What began in 1973 with Journey to the Moon, a six-minute-long stop-motion movie that depicted the Apollo 17 mission, opened the flood gates of creativity and launched a new way for LEGO fans to demonstrate their appreciation of their favorite construction bricks – a passion that is currently being celebrated by the LEGO Ideas team.
But did you know that the history of LEGO Star Wars brickfilm began in 1978 – a full 22 years before the theme began, and a quarter of a century before The Han Solo Affair, which is credited as being the very first commissioned (and therefore official) LEGO Star Wars brick movie?
Step forward Brad Abrell and Steven Needell, two lifelong friends from Miami, FL who have known each other since elementary school.
Back in the late ’70s, before Star Wars first came out, Brad and Steve were in junior high school together and – true to the times – played with LEGO, built plastic models, shared a passion for train sets, read comic books, messed around with home electronic kits and experimented with a Super 8 camera.
This last element proved pivotal to the pair and the genesis of NeeBrell Productions, a portmanteau of their surnames, when Brad’s father Joe, who was the producer and host of local Miami CBS affiliate WTVJ-4’s weekly Montage magazine show, invited the boys in to watch a taping of the show.
“We were mesmerized by the technology, and our interest in film making was ignited. Brad introduced me to the concept of stop motion photography, and we used my father’s silent Super 8 camera to play around with the concept in 1977. This camera did not have single-frame shot capability so our timing was dependent on how quickly we could take our finger off the camera trigger. It was far from an exact science, and we ended up doing a lot of splicing, but editing was a fun part of the creative process,” explains Steve.
Their normal play activities centered around filming elaborate dioramas with dinosaurs in the middle of Steve’s large train set, adding batteries, lights, and motors to the models they’d built, constructing “working” volcanoes and setting things ablaze. “There was always fire!” says Steve.
It was in 1977 that their fun became more theatrical when Steve’s uncle Arnie, who was impressed by the pair’s movie-making skills, gave them a camera with stop motion mode. Their first attempt was Blimport ‘79, a parody of the Airport disaster movies, about an evil scientist launching a missile at the Goodyear blimp.
The next turning point in the trailblazing career came in the Spring of 1977 when Brad turned up to school wearing a black ‘May the Force Be With You’ t-shirt that his father had received as part of a pre-release promotional package.
Expanding further, Brad says that his father “would frequently be flown out on junkets for the releases of almost every film in the mid-70s to early 80s. One trip was to LA to screen Star Wars. He brought back with him armloads of promotional materials… t-shirts, press kits, film clips, soundtracks and more importantly an early word-of-mouth-breakdown-of-virtually-every-scene-in-the film! I can still picture him in the kitchen telling me the story from the opening crawl and the Star Destroyer chasing the ship, to C-3P0’s cadence and movements. I was spellbound already and hadn’t seen a frame of it.”
By the end of the Summer of ‘ -77, both Brad and Steve had each seen Star Wars in the theater nearly a dozen times and it wasn’t long before they decided to make their tribute to the biggest blockbuster in movie history.
In planning what would become their most famous masterpiece, the pair quickly realized that the LEGO figures of the day, which predated the modern minifigure by a year, were too primitive for their aspirations. Conceived and designed by Jens Nygaard Knudsen (RIP 2020) in 1975, the first minifigure was known as the LEGOLAND minifigure, with its arm-shaped bulges on either side of its body and no moving parts it was a simple mannequin compared to what was just around the corner.
The upcoming evolution of the minifigure was too far away for Brad and Steve, who – by painting their bricks and gluing on hair – were able to customize their own. Combined with a small dome, a rudimentary landspeeder, and a layer of sand, the boys began the painful task of animating the first scene of their movie.
After an inordinate amount of time filming the encounter between Owen, Luke and the droid-peddling Jawas, while intermixing still photos taken from the pre-release presskit that Joe Abrell had brought back from the advance screening of Star Wars he attended earlier that year, the boys hit a brick (no pun intended) wall.
“After countless hours of LEGO set-design and building and filming, we got as far as Luke and Ben buying the droids on Tatooine,” shared Steve. Deciding that the project had advanced as far as it could go, the friends moved on to their next attention-grabbing activity, and their plan to make a full-length LEGO animated Star Wars movie was never realized.
It wasn’t until 2014 that NeeBrell Productions uploaded the full 37 minutes of their childhood showreel, including the 1 minute and 18 seconds of footage that would eventually become known as the oldest existing LEGO Star Wars brickfilm – and the first one to capture the new style of minifigures.
Though ground-breaking at the time, compared with today’s creations, NeeBrell Productions tour de force is pretty crude – there is are more presskit images than original production footage, the lighting is poor and the image is grainy – and why the landspeeder crashes into the moisture farm isn’t explained – but it’s more than being the oldest surviving LEGO Star Wars brickfilm, because it represents a unique window in the lives of two early Star Wars fans.
A lot of years have passed since that day in the summer of 1978 when two boys set out to commemorate their favorite movie, and in catching up with Steve and Brad one thing was made clear – they are both still firm friends and Star Wars fans.
In reminiscing over this halcyon period in their lives, Steve says “making these films was definitely one of the highlights of my childhood memories, and they gave us incredible respect for the Lucasfilm special effects team having created a timeless masterpiece,” while Brad adds “I often credit Steve and those films among the things that propelled me towards the entertainment biz, where I am today. Working on films such as Men in Black (1, 2 and 3), Spider-Man 2, voices in cartoons, acting in commercials, all have some tie back to that room in Miami!”
If you’re feeling inspired by the journey that Brad and Steve took, then be sure to check out the current LEGO Ideas brickfilm competition where you could win some awesome LEGO Star Wars prizes.
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.