BUILDING THE FANDOM: INTERVIEW WITH STAR WARS REPLICA PROPMAKER STEFAN CEMBOLISTA
The Star Wars franchise has one of the most devoted fan followings of any property. Many fans are inspired by the space opera to create their props, costumes and artwork. Stefan Cembolista is one such fan, and his passion for prop-making, costume design and engineering has taken him to places many Star Wars fans can only dream of. As the chairman and head of engineering at BCD Props, the German-born, Belgium-based Cembolista specialises in creating detailed replicas of props and sets. These are displayed at conventions around the world, and even at Star Wars movie premieres. Cembolista’s installations have been exhibited at the Star Wars-centric Celebration conventions in Orlando, Anaheim and London. Cembolista and his team display an obsessive attention to detail that has gained the recognition of Star Wars creator George Lucas, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy and The Force Awakens director J. J. Abrams, amongst others.
inSing spoke to Cembolista at the press preview event for the 2017 Singapore Toy, Games and Comics Convention (STGCC) at the Friends-themed Central Perk café. This year marks the tenth anniversary of the convention, which is organised by ReedPop and will be held at the Marina Bay Sands Convention Centre over the weekend. Two installations created by Cembolista and his crew will be on the show floor: a life-sized partial interior set of the Millennium Falcon, and a life-sized replica of Rey’s speeder from The Force Awakens – signed by Abrams himself.
Cembolista was ebullient and had a twinkle in his eye, visibly passionate about his chosen craft and about Star Wars. He had arrived in Singapore the previous afternoon, and was treated to a night on the town by members of the Singapore Star Wars fan community. “It’s the best Asian food I have ever tasted,” Cembolista said of Singaporean cuisine. He was adamant that getting paid is not his primary motivation, describing the joyful reactions from fans when they see his work as “soul money”. Cembolista spoke exclusively to inSing about how he became a Star Wars fan, what it was like meeting Harrison Ford and Abrams, and the uniting power of Star Wars fandom.
INSING: What were the movies that had the biggest influence on you growing up, in creating your interest in costume and set design?
CEMBOLISTA: The first movies that gave an impact on costuming were not only the science-fiction movies like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, even the black and white series from the ‘30s, but also historical films. For example there was a submarine movie, Das Boot. My first prop when I was a little kid was the submarine. I built it for myself to play with my action figures. It was five metres long. I went into the big things right away, because the action figures were already quite big. If you want to play [with] them in that scenario, the set has to be quite big. My first replica was the boat, it all started with that.
When Star Wars came out in 1977, it was one of the few examples of a used future. People weren’t used to seeing science fiction movies where everything wasn’t shiny, and was instead lived-in. What was your impression of that style when you first watched Star Wars?
The first impression was that due to the used and worn effect, it felt authentic. It felt way more authentic than Star Trek, where the bridge was shiny and new and looked like it just came out of the yard. It was worn off, the characters were worn off, there was no typical brand new space suit kind of thing. And also, the story was so intriguing.
When Star Wars came out in 1977, my father started to hype me before the movie came to the theatre, just showing me the poster. Back then, we didn’t have social media, there were only posters. I saw the posters and I really wanted to see the movie. But he went silent just before the movie came out. As a little guy, seven-years-old, I went “bummer. I probably will not see it.” The day of the release, he pulled out two tickets, he brought me to the theatre and it took me maybe 30 seconds into the movie and I became a fan for a lifetime.
This is parenting done right.
What has your experience been meeting some of the professional costumers, prop makers and crew members who have worked on the Star Wars movies?
The crazy thing is we do that as a hobby community. We started maybe 20 years ago, and we got acquainted to Lucasfilm, to the filmmakers, to the production crew. By now, it has come that far that we exchange information, we learn from them how they build it. Meanwhile, with the world release of Rogue One in L.A., we were invited with our set to the [premiere]. So a fan set was at the world premiere of the movie. We had the TIE Fighter there. The TIE Fighter is built by a group which we cooperate with. The Belgian crew was kind of the example in the prop-building world. We started it. We had the first big-sized or full-scale props, and we showed them around in the world, thanks to ReedPop and Lucasfilm at the conventions. Other guys got into it. There was one guy in Germany who really took me as an example to start his own prop group. He created two, three TIE Fighters, and after that we started to cooperate. Now, we have two crews in two countries working together. So we built the tank from Rogue One. It’s a co-production, they built the tank, we built the crates.
The same thing with cosplay: the community of Star Wars is worldwide, it’s like a family. I was commanding officer for 15 years for our [501st Legion] Garrison, I founded it 15 years ago. It’s the same feeling. We got the honour at the world premiere to talk to the people who build the props for the new movies. The funny thing is, you really exchange information. They’re also interested in how we work. We work together with the guys who set up the Rogue One X-Wing at the red carpet. It was really great. Also from the old movies. Due to the fact that we visit shows for 15-20 years now, once in a while those artists are invited to the shows and you run into them in the hotel lobby. It’s the backstage talk you have with those people. You exchange the memory, the knowledge of building things. Building a prop is one thing. But making it look authentic like a real machine, that’s the weathering, that’s the detail. My crew members, many of them are very young, have never touched a brush or paint. They get into to learn those processes, so we share that knowledge.
With Star Wars, the fans are such an important part of the success of the films, and of continuing the legacy. How would you describe the power of Star Wars fans?
That’s a good and very global question, as we talk about the global phenomenon. The people from the 501st, Rebel Legion, Mandalorian Mercs, all the fan films and prop builders, we consider Star Wars as a kind of family. Due to the internet, you get acquainted to people like never before. This morning, I got a post from a friend from the Emirates. He’s a pilot, and I met him about a year ago at Celebration in Orlando. Yesterday, when we came in, all of a sudden, he was standing in front of me. I said “what are you doing here? You’re from Dubai. We’re in Singapore!” It just happened that he had a flight to Singapore. We took a picture and I posted it with the caption “Star Wars makes the world a small place, but the family of us is getting bigger and bigger”. That’s the feeling that Star Wars and the fandom of Star Wars brings us.
The special thing in Star Wars that I feel is that we don’t make any difference in culture, in race, in origin, it doesn’t matter. Whatever they share in their own culture, Star Wars brings them together. If you ask me, if everybody in the world were a Star Wars fan, there would be no wars.
What was that feeling like when you saw Harrison Ford walk onto your installation of the Millennium Falcon at Celebration?
That was one of the most stunning experience[s]. In all the years, we have those milestones: when we first met George Lucas, for example, it was like ‘oh my god’. For Star Wars fans, to meet this person, and talk with him, we never could imagine that this could happen. But Harrison Ford is a special one. He avoids the public, he’s never at conventions.
He’s a very private actor.
Yeah. And we heard about it. We’re in Orlando, and we heard he was on the main stage, which was not our stage, so we never even dreamt that he would visit us. We were busy backstage, and we heard some rumblings. We saw people from security walking in secretly, and there was a grey-haired man who looked pretty familiar to us. We had a quick chat backstage with him, and he enjoyed some Belgian chocolate. We watched him walk through the hallway of our Millennium Falcon. It’s a replica, fan-made, and to have the original Harrison Ford, Han Solo walking through, it was a dream come through.
We in Singapore will get to see that same installation this weekend.
Exclusively and for the first time in Asia. We have two sets: we have the Millennium Falcon set, which is the interior, and we invite all the visitors to come over, queue, we hurry to make the queue not that long, and have yourself pictured in the Falcon. Like seated at the chess table, or take a seat at the navigation console to find out the next hyperspace course so you don’t crash into a star, because it would be a very short flight if you do that.
What was it like meeting J. J. Abrams and having him sign Rey’s speeder?
The story with J. J. was very special. It was the first time we managed to actually get plans, pictures and reference material from Lucasfilm, a year before the movie came into theatres – top-secret material. It was a very hard procedure to get that done. We actually passed the president of Lucasfilm, Kathleen Kennedy. She knows us over many years, and she likes the idea that we built something. But still, there’s legal office, and legal office can overrule the big boss, because if they say it’s too risky to get the material out, they will not allow that. It was a vice-versa communication between Kathleen and the legal office, and it also came on the table of J. J. Abrams. J. J. Abrams was the man responsible, and he granted us access to the plans – we really got the secret plans. We actually created the bike in five weeks.
Many Bothans died to bring you those schematics.
Yeah, many of my brain cells also died to get this prop done. I worked day and night over five weeks to create the replica with the difference between the original prop and ours – only 5mm. Every scratch, every screw, every detail on the original bike is replicated. When the show started in Anaheim, J. J. Abrams came over in the morning because he wanted to see the creation. He just walked around the set from the backstage, and I just saw his face like very big surprise – like “wow”. He came over to me and he said “Stephen, actually your bike looks more authentic than the one we used in the movie”. In movies, you have moving images, some of the details can fade away. Ours is made for visitors to see live, so it must be accurate.
I was bold enough to ask him, “would you mind signing it for us, just for approval? Because you are the man who made it happen.” He said “cool idea”. I invited him backstage, and on the back side of the bike, pulled out my sharpie and handed it over. He said “where should I sign it?” I said “J. J., please don’t ruin the outside of my prop.” I opened the hatch and said “could you please sign here?” We had a little present for him: a BB-8 unit that was made from tropical wood by one of our prop-builders. On the chest, we used a sign – two arrows and a zero, which was from a TV series J. J. Abrams produced, Lost. He recognised it right away. He looked at the droid and said “is that for me?” And I said “That is our gift for you.” We tricked him a little bit with the signing thing to get him to his gift. He is very friendly and a very motivated man. Not only as a Star Wars fan, but also Star Trek, he’s brilliant.
He’s someone I admire, because he’s a fan who entered the industry and got to build upon something he loved growing up. To me, that’s the pinnacle.
It is, it is. He keeps on surprising people. He also published a book, I don’t know if you know that. S. I just read it a couple of weeks ago. It is one of the most amazing books I’ve ever read. It’s an amazing story, a complex product, it sucks you in. You have to read it in one turn. You don’t stop reading it, it’s a blast. That’s the thing with J. J. Abrams: everything he touches is a blast. Everything he touches is a success. I have not seen something that he’s done fail.
Finally, what are you most looking forward to in The Last Jedi?
Not the Porgs. [Laughs]. No, they’re adorable, but I’m a little bit afraid which kind of role they will play in the movie. For the moment, I’m getting an Ewok feel. But it’s still cool.
Technically speaking, for prop building, there are a couple of things that amaze me. There is an A-Wing which we know from the old saga, and I’m looking forward to seeing that in action. There is a new AT-AT: the AT-M6, the gorilla. We’re hoping that we’ll be able to build one. We have an AT-AT Walker from The Empire Strikes Back and it’s six metres high, at one-sixth scale. We use that at conventions and it would be very, very cool to add to the family, to add the AT-M6. Another thing we have seen in the teaser are those Sand Hoppers, the fighters that are scratching the surface of the desert planet. That would be another project. For our case, we are really interested in the props.
The story? Of course I’m interested. I want to know what happens with Rey! Where is Rey coming from? All that questions that they raised with The Force Awakens. They did a great job. Of course, they made one mistake. They made Rogue One, which tops it all. Rogue One is, for many fans, one of the most brilliant Star Wars films. I’ve talked to so many Star Wars fans, and their opinion of Rogue One is equal: it is top. For me, The Force Awakens, it is the perfect way [to] continue the saga. They made us, the fans, curious. They made new characters, but how can you top Darth Vader? He’s no longer there. We have a new villain. An evil villain who fights the good side. He’s psychologically unstable. It’s perfect.
I love the concept of Kylo Ren because he’s trying to live up to Darth Vader, just like the new movies are trying to live up to the originals, so he embodies that theme.
He embodies that. If we see the new characters that are just joining in with the old characters, it is just the perfect job. I’m really looking forward to how this story continues, and how it ends.
STGCC runs from Saturday 9th September to Sunday 10th September at the Marina Bay Sands Convention Centre. Please visit http://www.singaporetgcc.com/Tickets_Merchandise/ to purchase tickets.