LEGO Star Wars
Photo by Matt Hudson on Unsplash

Exclusief interview met LEGO Star Wars designers Henrik Andersen en Jan Neergaard Olesen

De LEGO Star Wars ontwerpers beantwoordden onze vragen op Heroes Dutch Comic Con 2022

LEGO® en Star Wars zijn al jaren onlosmakelijk met elkaar verbonden in de vele LEGO sets die door de jaren heen zijn verschenen, naast natuurlijk de videogames. In november waren senior designers Henrik Andersen en Jan Neergaard Olesen in Nederland te gast op Heroes Dutch Comic Con. Rob en ik kregen de gelegenheid om beide heren aan de tand te voelen om erachter te komen hoe LEGO Star Wars sets gekozen, bedacht en gemaakt worden.

Could you introduce yourself to our Dutch readers and tell us a bit about your work at LEGO?

Henrik: My name is Henrik Andersen and I am from Denmark. I’ve been working for LEGO for almost 25 years. A lot of those years in Star Wars, but also for LEGO City. I am a model designer, so I build LEGO Star Wars sets as a job. 

Do you do everything or do you focus just on certain models?

Henrik: I do many different things, I do all the small models you get at the Star Wars magazines, and the polybags. And I also do a lot of the big collectible models, the UCS (Ultimate Collector Series) models. I’ve done the big AT-AT and the big Star Destroyer.

Jan: I am Jan, I am also from Denmark. I am a senior designer for Star Wars and have been since 2009.  I’ve been at the LEGO company since 2001. So I’ve been in Star Wars for quite a while. And I am quite allround, I’ve been doing a lot of the Microfighters for instance, Brickheads and a lot of the playsets. So not the bigger size models like Henrik, but more like the middle-sized models.

What is your personal connection to Star Wars?

Henrik: When I started working for LEGO, I watched Star Wars, but I was not a fan immediately. In time it grew on me and now I watch all the new series when they come out. But I am not such a super fan. I don’t watch all the animation or play all of the games. But I do like Star Wars a lot.

Do you have a favorite movie or series?

Henrik: My favorite movie is Rogue One. I really like that one. And normally my answer is that I haven’t seen a bad Star Wars movie.

So you don’t consider your work at LEGO a “job”?

Henrik: No, I am not going to ‘work’, it’s a part of me, working with LEGO and in the Star Wars universe. 

Jan: I think that is the case for a lot of people working at LEGO and at Star Wars LEGO, that it’s not just a job. We are really motivated because it’s a part of us. That’s the nice thing about working at LEGO; everybody is very passionate.

What is your background, how do you become a designer at LEGO?

Henrik: I’ve always built a lot of LEGO, and it’s always been my dream job. At one point I wanted to be an architect, but I didn’t have the grades. So I applied for a job at LEGO, and it’s been almost 25 years.  I don’t have a grade in anything, I was just good at building LEGO.

Jan: I also built a lot of LEGO as a child and then I stepped away from it. I went to high school and got a degree in Industrial Design and then I saw a job at LEGO. It was a temporary job in Production. I had to do some models for LEGOLAND in Germany and I thought “That could be interesting!”. So I started there and then I sort of expanded and I applied for a job in the department I am currently working in: LEGO PMD. So it’s a little bit of a different path than Henrik.

Could you tell us about the process of deciding which LEGO needs to be built? Does Lucasfilm come with an idea, how do new sets get proposed and how does that work?

Henrik: When we start up a new set it’s a co-operation between us at Design and then Marketing and then also Lucasfilm. We have discussions and talks about what is new content coming out, what could be interesting, what could be interesting of old content to do. Then it’s our creative lead that makes the overview of what products we would like to make, and then we can give our opinion. Most of the time we can select and go like “I would like to build this one”. So everybody’s happy. It’s an on-going process, really. Every year we’re saying: “Oh, it would be so nice if we could do this or that set this year!”.

Henrik: I don’t have a grade in anything, I was just good at building LEGO.

Before you start the set do you have to do a lot of research? 

Henrik: We get reference photos from Lucasfilm, and especially for the old content we already have a lot of reference material. For the playsets we are always thinking what scenes or which duels would be nice to make and what would its function be.

Jan: And then we really watch the scenes over and over again to see if there are some specific parts that could be interesting to make. 

My own 3D imagination is horrible, so I can imagine that you guys get a clear idea of how a set would look like pretty quick. When I build a LEGO set, halfway through I still don’t know how the set’s going to look like in the end.

Henrik: Yeah, when we start a model we already have a good idea of what structure we will go for and in what order we will have to build stuff. We also have a lot of knowledge about our target group. It makes a big difference if you’re making a product that an 18-year old can build and a 6-year old cannot. That’s why we work together a lot with our Building Instructions people. We also have a department called model coaches, they help us in looking at our model from a fresh perspective outside of our department. If certain parts are too complex they can tell us to make it easier to build, maybe change a color here and there. So it’s not just us sitting with our model, it’s a co-operation between a lot of people in different departments. 

Jan: It happens when there are models that require a brand new idea of how to build it because there is a specific function. Ofcourse in those cases it’s a little bit more tricky than when you have a model where you know, based on your experience, how to build it. 

Henrik: One of the more challenging things when designing these sets is that you have to rethink how to build it. And it happens that there is a specific function that requires a lot of technique, then for example we can go to the Technic department and ask the most experienced guys how they would build this, to make a set stable or let it do something functional – like the ability to rotate.

Does it happen that you are stuck with a model for a while, that you don’t know how to move on?

Henrik: Yes, and then we try to help each other. And then just before you go to sleep you get the idea. Or it can be in the middle of the night. This can be super annoying sometimes, and also quite frustrating!

Is there a particular Star Wars set that took more time to design than others, what are some of the biggest challenges that you’ve faced throughout the years?

Henrik: For instance, I built the big AT-AT (UCS). And we’ve been talking about that one for over twenty years. But never thought that we could really do it and make it as stable as possible. So I did some preparations and then when I finally got the “Go” I spent about 8 months designing it. But this has been twenty years in the making!

It’s a beautiful thing; Marc, a friend and colleague of ours, owns one and he’s really impressed with it.

De LEGO Star Wars AT-AT (UCS-schaal).

How would you describe your knowledge of individual bricks, and is this necessary for creating a design?

Henrik: It is, and we have over 3500 different bricks. in many different colors. It’s very important that you at least know about most of the bricks. And we have a brick room that we go into where all of our bricks are set up, so that we have an overview. And also new bricks come in, so we go there a lot for inspiration. If we see a LEGO element in pink for instance, we can go like “oh, imagine if that was gray, then we could use it for this” etc. Most people have a lot of knowledge about the different bricks.

Jan: Sometimes it’s required to create a new brick with a specific shape, but oftentimes we can build something by combining ideas for the bricks that we already have. Sometimes however, it is required that we invent a new brick.

Yes, could you tell us more about that? How do you decide when a new brick has to be made?

Henrik: Most of the new bricks we do in Star Wars are character-based. If there’s a new character with a certain hairstyle, then ofcourse we’ll have to do that – if it’s an important character. It could also be a weapon, or whatever. But sometimes it’s also a matter of creating a new element for a new spaceship for example. Especially cockpits. But then ofcourse we always consider by asking ourselves if it’s really necessary, because it’s very expensive to build a new mold. And then we also ask ourselves: “If we do this, what else could we use it for?”. So that we can put it into more boxes, to make it more cost-effective.

How do you decide what vehicle or setting is a good LEGO set?

Henrik: We work a lot with Marketing, but also realize that the main character needs its own vehicle. But we also discuss side-vehicles, like not a main vehicle of a show or movie. Does it look like Star Wars, does it have the right feeling?

You have to be a Star Wars fan to be able to know that!

Henrik: Yes!

Jan: One good example is that if Star Wars is going underwater, and also with podraces and stuff like that, it’s kind of like Star Wars but it’s not the same as a Star Destroyer. Like, Gungan subs look kind of special. So we need to be crisp on, is this enough to be a Star Wars vehicle? Or should we wait or have a look at something else, is it too niche for example?

Henrik: And it’s also a bit different in what we can do, for example now that we focus on adults. They are more like hardcore fans, maybe an 80-year old. They have a pretty good idea of what Star Wars is and what they think is cool.

Do you have a personal favourite yourself?

Jan: We were doing models for The Force Awakens and then we were discussing if we should, you know, there was this Quadjumper that the characters (Rey, Finn en BB-8) run into while they run toward the Millennium Falcon and before it explodes you see it for like a few seconds. And then I was briefed on if I could make an explosion-function in the model. Per default we need to be really careful, because if it’s made for kids and you make an explode-function in the model they would not be able to put it together again. So we needed to figure out how we could do this. We’ve made a model before, a speeder, which also did that. And it was a very blocky and a stable build. So we wondered if we could make it like the ship wouldn’t eject parts and ‘explode’ while kids would be playing and flying around with it, so I made a safety function so that you cannot let the ship ‘explode’ while it’s in the air and flying, but only while it’s standing on the ground because of the touch on the lever. I’m quite proud of that one! Sometimes we have these things that are going really well and we get super lucky.

Henrik: My favourite is ofcourse the big AT-AT model!

Is your house also full of LEGO?

Henrik: No, not that much! But I do have a storage room.

Building LEGO makes me really zen and it disconnects me from other distractions in life like my phone or tablet. Do you guys also build LEGO at home?

Henrik: I do not build LEGO while I’m at home, but you could also say that I do because my way into LEGO is the fact that I do scale-modeling. So that’s my relaxation after getting home from work! I do enjoy building LEGO.

Jan: There’s a lot of models that I like, but the new AT-AT in particular because it offers a lot of functionality for the kids, and if you have a lot of troopers there can be a lot of ‘conflict’ in the set. And the way it is built, it’s not a total rebuild compared to the older ones – it’s more of a facelift. But it was based on some fans that wished for more troopers in the interior. And then I said that we really need to meet that requirement, it’s so important.

Thank you so much for your time, we really appreciate it and we are looking forward to future LEGO Star Wars builds!

Wij bedanken Henrik en Jan voor hun tijd om ons te woord te staan en natuurlijk de organisatie achter Heroes Dutch Comic Con en de Intertoys-stand voor de mogelijkheid om beide heren even te mogen spreken over LEGO Star Wars.

Star Wars Awakens
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