With Star Wars, the more you learn, the less you know. Characters, chronology, vehicles, backstories and so, so many licenses, all so intertwined that to dive into it all is to understand the very definition of “going down the rabbit hole.” Nevertheless, what a fantastic, intense, intellectual fall it is. There is no bottom, and that is why Star Wars has lasted more than 40 years.
From the initial screenplay, born in May 1973, the ways in which a single fan base broadened the story in directions no one individual ever could is a true human phenomenon. Star Wars is a common thread tying together humanity’s global culture (even if you haven’t seen all the films).
Creator George Lucas has never been shy about where his ideas for the Star Wars saga came from and what he intended them to represent.
Lucas cherry picked outer space battles from characters such as Flash Gordon and fashioned C-3PO after Maschinenmensch from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The cinematography and storylines pay homage to director Akira Kurosawa and Lucas’ fascination with the 1955 cinematic visual effects from the British war picture, The Dam Busters, influenced spaceship dogfights in Star Wars.
Memorabilia from these sources are valuable in their own right, but serious saga collectors seek out these pieces because they draw a straight line to Star Wars’ plot, characters and settings. Fans see these influences as diverse and derived from storytelling techniques as old as humanity. Critics see too many commonalities to the work of other creatives to call Lucas’s story and filmmaking “original.” It’s a nit not worth picking, as history has shown.
CREATING A LONG-LOST SHARED CULTURE
Star Wars blends ancient human mythology and concepts related to the fundamental human condition that would have been completely foreign to moviegoers when the first movie, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, was released in 1977.
Dr. Amy H. Sturgis holds a Ph.D. in Intellectual History. Since 2015, she has taught a university course called “The Force of Star Wars.” The foundation of the saga has fascinated her since she was five years old (her parents took her to watch the first movie six times!).
In addition to coursework, students undertake a solo, semester-long research project related to the saga. “I hope students will learn from the course that storytelling – and especially mythic, imaginative, science fictional storytelling – is more than entertainment,” Sturgis explains. “It’s how we explore our own histories, how we cultivate morality, and how we ask important questions about who we are and what we should be.”
Weighty topics, no doubt, and ones few of us ever take the time to ponder ourselves.
Sturgis points out that Star Wars is intertwined with the fiction of the late Frank Herbert and J.R.R. Tolkien to the films of Kurosawa and Jiang Wen. The story is further influenced by timeless classical mythology and Buddhist philosophy, to world history and its examples of liberty and oppression.
These influences were a turning point in her own life, embodying deep-seated interests and intellectual curiosity: She specializes in the fields of science fiction, fantasy, and indigenous American studies. Many of the complicated subjects Star Wars investigates — colonialism, resistance and sovereignty — directly relate to Native American beliefs.
“In other words, I would have found Star Wars if Star Wars hadn’t found me first!” she said. “Everywhere I turn, I find Star Wars there, too.”
STARTING WITH A SCREENPLAY AND ART
For those who can’t envision a movie based on the screenplay, drafts, drawings and paintings drive home the director’s vision of a film. It’s always been my opinion that that the relationship between the director and a film’s team of artists is more important than the relationship the director has with actors.
This is reinforced with the saga’s first trilogy and the three prequels. Artists do not get the mainstream recognition they rightly deserve. Whether painting on glass, filling sketchbooks, crafting blueprints, or storyboards, films cannot be completed without artists.
In some cases it’s an artist who is responsible for a movie’s most iconic imagery. Take for example the scene in A New Hope when Obi-Wan introduces Luke to the Mos Eisley spaceport. The scene was supposed to include the actors; however, a shake in the crew’s VistaVision camera didn’t capture it correctly. Matte painter Harrison Ellenshaw saved the scene with a detailed glass matte vista view of the galaxy’s “wretched hive of scum and villainy.”
THE VADER PROJECT
On July 10, 2010, the oldest auction house established in the United States jumped lightyears ahead of its time. Freeman’s Auctions in Philadelphia participated in “The Vader Project Auction.” High-end toy store owners Dov Kelemer and Sarah Jo Marks imagined what would happen if they invited 66 different artists to all use the same canvas: Darth Vader’s famous helmet and mask, as a way to express their unique views. The helmets and masks arrived primed in white and ready to paint; a stark, blank canvas.
“This project was very special for us. We had no idea what to expect as the real work had yet to begin,” Kelemer said. “We were looking for a new take on the classic design, and we made our wish list of artists we wanted to be in the show. Almost everyone said yes! These creators, artists, and designers are the best in their fields from the worlds of Lowbrow, Pop Surrealism, Underground, Street, Graffiti, Tattoo, Rock Poster, Apparel and Designer Vinyl Toys.”
MOVIE POSTERS VALUES SOAR
Imagine selling tickets to a motion picture with a single image.
In the movie poster business, the bottom line has always been to create iconic images that resonate and at the same time try to have the art and ads generate as many ticket sales as possible. For Star Wars: A New Hope, 20th Century Fox asked ad agencies and other artists to create poster campaigns using only set photos, contact sheets and the script to develop their concepts. Dozens of thumbnail sketches were narrowed down to five or six comprehensive layouts, or comps, for the studio to review before the final artwork began.
Movie posters for the original trilogy were produced just before the era in which studios switched to photographs for movie posters. Thankfully, that “old school” approach of large-scale paintings stuck with the following prequels. Maybe it was one more way to link the two trilogies, but wonderful painted movie posters were produced for The Phantom Menace, Revenge of the Sith and Attack of the Clones.
Photograph posters were used for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Solo: A Star Wars Story, The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. The most expensive Star Wars posters are from the original trilogy; age, nostalgia and that wonderful art prop up values for both foreign and domestic releases.
CONCEPT ART BRINGS IDEAS TO LIFE
Concept art doesn’t always come from trained artists, per se. Take the work of John Mollo, whose costume designs earned an Academy Award for A New Hope. An entire book of Mollo’s personal account of the sketches leading up to the development of his final works appeared at auction last year.
The book includes hand-drawn character designs, many based on George Lucas’ instructions and artist Ralph McQuarrie’s and visual effects art director Joe Johnston’s original production illustrations and designs.
The sketchbook is a goldmine of early Star Wars memorabilia, with sketches of Princess Leia, Darth Vader, Stormtroopers and even Chewbacca. When The John Mollo Archive was offered for sale spanning his impressive film career, bidding was fast and furious. Fans and collectors pushed the auction price for the Star Wars sketchbook to a worthy $162,786.
WHY WE LOVE STORMTROOPERS
They can’t hit the broad side of a barn with an E-11 Blaster. They bump their heads on door frames. Some were clones (so small talk must have been pretty limited) but even more were roughneck recruits. So why is it that we all love Stormtroopers so much?
The stark white face and emotionless eyes make up one of the most recognized images in pop culture history. The Stormtrooper is a cornerstone of George Lucas’ screenplays and developing the perfect look of the helmets and armor was a tall order. Artist Ralph McQuarrie fleshed out the first iteration for the troopers (at an early stage when they all were thought to brandish lightsabers) early in the process. By 1976, a “Stormtrooper team” made up of sculptor Liz Moore, sculptor Brian Muir, who also developed Darth Vader’s helmet and armor, industrial designer Andrew Ainsworth, production designer John Barry and wardrobe designer John Mollo all worked to perfect the look.
Some original trilogy helmets are made of vacuum formed ABS plastic components, with rubber edging details and measure about 13 inches high by 12 inches at widest point at the base. The crown and sides is a single unit and the face panel is an inset panel. Experts and fans alike cultivate StarWarsHelmets.com, a site dedicated to costume details and the saga’s canon.
Demand for original Stormtrooper memorabilia has so far spanned decades and heads turn when one comes up for sale; even a replica helmet from the original trilogy era, sporting 23 cast and crew autographs, sold for nearly $5,000 against a $600 to $800 estimate last year.
COSTUMES ARE THE SUPPORTING ACTORS
“For the first Star Wars films, I wanted the costumes to be simple but timeless … Costumes modeled on the archetypes that audiences would find understandable and familiar,” Lucas said.
To Lucas, every detail of a costume was as important as the characters themselves and he imparted that belief through the saga’s first six chronological films.
Designer Ian McGaig understood Lucas’ concepts and McGaig key costume designs for A Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith and The Force Awakens are perhaps the most superior work across all eight films. McGaig’s genius was a cornerstone of the wildly popular traveling exhibit titled “Star Wars And The Power of Costume,” which ended its run late last year, showcased more than 60, hand-crafted costumes from seven of the saga’s films. The exhibit is a celebration of the remarkable creativity of the designers and artists whose behind-the-scenes work made the movies so memorable.
Transforming themselves into the most popular creature in the saga’s history, actors Peter Mayhew and Joonas Suotamo endured the uncomfortable Wookie costume for long hours and limited breathability. Mayhew was the first to make the Chewbacca character famous and Suotamo stepped in for The Force Awakens.
Designers covered Mayhew’s 7-foot, 3-inch frame with a knitted wool base and a hand-knotted surface covered with 15 pounds of multicolored yak hair and mohair (the long, silky hair of the angora goat). In 1977, make-up artist Stuart Freeborn marked sections of the long brown mane of the headpiece as “eyebrow,” “lower eye” and “cheeks” so it could be perfectly placed on Mayhew for continuity during his make-up sittings.
12 ACTION FIGURES CHANGED THE WORLD
Still considered a masterstroke of marketing, Kenner sold the first Star Wars action figures before they were even made. Children yearned for toys immediately after the May 25, 1977, debut of Star Wars: A New Hope, but Kenner simply didn’t have time to produce action figures by Christmas.
Enter Ed Schifman, Kenner’s design manager. He came up with the idea of the Star Wars Early Bird Certificate, which became the must-have gift for Christmas 1977. The package was a simple cardboard stand and a mail-in coupon guaranteed the lucky recipient would be among first to receive four figures between February and June of 1978.
And on that lucky day, Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Chewbacca and R2-D2 arrived with standee foot pegs. A few months later, kids rushed to stores to buy Han Solo, C-3P0, Ben “Obi-Wan” Kenobi, a Jawa and four villains: the Death Squad commander, a member of the Sand People, a Stormtrooper and the dastardly Darth Vader. The set is now referred to as the First 12 but it’s the campaign’s ephemera, the paper store displays never expected to survive 1977-78, that has become as valuable as some of the figures themselves.
Today, Star Wars is the No. 1 property and the No. 1 license for boys ages 6 and older. Star Wars toys and collectibles hold a solid lock among the top five licensed sales across all ages and industries, as tracked by global information company The NPD Group.
That’s a lot of Skywalkers.
I attribute the increase in action figure prices to good old-fashioned nostalgia:
Cultural Recognition. In November 2012, Star Wars action figures were inducted into The National Toy Hall of Fame at The Strong. The toys were finally recognized for the impact of their original debut, which forever changed the toy landscape.
The “Original Trilogy Generation” Hits The Money Years. I belong to the “Original Trilogy Generation.” My son, who is 19, belongs to the “Prequel Generation.” While he’s busy paying for college and Ramen Noodle Soup, I have $1,500 to $2,000 burning a hole in my pocket for the First 12 figures Kenner released (lose with accessories) and the mechanical Early Bird Stand.
Falling in Love with American Pop Culture. The most unlikely private collectors have come public with high-profile auctions. Japanese fashion designer NIGO sold his high-end and diverse Star Wars collection (175 lots in total) for $502,202 in 2015. The 45-year-old collector sourced a rare and special Canadian 7-figure multipack from 1980, which sold for a whopping $32,500 against an $8,000 estimate.
ANATOMY OF A $60,000 ACTION FIGURE
When the first wave of the Russell Branton collection hit the market in 2017, hobby insiders took a deep, collective breath and double-checked their bank accounts. The collection was world class, offering every figure and vehicle in the best quality available.
From 1977 on, prices for individual figures hovered between $5 and $20, with a smattering of vehicles surpassing $400 if they featured battery-operated sounds and lights.
“The biggest value in this collection are in three basic figures,” said Todd Scheffer, Production Manager at Hake’s Auctions. “When [Kenner] went to make carded figures, Darth Vader, Luke and Obi-Wan Kenobi had “Double Telescoping” (DT) lightsabers for an extremely short time; they were made, went out to stores and were immediately replaced with a different version.”
The concept behind the George Lucas’ use of swords (aka lightsabers) in the films was critical, so it was important for Kenner to represent the weapon economically while retaining eye appeal. Figures with DT lightsabers featured a colored sword hidden inside the figures’ arms. Inside that protruding sword was an additional, very thin tip that extended beyond that. Figures of Luke Skywalker with this feature are the most commonly found and real rarity sets in for figures of Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi, of which only a few examples are known to exist.
By far, the most popular modern character is Ahsoka Tano. An encased figure from Star Wars: The Clone Wars Vintage Collection can sell for more than $200. Hasbro’s 2011 American-released Ahsoka Tano figure with two lightsabers, mint on card, now sells for more than $150.
Wouldn’t we all like to have some of the objects that influenced our culture, to own a piece of the faith and magic, and view this world through the eyes of other fans? All it takes is a little imagination, a little (and a lot) of money and a passion for a universe of ideas that changed how we view the movies and popular culture. λ