Younglings and Jedi Padawans everywhere will get the perfect introduction to the Star Wars saga with the new and adorable Star Wars Epic Yarns series. Crafted by twin brothers Jack and Holman Wang, the creators of Cozy Classics, the board books illustrate the most iconic scenes from the original trilogy using needle-felted characters and cleverly designed sets. From the encounter between Han Solo and Greedo to the high-speed chase in the forests of Endor, the delightful and kid-friendly approach of the stories help capture the imagination of younger fans as well as parents and guardians, making it an enchanting experience for all families.
I caught up with the brothers recently and discussed the process behind re-creating 36 scenes, their role in introducing Star Wars to a younger generation, and their hopes for the highly anticipated event Star Wars Celebration Anaheim.
The series launches with the original trilogy: A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. Each book features 12 iconic scenes with each scene summarized by one word. How did you manage to take something like A New Hope, which contains subplots and action-packed scenes, and condense it to just 12 kid-friendly words and scenes?
JACK: When you only have 12 words, you can only trace the main storyline, so we generally ignore subplots. And we want those 12 words to have as much narrative continuity as possible, so we don’t just pick the 12 most famous or best-known scenes in the movie. Instead, we pick words and scenes that we think will help advance the narrative. The first words in A New Hope are “princess” and “trouble.” These are kid-friendly words that set up the story: a princess needs help. The next words are “boy” and “learn.” These words summarize Luke’s story arc for the whole trilogy: he learns the ways of the Force. R2-D2 appears in the images for both “princess” and “boy,” which links the two storylines, and so on. That’s generally how we go about choosing words and scenes.
You’re also the creative minds behind Cozy Classics, a series of classic books (War and Peace, Moby Dick, etc.) that use the same concept. Star Wars is also a classic, but it’s a science fiction/space opera saga. How did the project come about? And was it difficult to transition from classic literature to a galaxy far, far away?
J: We met a rep from Chronicle Books when we went to the Bologna Children’s Book Fair in Italy in 2013. He took some of our Cozy Classics back to Ginee Seo, the head of their Children’s Division in San Francisco. She liked our work and invited us to pitch a project to them, so we shot for the moon: how about needle-felted Star Wars? She loved the idea and things took off from there.
HOLMAN: Our 12-word, 12-image concept has always allowed adults to introduce stories they love to children of any age, so it wasn’t difficult to transition from classic novels to space opera. We just went from abridging beloved tales of the 19th century to those of the 20th! From a technical point of view, recreating hard edges (droids, body armour, etc.) in felt presented a new challenge, but we came up with some new techniques that worked. Also, to handle the elaborate costume changes for Luke, Leia and Han, we came up with a system of removable heads that could be placed on different bodies. This maintained character continuity while allowing for easy costume changes.
I remember falling in love with Star Wars on a Sunday afternoon as it aired on a local television channel. Do you two have any fond memories of the movies growing up? Did any of your favorite scenes make their way into the books?
J: This isn’t a fond memory, but the first time we tried to go see Star Wars when we were five, we waited in line for a long time and were just about at the box office when the announcement came that tickets were sold out. We were crushed. But we did make it in on the second try! I was always mesmerized by lightsaber fights, and we have some of those in the books.
H: I have fond memories of having lightsaber fights with Jack when we were younger. Since we’re twins, it was always a pretty fair fight. The cardboard tubing from Christmas wrap was a favorite makeshift lightsaber, and we would battle until they were smashed to bits. Some of the scenes I loved included the trash compactor scene, the Yavin medal ceremony, and Luke on a Tauntaun, and all of these scenes definitely made it into the books.
The needle-felted dolls are so expressive and really capture the moment. What’s the process behind their creation, and on average, how long did it take to reconstruct a scene? Which scene from the original trilogy was the most difficult to recreate?
H: The figures are created through needle felting. It’s the process of sculpting loose wool by stabbing it hundreds, maybe thousands of times with special barbed needles. The stabbing entangles the wool fibers, which slowly gives the wool shape. It’s hard to say how long it takes to create a scene, since a lot of elements go into any one scene. For Star Wars Epic Yarns, each figure took anywhere from 20 to 60 hours to make. The first five months of the project were devoted exclusively to felting the figures. Only after most of the figures were made did we start photography. If a scene required a studio set, it generally took two to four days to build. If a scene required an outdoor location shoot, it took anywhere from a few hours to a few days, depending on the weather and the travel involved. The process of creating 36 images plus three covers for the series took nearly a year. The hardest set to recreate was probably the white blockade runner hallway, mostly because of all the curved elements, which were recreated with pliable foam sheets. And we used dry ice to recreate the swampy vapors on Dagobah, so those scenes were tricky, too.
In addition to the dolls themselves, you also constructed detailed backgrounds and scenery for the photo shoots. Did you do any location shots? Any traveling to Tatooine’s hot, sandy dunes, by any chance?
J: We definitely did location shoots. Except for lightsabers and Force lightning, there is no digital illustration in the series. None of the backgrounds are computer generated. So for the Hoth scenes, we went up to one of the local mountains near Vancouver during winter. For the Tatooine scenes, Holman and I traveled down to Arizona and California. In fact, some of the location shooting was done at the Imperial Sand Dunes just outside of Yuma, Arizona, where George Lucas shot scenes for Return of the Jedi. So we definitely went the extra mile to get the books right.
Now that the books are done and printed, what did you do with the dolls and the backgrounds? Were they placed in storage or put on display?
H: I bought a large fireproof lockbox for the figures to make sure they were safe and secure during the making of the books. The figures still live in the lockbox now. We haven’t displayed the figures publicly yet, but so far I’ve brought them along to my speaking gigs in Vancouver, San Francisco, Asheville, and Austin. As for the sets, I really have nowhere to store them at my house, so they’re taking up a ton of space in my parents’ crawl space, much to their chagrin!
J: Since I’m in England at the moment on a writing fellowship, I’m working on a public display of some of our felt figures in London for May the Fourth. That would be really fun if it happens.
Working on crafts usually requires a good amount of space to spread your work around and to keep materials organized and within easy access. For this project, what did the work space look like? And what kind of materials do you prefer using or advice do you have in case some of your readers may want to pick up needle-felting as a hobby?
H: There is never enough space! My studio is quite small—only about 9′ x 12’—so space was always at a premium. Sometimes, once a set was built, there was barely room enough to move about in the studio. I have cubicles on one wall of my studio for organizing wool into different colors. I have a fairly large desk, but there’s a computer on it as well as a scroll saw, so that doesn’t leave me with that much room to work.
J: My advice for anyone looking to take up needle felting is to use silicone thimbles. Needle felting can a quite a hazardous hobby, and Holman and I have both stabbed our fingers many, many times. Silicone thimbles aren’t foolproof, but they certainly help.
I grew up watching the original trilogy, but I’m also a fan of the prequel trilogy (The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith). Are there plans in the future to tackle those films as well, since they’re also part of the saga?
J: There are no immediate plans to tackle the prequels—or Episode VII—but it’s a possibility. Of course, we would love to work in the Star Wars universe again, so fingers crossed!
What I find fantastic about these books is that they’ll introduce Star Wars to a much younger generation of children. A child who grew up with Epic Yarns: A New Hope will be familiar with the characters and scenes later on when they’re older. How exciting is that reality, the fact that you’re involved in bringing Star Wars to babies and toddlers?
H: Tremendously exciting. My kids are five and three. They’ve have never seen the original Star Wars movies, but they know many of the characters and the basic storylines through our books. Star Wars Epic Yarns will give parents license to quote movies lines, re-enact scenes, do bad Yoda or Darth Vader impersonations, and re-live the fun of Star Wars without having to wait until their kids are old enough to handle the movies.
J: It has always been our goal to make early literacy fun and engaging for parents and children alike. If parents are enthusiastic about pulling out our books for story time because they love Star Wars, then hopefully that enthusiasm for books will rub off on their kids.
Will you be attending Star Wars Celebration Anaheim? And if so, what sort of events will you be holding and what are you most excited to see?
H: Yes! Since Jack is overseas, I’ll be attending myself. I’m very excited to be speaking on a panel with Jeffrey Brown of Vader and Son fame on the topic “Star Wars: Bridging the Generations” (April 17th, 12:30 p.m.). I’ll be bringing some of our felt figures along, and there will be a book signing after the presentation. So we hope to see you there! This will be my first time at Celebration, so I’m keen on just about everything. I’m looking forward to the Cosplay Contest, viewing the collectibles, and maybe getting an autograph from Anthony Daniels or Billy Dee Williams!
It’ll also be my first Star Wars Celebration, so I look forward to seeing you there! Many thanks to Chronicle Books for the interview opportunity. I can’t wait to pick up a few copies for the younglings in my family.
The books go on sale April 14th, 2015. Visit Chronicle Books and sign up to its newsletter to save 20% on your next order!