The Story Of Star Wars Toys

published on January 13, 2014 by Chris "Criz Bee" Bortz

Welcome to my interview with Brian Stillman, the director and executive producer of Plastic Galaxy, a documentary about the story of Star Wars toys.

Brian Stillman, a die-hard toy collector who focuses on vintage robots and ray guns from the 1930s through the 1960s, was inspired to produce a Star Wars toy documentary in early 2010. He financed the movie himself, until turning to Kickstarter in April 2012, hoping to raise enough money to fund the final stages of the movie. The campaign surpassed his original goal by far, allowing Brian to conduct more interviews, do more research and raise the overall production value of the movie (plus offer T-shirts for supporters!).

Now, three years later, Brian's ready to share his documentary with the world! He took time out of his busy schedule to chat on the phone with me about his film.

Plastic Galaxy - The Story Of Star Wars Toys

Q: Brian, thank you so much for taking your time to talk to me about your film, Plastic Galaxy - The Story Of Star Wars Toys. What prompted you to do a documentary about Star Wars toys?

A: I grew up with Star Wars toys, I played with them when I was a kid, and I loved them. But, I was never really a Star Wars toy collector. When I finally came back to Star Wars toys, I also started doing a lot of research. I am the type of collector who really likes to know the history, the background and everything about the stuff I collect. I collect information as much as I collect the objects and the toys themselves. I just assumed that after 30 years, someone had made some sort of movie about those toys. I went looking for it, and of course didn't find anything. So I decided, if nobody else has done it, maybe I'll just do it myself. I am a documentary maker, journalist by profession, and I love these toys! So, I figured well, it would be a really fun movie to make, and it would be a great opportunity to learn more about this stuff and meet some cool people.

Q: How many people were involved in the production?

A: The production team was basically made up of myself and my production designer Karl Tate. He made all the artwork and assisted me on all the shoots. He also helped me to figure out how to approach the film. I did some of the animation in the movie myself, but I also worked with a friend of mine named Stephen Baker, who did the animation for our opening credits. We also worked with a guy named Chris Ianuzzi, who supplied us with a lot of original music for the film. We did a lot of little shoots on the side where friends helped out with some camera work here and there, but it was really, really small. When you do an Indie movie like this, to keep the cost down, you try to do as much as you can on your own.

Q: So, does the film start in 1977 and end around 1985?

A: Technically it starts in early '77. It goes from Kenner receiving the script, and thinking it's a good idea, and then the main narrative arc takes you through Power Of The Force. So, it's sort of the Kenner years. I found that the real narrative arc exists within those Kenner years, because after that, the creation and production of Star Wars toys is sort of part of the big machine. In the 90's, all the pieces are in place; it's much more like your normal toy industry. But those first years, those early years of the vintage line, they were kind of winging it, and I find that really interesting. It sort of created the machine that is now very much in place as part of this normal toy production world. So that's where we really focused the narrative.

Q: How did you decide who to interview?

A: It certainly depended on who wanted to talk to us. When we first started, I really had no idea who would be even interested in doing this. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to talk to Kenner people, obviously. But I also wanted to talk to collectors. I wanted to talk to people like Gus Lopez, Ron Salvatore, Chris Fawcett and Steve Sansweet. Sort of the quote, unquote big names in the hobby. People who really made a name for themselves, or impacted the hobby in different ways. But I also wanted to talk to people who are basically like myself. People who just love the toys, collect the toys, and haven't necessarily written books or anything like that. I think they are really the people who are keeping this hobby sort of alive. So, that's basically me, because I just love the toys and I collect them. I knew I kind of wanted to get that kind of range.

They all contribute to the story in a special way. The Kenner people can obviously talk about the history and the background, and what it was actually like to make those toys and be part of it. The experts like Gus, Steve, Ron and those guys, really have a sense of the history as well, and they really have the information because they've talked to a lot of Kenner guys already, and they really made their presence felt in the hobby through their research and through their contributions.

And I also wanted to talk to the collectors because they are the people who can bring the humanity to the whole thing. Instead of me saying "these toys are cool", instead you are hearing from a person talking about how much and why he loved the toys as a kid; you end up walking away saying "hey these toys are really cool!". So you sort of absorb those ideas through hearing from the people who played and lived with them and collect them today.

But, I didn't know specifically who I was going to get, so I just cast a wide net. I was really surprised how many of the collectors raised their hands and said that they'd liked to be interviewed.

People put me in touch with Gus, and that's how I kind of became friendly with him. He put me in touch with other people, and then it sort of spread that way, and that's how I met a lot of people in Seattle in SARLACC. And the Kenner guys, you track one down and they give you the names of some of the others. Then you reach out to them and hope for the best. I actually had a Kenner guy, Ed Schifman, who was the design manager - and he is the guy who sort of originated the idea of the Early Bird set - he actually reached out to me, which surprised me. He heard about the film, and I don't know how, but he sent me an email saying he'd like to be a part of it. So that was cool, Kenner guys tracking me down. That was a lot of fun!

Q: Did you get a feeling for what it was like designing and working on Star Wars toys at the time by talking to Kenner employees? Were they excited and happy to be working on these toys?

A: You know talking to the Kenner guys, I was struck by how many of them seemed to think that it was just fun. You know, it is what you always kind of hope, you know, you hope that they think it's as cool as we think it must have been, and they seemed to get it. They really seemed to understand that they were part of this big pop culture phenomenon. One of the guys told me that he would have loved to have worked on Star Wars, but couldn't, but this felt like being able to work on Star Wars. He wanted to be part of the movie, but he gets to do all this stuff. So they felt they were part of it, part of this phenomenon.

They all thought it was fun designing stuff which was not your typical toy. They weren't creating another fire truck, things that exist in the real world. They were creating X-Wings and the Falcon. They were creating things that were sort of fun and imaginative toys, and they were different. So they really enjoyed that. But they also told me that it was really, really hard work. One guy told me that they had to come in on Saturdays, they had to sometimes sleep overnight. He said he had a cot in his office. And this was not like today when you hear this all the time with Internet companies. This was 1977, 1978, 1979, so a totally different environment, and they were doing all this stuff. He told me about people just freaking out because of all the pressure, you know, all the stress and all the work and this sort of endless push to get this stuff out. So, as much fun as it was to be part of it, it was also a lot of work, especially for the managers who had to kind of take the heat from the upper management.

I mean, think about it, you are putting out the biggest toy line in the world and that the world had ever seen. You are making millions of dollars for somebody and you are keeping up with astronomical levels of demand. That's a lot of pressure and a lot of work.

Q: Nobody knew and expected Star Wars to be so incredibly successful. So, when did Kenner realize that the toys were going to be a hit?

A: They said they figured it out as soon as the movie came out. The problem was, that was in May, and in order to have stuff out for Christmas you really need to give it a year lead time. That's why we have the Early Bird set. The original plan going into it was, they signed the contract in April, the movie came out in May, and they are thinking: we are going to put out some puzzles, some games, things that aren't hard and expensive to do. And you know, we'll get a little bit of success out of it. And then Star Wars hits, and they go, ohhh - ohhh, this thing is going to be huge and we are sitting on something that's going to be massive! And, we are totally not ready! That's why they put the Early Bird set out. The Early Bird set was really their reaction to understanding to just how big this thing could become. They were scrambling to basically catch up with this massive property. So, they figured it out right away, but not early enough to help with that Christmas.

Q: Were there any real surprises when you talked to Kenner employees? Anything that you didn't expect at all?

A: You know, the funny thing is, to a certain extent there weren't any real surprises when they talked to me about how they made the toys, because they didn't create a new process for toy development. It goes through the same process, the same sort of brainstorming, the same as it would be for any toy. So, it wasn't surprising, but it was still fascinating to hear what they had to go through. Hearing about those production meetings they would go to, where they were basically pitching ideas all the time, and if your direct manager thought that there was any sort of merit to the idea, you would go to these other meetings with the heads of the departments and Bernie Loomis who was the president of Kenner. So basically, here is a designer, he would pitch an idea to them, and he would have drawings, concept sketches, things like that. And he'd explain what they do and then cross his fingers and hope that they liked it. And more often than not, it wouldn't necessarily fly because they were pitching all sorts of ideas. Tons and tons of ideas. But, every once in a while they'd go for something. That was fascinating to me, hearing them talk about that.

I got to see a lot of things that they came up with that never went anywhere. One of the designers talked to me about this sort of blow-molded, plastic Snowspeeder that you would sit in, and if you are a little kid you'd sit in this thing, and it could project images of Tie Fighters and stuff on the wall. And then you would have a little, like, LED laser gun or some sort of light, so that you could shoot at it. They never made it. Obviously they couldn't do it, it was too expensive to make.

Another thing that I found really fun, was learning about the Imperial Troop Transport, because that was one of my favorite toys as a kid. I interviewed the guy who ended up designing it, this guy named Tom Troy, and that was really cool. He walked me through the process and showed me early design sketches. The reason they made the Troop Transport was because they already had a relationship with this company that made talking devices, and they wanted to maintain this relationship by doing a Star Wars toy.

When they came to them, they said come up with something that we can put a talking mechanism into. Their first idea wasn't a vehicle, but kind of this giant lizard thing that somebody would ride. I don't know if it would talk or make noises, who knows. Then they started working on vehicles, and one of the vehicles was this weird kind of hover motorcycle that was almost like a tow truck; it had a piece on the back, and he showed me the sketch and on the back was a platform with a landspeeder on it. And the guy riding this thing looked like Boba Fett! It was almost like Boba Fett was like a repo man or something, reposessing Luke's Landspeeder. So that was one idea that they had. Then he took me through different steps, the evolution of the toy, and then we eventually ended up at the one that that was released.

And also as a huge fan of R2-D2, I was thrilled to learn that they originally were going to sell it with a black R2-D2. It was going to be kind of the Imperial Astromech droid. And he had this photo of an Artoo that they had painted black and the blue details were still there. And this thing was just awesome and cool to see!

Q: It's always interesting to hear about original Kenner designs, and it's astonishing how many times Hasbro has gone back in the modern toy line and re-used those ideas.

A: It is really cool, but it's not something the movie got into. But that's a really good point, you look at a lot of the stuff today and it is interesting to see how many of the things they just re-did. The first wave of toys (in 1995/1996) basically just pulled from the old molds. I actually had one of the guys from Kenner tell me that he was really impressed with a lot of the toys nowadays, because they can do things today that they obviously couldn't do in the 70's. But at the same time he felt really proud that a lot of their original designs kind of survived to today. And maybe it changed a little bit here and there, but it's clearly recognizable that they were pulling from their early stuff. He thought it was cool that their ideas lived on, and then sort of got the update. So it's like, oh that's the version of the toy I would have done in '77, if I could have, but we didn't have the technology back then. So I thought that was neat.

Q: Were you able to get an answer why Luke Skywalker's lightsaber was yellow?

A: We did talk about the design of the lightsaber, but we did not talk about the color. Part of the problem with doing these interviews is they don't often remember the tiny, tiny details. It's like anything, you are just doing your job. Even if you recognize that you are part of this cool thing, they are not really writing down notes. If you'd ask me why we did a certain thing in this magazine seven years ago, back when I was a magazine editior, I'd be like, man I don't remember. I don't even remember we did this in the first place. So we are asking these guys to talk about something that was thirty-something years ago, and yeah they remember a lot of it, certainly, but there is a lot of stuff they don't remember.

When you talk to the Kenner people about why the lightsaber is yellow, unfortunately there is no real good answer. It is unfortunate, because that is a thing that we always bang our heads against. Because, they could have made it any color - why yellow? On the other hand, I mean, they are just toys. This is a reminder, these are just toys. Why did they make it yellow? Because maybe some marketing guy said yellow stands out? Maybe that's what it was. Sometimes the answer is not really that interesting anyways.

There was one question that I had for them however, that always bugged me, and I did get an anwser. Is it a real answer? I will never know, but it at least is an answer. The panels on the Tie Fighter always bugged me a little bit, because they are so out of proportion to the body. And if you look at them, they are octagonal, but they are kind of like evenly octagonal, like if you took a circle and turned it into an octagon. And they are supposed to be more like an oval that's been turned into an octagon. That always kind of bugged me, and so I asked about it, and he told me that they didn't have a lot of reference material when they first started working. They only had one photo of a Tie Fighter, and it was sort of at an angle on screen, and when you look at a circle on an angle it gets foreshortened, which means it ends up looking kind of like an oval. So they made the assumption, well it looks like an oval, and it's at an angle, so if we were to look at it straight on it would be circle, or a circular octagon. What they didn't realize is, it's supposed to be more oval shaped. So that's why this thing is wrong. Because they had one picture and they guessed wrong.

Q: Besides interviews with collectors, do we get to tour any Star Wars collections in the movie?

A: The movie is full of collections. Any toys which you see in the movie are from people's collections. So that's all over the place, but then we also have people talking about specific toys in that collection. For instance, a collector named John Booth, who wrote the book "Collect all 21" - he told us about his childhood action stand that he still has and why he loves it, and why it's so important to him. We have a collector named Alex Miller talking about his complete set of loose figures, and then telling us why he has a second set of loose figures, and why he needs a third set of loose figures.

We have people talking about how they got certain toys, and why they like certain toys. That stuff is definitely throughout the movie, and we used that as a way to kind of convey why those toys are so interesting, important and cool instead of me just telling you "these toys are cool". I found it's more effective and more interesting to have people show you why, and have them talk about it themselves. So you sort of walk away understanding why people care about it today. That's a major, major component to the structure of this film.

Q: After seeing all these collections, did it influence you in any way how and what you collect?

A: I joke that our budget for the film was whatever it was, but I personally ended up spending double that, because every time you see cool stuff, you are like, oh man, I want to get one of those. Note! Very important, we never used Kickstarter money to help with my own collection. But my wallet certainly took a hit. I mean, you are seeing everybody's toys, you are seeing stuff that maybe you've only seen photos off. Or you are seeing stuff that maybe you've seen before, but you are seeing it in an entirely new context. And when you are see it in this new context, you are suddenly like WOW, this is actually really cool! Now that I see it set up this way, or with these other toys. And you are really getting an appreciation for things, because you are hearing people tell you why they are so awesome. You are seeing them in these really wonderful collections, and you are just thinking about them all the time.

We did a shoot in Seattle, and at one time we did a shoot at a store called the Toy Stable. When we were done shooting there, I was like, there is no way I am leaving this store without buying anything. I had been talking to someone earlier in the day about the Micro line, that I really started to become kind of interested in, and I walked out of there with the Death Star playset, the Micro set. It happened all the time, and you have to be careful as a journalist; you want to keep a line drawn between the people you are interviewing. You don't want to come across as, well, you do this interview, I buy stuff for you. You don't want to be influenced as a journalist because they are like, well I give you a few dollars off. So I really, if I ever did buy anything during a trip and it was somehow from a collector or some stores, you always really wait until everything is done. We interviewed some people who were pretty well known dealers and we were really careful to not buy anything from them while we were doing shoots.

I did need some stuff for the film. I bought a lot of toys that really were for the film. It sounds like a lame excuse, like oh yeah sure Brian whatever, but it's true. There were things I needed to show pictures of that I didn't own, so .. shucks, I have to buy it. Darn! But, you wait until you have some distance between the interview. But yeah, there were a lot of temptations.

I also was really influenced by how people displayed their toys. A lot of us collect the same basic toys, like I have an X-Wing, you have an X-Wing. I've got the first 12, you have the first 12. But, everyone displays them differently. Everyone chooses to highlight certain toys differently. Your personality as a collector comes through and how you choose to present these toys to the world. And what toys you put in the front, what toys you put in the back, do you display them in dioramas, or do you line all your figures up on shelves? And seeing that was awesome. And that impacted me not just in terms of my Star Wars collecting, but all the toys I collect. I'd come home and look at my shelves and be like, man, that dude's shelves were so much cooler than mine. So, that was actually a big part of it.

Q: Is the film aimed at hardcore Star Wars collectors only?

A: I have two audiences I need the film to appeal to, one are the people who really are into these toys and want something that represents the hobby well. Hopefully the film presents them with some information which they haven't heard before, because for them, I really went digging for stuff! But at the same time, I was really thinking about the audience that is more casual, people who had these toys as kids, who have fond memories of them and know they are kind of still around. Those people are not collecting them today, they don't really care about the minutiae of this thing, the tiny details and the differences between a Palitoy and a Lily Ledy thing. But, they want to know where these toys came from and the story behind them. So I really tried to strike a balance.

This is a movie that you can show to your friends, who think your collection is cool, but don't really understand it. They can watch this movie, and they'll understand. And then at the same time, the people who do know a lot about it, will find lots of stuff in the film which they had never heard or seen before.

Q: Are there any extras on the DVD, such as outtakes, or additional interviews?

A: I put a lot of extras on the DVD, that go a little bit more into the nerdier side of things. There is an extra on prototypes. I have lots of photos and videos of cool prototypes, stuff that maybe is a bit too deep for the movie and kind of might bore someone who is not that into it. But it's there if you want to see it. For example, we have pictures of the original sculpt for Darth Vader. If you want to see the original wax sculpt for Yoda, we have it. We also have Bill McBride talking about a 12inch Darth Vader hardcopy. We have an extra on the Micro line, which is kind of its own insane story, and we kept it out of the movie, because it didn't quite fit in with the bigger narrative. But man it's interesting! We tried to satisfy both sides of our audience by doing stuff like that.

I can also say, that there is even going to be more. Now we have four extras on the DVD, the Micro Line, Prototypes and we included the "Know Your Toy Lightsaber" video that we released last year online, just so people could have it. We also put in a really quick short little thing, it's kind of the origin of Steve Sansweet. Like how he became a Star Wars collector. It's very quick and not super in-depth. Steve can tell that story himself, but it's just a little something extra, because it's a cute story, but there was nowhere to put it into the film, so I said OK here we go.

We have hours of other stuff. I have enough material to do whole small piece on bootlegs, which we'll release online. I got outtake interviews, I got more stuff from the Kenner guys that I just couldn't fit into the film. It would have been endless. I know some people would have loved that, but it would have made it a little rough for the more casual viewers to watch. This stuff will see the light of day once I've recovered from putting this DVD out.

Q: Tells us how we can get your movie and what formats are available in the United States and internationally?

A: It's coming out on DVD in region 0, which means you can play it anywhere. So anyone should be able to play is on any dvd player or computer.

Q: So now that your movie is done, what's your next project?

A: I am going to sleep! Well, I don't know yet. I don't have a next project yet. I have a few ideas that I am rolling around, but nothing that I am really prepared to talk about yet. But, you know I've been working on this for three years, which is astonishing to me, and at this point I just need a break. I am always working on small things here in New York City, just for work as a journalist. But there are no big projects for the foreseable future lined up, because I need to recover. Also, I still need to promote the film, and there is sort of this whole next stage that I still have to deal with, and that's going to take up a lot of my energy.

Q: Well, I am glad it's done! The 40 mintues we saw in Seattle during the Star Wars International Collectors Event were fantastic and got everybody really excited about it!

A: Thanks! We added another 30 minutes to it, so it's 70 minutes and then the extras are another 40 minutes. We re-did a lot of the stuff that you saw during ICE. We added a lot to it, moved things around, so it'll be a different experience. I hope people will enjoy it and that it does justice to the hobby. It is available through the website now, and it will at a later point be availabe through Amazon.

A BIG THANK YOU goes to Brian Stillman for taking his time to talk to me.


Here is a teaser video of Plastic Galaxy: The Story Of Star Wars Toys

For more information about the movie, or to get in touch with Brian Stillman, please visit the official Plastic Galaxy website:

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