A long time ago in a Hollywood far away, George Lucas is said to have offered Twentieth Century Fox the merchandising rights to his aborning space opera Star Wars in exchange for the funds needed to complete the film. The story goes that studio chieftains let the filmmaker dip deeper into the till, but hooted at the notion of tie-ins to a movie that starred a bunch of unknowns, a couple of robots, and a walking carpet.
Whatever the truth to this tale, Star Wars and its sequels defied the pessimists and minted millions at the box office. But the merchandising rights have grossed billions for Lucas, and are the foundation of his own moviemaking empire. This May, the empire struck back, with a new prequel, Star Wars: Episode 1--The Phantom Menace, an asteroid field of new collectibles, and, at FAO Schwarz in Manhattan, a new second-floor shop to showcase the galactic goods.
What was once 1,500 sq. ft. (135 sq. m) of floor space as barren as the desert planet of Tatooine is now filled with shoppers eagerly combing the racks and shelves for Lucas-approved merchandise that ranges from cuff links and bedspreads to action figures and the hugely popular double-ended lightsabers. Visitors are "greeted" by near-life-size mannequins of Phantom Menace characters including Darth Maul and Queen Amidala, as a videoscreen replays clips from the film in a continuous loop. This themed universe is topped off by models of the Pod Racer and Naboo Fighter vehicles from the movie, suspended upside down from the ceiling to offer visitors a closer look at the elaborate topside detailing of the spacecraft.
Though FAO Schwarz has a half-dozen or so Star Wars shops at stores nationwide, this was the first to spotlight the prequel. With a new movie to back up their experimentation, the FAO Schwarz development team decided to throw out the first rule of retail illumination and, rather than hit the merchandise with lights, instead cloak the new shop in the velvety blackness of deep space.
If the cantina band from the original Star Wars ever needs a place to play on Fifth Avenue, this would be it. Dik Glass, senior vice president of store development at FAO Schwarz, says, "From an idea store management developed with project designer Joanne Newbold and lighting designer Marsha Stern, we agreed that this shop would have a degree of darkness, and that it would feel like the effects from the movie were present in the area, even though we did not have the time or the money to try to recreate those effects in the space."
"It's themed retail in a club setting," says Stern. She knows from both: She is a veteran at theatrical setups for FAO Schwarz, having worked with Johnson Schwinghammer on its Las Vegas showplace, and in a former incarnation was the house LD at New York's famed Palladium nightclub. The Star Wars shop was the Manhattan-based designer's first project under the banner Marsha Stern Lighting Design & Consulting Inc., and it sent her and her own personal Chewbacca, a talismanic teddy bear named Chadsworth, into hyperspace shortly after Christmas last year (read all about her adventures with Chadsworth on her website, www.msldc.com). "We began the project at the end of January, and we had to rock by the end of April so the retailers could get in and the store could open in May with the movie. Designing, fabricating, and installing--it was the whole kettle of fish."
Stern got into the swim of things quickly. "I was privy to all the materials that Joanne Newbold had; she had been to Skywalker Ranch, where very strict attention was paid to the fabrication of the replicas and costumes to be used at the shop. Her material, including an assortment of photos, gave me a thorough understanding of who the new characters were and how they and the new spaceships fit into the Star Wars mythology."
The illumination scheme helped with in-store mythmaking. "Not having the house lights on was music to my ears," she recalls. "What more could I want than a dark palette to work from? It's a battle to have 65-85fc in a room and make an effect; if you stand by the millwork in the shop you're up close to 85fc, but in the center you're in the 50-55fc range, which is quite low. The lighting complements the videoscreen and illuminates the scenic pieces, and as it moves around, your eye follows, so you note more of the environment than you would if the house lights were on."
Stern decided to enlist the aid of the Force: automated lighting. "It was a great opportunity to use it in a retail setting." But in the fast-paced, and cost-conscious, galaxy of retail design there are some mountains that not even a Jedi master can move, and a lighting budget that was halved from its original figure was one of them. Plans to use High End Systems Studio Spots(TM) were shelved, though Dataflash(R) AF1000s were tucked into the spacecraft scenic pieces. The ETC Irideon AR5 washlight was ultimately chosen, though not originally specified.
"I really wanted the AR7 spot projector, for its texturing capabilities and flexibility, but I was told it was not going to be available until fall," Stern says. "Under a very special circumstance, I purchased eight 150W AR7s back in March, and in the interim they've loaned me 16 of the 35W AR5s. As it turns out, the size and shape of the AR5s work very well; they're almost R2D2-ish, an obvious plus in this environment," she laughs.
Stern tailored other aspects of the equipment for the fanciful environment to the realities of the budget. "We respecified control from a Status Cue(R) CPU to an ETC Irideon Master Control Processor, with a DMX out, that would control everything. It works extremely well in retail due to its small size, its biggest selling point; I go to a closet in the back of the shop, open it up, and I don't see the racks anymore. I also had to respecify a dimming system to a smart DMX relay unit supplied by Lighting Management Inc. The show had to pop a bit, but this change was again more financially realistic. It was extremely fortunate that the client wanted movement, and I was lucky that ETC Irideon and High End were willing to work with me to preserve the artistic integrity of the design."
Of her design, which the LD also programmed, she says, "All of the lights are not moving all of the time, but at all times something is moving. The biggest challenge was to locate lights so that I could illuminate the set pieces, whether they were spaceships, models, or mannequins, and work with FAO Schwarz as to where store management did or did not want pieces of truss. To properly light something, you have to get at it from 360 degrees, but I couldn't plop a light down in the middle of the visual line of the video to illuminate a particular ship, and you don't want shoppers to see fixtures when they walk in, but a beautiful, broad view of the facility."
Stern settled on an H-shaped grid layout for the overhead Times Square Lighting trussing, which also holds 25 "efficient, versatile, and cute" Altman Micro-Ellipses, fitted with lamps that can switch easily from warmer to cooler looks. "There are 12 DMX-controllable relay switches that go out to 30 circuits in the room. Each box is a quad box, so I have the ability to plug multiple fixtures into one circuit, allowing a great deal of flexibility. Certain circuits go on and off, working in tandem or against one another, and the circuitry is placed throughout the room so that I can cover an object from different sides."
The largest objects are the foam-crafted spaceships, supplied by Sanford, FL-based Exoscope Design and Fabrication. Without close cooperation between Stern, Exoscope, and neon designer Patrick Nash, and a visit to the Exoscope facility for inspection, the ships, which range from 6 to 10' in length (2-3m), would not have flown in the shop. "They absolutely had to look right," the LD states. "The picture I had of the Pod Racer showed an electrical discharge running from engine to engine, which powered it, but how could I simulate that? Neon, which is flexible and relatively easy to maintain, seemed the logical choice."
"We used neon elements inside the rockets to simulate fire and smoke," says Nash, a Manhattan-based designer who has worked with Stern before and helped her choose VoltArc Technologies neon in purple, red, and blue to achieve the desired look. "We considered programming the neon with DMX, but the effect wasn't startling enough."
"I preferred a rapid on-and-off movement to double back like an electrical bolt," Stern says of the Pod Racer. "It appeared as well that there was some thrust happening, some fire from the engines, so I decided to put Dataflash AF1000s inside, and controlled them so they would work in tandem with the neon, which was encased in an acrylic sheath for safety. But despite a lot of help from High End I could not get them to perform for the 30-second duty cycle that FAO Schwarz requested; I couldn't give them more than 12-15 seconds of on time, and I swapped them out in mid-June. But I'll use them somewhere else."
Lighting the mannequins of Darth Maul and Queen Amidala had Stern seeing red. "It's stock backlighting with fluorescents, complicated by the fact that the costumes didn't appear until the eleventh hour. It was basically blind-focusing based on the pictures--I tried to bring out the 'evil' red of Darth versus the 'good' red of the queen, which has blue and pink mixed in for a subtle distinction between the two types of red." Much of the Star Wars coloring for the characters and the spaceships is from Lee Filters mounted in the Altman units.
A maintenance contract with FAO Schwarz gives Stern a Yoda-like watchfulness over the contours of her design. Difficulties in maintaining moving fixtures is one factor inhibiting their use in retail, she says. "My dream product would be something that has a 10,000-hour lamp life, the size of an AR7, and the power of a High End Cyberlight(R). But that isn't going to happen," she laughs. "The smaller the product, and the smaller the control, the greater the success will be with the end user. And the cost has got to come down; there's not a whole lot available for $2,500 or less for an automated fixture."
With sequels to the prequel to come, there are at least two big chances for the moving-light industry to gain more of a foothold in the realm of Star Wars that FAO Schwarz has opened up. Stern says the non-traditional lighting scheme has at least one big fan. "On his inaugural visit, George Lucas said he liked the technology very much."
OWNER FAO Schwarz Dik Glass, senior vice president, store development; John Thaxton, senior project manager; Joe Maer, project manager
PROJECT ARCHITECT Allen + Kilcoyne Architects Daniel Allen, principal architect; Jason Bergen; project manager
PROJECT DESIGNER J. Newbold & Associates Joanne Newbold, designer
SHOW LIGHTING DESIGNER Marsha Stern Lighting Design & Consulting Marsha Stern, principal lighting designer
SPACESHIP DESIGNERS AND FABRICATORS Exoscope Design and Fabrication Scott Freeland, principal designer
NEON DESIGNER Patrick Nash Design Patrick Nash, designer
DMX PANEL AND FLUORESCENT FIXTURE SUPPLIER Lighting Management Inc. Kurt Thomas, principal
THEATRICAL LIGHTING SUPPLIER Barbizon Inc. Jeffrey Siegel and Daniele Kiely, service division; Brian Fassett, service technician
PARTIAL LIGHTING EQUIPMENT LIST (16) ETC Irideon AR5s (25) Altman Micro-Ellipses, with Ushio lamps and Wiko Solux lamps (4) High End Systems Dataflash AF1000s (1) ETC Irideon Master Control Processor (1) ETC Response Unit 2212 (1) Lighting Control & Design Genesis 2400 Series DMX panel F32 T8/735 Octrom 4" fluorescents in all millwork 40W Osram Sylvania blacklight lamps VoltArc Technologies neon for Pod Racer and Naboo Fighter spaceships
COLOR FILTERS Lee 19 (Fire, for Pod Racer engine AF1000s); Lee 053 (Light Pink); Lee 063 (Pale Blue), Lee 165 (Daylight Blue); Lee 185 (Cosmetic Burgundy); Lee 186 (Cosmetic Silver Rose); Lee 189 (Cosmetic Silver Moss); Lee 191 (Cosmetic Aqua Blue); Lee 251 (Quarter White Diffusion); Rosco 24 (Scarlet); Rosco 97 (Light Grey, on fluorescent lightbox behind R2D2 and Queen Amidala)