A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away (OK, more specifically, in Denmark in 1999) a deal was struck between Lego and Star Wars. The Jedi Master who’s guided the development ever since is Jens Kronvold Frederiksen. In his role as the product line’s creative director, he’s worked on every Lego Star Wars model ever produced.
Twenty years on, Lego Star Wars has proved a wildly successful double-act. The collaboration has spawned 700 different Lego Star Wars kits and more than 1000 mini-figures plus multiple video games, TV series and enough related merchandise to fill a full-scale Death Star (probably).
But for a childhood Lego obsessive who was a wide-eyed first grader when Star Wars: A New Hope came out in 1977, it’s also proved a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “For me, it was like a dream come true, because it was two things that I really loved from my own life suddenly coming together,” Jens says. “It was really fantastic.”
You start to get a sense of his infatuation for the product when you hear the origin story behind the Millennium Falcon 10179. At the time, Lego had already created a replica model of Han Solo’s famous spaceship, but it wasn’t built to mini-figure scale – you could only fit two figures in the cockpit.
“So I decided that I wanted to create a model just for myself,” Jens says. “It was not necessarily a product, but a Millennium Falcon that was in true mini-figure scale.”
Jens tinkered away on his passion-project after work until his colleagues eventually noticed. Amazed by his progress, his boss decided that Jens’ model had to become a commercial product. “It was a logistical nightmare for the company because it’d never done a product of that size before so everything had to be done in a different way.”
Jens’ new model was so big that it had to spend a day in a sauna since it couldn’t fit into the ovens that Lego used to quality-check a product’s resistance against sunlight
Lego Star Wars, however, isn’t just driven by a desire to create faithful replicas to satisfy the sci-fi fan-boys. The collaboration is also informed by a strong comedic bent.
“Humour is something that has deliberately been a part of Lego Star Wars since the beginning,” Jens says. “I think it just comes naturally. Think of Darth Vader who should be this evil, villain character. Well, he just looks kind of funny as a mini-figure.”
One unexpected result of the Star Wars collaboration is that it inadvertently changed Lego’s whole approach to racial identity.
Originally, different ethnic backgrounds simply didn’t exist in the Lego universe – all mini-figures were just created with the same bright yellow heads (if it’s good enough for Homer Simpson…). But the Star Wars character of Lando Calrissian – the smooth-talking, moustachioed smuggler – brought about a company-wide rethink in 2003.
“We knew that we had to,” Jens says. “If you have a look at something like Lego City for instance, all the mini-figures have yellow heads and that’s just because we were not looking at race as much. They’re just mini-figures, they’re all yellow and that was just how it was.”
“But with Star Wars we had a challenge because we had to make certain characters where the skin colour is an important part of how they look.”
Subsequently, he explains, Lego introduced three different skin colour tones. Now when they’re creating mini-figures based on external characters, Lego strives to reflect their ethnic backgrounds. “But for our own characters we keep the yellow figures,” Jens explains.
After 20 years, Jens is a true Lego company man and refuses to be drawn on potentially controversial issues. Like who’d win a fantasy light-saber duel between Darth Vader and Darth Maul. “I don’t really think I can say anything there,” he says just a little sadly.
But asked to pick his favourite mini-figure and Jens confesses that he remains drawn to the Dark Side of the Force. “I like the bad guys,” he admits. “I still think Darth Vader is super cool.”