7 Bricktastic Details About LEGOLAND California’s New The Force Awakens Display

LEGOLAND California's Peter Ronchetti and builder Matt Slagle speak to StarWars.com about going back to Jakku, LEGO style.

In The Force Awakens, Jakku may seem like a planet that everyone (except Rey and Poe) is trying to get away from, but now, Jakku is a place you’ll want to visit at LEGOLAND California. An entire set of model dioramas from Star Wars: The Force Awakens just opened last week with several scenes from Jakku now part of the Carlsbad theme park, and overshadowing them all is a 16-foot-long model of the Star Destroyer Finalizer.

Announced last fall, the new The Force Awakens cluster of dioramas now takes center stage in the LEGO Star Wars Miniland, and just as Jakku was first seen in night and then in day, the premiere of this new area was held with both evening and daytime events. First, on the night of March 8, Star Wars Rebels voice actor Sarah Michelle Gellar (the Seventh Sister) officially pulled the switch to power on the lights for the massive First Order Star Destroyer and the scenes down below on Jakku. Then, on the morning of March 9, Peter Ronchetti, general manager of LEGOLAND California Resort, used a LEGO lightsaber to cut the ribbon, opening the exhibit, but not after Finn revealed himself to stop a surprise interruption by a First Order officer and his squad of stormtroopers, all from the Imperial Sands Garrison of the 501st Legion.

Containing over half a million LEGO bricks, The Force Awakens scenes depicted in this cluster include a six scenes taking place on or above Jakku:

  • Kylo Ren disembarks at Tuanul village as stormtroopers secure the village and Poe and BB-8 plan their escape
  • Rey rescues BB-8 from Teedo astride the Luggabeast
  • Poe and Finn’s escape in a stolen TIE fighter from the Star Destroyer Finalizer
  • Finn escaping the wreck of the crashed TIE fighter
  • Rey, Finn, and BB-8 are pursued by stormtroopers through the streets of Niima Outpost
  • The Millennium Falcon is chased by First Order TIE fighters in the Starship Graveyard, which features a massive crashed Star Destroyer

Many of the scenes have interactive animatronic or sound features, including Rey on her speeder zooming back and forth between her fallen AT-AT home and Unkar Plutt’s shop at Niima Outpost. Standing tall over the scenes on the ground is the colossal model of the Finalizer, the Resurgent-class Star Destroyer and Kylo Ren’s flagship. The Finalizer serves as a central focal point to the entire Star Wars area as the Jakku display sits at the center of LEGO Star Wars Miniland and is surrounded by the existing model dioramas representing worlds of Episodes I through VI: Naboo, Geonosis, Mustafar and Kashyyyk, Tatooine, Hoth and the Forest Moon of Endor. Rounding out the area are the LEGO Star Wars Gallery of large-scale versions of the most popular LEGO Star Wars minifigures and the humongous Death Star model display.

StarWars.com was at the opening and spoke with LEGOLAND California Resort’s general manager, Peter Ronchetti, as well as with Matt Slagle, one of the Master Model Builders who helped design and assemble the new dioramas at the theme park. Here’s some of the cool info that they shared on building Jakku brick by brick, and guiding us around the new exhibit.

A model of a crashed Star Destroyer in sand, at Legoland California.

1. Setting course for Jakku. When it came to capturing iconic scenes for their new display to showcase The Force Awakens, the design team decided that Jakku was the planet they wanted to highlight. Ronchetti describes the new set of displays: “The cluster adds up to a retelling of the first thirty minutes of the film. If you are familiar with the film, all of the key scenes are right here.”

Slagle went into more detail of how Jakku was turned from film to LEGO bricks: “It’s a long process,” he says. “Master Model Designer Nik Ehm is the guy who did the main design of it. From the basic level, we start out with deciding what do we want to portray. We have a two-hour long movie — we would love to build the entire movie but it’s not practical on this scale. So we decide, ‘What are the big, iconic moments? What will people instantly recognize?’ From there, we start designing things, picking out ships and scenes. It’s a lot of research. A lot of watching the movie — at work! … It’s really doing a lot of research and being really familiar because when you’re designing a ship you have to have a real intimate knowledge of what the ship looks like to get it exactly right because you will have people who will know what exactly it should look like.”

A model of the Star Destroyer Finalizer, at Legoland California.

2. The Finalizer takes flight. At over 16 feet in length, the Star Destroyer Finalizer is now the longest Star Wars model ever built for the LEGO Star Wars miniland. A mammoth spike, it stands above the ground diorama in space at eye level for adults, while Poe and Finn’s stolen First Order TIE fighter flies in circles beneath it trying to escape, helping to create the sense of scale for the model. Ronchetti noted that the Finalizer contains 350,000 LEGO bricks, and adds, “I love the way it looms high. Design-wise, that was an interesting challenge to create stability because it’s obviously very heavy with all those LEGO bricks. As you can see, it takes a very substantial support to carry it. So it’s an unusual design challenge that our team had to address.”

Just how heavy is it? Slagle had the answer for us: “I made the joke earlier that I single-handedly installed it. But it weighs like 1,800 pounds. It took us all afternoon to install it. We have 350,000 LEGO bricks that are encased around a steel structure inside it. So it’s a whole process to get it into place with cranes and lifting. That in itself is a whole another hurdle to jump over, especially in such a limited space. We don’t have a ton of space in the area.”

3. Chips off the old block. For a sparsely inhabited world, Jakku has a lot of characters present in its LEGO form. Both Niima Outpost and the sacred village of Tuanul are filled with lots of recognizable characters, from Captain Phasma and Lor San Tekka to Sarco Plank and Constable Zuvio. And for creature lovers, there’s even a thirsty happabore hanging out by a water trough behind Niima Outpost and an animatronic luggabeast ridden by Teedo. And of course, every scene has its main hero characters, like Rey, Finn, Poe, and BB-8 and some have their villains, like Kylo Ren. Slagle says of the Miniland-scale characters: “We have all the main characters. We have Kylo Ren, we have Rey, BB-8, who is my personal favorite. BB-8 is adorable in LEGO form. We have Simon Pegg’s character, Unkar Plutt, who is hilarious too in LEGO form.” When asked about how to turn the round character of BB-8 into a more block-based form, Slagle responds, “That’s really hard. That model is probably like 30 or 40 pieces. It’s a lot of hours of figuring it out. People think that the small stuff is the easiest and quickest stuff, but the BB-8 model takes a lot longer to design than one of the bigger ships you’ll see, like the Finalizer.”

And on the design of the First Order stormtroopers assaulting Tuanul, Slagle adds, “We have the new style of stormtrooper — we had to change the design from the original to this newer generation, and we incorporated that into the stormtroopers that are in the cluster. They’re different from the troopers from Episode II or Episode IV — they’re just a little bit different but that small change, you wouldn’t think you could notice it, but if you look at them all, they are distinctly different. So that’s really cool as well, to have details that small, it makes it really shine through and make it authentic to the movie.”

One of the key parts of a large model like Niima Outpost is making sure that it isn’t just the buildings and ships of the scene but also making sure it is populated with a whole bunch of different denizens. Slagle explored the challenge of capturing the vibrancy of a location like Niima Outpost. “In this scene you have so much action going on not just with the main characters but in the background,” he says. “You really get a feel that it’s really a village, and there’s people with their jobs and their livelihoods. That was definitely a big point to hit. We really wanted to make sure there was a lot of characters out there, so it portrayed that this wasn’t just a scene, it’s an entire village and area where people come together to do work at.” And from Unkar Plutt and his thugs to some of the different scavengers, Niima Outpost is bristling with scum and villainy, but under the watchful eye of Constable Zuvio and his deputies.

4. Crash course in LEGO construction. At the other end of the cluster from the Finalizer is the Starship Graveyard, whose main feature is a large crashed Star Destroyer, off kilter and partially buried in the sand. Behind it is a trio of ships: the Millennium Falcon being tailed by two TIE fighters of the First Order. The Star Destroyer wreck is a bit unique for a LEGO Miniland display. Peter Ronchetti explains, “It’s got an interesting design challenge. Because when we produce models, we like to have them pristine and complete and new. We had to actually sort of crash one and make it look somewhat broken up.” When asked if the build team got to just build a nice Star Destroyer and then decide to smash this into something and see what would happen, Ronchetti continues, “It’s not that easy. They have to design the ‘crashness’ of it, if that’s a word. They have to design the look of where missiles or other projectiles have hit it, and it has smashed around. And so that creates in itself an unusual design challenge. We haven’t done that before. But then [as you add the holes and crash damage], equally you have to do it in a way that’s long-lasting. Once you create the instability, you have to make sure that it’s fixed really carefully, so it can’t just literally fall apart.”

One side of the wreckage is opened up and fans can see the interior of the Star Destroyer wreck, a place where a scavenger like Rey might search for salvage, or a ship on the run might try to lose pursuit. Meanwhile, the bow is buried in a mound of sand, and dunes of both real and assembled from LEGO bricks form around the engines. “Once you get the model designed and done and shipped out and installed, then there is the final step in any cluster, which is adding those details that aren’t LEGO,” Slagle says. “In this case, it’s obviously a desert scene, so there’s lots of sand. Since it is a crashed ship, we see the nose is dug in and there’s a big mountain of sand in the front that comes over it. This goes back to really portraying this movement that happens. The ship isn’t moving, but when you look at it, it feels like it came in and crashed into the dirt. So that’s the last steps — turning it from a LEGO model into part of a scene and part of the environment.”

5. Bringing the desert planet to life. One of the cool things about the models in LEGOLAND is that they aren’t just sitting there, they are full of activity and life. “We love to try to link the live elements of the model scenes to the children and give them the ability to literally press a button and make something happen,” Ronchetti says. “So in several instances, you can press a button and make something fly or walk or crawl or make a sound, and that’s something throughout Miniland that we love to do. It makes it interactive and gets the kids engaged. … Sometimes, it’s all we can do to stop them from going into the display, because it is quite tempting!”

When it comes to deciding what to animate with interactive features, Slagle highlights the key ingredient. “For us, it’s what looks cool. Outside of this being our job, we all are passionate about building stuff out of LEGO and making cool things, whether it’s Star Wars or New York City. It comes down to ‘What can we do that looks cool? What can we do that looks different, that you can’t see anywhere else in the park, or wouldn’t see normally?’ and then ‘What knowledge do we have that we could use to be innovative?’ For example, you can’t just buy parts to make Rey’s speeder move. That’s a whole another level of having to build the mechanics that make her speeder move. But it really comes down to what will look cool.”

6. Rising to the rank of Jedi Master. While building LEGO models for LEGOLAND might seem just like putting together LEGO sets on your floor at home, Master Model Builders like Slagle have to put a little extra knowledge into making models that will be on display at LEGOLAND. “That’s the hardest part,” Slagle says. “Figuring out how to make something look cool and accurate and also live outdoors. That’s part of the steep learning curve when you first become a Master Builder. When you’re a Master Builder, everyone can design awesome models, then it’s taking that to the next level and designing and building awesome models that can last a long time. It’s really learning how LEGO reacts with the outdoors and how LEGO fits together with different metal elements that give it the structural rigidity.” Not only do the LEGO models, which are glued together, need to survive the sun and occasional rain of southern California, but also they must deal with the fury of nature in the theme park. There’s plenty of rampaging beasts like lizards, snails, and even a family of ducks call Miniland home, sometimes leaving a path of LEGO destruction in their wake.

There’s also unique opportunities presented by the interesting Star Wars designs themselves. One example is the Quadjumper, the ship that Rey, Finn, and BB-8 are racing towards before deciding that the garbage will do, which presented some specific challenges. “A) It’s only on screen for a couple moments and B) It’s this big,” Slagle says.” Basically it’s these four cylinders attached together with these four wings sticking out of it. That one is challenging because there are so many intricate shapes interlocking. With LEGO, when you’re dealing with circular or cylindrical builds, it makes it a lot harder to build. You see the four engines surrounding this rectangular center main cockpit area. That one is hard because you have to figure out how to attach these round objects to a square cockpit body.”

Overall, the entire new addition to LEGO Star Wars Miniland took a long time to design and build. “About 4,000 [hours],” Slagle says. “This process started a year and a half ago, when we first started the concept phase. We’ve been putting in ten to twelve hour days in the past couple days to get it finally all installed and looking good. It’s a long process. We’re Master Model Builders but in a sense, we’re basically construction workers … We work with a little different material. It takes a deceptively long amount of time. Even the small stuff in the scene, it take a good hour or two to build a small little BB-8 and that’s after the time spent figuring out how to build it.”

While a Jedi should be serious and shouldn’t crave attachment, the Master Model Builders aren’t so restricted. Slagle couldn’t narrow his favorite part of The Force Awakens cluster down to one: “That’s a tough call. I’m a big fan of large LEGO models because I really enjoy building giant LEGO models that aren’t something you normally get to do as a kid. So I’m partial to the Finalizer, but for the small scenes, I love Rey and BB-8 and Rey’s speeder: I love cars. In the Star Wars universe, the different types of speeder bikes and landspeeders are their equivalent of cars so I love her little red speeder. It’s a beautiful red color that sticks out from the sand. She moves back and forth from her home to the outpost, so probably that one’s my favorite. There’s so much to love about it.”

And on the lighter side, there is at least one Easter egg hidden in the build, but you’ll need a Jedi’s abilities with the Force to find it. “You can’t see it, but inside the landing craft, someone built a little pig,” Slagle says. “There’s a little pink pig inside there. I’m not sure if it’s canon or not, but it’s LEGOLAND California canon!”

Legoland California's The Force Awakens exhibit, lit at night.

7. Staying on target! LEGOLAND makes sure that their Star Wars models, like all their Miniland models, are not just cool but also highly detailed and remain true to the source. Slagle sums up their philosophy on accuracy. “Here at LEGOLAND California Resort, we really do our best to make everything look at realistic as possible. That way, kids who have just seen Star Wars for the first time, they will recognize a scene, and the most hardcore Star Wars fans that know every single trivia bit can come in and appreciate that ‘Yes, that IS the ship, it’s correct! The wings are at the right angle, the door opens the right way.’ Just little things like that. That’s really what we strive for — making it look as good as possible and as accurate as possible.”

Photos courtesy of James Floyd, Brian Sims, and LEGOLAND California.

James Floyd is a writer, photographer, and organizer of puzzle adventures. He’s a bit tall for a Jawa. His current project is Wear Star Wars Every Day, a fundraising effort for a refugee aid organization. You can follow him on Twitter at @jamesjawa or check out his articles on Club Jade and Big Shiny Robot.

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