From Jyn to Jaina: Behind the Scenes of Star Wars: The Black Series

Steve Evans, Star Wars design director at Hasbro, takes inside the fan-favorite action figure line.

It’s still about nine weeks before the theatrical debut of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, but an army of pint-sized Jyn Ersos are already popping up on store shelves. Working in tandem with Lucasfilm, the designers at Hasbro have spent the last year and a half sculpting, painting, and manufacturing a highly articulated, finely detailed 6-inch plastic likeness of Mon Mothma’s newest recruit. Steve Evans, Hasbro’s Star Wars design director, recently gave us a glimpse behind the scenes in the making of the brand’s coveted Black Series.

When the line debuted in 2013, three or four new figures hit the shelves each season recreating classic characters with more flexibility than the traditional 3.75 figures could muster. Back then, Black Series designers were using wax to mold prototypes by hand, and relying on movie stills and other reference materials to perfect the sculpt. In the years since, technological advances and the necessity of churning out the core characters for brand new films on an annual basis has helped refine the process. The team has it down to a science, Evans says, with three-dimensional scans of actors and costumes beamed directly from on-set to aid in the authentic creation of the toys. “We do it, I won’t say easily, but we do it pretty fluidly. The devil’s in the details.”

Black Series - Jyn Erso

For Jyn, the hardest part was getting her head scarf just right, Evans says. He studied the prop, considering a fabric counterpart shrunken to scale. “Would it fold right? Would fans have a problem wrapping it around the head?” he wondered. “We played around with that for quite awhile and decided to go to soft PVC.” Even then, designers wrestled with molding an accessory that was functional, fitting over the figure’s head, without looking outsized and bulky, relying on subtle splits at the back of the piece to keep it pliable. “Things like this keep me up at night!” Evans says with a laugh.

Cult hero

Figures start out as a concept artist’s sketch, then undergo a meticulous 18-month creative process to get to the store shelf. Main characters are obvious picks, but Evans also likes to pepper in a few lesser-known characters, with smaller roles but action-figure-ready looks. Because Hasbro is working on the toy line as the film’s are still in production, Evans and his team don’t see the final cut until the premiere. “We don’t see the movie any earlier, really, than the fans.” That was how designers ended up creating a figure for the bounty hunter Constable Zuvio for The Force Awakens, even though the character is only in the background of a marketplace scene for a moment. “I love that it represents that we’re working together,” Evans says, and Zuvio has since gained a cult following. It’s no different from the original Kenner line that featured the inhabitants of the Mos Eisley Cantina, despite their brief screen time. “I can’t imagine having my Star Wars collection from 1979 without Hammer Head,” Evans says.

For the Black Series, the sculpting process alone, a digitized leap from two to three dimensions, takes about a month, “making sure we have the likenesses correct, the folds of the material, that kind of stuff. If there’s anything slightly wrong with the face, the eye and the brain recognize it right away,” Evans says. “When you see it in plastic, you know exactly who that is.” The figures average 28 points of articulation, for optimal flexibility and a range of lifelike poses, but those joints must be carefully incorporated into the figure so as not to protrude and appear out of place.

Once the basic shape and accessories are fine-tuned, a 3-D printer brings the one-of-a-kind model to life, and a new set of artists take over to paint the figure for final approval from Lucasfilm. “There’s a lot of back and forth. A lot of time and effort. It’s quite a lengthy process. A sculpt that we have digitally is fine, but it’s not a real thing in your hand. It’s never exactly the same.” In crafting the aesthetic of Finn’s jacket on Jakku, designers had to capture the texture of broken-in leather rendered in pliable plastic “down the minutiae. Star Wars has a lot of natural fibers. It’s not always one spandex superhero outfit. It’s real world. It’s weather-beaten and realistic. We did it once and we looked at it: is that leather or is that more suede?”

The final sculpture becomes the pattern for the steel tools that will mold a legion of followers on the factory line. While engineers are fine-tuning the parts that will manufacture the actual toys, prototypes debut on the convention circuit to give fans a sneak peek. Their appearance brings plenty of questions from eager collectors. “There may be only one, two, maybe three of them in the world,” Evans says. “People say, ‘When are they coming out?’ It’s going to be another year.”

‘Let the toy go free’

Perhaps more-so than the classic 3.75-inch sized figures — which still call for nearly a year and a half of intense design — the 6-inch Black Series straddles the line between collectible and plaything. Evans, whose 9-year-old daughter is “Star Wars mad,” prefers to unbox his figures, using BB-8 as something of stress ball. “I love just popping his head off and popping it on. I’m telling you all my dark secrets,” he quips. “I personally open mine. I always have to let the toy go free.”

Picking a favorite from the over 50 figures already produced, “it’s like choosing a child,” Evans says. But after some thought, Evans admits to his affinity for Ello Asty, an Abednedo X-wing pilot killed in the assault on Starkiller Base in The Force Awakens. “I was deeply hurt when he died,” Evans says. “I liked him as a figure. I really like the texture on his face.”

To help promote Rogue One, new Black Series figures — as well as a motley crew of LEGO minifigures, Funko Pop! bobbleheads, and other toys — debuted in a fan-made, stop-motion-style homage. Evans says he always looks forward to seeing how aficionados use the figures to craft dioramas and displays, and even customize the toys with paint and accessories. “We are so inspired of what we see from fans on Instagram,” he says. “Some of them are, quite frankly, incredible.”

Enthusiasts also help drive the decision as to which of the thousands of Star Wars characters get the special 6-inch treatment. Darth Revan, announced at the 2015 SDCC and hitting shelves later this fall, was the first to be voted on through an online fan poll. Recently, the second annual online survey crowned Jaina Solo from Star Wars Legends as the 2016 winner, with a probable late 2017 sale date.

As the Black Series continues to expand, fans can expect more iconic cameos, like the New Hope Luke and Leia rolling out for the 40th anniversary of the film, new faces from Rogue One, and more of what Evans calls “consumable collectibles,” affordable, authentic representations direct from the films. “That’s what the Black Series is really about.”

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.