An Interview with Star Wars Product Development and Design Veteran Eric Lyga
Okay, this isn’t really breaking news, but Star Wars sells a lot of merchandise. We won’t bore you with all the statistics, but trust us… it’s officially a lot! Heck, even if we did post numbers, they’d be out of date in about a week. We recently had a chance to talk with Eric Lyga, someone who has spent considerable time and effort bringing to life a lot of the Star Wars swag that lines the shelves of many a Star Wars collector.
GB: Welcome to GB, Eric. Glad to have you. Let’s jump right in. You’ve been in the toy and collectible biz for over a decade now. Tell everyone how you got your start.
EL: I kind of fell into it, honestly. My brother was friends with a guy who headed up a small but growing toy company, and when he found out I had a working knowledge of pop culture, he thought it would be a good fit for me to come on board. I started out digging up press contacts, answering customer letters, and doing a bunch of grunt work just to learn the industry. I’ll never forget my first day – no computer or phone, I just sat there comparing paintmaster samples to figure out which pieces to send off for manufacturing. I didn’t even know what a paintmaster was.
GB: Most Star Wars fans might recognize your name from your time at Gentle Giant Ltd, where you were one of the heads of product development. Gosh, the first time we personally met was at San Diego Comic-Con back in the early days of the company in maybe 2003 or 2004. When did you exactly come onboard there and what were those early days like at Gentle Giant… you know, before you guys were a giant (aren’t I witty…)? The Star Wars license must have been like rocket fuel for you as a product development lead, right?
EL: It really was. I had always admired Gentle Giant for what they were doing with scanning technology. I met Karl (Meyer, President) and Dev (Gilmore, Vice President of Product Development and Design) at Toy Fair one year and really hit it off. When they got the Star Wars license, I knew I wanted to join the team when they had an opening, so I did in early 2003. I started out doing marketing and sales coordination for them – working on website redesigns, writing ad copy, things like that – but as sales started increasing, I saw a big need for someone to step up and watch over the product development process. When I started, Gentle Giant was doing about 1 product every 2-3 months, but we were quickly adding licenses and product types, expanding that to about 3 products per month. This was around the time we added statues, dioramas, Bust-Ups…there was a lot of opportunity to take on new roles and responsibilities for people who wanted them.
EL: Which of your daughters are you proudest of and why? That’s such a hard question. I’ve always been very proud of the original line of Clone Wars maquettes – the first five, I think it was Yoda, Asajj, ARC Trooper, Anakin, and Padme. That was the first line where Dev really let me plan it out, develop a strategy, debate it with Lucasfilm, execute it as I saw fit, and take either the credit for its success or blame for its failure. He was always there to design and advise – it wasn’t like “sink or swim”, but I still had more freedom than ever before. It was kind of scary because the series had just hit and no one really knew how collectibles would do for such recent source material. Looking back, I’m really proud of how everything developed and came out.
GB: For years you’ve worked closely with Dev Gilmore, Gentle Giant’s Vice President of Product Development and Design. Dev’s someone most fans don’t know much about, but they should. Just how good of an art director and a creative mind is he?
EL: Having been in this industry as long as I have, I’d say there are maybe half a dozen guys that have the brilliant eye for design that Dev has, and I know 2 of them who aren’t even designing any more. He has a way of looking at something – a movie, a book, a game, an action figure – and seeing the perfect way to tell its story as a consumer product. I could write pages and pages of stunning product ideas he’s had for every property under the sun – Star Wars, NFL, Halo, Harry Potter – 99% of which will never see the light of day because of licensing restrictions or budgetary constraints. But beyond that, his real expertise is being able to communicate his ideas to graphic designers, sculptors, and the other artists that are going to bring it to life.
GB: There was seemingly a “golden era” for Gentle Giant’s Star Wars merchandise for a few years in the mid-2000’s. Virtually, every piece you guys made was selling out in mere moments and fans just could not get enough. From a product development side, it was home run after home run. But over the past several years, things have slowed down a bit not only for Gentle Giant, but for the high end Star Wars merchandise market as a whole. Edition sizes have certainly dropped for most products at most high-end companies. Some companies went defunct. Others are struggling. What’s your take on the current state of affairs? Is it mainly the economy? Collector fatigue? Product saturation? A natural ebbing cycle? Other factors?
EL: I think it’s a little bit of everything, a little “Perfect Storm” of sorts. The recession took away a lot of disposable income, and let’s face it, that’s where people are getting the money for high-end collectibles. At the same time, the economy in China, where most of these products are made, has changed drastically as well. On the supply side, there have been a lot of issues with labor shortages at factories, prices going up as the value of the dollar falls, and even container shortages affecting shipping. The lead paint found in Thomas trains a couple of years ago had repercussions through the entire industry, even resin collectibles. Some factors contribute to increased cost, others to delayed shipping, and sometimes multiple factors make a project that was once viable no more so. A company with good leadership and diversified business will adapt and survive, and Gentle Giant certainly has both.
GB: As good as Gentle Giant’s products are, the company has had a checkered history of being at odds with the collecting community for various reasons – whether it be late product shipments, customer service issues, collector fury over edition sizes (too small and too large!)… or any number of other things. Now that you’ve had a chance to “step back” from all that… what can you tell collectors about the challenges of making and delivering these products? C’mon… be honest… do we all just need to get a life?
EL: I absolutely love the passion of the collecting community. With Star Wars fans specifically, they’re on a level like no other, outside of major sports franchises, and that’s saying something. What’s interesting to me is that the “checkered history” really only applies to one specific outlet – the anonymity of the internet message board/forum/chat room. In all my years of direct or indirect customer service, people in every other venue were overwhelmingly positive in their feedback and comments – at conventions, trade shows, live events, through emails, comment cards, even old-fashioned hand-written letters. I always gave the greatest weight to the people who sent back Comment Cards because that was tangible evidence that they had bought the product and weren’t just trolling a message board or something. But even there, if someone gave us a raving review, I took it with a grain of salt because I was always trying to figure out ways to improve the product itself, as well as the overall experience of purchasing and owning it for the consumer.
I didn’t really answer the question, did I? Okay, let’s try again. The process is pretty insanely challenging. For example, a resin mini bust is about a 10 month development timeline from concept to in-store. Along the way, you have concept, sculpt, paint, pre-production, production, inspection, transportation, approvals in-house, approvals out-of-house, budgeting, paying factories, taking orders, scheduling shipments around the world, packaging design, ad design, integrating with convention/travel schedules, Chinese New Year, and, somewhere in there, praying to whatever higher power you believe in that this character/sculpt/license/design is still relevant when the process is done. And it never goes perfectly, believe me. I remember the year we crossed 100 products for the calendar year and thinking about how there was a hiccup with every single one.
GB: So you’ve brought word of a little surprise with you today. A new product that you can give us a sneak peek at! What’s the scoop?
EL: Absolutely. And thank you so much for helping me get the word out. I’ve been working with Borders for the past few months on developing this very special and exclusive set of Star Wars Logo bookends. As you can see, they feature the classic silver Star Wars logo and display perfectly either together or apart. With the latest resurgence in Star Wars books (Fate of the Jedi, Death Troopers, and the upcoming Making of The Empire Strikes Back, most notably), it seemed like a perfect time to come out with something timeless and classic like this.
GB: Very cool! So what are the basics collectors and Star Wars fans need to know about how to pick a set of these up? When, where and how can they get them? Are these a limited edition? And the big question… how much will they cost?
EL: They are slowly rolling into Borders stores now, and are expected to be chain-wide by Tuesday, May 4. Calling or visiting your nearest Borders store is the best bet, but for those fans who don’t live near a store, they will also be available at Borders.com. They should be on an end-cap in the Science Fiction books section, along with some other great Star Wars items. They are limited to only 5000 pcs worldwide (I just got word that Borders in Australia and Malaysia will have them, so for your international readers…), hand-numbered, with a Certificate of Authenticity, all the usual features of a collectible product.
Price was the biggest concern going in. Gentle Giant has been doing some really amazing things with detailed bookends in the $150+ range, but we wanted this to be a little more accessible to a wider range of collectors and fans. The SRP is $59.99, which is about the same as a mini bust these days.
GB: Give us some details about the set from a product development point of view (materials used, weight, development challenges etc). How in the world has nobody in recent memory released a set of bookends of the logo? Seems like the ultimate slam dunk!!!!
EL: At San Diego Comic Con last year, I was having dinner with my good friend who works at Borders, and we just started tossing out ideas of products we could do, and this one stuck like none of the others. I can’t for the life of me figure out why no one has done it, but I’m very proud to get the chance to bring it to life. The first challenge is always licensing, so we approached Gentle Giant to see if they had interest in making it under their license, and thankfully they did. They liked the idea and were happy to be a part of it. They designed the prototype digitally using 3-D modeling software to vector the logo, and it breezed through approvals like nothing I’ve ever seen. I think everyone involved, from Borders to Gentle Giant to Lucasfilm, saw that this was going to be something special, so everyone really pitched in to get it made as fast and as solid as possible. We knew it was going to be resin, for reasons both contractual and practical (to make sure it had enough weight to be functional), and it came in at a hair over 5 pounds. I’ve had a sample for about a month now, and every time I pick it up, it brings a smile to my face.
GB: Is this going to be a one-shot deal or can we look forward to more products like this to come?
EL: This is only the beginning of a new relationship between Gentle Giant and the book market. They’re developing a really cool new mini bust that I’m not supposed to say anything about, but it’s related to one of the books I mentioned above. Should be ready to debut at San Diego Comic Con or Celebration this year.
GB: Finally, here’s our closing question we ask to everyone we interview at GalacticBinder. If you were transported into the Star Wars universe… what era/location and/or setting would you like to end up in, and what’s the first thing you’d do and with whom?
EL: Is my wife reading this? Um, seduce Mara Jade before she gets with Luke? Just kidding. I’d probably go to KOTOR time to be in the room when Revan gets his/her memory back. I loved those games and am totally uber-geeked for TOR online. In fact, the only time I ever geeked out on somebody at Lucasfilm was to pester the guy in licensing who handles game development about whether or not KOTOR 3 was going to happen. (CG, if you’re reading this, sorry!)
GB: Thanks for joining us, Eric. We hope you’ll keep surprising Star Wars fans with more awesome products.
EL: Me, too!
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