Take a seat on a Corellian freighter, consider escaping aboard an Imperial TIE, or visit Jabba’s palace in the desert of Tatooine — four fan prop builders have taken the Star Wars universe from big screen to epic reality, creating larger-than-life ships and creatures to enrapture fans gathering at Celebration Orlando and the StarWars.com stage this week.
Inside the Orange County Convention Center, a full-scale A New Hope-era TIE fighter looks like it just flew in from a nearby space station. The interior of the Millennium Falcon makes the perfect backdrop for interviewing actors and other important figures who keep the saga alive. And the crime lord Jabba the Hutt and his pet rancor will be on hand to keep any smugglers in line lest they become a new piece of throne room wall art.
The crews behind the builds in Germany, Belgium, and a galaxy not-so-far away — Jacksonville, Florida — gave StarWars.com a glimpse behind the scenes of their massive homages to celebrate four decades of imaginative wonder.
Chewie, get us out of here!
Han Solo’s oft-maligned hunk of junk was brought to life halfway around the globe in the BCD warehouse and workshop in Brussels. The builders at the Belgian prop crew also answer to the name “Imperial Dogs,” after they were christened by George Lucas himself as he signed their AT-AT build at the first Celebration in Orlando, founder Stefan Cembolista says.
This year, they come in for a landing with a veritable fleet in tow that includes the Millennium Falcon set for the StarWars.com stage, among other ships and vehicles, like Rey’s speeder and a towering AT-AT.
Making its debut is a just finished and never-before-seen ETA-2 Actis Interceptor, Darth Vader’s first personal fighter. (See the gallery above for a behind-the-Sith peek at its construction.) The crew took its cues from descriptions in Tarkin by James Luceno to recreate “a painstakingly fully detailed replica of this beautiful ship,” Cembolista says.
But for the inside of the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs, Cembolista’s team was able to use casts from original materials to create authentic parts, spending hours researching details for an accurate representation, and using foams and fabrics the recreate the corner where we famously learned to let the Wookiee win at holochess.
A self-described Star Wars addict, Cembolista was hooked from the moment he and his father watched the film back in 1977. After passing the fandom to his own son years later, Cembolista created a 12” scale X-wing fighter for the boy to add to his collection of Star Wars toys.
The props only got bigger from there, with appearances at several Celebrations over the last decade, even though the first time the crew showcased their AT-AT, it was a disaster, Cembolista says. “I started building this AT-AT, only with a very small crew, and with almost no resources. No warehouse, no budget, and no experience. The colossal model came together in his garden, but was never set up completely before its convention debut in Antwerp, and had to be shipped over 30 miles using only a very carefully packed Volkswagen Passat “with a huge AT-AT kit on top” as transport.
Since then, the crew has expanded, utilizing about 30 specially skilled hobby crafters — metal workers, carpenters, and graphic designers among them — to recreate the latest props for BCD for display all over Europe and beyond.
There aren’t any bases around here. Where did it come from?
There will be plenty of reminders that this year is the 40th anniversary of the release of A New Hope, but none quite as hard to ignore as the TIE fighter looming over Celebrationgoers in Orlando.
Project X-1 CEO Michael Schramm’s journey from mild-mannered insurance agent to props master followed a similar path to Cembolista’s, and that’s no coincidence. Years before he started his own builds, Schramm says the Belgian builder acted as Jedi Master to his Padawan during their first meeting, allowing Schramm to bend Cembolista’s ear on how he might break into the business of fan prop making. “Being a part of the huge family in the Star Wars universe, it’s so incredible,” Schramm says. “It’s just one language. It’s like the Force — it flows through us and it keeps the galaxy together.”
It was another four years before Schramm tackled the hobby himself, he says, in his garden in Burghaun, Germany, where the son of an engineer built Vader’s TIE fighter. “Everything starts in drawings,” Schramm says, negotiating the easiest ways to create something that can be broken down and moved from place to place, and double checking measurements to ensure everything is to scale. “It’s a lot of desk work.”
And that “desk work” will be on display in the form of the massive TIE fighter seen above.
His high exaltedness, the great Jabba the Hutt.
He may be little more than toilet paper, glue, and chicken wire, but the Jabba holding court in Orlando is still a formidable crime lord from his magnificent throne perch.
David Gent, founder of Belgian-based prop group The Prospectors, says the slimy gangster is the third incarnation he and his team have built to date, with their design evolving over the years to include more set pieces and sometimes additional creatures.
The group started in 1999 as a movie toy and replica collecting club, but within five years had morphed into prop building, starting small with a moisture vaporator and some GNK droids.
“The idea of a life-size Jabba the Hutt came quite quickly,” Gent says, studying up on practical fabrication techniques and then birthing the slug-like Hutt over four months. Gent and his crew mixed glue and toilet tissue for skin, stretching the clumps and lumps over a skeleton of simple farm-grade fencing. “Since Jabba, all our creatures are ‘toilet paper skinned,’” Gent says, and require no specialized tools beyond a crafters willing to literally get their hands dirty to mold and sculpt the wet matter into fleshy folds “with no tools other than our fingers to sculpt it.”
Oh, no! The rancor!
Displease Jabba, and you’ll be sent into the pit with his beloved pet.
Roxy the Rancor, the life-size beast ready to clutch any uninvited guest in the palm of her hand, makes a triumphant return. Originally envisioned by Matt Paisley as a simple head and hand prop for a Jabba’s palace-themed 501st Legion party, once Florida-based sculptor Rick Bohler got involved the project morphed into a towering dungeon-dwelling creature chiseled from foam and coated in rubber and fiberglass.
“It’s one of the iconic monsters,” Paisley, who lovingly refers to himself as one of Roxy’s dads, previously told StarWars.com. “We don’t just build things. We want to build things that are the only things in the world. And we want to build them so good that no one else wants to touch them.”
Head to tail, she’s about 17-feet-long and 9-feet-wide, weighs in at 2,000 pounds, and disassembles into eight pieces that must be snapped together like a giant action figure.
Bohler used a similar method to craft Lemmy the Luggabeast, the beast of burden with a cybernetic head, which will also be ready for photo-ops elsewhere on the convention floor.
Stay on target! Star Wars Celebration Orlando kicks off tomorrow, with live streaming and blogs from StarWars.com for fans who can’t make the journey, and plenty of surprises for those on-site.
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.