When I was a kid growing up, Christmas day meant one thing: more Star Wars toys. I couldn’t get enough of those beloved 3 and 3/4-inch Kenner action figures. Luke Skywalker in Jedi Knight Outfit, Han Solo in Hoth Gear, and my favorite, the yellow and green alien Amanaman, just because he looked so weird. And I wasn’t alone in my love. Matter of fact, the first line of Star Wars action figures produced by Kenner (since acquired by Hasbro) between 1978 and 1985 sold 300 million units and brought in £3.8 billion in revenue. That’s astounding considering the six films to date have brought in only a little more–just over $4 billion at the box office. And when Hasbro relaunched the Star Wars action figure line again in 1995, sales of its figures took in an additional $5.5 billion over the next 16 years.
But those Death Star-sized numbers could soon look no bigger than an X-Wing in comparison. Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the next chapter in the likely never-ending Star Wars film franchise, opens December 18. And while it is sure to be a billion-dollar global blockbuster, the brand will once again generate billions more through merchandising—far surpassing what the film will take in at the box office and possibly surpassing the merchandising haul for the first trilogy combined. Macquarie Research estimates that in the 12 months following the film’s release, $5 billion of Star Wars merchandise will be sold, much of that generated from the iconic 3-and-3/4 inch action figure line made by toy powerhouse Hasbro.
Yet ever since opening my first Jabba the Hutt playset, there was two things I always wondered: "How do they make Star Wars figures? And who is lucky enough to get that job?" To finally get that answer I spoke with Steve Evans, Hasbro’s Star Wars design director and the man responsible for every The Force Awakens toy your child will be opening this Christmas.
With Star Wars toys being such big business—and so important to Hasbro’s bottom line for years to come—you might think that the man responsible for overseeing the most hotly anticipated toy line of all time might be concerned if its merchandise will sell as well as investors hope. But according to Evans, there’s only one group of people he’s interested in impressing: the fans.
"There's a great sense of responsibility because it's such a big franchise, and it's such an important franchise to many people throughout the world of all ages and all genders," says Evans, 42, who includes himself in that group of fans he wants to impress.
"I grew up playing with Star Wars toys, ever since I saw it when it first came out. I actually vacationed out in Los Angeles when it was released back in the late '70s, and was lucky enough to go and see it at the Mann's Chinese Theater," says Evans, who was born and raised in England. "I just remember being awestruck by the spectacle of it; the sounds, the ships, the characters. It was like "Wow, I've never seen anything like this before." I asked my grandmother for AT-ATs and Falcons for Christmas. I had all the figures."
Yet as most boys do, Evans lost interest in playing with action figures during his teenage years. But while earning his degree in Graphic Communication from the University of Brighton in the mid-'90s he rediscovered his love of toys. This was right at the time that Hasbro began making the Star Wars line again after an almost 10-year hiatus.
"The resurgence of collecting really came into my vision. I rediscovered it all again," says Evans. But he took that resurgence farther than most fans. Evans’s renewed interest in toy collecting, his background in graphic communication, and an interest in child psychology led him to seek out and land a job with Hasbro in 1999, originally starting as a creative packaging manager, responsible for the look and feel of the boxes Hasbro’s boys toys come in. From that position Evans moved into branding and IP development, helping Hasbro translate its brands into TV and entertainment, and then he became Hasbro’s Director of Global Brand Design where he oversaw major toy lines including Transformers and Marvel superheroes. And then came the job that all kids dream of . . .
"I’ve always been very deep in story and how kids experience brands, whether it be through product packaging, TV, clothes, licensing. That big picture has always interested me," says Evans. "As the new films were announced, I felt that my understanding of story, characters, how children play, and branding and business kind of made it into a perfect storm for me where I could get involved. I had the opportunity through Hasbro to lead the Star Wars design team as design director. I grabbed that with both hands. How could I not?"
While children the world over will be opening their Kylo Ren action figures this holiday season—don't worry if you don't know the name; he'll be a household name soon enough—the making of that action figure actually started 18 months earlier in a galaxy very, very near to Boston, in the model shop of Hasbro’s headquarters in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, where Evans overseas a team of six designers.
"Our responsibility is to produce meaningful and playful toys for the kids, and also to help kids take the Star Wars universe and expand it in their own play plans," says Evans. Unsurprisingly, in order to achieve that, he and his team work closely with the creative minds behind the franchise.
"The Star Wars universe is an expansive one. We get to play in that. We work very, very closely with Lucasfilm, right from the very beginning. We do a lot of brainstorming. We bang ideas around back and forth. We see what fits and we see what kind of works for toys, the story and for the brand."
So closely, in fact, that Evans and his team were invited to the set of The Force Awakens to meet with director JJ Abrams in order to get inspiration for the action figures. Abrams gave Evans and his team the overall pitch of the story with all the major beats. And then there was the tour of the set . . .
"It was like a childhood dream," says Evans. "It was fantastic seeing all the things we saw, working with Lucasfilm and being privy to that information to allow us to go back with enough to be able to design products and toys that we know will resonate with kids and fans of all ages."
Of course, there was one drawback: he wasn’t allowed to talk about his visit-of-a-lifetime to anyone. Imagine being next to the Millennium Falcon and not being able to Instagram that.
"Star Wars is such a great movie, that the director and Lucasfilm, quite rightly so, want to keep the surprises for the fans controlled," says Evans. "It’s like any great marketing campaign. You release when it's right for the story. And in the case of Star Wars that story is not just the movie—that story is the whole brand and the whole way it's portrayed and played out to the audiences as well.
Matter of fact, if you thought you had seen all The Force Awakens merchandise previewed on Force Friday, think again. While dozens of new action figures were shown off, those were carefully selected to be only from the first third of the film so as to not give away anything which hasn’t been already seen in the trailers.
"As we lead up to December 18, there's a certain amount that gets released," says Evans. "There are certain surprises from our product line that no one knows about, that we'll release leading up to the movie, at the movie, and beyond the movie."
After the onset meeting with Abrams, and with files full of top secret images of characters and vehicles from The Force Awakens, Evans and his team headed back to Pawtucket where the work of creating an action figure really begins.
"We need to understand the character in the story. And then from that, we'll start designing the toy," says Evans. "We'll sketch that out, whether it be on paper or on a Cintiq using digital. We then say, ‘This is what we want to be able to do with this toy’ and we get Lucas's partnership on that."
Once the sketched design of an action figure is decided upon Evans's team gets to work sculpting the figure. However, unlike the original Kenner line and even the lines made in the late '90s and early 2000s, the sculpting for The Force Awakens toys is now primarily all digital.
"We don't often do anything in wax anymore," says Evans referring to how toys have been made for the better part of 30 years. Instead his designers sculpt the figures digitally using software called ZBrush. "It’s literally like Michelangelo would chip away from a marble block, [but] we create the sculpture from inside the computer."
Of course, Michelangelo never had to sculpt aliens, droids, and Jedi. Is one harder to sculpt than the next?
"Droids are probably easier just because they're naturally mechanical and use very geometric shapes," says Evans. "When you get into, let's call them ‘living beings,’ our need for accuracy is the same whether it's an alien or a human character."
That being said, Evans does concede that people are probably more sensitive to the way a Han Solo action figure looks than, say, Admiral Ackbar. "I think the human eye recognizes the human face a lot quicker than an alien face and therefore is more used to seeing it. If there are any changes in a human face, the human eye sees that quicker."
Besides creating sculptures digitally in ZBrush, The Force Awakens toys are also among the first whose design will take advantage of some of the on-set technology used to capture the film.
"What we find now is that we often have the ability [with] the way the filming is set up to have actors and props and vehicles scanned—actually scanned in three dimensions," says Evans. "If it’s a character from the movie, that actor in their costume may get scanned and then we have access to that digital information, which then helps us a lot in terms of authenticity to be able to work that sculpt and make it into a toy."
And when you have to create dozens of new figures to be ready for the holiday shopping season, anything that helps ease your workflow is welcome.
"It's just quicker. It's easier to change. It saves us a lot of time," says Evans. "We work in parallel with Lucasfilm: when they're making the movies, we're developing toys. It's a really fast and efficient and more accurate way of working."
Once the digital sculpts are done, the sculpture will be physically 3-D printed in Hasbro’s model lab, and from that a casting will be made. Cast models are then created and given to the artists in Hasbro’s model shop to "deco," or paint. The goal is to get the deco jobs as close to how the character looks like in the film. From there a finished deco model is sent off to Lucasfilm for approval. If that model is approved, Evans’s team then shares it with overseas vendors so its paint job can be matched in production.
After that the first manufactured prototypes are made in factories overseas, these will be critiqued and have changes made if necessary. Finally, the action figure has final sign-off, is mass produced, packed, shipped on a boat, and put into warehouses—ready to be delivered to stores to be sold to the parents of children wanting figures from the biggest movie of the year.
Evans says collectors claim that, to date, there are 2,300 different Star Wars figures ever made across the Kenner and Hasbro lines. "But that includes some subtle variants," Evans notes. "It's really hard to calculate because different collectors define what makes a figure unique differently."
Regardless of the exact amount, it’s a number that’s set to grow rapidly in the coming years as each new movie is released. Since becoming Star Wars design director in 2014, Evans has already overseen more than 200 figures across the 3-and-3/4-inch, 6-inch and 12-inch scales.
As for the favorite Star Wars action figure Evans has worked on?
"I'm actually very, very fond of the three-and-three-quarter inch Rey figure," Evans says. It’s an appropriate choice, and not just for the fact that Rey is one of the main characters in the next Star Wars chapter. That figure symbolizes a radical shift in the action figure market—and the Star Wars toys market in particular.
"It’s because of what it stands for," says Evans. "Just because of the way it's embracing girls into the brand more. I have a son and two twin daughters and my girls are infatuated with Rey. They think she's brilliant."
Back in the '70s and '80s Star Wars action figures were thought of as something to be made just for boys. But Evans says that’s all changed now. And not only are the artificial gender action figure barriers are coming down, now they’re designed to appeal to people of all ages.
"We are designing them for ‘fans’. That's all we like to say," says Evans. "A fan can be 4, can be 44, or can be 94. Can be male or female. I’m seeing grandparents, parents, kids, kids and friends, aunties, uncles, everything. Everybody is getting engaged with Star Wars because it's transgenerational. I think the movie that's coming out epitomizes that because it’s the classic characters and the new characters. We know that we provide toys, playsets, and tools for engagement for families, young kids, middle aged men and women. Everybody. That's what I think makes it so great. It's for everybody. Star Wars is for everyone."
I point out that while I agree Star Wars is for everyone, very few of its millions of fans ever have a chance in having an active role in creating part of that larger universe. Evans knows where I’m going.
"You're right," he says. "It is possibly the coolest job in the world."
And it’s a job that he’ll never take for granted.
"Whilst the work is the proudest thing that I can do and that my team can do, there's a lot of responsibility there," he says. "It's just the wonder of being a part of Star Wars. That's the hardest part, but it's the greatest part if that can happen."