I won’t lie – I originally dismissed Lego Star Wars: The Freemaker Adventures. I love Star Wars, animation and Lego – there is no toy more therapeutic, or at least that’s how I justify my vast and ever growing collection. But to date I hadn’t really hit it off with any of the Lego Star Wars shorts, such as The Yoda Chronicles and Droid Tales. They were a little too absurdist, too slapstick and – insert snobbish sniff here – too young for me. Character design and costume, my area of interest, is limited by the use of blocky minifigures. Some day I will learn to not judge first, especially given that my initial reaction to seeing a copy of Star Wars Rebels pilot episode was near identical, and look how that turned out.
Inspired by the passion and enthusiasm of the creative team at Star Wars Celebration Europe in 2016 I eventually dove into this new show. Much to my delight The Freemaker Adventures is as driven by new characters and new stories as it is by madcap, brick-driven humour. Centred around a family of scavengers scraping to get by, the Freemakers continues the Star Wars tradition of exploring family, both found and blood. While set in the time period between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, it nods to all areas of the established Star Wars canon, through characters, ships, location, and, of course, design.
At this year’s Celebration panel was the revelation that Doug Chiang and his team were brought in by producer and Vice-President of Animation Carrie Beck to collaborate on designing the main cast. Previous Lego Star Wars projects have primarily played with characters long since familiar to audiences. The relationship between Lucasfilm and Lego was cemented in 1999 with the launch of playsets to tie-in with The Phantom Menace. Since then, physical Lego, videogames and animated shorts have all worked from tangible designs; adapting, translating and simplifying to suit the ‘minifigure’ format. If necessary, new design elements can be added – such as the newly minted General Syndulla’s ranking jacket and insignia in the new season of the Freemakers – but these elements are still built from a pre-existing design element.
Hera Syndulla and Mon Mothma are two of the newest legacy characters to join the Freemakers, alongside the likes of Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, Dengar, Hondo, and many more.
The Freemaker Adventures, however, was effectively working from a blank slate. Of course, with a strong supporting cast familiar faces, a familiar inter-film era, and nearly twenty years of existing Lego takes on the Galaxy Far Far Away, Bill Motz, Bob Roth and their creative team were far from working in a vacuum. However, as iterated again and again at both Celebrations Europe and Orlando, there was an emphasis on integrity of storytelling at every level of production. An active move away from the parody and pastiche of Lego projects to date, instead utilising humour (and the absurdity of life in Lego) to support and underpin the dramatic story. The Freemakers isn’t canon as such, but it is canon-adjacent or ‘canon paraphrased’. This means that while it is a world built of bricks, in which heads and limbs can be sent flying at a moment’ notice, it is still grounded in the lore of Star Wars and the ‘real’.
L: Zander season 2 concept by Doug Chiang, R: Zander season 1 concept by Doug Chiang.
Which brings us back to the involvement of Doug Chiang and his team in the development of the Freemakers. Doug Chiang, of course, has been designing Star Wars since the 1990’s, working on the prequel trilogy all the way up to the most recent Rogue One. He was an integral part of the unusual set-up for the costumes of the prequel trilogy that saw many costumes ‘designed’ by the concept art team in isolation before being passed over to Trisha Biggar and her costume team proper. This approach appears to be very similar to the process used when developing the Freemakers, in which Chiang and his team developed concepts that were then sent to Motz and Roth for review – at Celebration; ‘Doug Chiang gets to do whatever he wants,‘ joked Motz. These designs, once finalised and approved, were then sent to the the production team in Copenhagen where they were translated into the now familiar blocky minifigure form. Not unlike the designs being passed to a costume team for manufacture.
L: Kordi season 2 concept by Doug Chiang, R: Kordi season 1 concept by Doug Chiang.
Design is always important, particularly in a galaxy like Star Wars, to define and communicate character. This process allows the designs to be believable, rather than abstractly rendered blocks. Although that simplification process of translating into minifigures means many details are lost or merged, starting from a more refined point of reference means that key narrative and character elements can be prioritised and retained: the flighsuit of shipnut Xander; the utilitarian lines of pragmatic Kordi; the adventure at the core of Rowan expressed in his neckerchief and pauldrons, and that significant yellow of his jacket.
L: Rowan season 2 concept by Doug Chiang, R: Rowan season 1 concept by Doug Chiang.
By starting at a point that is more in line with the typical canon aesthetic of the rest of the Star Wars universe it is easier to overtly draw influence from other characters, organisations and designs. In season two, both Kordi and Zander are maintaining their established colour palettes and characteristics as their designs shift and evolve to show their new alliance (or should that be employment?) with the Rebel Alliance. Zander, ever the wannabe pilot, is now sporting a vest not unlike a rebel pilot’s mae west. Cordi’s new layers are reminiscent of Leia Organa on Endor. Most significantly of all, Rowan’s new look – the most radical change of the three – was drawn from Luke’s final costume in The Empire Strikes Back. With the evolution from his Luke-inspired yellow jacket to the more muted jumpsuit, an indication of his journey and new-found direction is being clearly communicated (and possibly a personal influence, given the Freemakers’ run-in with Luke himself in season 1.)
Familiar influences on the Freemakers
That final stage of design from realistic concept to minifigure design adds an additional layer of subtlety to these influences. The same vital narrative cues are still being delivered, but they are more uniquely owned by both the characters and the story. Thus unusual and exciting approach to design is both logical and uniquely Star Wars. It speaks volumes of the importance of the importance of the cohesive narrative across the franchise in all media, allowing the Freemaker Adventures to be thoroughly grounded and familiar while retaining and building its own personal identity.