When LEGO Thanked The Maker

Photo credit: Patrick McMullan (via Getty Images)

Star Wars is more than just a movie. It’s more than a film franchise, a merchandising cash cow or a pop-cultural icon too. It’s all of these and more, and it’s largely because George Lucas was able to retain the merchandising rights to the Western space opera when 20th Century Fox executives shied away from bank-rolling a toy line based on the movie that they were reluctant to fund.

The beginnings of this fortuitous twist of fate occurred in 1975 when Lucas met with fellow USC film school graduate Charles Lippincott, a movie publicist with MGM Studios, and pitched his idea for The Star Wars (as it was called at the time). An excited conversation ensued with Lucas outlining his lofty ideas of a huge range of toys, clothing, and other tie-in products. While he and Lippincott were enthusiastic, Fox was not.

The movie merchandise landscape of the early 1970s was very different than it is today, and with numerous tie-in product lines flopping despite their movies doing well at the box office, and with the American public losing interest in NASA’s Apollo space program, the popularity of science fiction movies had begun to wane.

These factors directly contributed to Fox rejecting Lucas’s toy line pitch and instead negotiated a deal that saw the studio receiving 60% of net profits in return for Lucas to retain control of merchandise, sequels, and soundtrack rights. Trading profit for control, Lucas unknowingly secured a future that would see him create six Star Wars movies, make him one of the richest men on the planet, completely revitalize action figure toys (as well as give the global toy industry a healthy boost) and kick start a whole new way to look at toys.

Photo credit: PlaidStallions.com

Jumping forward thirty years, Carter Keithley – then President of Toy Industry Association (TIA) – shared the announcement on May 16th, 2006 that George Lucas had been nominated for the Toy Industry Hall of Fame (TIHoF).

Coinciding with the opening night of the annual North American International Toy Fair and Toy Of The Year Awards (TOTY), which was won by Tickle Me Elmo that year, the TIHoF honors individuals who have made a mark on the American toy industry and with Lucas having directly contributed to reshaping the pop-culture landscape and revolutionizing the toy industry with an action figure scale that allowed kids to affordably recreate scenes from the movies, spawned a community of passionate toy collectors and set “an industry standard on which most major movie toy lines are based today,” his induction was long overdue.

Making the occasion even more auspicious was the imminent anniversary of the first public showing of Star Wars (released on May 25th) and Lucas being the 50th inductee since the TIHoF was created in 1984.

While the TOTY Awards are considered the Oscar’s of the American toy industry, being inducted into the TIHoF is the equivalent to a lifetime achievement award (which Lucas received from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1992 and American Film Institute in 2005), and one that the TIA was more than happy to bestow upon him.

Typically the TIA inducts two nominees a year but in 2006 the Board of Directors made an exception and unanimously selected Lucas as the sole inductee for 2007, the first time in the history of the award.

Source: The Toy Association

It was a cold and wet Saturday night, shares TIHoF attendee Jean Butler (TIA’s Vice President of Membership), when invitation holders and members of the American toy industry began to gather at the main function room at the Marriott Marquis hotel in Times Square, New York City on February 10th, 2007.

Before the commencement of the induction ceremony, the audience was treated to a tribute video that highlighted Lucas’s achievements, with comments from such luminous stakeholders as Steven Spielberg, Howard Rothman (LFL), Søren Torp Laursen (LEGO), Al Verrecchia (Hasbro), Steve Sansweet (LFL), Brian Goldner (Hasbro) and Alan Hassenfeld (Hasbro).

Expressing the gratitude that LEGO felt for their place in the license, Laursen said “Getting the Lucas licensing, the Star Wars licensing for LEGO was a big deal. I’m happy to say several years later it was probably one of the best decisions we ever made. We see an extremely bright future with the Lucas brand, generally, and specifically with the Star Wars franchise.”

Welcomed on stage by TIA board members Hassenfeld and Verrecchia, a smiling Lucas accepted his award and shared a few words before receiving heartfelt applause from those gathered to witness the ceremony. With the expectation that the proceedings had concluded, Lucas made ready to step out of the spotlight and spend time thanking those who had helped him in his success.

Perhaps with his words still echoing in Lucas’s head, Laursen – the President of LEGO System Inc – North America – stepped forward with a very special gift to present to Lucas in thanks for their part, as well as the role that Star Wars had played in turning the fortunes of LEGO around.

With over-diversification and an out-of-date supply chain at the heart of the problem, Jorgen Vig Knudstorp, the company’s newly appointed CEO, turned the company from one that operated to provide their products to small toy shops to one that could work with the big-box chains who had grown up in the late 1990s. He also minimized the element inventory from 10,000 different pieces to just over six thousand, made substantial redundancies, reduced the complexity of sets, cut back on vendors and consolidated their sales operations.

As far as the public was aware the LEGO Star Wars line – and the company who made it – was on a high as evidenced by LEGO doubling-down when they included power functions (10178 Motorised Walking AT-AT) and committing more parts to any single set (10179 Ultimate Collector’s Millennium Falcon) than had ever been done before.

Privately though, LEGO owed a great deal of its turnaround to the continuing popularity of Star Wars, a factor that was in the hands of Lucasfilm, and its 2006 annual report – coincidentally released the same day as Lucas’s induction – reflected this. Perhaps it was the realization that the timing of the report and Lucas’s induction ceremony would coincide was the catalyst that prompted LEGO to create their own special award – a life-size, brick-built bust of the man who unknowingly contributed to the ongoing future of LEGO.

Hurriedly put together in the model building workshop at the LEGO offices in Enfield CT, designer Erik Varzegi recalls that when the short notice call from above came in it put the small design team – who had just powered down after assembling and securing all the new sets that would be on display at New York’s toy fair as well as completing all the large sculptures (including a full-size Spongebob Squarepants) that would decorate the LEGO footprint at the event – into a frenzy.

“In that era of the Model Shop, we had just the four designers and three builders. Two of us in particular had a lot of experience with realizing fairly realistic human heads in LEGO brick and so with my background as a fairly huge Star Wars fan, it landed on my desk.”

The model team were used to very tight turn-arounds and crazy deadlines, and this project was no exception.

Nowadays they would use a virtual 3D sculpting tool or a clean 3D scan of the subject to refine the form before importing the shape into the proprietory brick-building software that LEGO has developed. Back in 2006 the digital workflow was still evolving and Varzegi opted to tackle the build using analog techniques.

His initial thought was to avoid a contemporaneous Lucas (partly because building the glasses he wore would have been difficult in LEGO bricks) and model a young Lucas, complete with dark hair and beard, a baseball cap and sand goggles, as he appeared during the location shoots in Tunisia. This was down-voted by the people upstairs so Varzegi opted for a middle-aged Lucas instead.

Photo credit: Erik Varzegi (via LEGO)

“I always found it easier and got better results by creating the heads traditionally by drawing designs out on BrickPaper (graph paper scaled to the LEGO brick) and snapping elements together the old-fashioned way. Typically, I start with plenty of photo references and try to capture the eyes first, and work my way around the face from there.”

In the normal sequence of events the designer would have turned the plans over to the build team but given the tight schedule, Varzegi decided that he wanted to see the whole process through to the end sharing that “a week to design and build it is pretty fast. Normally, we spend up to a 40-hour workweek on just the design phase.”

His fingerprints are likely still all over it.

The huge amount of detail in the face and hair meant using a lot of plates, bringing the approximate piece count to 2,500 and once he was finished Varzegi added a plaid (of course!) collar and a pedestal that held a plaque engraved with a special dedication.

To George, on your induction to the Toy Industry Hall of Fame
With admiration and appreciation for everything done to inspire imaginations around the world
Med venling bilsen / Best regards,
Your friends at the LEGO Company
February 10, 2007

Asked if he was satisfied with his efforts, Varzegi replied “I guess I got close to his likeness and I hope he liked it but I sure wish I had another day or two at least to flesh it out. I think he needs a little bit more wavy hair.”

Following its presentation to Lucas at the TIHoF awards, the bust went on show at the LEGO booth for the duration of the North American International Toy Fair. Following that it was on display in a display cabinet in Lobby A at Lucasfilm’s corporate headquarters in the Presidio district of San Francisco where it remained until late 2019. From there it was handed back to Lucas and is now in his private collection, safely stored in the same purpose-built facility that houses the original Lucasfilm archives.

Photo credit: Erik Varzegi (via LEGO)

And just like in the mythology of Star Wars, there is another. Tucked away in a corner of the Enfield model shop, which the team lovingly calls the Hall of Heads, is the original prototype that Varzegi built.

“Right now George is hanging out with Chris Pratt, Brie Larson and Mark Twain” he says.

Despite the passing of 15 years, Varzegi added that if he was able to redesign it he’d “update the palette. Today, we have at least four or five different colors that we have access to match various skins tones more effectively.”

Who knows, maybe the 50th anniversary of Star Wars in 2027 will grant Varzegi his wish?

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