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May 20, 2015

‘Star Wars Epic Yarns’: Jack and Holman Wang reconstruct the classics

Posted in: Books,Movies

The original “Star Wars” film trilogy is given a new spin in the word book series “Star Wars Epic Yarns.”

Created by twin brothers Jack and Holman Wang, “Star Wars Epic Yarns” breaks down each of the first three “Star Wars” films into 12 words, depicted by 12 scenes crafted in needle felt. The all-ages board book series features images of handmade needle felt versions of Luke, Leia, Han and other familiar characters staged on custom-built sets and in on-location photo shoots to reenact some iconic scenes.

The brothers, who are the team behind the “Cozy Classics” series of board books, answered a few questions over email to discuss their process, the most difficult elements in creating “Star Wars Epic Yarns,” and their favorite “Star Wars” film.

Obviously, the felt figures and scenes were not easy to craft. But how challenging was it to strip each “Star Wars” film down to 12 scenes and words? 

Jack Wang: It was definitely a challenge. Remember, it’s not just 12 words but 12 kid-friendly words, which means you only have a dictionary of maybe a few hundred words to begin with. And unlike ordinary word books, ours try to tell a story, so we have the added challenge of narrative continuity. You can’t just pick the 12 coolest scenes from each movie, which wouldn’t necessarily tell a coherent story. You have to trace the main narrative arc. For example, the first two words of “A New Hope” are “princess” and “trouble.” These are kid-friendly words that capture the essence of the story: A princess needs help.

An image from the "Star Wars Epic Yarns" word book series. (Chronicle Books)

An image from the “Star Wars Epic Yarns” word book series. (Chronicle Books)

What was the most difficult character or scene to re-create in felt? What was difficult about it?

Holman Wang: C-3PO gave me nightmares. Of the main characters, he was the last one I tackled. I lost sleep over how to could re-create all the hard edges of his body armor in wool. But I managed to come up with some new techniques that worked. In the end, I think our felt C-3PO looks a lot like the character we all know and love. In terms of a scene, recreating the white blockade runner hallway (where Leia gets hauled in front of Vader) was a challenge. It’s so distinctive and memorable, with its wall consoles and curved elements, that I had to make sure I got all the details right so as to not anger any “Star Wars” devotees!

What was your favorite character/scene to re-create? What made it your favorite?

HW: I loved shooting the Dagoba scenes because I used dry ice vapors to re-create the misty swamps. Our goal was to use as little computer animation as possible in “Star Wars Epic Yarns.” Only the lightsabers and Force lightning are computer-generated. Everything else was done in camera. So coming up with real world “mini special effects” like the haze on Dagoba was both challenging and fun.

JW: One of my favorite scenes is “run” from “The Empire Strikes Back,” which shows Luke running away from an AT-AT on Hoth. Holman and I went to one of the local mountains outside of Vancouver to get the shot in real snow, and I’m partial to it just because it was the first image we created — the first time [I] saw the “magic” of what we were doing.

The cover of "Star Wars Epic Yarns: The Empire Strikes Back" by Jack and Holman Wang. (Chronicle Books)

The cover of “Star Wars Epic Yarns: The Empire Strikes Back” by Jack and Holman Wang. (Chronicle Books)

How did you first get started in these felt interpretations of classics?

JW: Before “Star Wars Epic Yarns,” there was “Cozy Classics,” which abridges literary classics like “Pride and Prejudice” and “Moby Dick,” also in 12 words and 12 needle-felted illustrations. I came up with the concept after my first child was born. I was reading a lot of word books, most of which seemed overly familiar (colors, shapes, etc.) or uninspired (i.e., stock photography) or both. I started thinking about how board books could be more interesting for both kids and adults, and one day I alighted on the idea of abridging literary classics (I have a PhD in English). I shared the idea with Holman, and he came up with the idea of photographing needle-felted figures, and that’s when “Cozy Classics” was born.

Can you explain the steps that went into creating the books? Were the books storyboarded out first and then made sequentially in order? How collaborative is the process?

JW: Our books are word primers first and foremost, so we always start with the words. We chose the words for all three books at once to make sure we didn’t repeat any. Because all the words and images had to be approved by Lucasfilm, we storyboarded all three books, and these storyboards went through a couple of editorial rounds, first with our publisher, Chronicle Books, and then with the folks at Lucas.

HW: Once we got approval, we started felting the figures. We did most of the figures first, which took about five months. Only then did we start shooting. We both contributed to felting figures and creating spaceships, but I did the set-making and most of the photography. We definitely did not shoot the scenes in order, in part because we sometimes shot on location, which meant our schedule depended on the weather. As Jack mentioned, our first shot was one of the Hoth scenes because we needed to shoot before the snow melted for the year! Even though I live in Vancouver and Jack lives in Ithaca, N.Y., we try to work as collaboratively as we can. For example, we needed desert backdrops for the scenes on Tatooine, so we met up in Arizona to shoot on location. We even drove out to the Imperial Sand Dunes in California, where George Lucas shot parts of “Return of the Jedi.”

Among the great scenes depicted in the books is the one with Han Solo frozen in carbonite in “Empire Strikes Back.” How did you make carbonite Han Solo?

HW: We thought about creating frozen Han in wool, but we didn’t think it would quite take on the particular metallic quality of carbonite. So we used a prop, which was actually a plastic frozen Han piggy bank which stood upright, and you could drop money in through a slot above Han’s head. We laid it flat and it worked beautifully! We used a few props in the making of the series: an old Kenner AT-AT in “The Empire Strikes Back” and scale-model speeder bikes for the cover of “Return of the Jedi.” That said, we like to think that it’s not just Han Solo in carbonite but all the figures in the background and the atmospherics of the shot that make the “frozen” scene come alive!

Which is your favorite “Star Wars” movie?

JW: My desert-island choice is probably still “A New Hope.” The 20th Century Fox fanfare followed by the “Star Wars” score and the opening crawl still gives me goosebumps, just like it did in ’77 when I was 5!

HW: My favorite is “The Empire Strikes Back.” It’s dark, brooding and dramatic, and probably has the greatest revelation of a secret in cinematic history. Plus, there’s Yoda.

– Tracy Brown | @tracycbrown |@LATHeroComplex

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