From the big screen to the little brick, DK looks back at ten years of LEGO Star Wars in their new LEGO Star Wars: The Visual Dictionary.
How do you review a book you helped to write? Can it be objective, unbiased and fair? Perhaps starting with its genesis and, in the true spirit of LEGO construction sets, building from there is the way to go. So from one cliché to another:
Not so long ago, in a publishing house in nearby London…
The book began by accident. Back in 2008 Simon Beecroft (author of Inside the Worlds of Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, DK Readers Anakin in Action!, I Want to Be a Jedi, Ready, Set, Podrace!, Watch Out for Jabba the Hutt, Epic Battles, Beware the Dark Side, A Queen’s Diary, Fantastic Four: Evil Adversaries and co-author of Doctor Who: The Visual Dictionary, which are all published by Dorling Kindersley where he is a managing editor) and his team at DK were working with the LEGO Group on a couple of other books that were being released in 2009. In the course of discussing these new titles (which includes The LEGO Book, due out this October) someone pointed out that it was the tenth anniversary of the LEGO Star Wars line, and even though DK was heavily committed to half a dozen LEGO books already, Simon jumped at the chance to immortalize one of the most iconic of LEGO themes in print.
Despite an overloaded work schedule, the Visual Dictionary team shoehorned LEGO Star Wars: The Visual Dictionary into the timetable and work began in January 2009. Asked if he was ‘the Force behind the book’ Simon modestly insisted that all of the books at DK are team efforts. “We’re a small team of editors and designers, and everyone is very talented. When a lot of extra books come on the program at a late stage, we have no choice but to pull together. It’s second nature to us. This particular book was perhaps a special case for me because I was really excited about it — I loved the idea of going ‘old school’ and doing it in the style of our Visual Dictionaries, with a bit of Incredible Cross-Sections thrown in.”
With the initial specifications in place the next stage was for DK and Lucasfilm to agree on the business terms of the book. In the case of LEGO Star Wars: The Visual Dictionary, the deal was unusual in that DK was negotiating with two separate licensors (Lucasfilm and LEGO Group) on a single product. But it was all very amicable, and soon enough Carol Roeder (LFL) and Alex Allan (DK) had the deal locked in place.
At this point, Simon put a brief together and took the concept to Lucas Books’ managing editor, Jonathan Rinzler (the Executive Editor at LucasBooks, which is a division of Lucas Licensing. His work includes The Making of Star Wars and The Complete Making of Indiana Jones. He is presently working on The Making of The Empire Strikes Back and Star Wars: Visions, both of which will come out in 2010.) who loved the idea of commemorating ten years of LEGO Star Wars in the Visual Dictionary format. His one concern was that time was short and finding a suitable author would be difficult, so he suggested that Simon write it himself. With ten years of experience of working with Lucasfilm on the previous Star Wars Visual Dictionaries under his belt, he jumped at the chance.
In most cases, an author must become an instant expert on whatever projects they are working on, but Simon had two aces up his sleeve. Firstly the list of Star Wars books he has worked on is longer than a Wookiee’s arm: “I started working at DK as the editor on The Phantom Menace Visual Dictionary. I was sent to Skywalker Ranch in California with a designer and told to come back with a finished book — it took 5 weeks working at Lucasfilm, but we did it. I worked on all the following Star Wars books that Doha’s done, some as editor, others as Publishing Manager, and visited Lucasfilm in California on many occasions.” But more importantly, he has a four-year-old son who loves LEGO toys, especially the Star Wars theme, so the book just came at the right time for Simon because he wanted to become an expert to impress his lad!
One of the first orders of business was a visit to the LEGO headquarters in Billund, Denmark where “all the various LEGO teams presented their upcoming projects. They broke up the presentations with fun building activities that we all had to do, and at dinner they set everyone a task to be the first to build a small LEGO police car without taking the bricks out of the sealed bags!” explains Simon. Armed with the knowledge of what the LEGO Group had planned for the remainder of 2009, Simon and the rest of the team (editor Elly Dowsett and designer/AFOL Jon Hall) were ready to go.
The next stage was to develop the layout of the book, and rather than list the sets by their numbers, which movie they came from, or the year they were released, DK chose to arrange them thematically (though if you look closely at each set you will see that the sets are placed in movie order within the page). “I put all the models into the thematic groupings – all the Imperial ships together, althea bounty hunters, etc – then put this into a synopsis. Jon Hall then did an awesome spread styling, which was inspired by the Visual Dictionaries, but pitched a bit younger.” Simon explained. He then pulled together some sample text such as descriptive blurbs and small annotations to highlight each set. These threw up a number of issues, including whether the team should handle the sets as if they were in-universe or treat them as LEGO models. In the end, the team agreed that a bit of both worked best, and included a data box for the more mundane details such as set number, year of release number of parts, etc. (These data boxes also work as points of reference for the sets that had to be split up across the different page themes.) Lucasfilm and LEGO then looked at the spread styling, approved it, and Simon, Elly and Jon started on the book in earnest.
Undeniably one of the more modern hurdles of working on LEGO Star Wars: The Visual Dictionary was the number of people in so many different time zones (DK is in London, UK, LEGO Billund is in Denmark which is one hour ahead, LEGO Enfield in Connecticut, USA is five hours behind and LFL is in California, USA and a further nine hours early than London). For the most part, this worked in DK’s favor, with the team having an entire day to get a page before they had to send it to LFL for approval. At the end of a DK day, the LFL day was just beginning so Jonathan Rinzler had a full business day to review the work. And if anyone from DK ever had to pop over to Denmark to meet with someone at the LEGO Group it only meant a plane trip of a little over one hour. Even when a new team member, working from a string of internet cafés in Australia, was brought in, the pace of work never faltered.
The ball kept rolling unimpeded until it was realized that the LEGO media archives didn’t have photos of all the sets, in particular the pre-Attack of the Clones ones. An expert consultant was brought in to photograph his collection, and filled in further by acting as a fact-checker on the spreads and guided DK on the merchandise and fan community pages.
Perhaps the most eye-catching aspect of the book – even more than the incredibly high quality of the print and the glorious photographs – is the exclusive minifigure that peeps out of the hardback cover. This, says Simon, was all the LEGO Groups doing, and when they first suggested including a minifigure DK was more than happy to agree. For several months all went quiet and the DK team began to prepare themselves for the worst, but then the LEGO team came back with an exclusive Celebration Luke to mark the celebration of ten years of the most successful LEGO theme ever.
That was in May, and now six months later the book has been through final approvals with LFL and the LEGO Group, translated into other languages, gone to the printers, and been distributed all around the world to bookstore shelves.
What will it take for LEGO Star Wars: The Visual Dictionary to make it from the store’s bookshelf to yours? Would I buy this book? Yes, yes, emphatically yes! Is this because I am a LEGO collector and a Star Wars fan? Perhaps, but if I saw it on the shelves of my local bookshop I know my eye would be drawn to it. The book literally pops off the shelf and without a doubt, the style of the Visual Dictionary series successfully lends itself to the LEGO Star Wars line. A multitude of huge photographs leap out of the page and the bold text grabs your eye, yet does not detract from the layout. The vehicles, minifigures, creatures, playsets, and ships all look great against the crisp white background, and there are plenty of interesting pieces of text to read, so in this sense, it’s a perfect fit. I like the way the thematic arrangement – mirroring the movie Star Wars Visual Dictionaries – shows how comprehensively the vehicles have been covered by LEGO Group (and in some cases re-designed later on) and how the characters have changed throughout the movies, the behind the scenes of set development, the glimpse into the LEGO community (which has never been touched on before) and the expanded merchandise that most LEGO collectors overlook.
Despite all the praise I’m heaping on the book, it is not without its mistakes, and hopefully, the LEGO Star Wars license will continue and give DK a chance to correct them in an updated edition. Until then you could just consider them Easter eggs, and treat yourself to a treasure hunt. The book is suitable for ages 7 and upwards, and it is definitely aimed at the younger end of the LEGO market. It’s not as serious as the movie-based Visual Dictionaries, and in order for it to be more accessible for the younger fan, it contains more than a touch of parody and fun. For example, at the bottom corner of each page, a graphic has been added that acts as an animation when the pages are flicked through at speed. To an adult reader, this is no more than a novelty, but a child would see it as a reason to read and re-read the book countless times, and a child without any knowledge of the LEGO Star Wars line would go into the book as a Padawan and come away a Jedi Master (that’s Star Wars geek-speak for beginner to expert).
At first glance the adult LEGO fan might not see the value of the book – it isn’t a collector’s guide, nor is it an in-depth resource. For the casual adult LEGO enthusiast, there’s plenty to learn and even the most avid of LEGO fans will discover numerous factoids that they were unaware of. Even I, a LEGO Star Wars expert consultant, can attest to that. Most AFOLs would see LEGO Star Wars: The Visual Dictionary as no more than a collectible, but viewed from another angle it can also act as an archive of collectibles. How many of us have a place to display all our sets? With this book the LEGO collector who can’t devote a garage or a spare room to showing off a LEGO collection can easily open the cover and enjoy the LEGO Star Wars sets they do have but can’t put on a show for lack of space. And did I mention that you get an exclusive minifigure with it?!
LEGO Star Wars: The Visual Dictionary was such a huge success it made the New York Times best seller list for 52 weeks and had a second print run (the Luke Skywalker minifigure that came with it was slightly different to the original). After finding its way into many fans’ collection, it still proves to be a popular reference today.
This article, originally written by Jeremy Beckett, was published in the November/December 2009 issue of Brick Journal.
Fervent documentarian, effusive AFOL and founding partner, Jeremy manages the daily news content and set reviews.
Having enjoyed playing with LEGO from his earliest years, Jeremy started collecting LEGO Star Wars in 1999 when the theme was first released. He has shared his thoughts and opinions on LEGO via a number of websites – including starwars.com, rebelscum.com and brickset.com – contributed to the LEGO Star Wars: The Visual Dictionary series and served the LEGO Ambassador Network as a Recognised LEGO Fan Media representative.