Wie bereits berichtet, habe ich mich zum Start des Force Fridays mit LEGO Star Wars Chief Designer Jens Kronvold Frederiksen über die neuen LEGO Produkte unterhalten. Hier nun das Interview:
Sascha: When did you start designing the new toys?
Jens Kronvold Frederiksen: Well, the design process for a model is around six months, but we start creating the sword and so on almost a year before. And that’s also because we need time for manufacturing. After the design, you know, the factory needs time to manufacture the many, many products. So we start about a year before.
So can I assume that you’re already working on toys for Rogue One?
(smiles) We are working far ahead. That’s what I can say for sure. So, yes, we are working far ahead.
How does the design process start and what kind of image references does Lucasfilm give you? Are we talking about concept art or screenshots from the movie or even clips?
It’s different when we make classic sets from making new sets. New sets, for instance like these, we are in the loop very, very early. In the process, we usually get the first concept art as well. We will, knowing that things can change, which they usually do, determine which size can the model be, what price point it can be, and so on. We already start thinking about, you know, maybe the main functions of the model so and so. We start creating sketch models based on this concept art. And then, well, as the movie is being developed, we get more and more images which help us create a more accurate model later in the process.
And they do look incredibly accurate, let me congratulate you on your fine work here.
Thank you. What I can show you, for instance (He holds up images showing different camera angles of a screen-used model of the Imperial shuttle), I can’t show you anything from the new movie. Simply, we’re not allowed to do that. And that’s okay. But here, for Lucasfilm and Disney, it’s really important that we use official references. You see, we are not allowed to just use images from a book or something. Lucasfilm and Disney require that we use official images of this. This is a studio model used in the movie. So that’s very important for us in the beginning.
JJ Abrams is a very secretive filmmaker and wants to preserve the story for the cinematic experience at a movie theater. You obviously know quite a few details beforehand. Is that something you think about during your process and do you personally care that you already know quite a few things about the movie?
Oh, we care a lot. (laughs) I’m a pretty big Star Wars fan myself, but for me, I’d say it’s fun knowing a little bit more than everybody else. Being part of the process is really, really exciting. It’s super exciting to see how things develop, and also the products, yeah.
I read that you start your design process with a sketch and then, depending on whether or not you like the sketch, you go ahead and build it. Are there times when you say, “Let’s skip the sketch,” and just build it first with bricks?
Well, usually, we build models from the beginning. It’s not like we’re drawing anything or so. Normally it will be about what the key features of this model could be and what functions we incorporate. Then we start creating a sketch model, and then it’s built many, many, many times before you have the final product.
Actually, children are a very important part of our development process. From the first sketch model, we have children in every single week and they half an hour to play with the models. And that’s something we do, first of all, to ensure that they like the models and that they understand and can play with the functions. And that the model doesn’t fall apart, of course. And also, when we’re creating an assortment, maybe not for the new movie stuff, but let’s say an assortment of classic models like we did years before, we would have a huge range of sketch models on the table and if there was one model the kids didn’t play with, it would never make it as a product.
If these children knew how much influence they have on what’s in the shops, they would be amazed. Because we are really, really using their input, their feedback and their play experience when developing our models very much.
Yeah, that would’ve also been a question of mine, like, how do you ultimately decide what becomes a model, and what doesn’t. Are you sometimes disappointed that the kids don’t pick up something that you really wanted to become a model?
Yes! (laughs) If you’ve been working on a model from the beginning of the sketch model and then you feel like, yeah, it’s time to release this, and then the kids don’t like it… It’s like… (groans) It can be disappointing. But it’s like… that’s just part of it.
Did you ever take one of those model home with you? Like, to a sanctuary?
No. We keep it in the office. Because you never know what might happen.
Alright. I don’t suppose the design process is a one-man job. Like, how many people are involved in creating this new X-Wing for example?
Well, it’s a lot of people. (laughs) But it usually works like… well, it can one designer who’s creating the sketch model. And then later, the designers – I’m assigning the designers for different tasks – will, of course, make the model they were working on. When they’re like, “I really like to build that one,” then it makes sense that we’re making that one. But it can be another designer that’s finalizing the model. And then later in the process, we have a lot of quality processes to ensure that the product works. So, for instance, we have sessions where the model is built and then there’s the model designer, one from the quality team, one from the building instruction team, the people that actually design the building instructions. And we all sit together and each of us builds the model and then we come up with feedback. And for small changes, we test a few things here and there. So, creating a model, it’s really a teamwork.
What tools do you use in planning and executing a design? And, furthermore, I was asked by someone who’s very interesting in building custom models and he wanted to know how much and in what ways you use Lego Digital Designer.
It’s actually… not many, some designers are using it. But most of them are actually building with physical bricks.
Because it’s easier?
For Star Wars, you are limited to recreating existing designs from the movies. Does Disney / Lucasfilm tell you which spaceships and vehicles should become LEGO products?
Well, we have a long working relationship with Lucasfilm. And it’s a very good relationship. Lucasfilm and Disney have a very good understanding of what a good LEGO toy is. This also means that we sometimes put in features or functions that you don’t see in the movie. Just because we think it’s fun to play with. So in that regard, we have a strong relationship with Lucasfilm. But the process of making an assortment, for instance, that is usually something we are deciding at LEGO. We are making a suggestion for an assortment and then we are discussing it with Lucasfilm and Disney. Then they can come back with feedback or input or other suggestions. But it is actually us who start deciding what the assortment should look like.
I would be interested in how a designer chooses what kind of bricks he uses. Are you, as a designer, told to use certain pieces or types and do you ever feel the need for custom pieces?
It’s actually the opposite. In the development process, when you start designing a model, and you have to make a specific shape or structure or function, you go and look for a piece that matches. We look at the LEGO pieces as shapes. We have, like, a big stock where we can see all the elements. For instance, on the new X-Wing, we have these half-round endings [on the engines] and we needed a piece that would make this shape. And what we’re using is a wheel arch from car models. But it doesn’t matter. The shape was correct. We just changed the color, so that it matched the reference. That’s how we think of it. Sometimes we are creating new pieces though. For instance, the cockpit here is new. But in general, we always try and create the models from existing pieces. But here, we thought that we needed a new cockpit that looks cool. And you see, those are not stickers, it’s actually printed.
Yeah, and it looks more aerodynamic than the old one, too.
We know. (smiles) That’s why we did it.
Are there typical constraints that you work under? For example, are you given a target price point?
Oh yeah, that’s an important part of the design process. When the designer is briefed, then he is also briefed that, for example, the X-Wing has to fit this price point and it has to go into that box size. So yeah, it’s very strict. It has to be a certain size and it has to have a certain amount of pieces in it to fit that specific price point. That’s part of the briefing for the designer.
Do you find that difficult sometimes or are you at some point so experienced that you know you can do it easily?
No, it’s, uh, usually, it’s a challenge. Sometimes we also have an experience where we say, “Okay, we wanna make this ship at 29€ and we find out it’s simply impossible.” Then we look at the assortment and maybe we say, “Okay, it’ll be fine when the price it at 39€.” But sometimes it’s the other way around, and then it’s a 19€ model instead. There’s a little bit of flexibility sometimes but in general we have to make certain price points so that it fits in the shelves and the shops.
How is working on a Star Wars design project different from another project?
It’s a different process to make licenced products because we have a cooperation with a partner. Everything we create has to be approved by the partner, in this case Lucasfilm and Disney. And it’s everything. It’s the model, it’s the minifigure, it’s the print on the minifigures, new helmets – everything has to be approved. So there’s this extra layer in the design process. But that’s actually the thing that I think is super interesting. I really like that part of it. But I’d say that… the product as such, we can compare it to a LEGO City product, and we say that we want the same play experience and building experience, it should be the same as the new product. So in that regard, it’s no different.
New helmets, new spaceships, and also a new lightsaber. I would be interested to hear how you settled on the design for Kylo Ren’s lightsaber. There were so many discussions online, but the LEGO design now looks so simple – but in a good way.
Well, we have made a lot of different prototypes before the final one. We were thinking a lot about how to make this look right and still is a good LEGO element. The solution we came up is this cross piece and it’s great because if we took just the red part, it’s a perfect building element that could be used, if you change the color, for so many other things. That’s really our aim. We wanted to make something that looks like Kylo Ren’s lightsaber but we still wanted to make something that works as very cool and usable LEGO element. So that’s why we made this rather simple version. But yeah, it works.
It does! It looks great. Alright, we’ve talked a bunch about Star Wars now. Do you have a favorite movie besides Star Wars and what element of that film would you like to see as a LEGO product?
Well, I have already done my dream project years ago. My favorite movie is Episode V. I really liked that one. My favorite model, and that’s also the craziest thing I’v ever done, that was the Ultimate Collector’s Millenium Falcon back in 2006. It came out in 2007. I can tell you a little bit of the process of that one.
We had launched a Millenium Falcon in a play size. And then we saw got a lot of feedback from the fans and they were like, “Well, you can only fit two minifigures in the cockpit.” I was like, “I will show them.” Then I started, just for fun, in the office. We were sitting there in the evenings and I decided how big it was gonna be to fit four figures. And I started maybe for fun, but then the LEGO Shop at Home team came by and said, “Hey, that looks really interesting. Could we make this as a LEGO product?” We were unsure since it required a special box and everything. And then, as I told you, normally you would get a brief that it has to match this price point. Here the brief was: Just build like crazy. Build the craziest model ever and then we will find out what it should cost and the box size after that. That was how that model was actually developed. At that time, it was the biggest LEGO product ever.
It looks amazing. I want to get it at some point in my life.
(laughs) Thank you.
And besides Star Wars, do you have any favorite car or spaceship you’d like to see as a LEGO product or is it all about Star Wars for you?
I’m really a big Star Wars fan. I can’t say anything I’d like to see.
Well, you already got all the cool cult favorites covered. You got the Ghostbusters car, the one from Back to the Future.
Yeah, lot of cool stuff. But I think, Star Wars, that’s really my thing.
I get that. It’s my favorite too. Let me again congratulate you on these products, I can’t wait to get one at midnight.
Oh, it’s only one and a half hours now.
Alright, thank you very much for the interview.
And best of luck for the next few years, I think you’ll have to create many more Star Wars models.
Probably yes. (laughs)