. So, obviously, all the designers at LEGO were working on sketch models to see what this could look like from a product point of view.
StarWars.com: Did things start with the sets for The Phantom Menace, or were you focused on doing the X-wing and such at first?
Jens Kronvold Frederiksen: It was before The Phantom Menace, and that was a big part of it. It was really good timing. From the beginning, the intention was that LEGO would launch products related to that new movie. And there were several other models that we launched around the same time — the X-wing and so on — that kind of just had to be made. At the time, it was a bit of a controversial thing at LEGO, because of having a new product line with “wars” in the title; we hadn’t been making anything related to war. Models had to be either realistic, very historic, or fantasy, so it was still controversial when it came up. When the first sets were made, we didn’t even make implements for the blasters. It was just a megaphone turned backwards, with a colored stud on the end.
StarWars.com: These days, we’re seeing things like The LEGO Batman Movie and The LEGO Movie 2, which sort of owe their existence to those late-’90s Phantom Menace sets. When you first saw LEGO getting involved in the licensing world, what were your hopes for the idea?
Jens Kronvold Frederiksen: Like many other people, for me it was a dream come true. Because two of my favorite things were being joined together. But if you asked me at the time, I would never have imagined that it was something that would become an evergreen LEGO line and it would exist for 10 or 20 years continuously. It’s become one of the longest-living LEGO product lines.
StarWars.com: In designing how these toys would ultimately look, was there a certain trick to making sure that they were authentic and recognizable?
Jens Kronvold Frederiksen: There were a lot of discussions about how to do this with the models. Of course, we wanted them to look as authentic as possible, but the main concern is always to make a good toy. And that means thinking about what a child can put together, so there are some natural limitations. You have to adjust and sometimes simplify the design a little bit. Another thing was that we also had to teach Lucas Licensing about how LEGO models are put together.
If you have, say, an Imperial shuttle that’s all white — well, it’s not all white in LEGO. There’ll be lighter-colored pieces, gray-colored pieces, and so on. And that’s something we’re doing to ensure that it’s also a good building experience; if a child opens a box full of just white pieces, it’ll be impossible to put together. So that’s one example of how we make small compromises to a design, and we have a super good relationship with Lucasfilm, so they have a very good understanding of what a LEGO model should look like.
StarWars.com: Do you have any favorite stories about those earliest offerings?
Jens Kronvold Frederiksen: Humor’s a big part of LEGO Star Wars, and that was actually something we were thinking about, but it also happened automatically. Because, in a way, the minifigures are funny to look at. Especially the bad guys. If you look at Darth Vader as a minifigure — honestly, he looks a little bit funny. I think that’s such an important part of LEGO Star Wars, and it came almost as a coincidence. But we’ve kept building on that all these years later.
StarWars.com: Today, you can walk down the LEGO aisle at the toy store, and there’s Marvel, there’s Batman, and there’s all this other licensed stuff. But Star Wars was really the beginning of that. Were there any specific challenges or worries going into that relationship?
Jens Kronvold Frederiksen: How we saw it was that we needed to take these two things that really fit perfectly, and have these great stories, and then establish a building system with a lot of creativity. We just thought that it was the perfect marriage. We had to explain a lot in the beginning because it was a brand-new thing, having to work with a partner outside of LEGO, and they had to of course approve everything that we made. But, again, we had a good collaboration with Lucas Licensing, and they had a very good understanding of LEGO.
StarWars.com: The Last Jedi came out in 2017, and there was one vehicle that was simply cut from the movie — nobody ever really saw it — but there’s a LEGO set of it. How do you go about narrowing down the things that are going to be made into sets?
Jens Kronvold Frederiksen: You’re talking about the snowspeeder from The Force Awakens?
StarWars.com: Well, there was that one, too. There was that deleted scene, and then two years later there was also some kind of walker on the planet Crait. [It’s the Heavy Scout Walker, above. – StarWars.com]
Jens Kronvold Frederiksen: Ah, yes. With that one, we got some early concept art. When we create products for a new movie, we’re working almost a year behind, so we’re making our products at the same time that the movie’s being made. We’re relying on the information that we get, and sometimes that’s very late in the process. Going back to talking about the snowspeeder that was cut from The Force Awakens, we thought that scene was going to be in the movie. We saw a one-to-one-scale prop of it, and then we were told the scene was cut, but the model was so cool we decided to make it anyway. It was the same thing with that walker you’re talking about. We were pretty far ahead with development, so we decided to go ahead and launch it anyway. But there have been other changes in the past, where maybe we chose not release something because it wouldn’t work out of context.
StarWars.com: Over the course of 20 years, what are some of your favorites?
Jens Kronvold Frederiksen: One of them is the Heavy Assault Walker from Episode VIII — set number 75189, which is basically an AT-AT on steroids. I think it’s an awesome-looking walker, and I think the LEGO product came out quite well. Another one is from the same launch: 75190, the First Order Star Destroyer. I like the Star Destroyers because they’re really a combination of a model and a playset. On the outside, it looks like the ship does in the movie, and then you can open it up and play on the inside of it.
One of my favorite stories is about a product that’s very special to me, and that’s the Ultimate Collector’s Series Millennium Falcon, 10179, which came out in 2007. That was, at that time, the biggest LEGO model ever — not just LEGO Star Wars. And the way it all started was very unusual, because we’d already done a Millennium Falcon, and some fans had reacted by complaining that it was not at minifigure scale. You could only fit two minifigures in the cockpit, and there should’ve been space for four. So I was walking around thinking about how to solve that, and I decided I was gonna make a new, minifigure-scale Millennium Falcon, and it was quite obvious that it was gonna be very big.
But I started working on it in my spare time, and some other LEGO people came by, and they asked: “What’s that about?” And I said, “That’s just for fun.” But they said, “Could we make it as a product?” Suddenly, we decided we were gonna do it as a product. Normally, the brief is that you’re designing a model for a certain price point. Here, the brief was, “Make the ultimate Millennium Falcon, and then we’re gonna price it afterwards.” So that was the dream scenario.
StarWars.com: Were you building with physical pieces, then, or were you doing it digitally?
Jens Kronvold Frederiksen: No, it was done with bricks. There are designers today that are working digitally, but in most cases, they’re still building with physical bricks. And there are many reasons for that. If you have a model, it’s good to know that it won’t fall apart in your hands when handling it, or whether it’s balanced. There are so many things you won’t know if you’re building digitally. So most of the time, we’re still working with physical bricks. We have testing periods where we bring kids in to see our designs, and they’re playing with our models. And that happens all the way from the earliest designs until you finalize the products. That’s always super exciting to see.
Check out the LEGO Star Wars 20th anniversary sets below, available at Walmart.
Alex Kane is a journalist based in west-central Illinois. He has written for Fangoria, Polygon, the website of Rolling Stone, Variety, and other publications. Follow him on Twitter at @alexjkane.
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