Last year Master Replicas picked up the prop replica license from Lucasfilm and exploded out of the gates with high-quality, limited run weaponry from both the original and new Star Wars trilogies. Rebelscum recently had the chance to interview Stephen Dymszo, Vice President of Product Development at Master Replicas. Mr. Dymszo is certainly no stranger to the prop replica hobby – he is not only a long time collector of movie memorabilia, but has been creating replicas in his spare time for many, many years. Mr. Dymszo is one of the lucky few who have managed to turn their hobby into a successful career...
Q: How did you get started with designing props and prop replicas?
A: I was originally in engineering and construction management for many years. While I was successful and enjoyed my job, I didn’t really love my job. Anyway, I started out making models and prop replicas for friends on the side. By word of mouth (and later the internet) people that I had never met started contacting me about doing custom projects for them. e.g.; model cars, architectural models, airplanes, prop replicas, etc…
Eventually, this side-business started to get pretty prolific. In 1994, I was crazy enough to quit my engineering career of 14 years and go full-time into model making. My wife was actually very supportive of my decision. Shortly after leaving the engineering firm, I started S.D. Studio Ltd, which was awarded several licenses to produce prop replicas for the James Bond film series and later, Judge Dredd.
Q: At what point did you decide the time was right to make a pitch to Lucasfilm?
A: Actually, SDS originally sent a proposal to Lucasfilm back in December, 1994. I had partnered with an investor who was willing to fund the project. Several companies were vying for the license at that time, including Icons. I was informed a few months later that I didn’t get the license (obviously, we know who did). Over the next seven years, I patiently waited. Once it became obvious that the license would be available again, I started sending correspondence and calling Lucasfilm about doing the license. (Never give up, never surrender…) It wasn’t until around June of 2001, that we started to have any serious conversations about the possibility of Lucasfilm again awarding the license to anyone. They obviously wanted to be VERY careful as to who got this category again. Last year, I was able to partner with some really incredible people with extensive experience in marketing, finance, business management, licensing, etc. In January 2002, we officially formed Master Replicas LLC. I would never have been able to secure this license with just S.D. Studios. It was the entire team that really impressed Lucas Licensing’s management and convinced them to award the license to MR.
Q: I understand that Master Yoda owes you a debt of gratitude every time he goes into battle. Care to comment on the construction of his lightsaber?
A: The history of this particular lightsaber design isn’t quite as exciting as you might think. It actually started out as a joke… A few years ago, a friend of mine had purchased a box of antique flashguns at a flea market. He was showing them to me and he pulled out a Praco (we didn’t know what it was at the time). So he says, "Look, a droid caller."I said, "No…Yoda’s lightsaber!" We both laughed. He asked me to take it home and tweak it out, so that it would actually look like a lightsaber. (The original Praco looks more like a cigar lighter). So, I cleaned it up, added some model kit parts from my spares box, rearranged some of the flashgun components to look better, and Viola! A weapon for the Jedi master. Next, came the total dumb-luck part… My friend later sent pictures of the little flashgun to some of his friends. One of them happened to be the future author of the Star Wars Episode 1 Visual Dictionary. He asked if it would be ok to show the pictures to Lucasfilm. Eventually, it ended up appearing in the book as the official design for his lightsaber. I was floored to say the least. It is interesting that no physical prop exists for Episode 2. Whenever Yoda appears on screen with his lightsaber, both are in CGI form.
Q: Besides Attack of the Clones, in what other films might we have seen some of your work?
A: I have actually worked on only one major motion picture. Since I am under an NDA right now, I can’t say which one, but I can say that I produced about 40 weapons for the film. I only had about a month to pull it off, and that is one of the reasons that I never really wanted to be a Hollywood propmaker. I could never endure the stress! I also produced a detonator for Piece Brosnan to use in a BMW commercial a few years back. That was fun. (I had 24 hours to build and ship it…) Our Golden Gun replica appeared on television several times in various shows, and our James Bond gadget line appeared on at least ten different shows about Bond and his gadgets. It was really cool to see Elizabeth Hurley traipsing around flashing the Golden gun! We also produced a TV commercial for SDS featuring Desmond Llwelyn as Q. That aired on national television for about a week, I think. I never actually saw it on TV, but I got a lot of calls from friends and customers who did.
Q: The current focus for Master Replicas right now seems to be on weaponry. Any plans for models, masks, helmets, etc?
A: We wanted to start out with the most recognizable props from the Star Wars series. For the most part, when you think of Star Wars props, you think of lightsabers. We are definitely looking at other items for next year, and I am excited about what is being planned now. I can’t really discuss anything at this time, sorry. I can say that we want to have a large spread of items at varying price points. We didn’t want to base an entire license on $300 replicas, so we are also planning an entire series of other replicas starting at around $30 to $50. There might also be some VERY limited-edition, $1500 replicas …
Q: How much of a hand does Lucasfilm have in the reproduction of these props? Restrictions? Guidance?
A: I am glad you asked that. I have seen some fans on various prop boards expressing concerns that Lucasfilm wouldn’t want us to make the replicas completely accurate. I can definitely state from first-hand experience that that isn’t true. The Lucas Licensing folks are extremely concerned about the accuracy of the replicas. You wouldn’t believe how much time we spend with their product development staff. They have been great. They stare down every prototype that we submit and put it through the "acid test". We then get back a sheet documenting all requested improvements, corrections, etc. We then have meetings to discuss why we want to make a particular replica a certain way. There is lots of give-and-take. They have never dictated to us what to do. They have really worked with us and been considerate of our constraints. Remember, most of the props seen in the saga actually have several different versions representing what is seen in the film. There are the stunt versions, hero (or close-up) versions, throw-aways, etc. Most of the time, the details or materials are different for each of these versions. Our job is to produce a replica that represents what the "actual" weapon would look like in person, even though one "real" prop may never have existed. Lucasfilm’s people work with us to determine how best to make the replicas representative of what is seen on-screen.
Q: What sort of source material are you typically given access to in order to design an accurate prop?
A: Since the Star Wars saga is 25 years old, the original source materials vary greatly. Lucasfilm has a photo archive of 30,000 pictures, to which we have access. And of course, we have been to the archive several times. On one occasion, I had to travel to Ohio to visit the MOM exhibit, so we could get access to several props that were on tour there.
Q: One would assume that the props from The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones are pretty well documented. What sort of challenges do you face recreating the older classic trilogy items?
A: Like you said, the Episode 1 and 2 props were pretty accessible. All we had to do was schedule to make sure they would be at the archive when we were in town. Some of the original trilogy props however, have been missing for many years, so we had to rely on a combination of photos and back-engineering some of the parts from existing pieces. E.g.; the Hensoldt Wetzlar scope on the Han blaster. The Luke ROTJ saber, Luke ESB saber, training remote, and many other trilogy props related to us were still completely accessible, so that wasn’t a problem.
Q: The FX collector series sounds about as close to a real lightsaber as fans will be able to get. Can you tell us a bit about this next step in the evolution of prop replicas?
A: Out of everything we are doing, the Force FX series is probably the most exciting for me. For many years, there have been fan-produced EL sabers, but nothing like this. First off, we are obviously able to use the original Star Wars designs. Using that as a basis, we have included both a light-up blade and digital sound effects provided by Skywalker Sound. The blade is composed of very durable polycarbonate housing with an EL, or Electro-Luminescent, core. We hired an engineering firm to design the EL sheet and inverter to maximize brightness and battery life. The result is a "second-generation" EL blade which is brighter that what is currently available, while having 2 to 3 times the battery life. The sound effects however, are what really bring the saber to life in my opinion. The saber incorporates a digital board which reproduces the power-up, background hum, swing sound, four different clash sounds, and power-down. The up-down sound effects are synched to the EL sheet lighting on-off. It is very cool.
I believe the most attractive part is the $129 price-point. This price will hopefully enable us to get the Force FX series into stores like Sharper Image or Toys R Us, and even a Costco, or Sams Club. While these sabers are not quite as accurate as the $300 Collector’s Editions, they are darn close and are an incredible value for the money. In some cases, we had to make some design concessions to be able to fit all of the electronics and batteries in there. They are however, made from chrome-plated, machined and diecast metal and are very durable. We wanted the collectors to have a higher-end replica that they could take to conventions and movies and have fun with.
Q: Is the FX series going to be an ongoing line?
A: We currently have two sabers in the lineup; the Anakin, which will start shipping in late-May, and the ANH Vader, which is scheduled to be out in September. If these two do well, we could certainly make other sabers. However, not every design will work with the EL system. We have to carefully look at each prop’s design to determine if the electronics, batteries, and blade would fit properly. We don’t want to get too far away from the original design in order to fit the electronics in there.
Q: Any parting thoughts or comments?
A: Well, obviously for me, a consummate sci-fi and prop geek, this is a dream come true. Having worked in the collectibles business for the last eight years, (and being a big collector myself) I believe that I am pretty aware of what other collectors are looking for. So, I will try my best to make sure that MR produces the really cool stuff that the fans have been looking for all these years. Oh, and the Lucas archive is REALLY cool.
For additional details on the Master Replica props, be sure to swing by the official Master Replicas website - and while there don't miss "The Story Behind the Prop", which details the history behind each lightsaber (and blaster).