Interview With LEGO Star Wars Lead Designer Michael Lee Stockwell
This year in Star Wars has been a banner year to be sure and many milestones were hit, but to many collectors, none more important than the 20th anniversary of the LEGO Star Wars collaboration.
One of the most celebrated partnerships in history, both LEGO and Star Wars have experienced two decades of great success releasing countless sets under their unique brand names. And with things really ramping up Star Wars wise in the next few years, this partnership seems like it will only get stronger and provide great products for years to come.
Celebrating two decades worth of success at every convention around the globe, many of LEGO's designers have become familiar faces as they proudly display their latest achievements to untold number of fans.
So, when lead designer Michael Lee Stockwell got a chance to return to his home country of Canada and celebrate 20 years of LEGO Star Wars in Toronto, he jumped at the opportunity to do just that.
We caught up with Michael and discussed all this and much more!
How long have you been with the LEGO Star Wars team?
Specifically, with the Star Wars team roughly 11 years, but 13 years with LEGO total.
Whatís the interplay like amongst the different properties? If youíre working on Star Wars, do you have much input into Harry Potter, or some Marvel project?
Itís not that rigid. Design resources are leant out to other projects depending on the demand, we donít always have our high times at the same time, so it makes sense to trade a little bit.
Itís a big open atmosphere where everyone is more than welcome to come in and wander through and look in on whatever project is going on. You may have colleagues in many different projects, so youíll find yourself visiting them whether itís a casual or professional manner.
How does the credit work on the different projects with so much collaboration?
Weíre anonymous for the most part, there are some designers who are also fans that will post the products theyíve worked on online on various sites such as BrickSet. The only products where the designerís names really get attached to the project itself is if itís a big UCS product.
Some of the creator and creator experts are quite good at doing designer expert videos for some of their products even if theyíre not big UCS models. We havenít done a lot of that in Star Wars unless itís been a big UCS project.
Talk about the UCS 20th Anniversary Millennium Falcon model and the exposure that comes with a project of that size.
A project that big, weíre all involved in it in some way but certainly one designer is assigned as the ultimate responsible designer for that project. My boss Jens (Kronvold) and I were in London for the launch of that model and it was crazy, the hype surrounding that project. Iím comfortable doing the marketing that comes with things like that.
Thereís been a lot of activity leading into the 20th anniversary of Star Wars around here and itís great. When thereís something to celebrate thatís great, and we want to be there, be part of the celebration.
Because of the way we work, with sets being planned and built so far in advance, weíre already working on the first part of 2021. We often forget to celebrate our achievements so itís good for us to sometimes take a break and step out of the office occasionally. And we really get charged up when we get to meet the kids and the people who are so incredibly energized by what weíve been working on, and that in turn re-energizes us and canít wait to get back and get to work.
Is there ever a bit of project let-down after working on something so large?
Maybe on a personal level, but Iím also a manager so Iím very busy juggling a lot of different things each day. I have a variety of things to do whether Iím looking at spreadsheets, or running meetings, and getting my hands-on pieces.
Describe the situation that led to you joining the LSW team?
What happened was, one of the guys that was involved with Star Wars was moving on to another project. He was mostly responsible for driving the development of new elements for the Star Wars project and they needed someone to replace him. So, I was recruited into the project and that was one of my responsibilities along with designing models.
Every time we needed a new character wig, helmet, armour, weapon, cockpit, whatever it was, I was the glue between the sculptor and engineer.
You talk a lot about putting stress on the sets and the elements and how the Falcon was the limit on how much stress you could put on a set. Is that still the case?
Itís not a goal to see how far we can go, the project itself is the goal, but we could definitely see that extra care was required. We brought in experts to look at the skeleton of the Falcon because although it has the same footprint as the original UCS Falcon, it has 2,500 more pieces on this model, and that adds a lot of extra weight.
So yeah, it wasnít our goal to see how big we could make it, but we were starting to see how much more engineering was required to get this thing to stand up to the stress the weight adds to the model.
Itís a toy still even for a collector so we donít want it to fail, and that is our main concern, it absolutely canít fail. Because if we were the least bit concerned or nervous about it failing, we would pull back and redo it. Go through the process again and make it right.
Talk about how important the 20th anniversary is, especially for the folks that have been there at LEGO the entire time?
Yeah, itís been very special. My boss has been with the Star Wars project from the start, so heís seen the whole process. And at LEGO itís not uncommon for people to celebrate 25th anniversaries, I was just at a 40th anniversary, itís an old company and people stick around for a long time.
Even also for LEGO as a company, 20 years with Star Wars, itís the longest collaboration we have with an external partner.
Do you worry about LEGO sets becoming so evolved that you wonít be able to improve on them and is technology, things like 3D printing, a concern for LEGO?
What got us through the last economical crisis, was the fact that we cut back to do what we do best, and thatís make bricks, and make models built out of bricks, and we will continue to do that. At the same time, we are constantly exploring new ways to push the limits on how kids play and what kind of new experiences can we give them. We are always looking at new technology and how it will harmonize and work well with the bricks that we have.
So, I donít know for sure where the technology will take us, I know weíre still going to be building bricks and models for a long, long time.
It seems, from a technology standpoint, like an almost untouchable industry. Iím sure LEGO has changed over the years in how the brinks themselves are manufactured, but at the end of the day, you still need to get designerís hands on bricks.
Yeah, thereís no magic button you can push that does it for you. Our process is still all about getting your hands on the bricks. We work with computers at the same time but most of us when weíre designing use a process called ďsketchingĒ where you can use a pencil, but most often itís with physical bricks.
So, when we start to explore a certain model we start building and basically see where it lands us. We look at many things including scale, what works, and what doesnít work. When it gets to a point where it looks like the neighborhood we want to be in, itís then weíll go digital and go back and forth between the two, digital and brick, until we arrive at the finish line.
The 20th Anniversary Millennium Falcon was a huge model, whatís a project that you havenít worked on yet that you would like to?
Iíve never actually been the principle designer on one of those huge sets such as the Falcon, Iíve got so many other duties that take up too much of my time. You really must clear your calendar for about a year in order to work on a model like that one.
For the larger sets, Iíve only ever been on the management side of things and giving the designers direction.
The UCS 20th Millennium Falcon didnít have to be that big, was that a driving force for the team? Going bigger?
The popularity of the original UCS Millennium Falcon was a huge success for my boss which he did many years ago as a side project, after work on his free time. At that time, they had never done a UCS project, that concept didnít exist prior to that, so they realized they had a real product on their hands.
The success of that model created such a high demand for more over the years that we always knew, we were never in doubt, that we would have to create a version two. The current one, 75192, is version two of that original model.
The blueprint, the mini-figure scale, was so right as an objective that we never considered changing the scale even though we have other scales of Falcons.
How is being the lead of a team now, a manager of designers/engineerís, changed your personal approach to design? Has your perspective change now that you're able to take a step back and see the overall picture?
My boss Jens provides the ultimate creative direction, and itís my job to manage that direction. Weíve worked together for so long now, that I know exactly what his thoughts are and Iím able to convey those concepts to the team quite easily.
Itís about extracting the best out of each designer that I can, and Iíve worked with these guys for such a long time I know which ones are best at certain things. Some guys really excel when they are giving opportunities to develop a playset, like the transformation of Darth Vader or something, and they are great at getting their heads wrapped around that scene.
Other guys excel at models and ships, others like small things, itís about matching the project to the designer.
Thatís great from a binary and management point of view, but what about from a philosophical point of view? Because half of the job is artistic and youíre a designer yourself, so has anything youíve witnessed from your team inspired to design differently or changed your perspective?
Sometimes its about guiding them, because some of them will get really attached to a certain direction on their model so my job is to encourage them to try a different approach, especially if itís not really working.
Trying to encourage them to look at it from a different perspective, thatís exciting for me as both a designer and a manger, seeing what I can extract from them.
LEGO design is unique in that you use both sides of your brain, left and right. Most folksí lobes arenít developed equally, some are more artistic, some are more analytic. Where do you think you fall in that spectrum?
If you were to ask any of my peers, Iím sure they would say that Iím a fanatic perfectionist, very detailed orientated. You asked, as a manager now, what has changed in me, I think being able to recognize that side of myself Iíve had to understand that there is a greater goal.
I need to make sure Iím able to step away from that perfectionist side and realize that we do have deadlines and we need to get things done. We canít worry about the tiniest of details and defend it at all costs.
A very important lesson I learned when I first started working at LEGO, and it was from a senior designer at the time, was that the consumer is never going to see all those iterations of the model that came before the final product. So, all your ideas that were cut, and it hurt to cut them, theyíre never going to see anything but the final product which is going to be great and theyíre going to love it.
You have to learn to not get too attached to your ideas and the product and thatí something I really try and convey to my designers.
So, you yourself are Canadian, whatís the make up like at LEGO these days? Is it a very international flavor? And whatís the size of the current Star Wars team?
Yes, very international. I heard very recently that LEGO is made up of 70 different nationalities, so weíve got people working there from all over the world.
For Star Wars, there are approximately 11 designers and 3 graphic artists.
As someone whoís played with LEGO their whole life and now works at LEGO for a living, whatís your all-time favorite set to either work on or just play with?
Right at this moment, Iím really stoked about the Slave I (75243) model. Itís one of the most recent models Iíve done and the fact that it encompasses all the things that I value most about design the best. It looks great but at the same time it has a ton of play in the model.
Thereís so much that works with this model that allows you play out a scene, and it really works great on all levels.
Growing up before the mini figure, my favorite sets were from the late sixties, the red fire truck and the wrecker. For me it was about pulling them apart and building my own sets out of the bricks, using my own imagination to build other trucks.
Some of the Episode IX sets have leaked online, what can you say about whatís coming up for LEGO without getting into spoiler territory?
As you know, weíve leaned into Episode IX heavily, and thereís The Mandalorian coming, and The Clone Wars as well. Those are all interesting and as a group we are excited to see how The Mandalorian does.
We really want to be wherever the kids are, so our understanding is that The Mandalorian is targeting the family. I think thatís a key part of the success, like the original films, and the wonderful thing about Star Wars today is that a real family experience.
What do you think when you hear about LEGO getting accused of revealing spoilers in either their early release of sets or leaks?
Weíre sad when that happens as we do everything we can to try and limit that type of thing from occurring. In the building and in the process that I work on, we do everything we can to keep it airtight.
But so much happens after we let go of it, on the production side of things, itís just really unfortunate that it happens, and I think it hurts everybody.
For a in-depth look at what LEGO Star Wars had on display in Toronto for FAN EXPO Canada and even more great stuff from Michael, head on over to our friends at RebelScum.com for all the details!
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