Jens Kronvold Frederiksen has worked for the LEGO Group for over 20 years: initially as a designer, and more recently as the Creative Director for LEGO® Star Wars™. On Saturday, May 4th – as part of the LEGO Star Wars Day Celebrations, he took part in the Worlds Largest LEGO Star Wars Unboxing at Westfield Chatswood in Sydney with Ryan ‘Brickman’ McNaught. This is his first trip to Australia.
I had the opportunity to speak with Jens on the eve of this event – we spoke about the importance of Community events, the evolution of LEGO Designs, stickers and how he came to one of the coolest jobs in the world.
As I write this up, unboxing has occurred, and the model inside has been completed… the event continues until 5pm Sunday May 5th.
[Rambling Brick] Jens Frederiksen, welcome to Australia! I understand it’s your first time here with the LEGO Group.
Do you often get to take part in community events like this?
[ Jens Kronvold Frederickson] I am really happy to to be here, because I know there are so many LEGO Star Wars Fans in Australia. I try to get around to fan events as much as possible. I was recently at Star Wars Celebration in Chigago which was also an amazing experience. What I really like about this is being able to talk to our fans, Thats something that I really, really enjoy: getting input and feedback and so on – that’s really important to us. And we are using that feedback and input in our work, so I think it’s great, as well as seeing people’s love and enthusiasm. This all means a lot to us as well.
Thinking about Star Wars Celebration in Chicago, were you involved in any community LEGO Building there, or was interaction mainly through the LEGO Booth, which looked like it was an absolutely amazing part of the event?
It was great to talk to people there, and the other thing that we did was have a two hour panel with a huge crowd – I think it was about two and a half thousand people. We were talking about the whole history of LEGO Star Wars. Both about the products, and also about the other different Star Wars Content: the games and so on. That was a really good experience. There were some building events, and also Césare Soares – one of our senior designers. Together, we spoke about the twentieth anniversary models, and how they were developed. After that, people could ask questions. That was really interesting and it was quite cool to be able to do that.
The Evolution of set designs in general.
I’ve been working my way through the 20th Anniversary sets this last couple of weeks – the Dropship, Podracer, Scout Walker and Snowspeeder – I am yet to complete building Slave I. One thing that I have noticed while comparing these sets with the historical models is the move away towards more realistic looking models, away from that blocky aesthetic of 1999. Has there been there any particular element, colour, technique or development that revolutionised the design process for you all?
Well, I think if you look at LEGO, in general, from 1999 up until today, you would see that not just the LEGO Star Wars, but all the product lines that the design has become more sophisticated and detailed. I think that’s just a natural development with LEGO over the years.
As you know we have a lot of new elements making us capable of designing more accurate looking models, so I think it’s a natural thing. You may also have noticed that we have started using more technic elements- something we are doing mainly for the internal structure in the models, especially in the bigger models. We do that for maximal stability and so on. And then it is being skinned with LEGO system elements on the outside, because we want LEGO Star Wars to look like real LEGO models. As such, you will always see a lot of studs on our models. It’s very important that there is a real LEGO identity in our products. But, they are more sophisticated and advanced in their design today, and that’s just a natural development I think.
On a personal level, when an element or technique was was being talked about, probably around around the turn of the century, was there anything that made you say “Wow – Now I can do that thing I always wanted to do?”
I think LEGO Technic has made us capable of making much bigger models, especially the UCS models. With the Millennium Falcon, we were more or less size and weight wise at the maximum of what bricks can hold together. I wouldn’t say that in five years there will be an even bigger model, because we thought we had reached the limit of where we could go, but with the technic elements we have been capable of making even bigger models. But another thing I have to mention is also the bracket elements with studs on the side which is also an important part of LEGO Star Wars. They make us capable of building in all directions. And I think good examable of that is something like our brick built BB-8 where you are building in all directions. So we have these element families which are developing or that make us capable of using new building techniques.
If I recall, the first of these SNOT Elements – the Headlamp brick – turns 40 next year.
A Nostalgic Digression
This is really nerdy: I remember also from my childhood I was was very much into LEGO Technic. I was eight years old when Technic came out and I remember it said “from 9 years” on the boxes, so I was like ‘Darn, I am too young for this,” but I got it anyway. And everything was a new element. I remember the first time I saw the spring element – you use for the suspension for the wheels. The actual model – it was a little go kart – I thought it was not super cool. But I just had to get it, because it had this element.
And also to add to that: as designers when we are looking at the elements, we are not necessarily always looking at what they are intended for. We are looking at them as shapes instead. Meaning, when we design a model – maybe we need something, say an engine exhaust or something. It could be that it’s a flower pot from Friends or something else, and it just works perfectly as that design element. Then we just change the colour and use it, so it is very much the shapes that’s defining which elements we are using.
Given your experience with Technic and my own personal experience, I think we must have been growing up at a similar time – My first Technic set was the 852 helicopter.
That was the yellow helicopter from the first launch? I had the full set from that launch: the Fork Lift, do you remember the Red Tractor? And the first Supercar – it was 853…
The red chassis with yellow seats…
…and the blue engine.
I presume that LEGO had always been a part of your childhood, even before Technic was launched?
Yes – absolutely. I can’t remember how old I was when I got introduced to LEGO. The first thing I remember was not even called LEGO City at that time, but it was city like products. I was very much into LEGO Trains. Actually I’ve been searching for the first train set I had in my childhood. The cool, or weird, thing looking at it through today’s eyes is that I remember it came built – so when you bought it in the box, it was actually built! It was a 4.5 electric train with a battery box. I have been searching for it, because I would like it as an adult, have so many fond memories of that product.
I had the 181 – the black steam engine with the red battery box and a couple of wagons: I still have the battery box, but most of the rest has vanished or been broken over the years.
Unfortunately, I had a huge collection, and I also had kept everything, and then we had a burglar in the house: and he stole all the LEGO I had, including all my Technic sets, which were in pristine condition in their boxes – but this is many years ago now. It is just too bad.
On Becoming a LEGO Designer
What was your background before you came to LEGO?
I have a background in the graphic trade – I was trained as a lithographer – I don’t think anyone knows what that is today. While I was doing that, I got the job at LEGO more or less as a coincidence. In my spare time I had been building plastic models – model kits that you glue together and paint. I’d been very much into World War II stuff, and I was participating in an exhibition with that in Copenhagen. There were some LEGO people there, looking out to hire some freelance designers to make prototypes for new elements and so on. So, it was a different kind of job. I got hired as a freelancer, but even before I started, I heard about a permanent position as a model designer. So I applied, and I got the job. So that was how I got into LEGO.
When did you come to work with the LEGO Group, Jens?
I started out in 1998, and at that time, when I came into the design department in Billund, the first thing I remember, the first thing I saw when I came in were some sketch models of LEGO Star Wars. At the time the contract wasn’t signed yet, but it was in the works. And the designers were exploring different opportunities for models for LEGO Star Wars.
I was, of course, also a huge Star Wars fan as a child and was super excited to see it.
But I started out working on another product line. I don’t know if you remember, but there was something called Rock Raiders.
I was in my Dark Ages at the time, but I hear many people younger than me talk fondly of this theme.
I really loved that theme, but it was unfortunately overshadowed, being launched in the same year as LEGO Star Wars. It was very cool, because it had that new turquoise colour introduced, and I think the models were pretty cool. My first designs for LEGO were the Rock raider Base (4990) which was the biggest price point set, and then there was a small walker thing. And I still have a lot of passion for that product line, because they were my first products. I switched to LEGO Star Wars six months later.
So you moved to LEGO Star Wars. What was the first set that you were involved in designing in the LEGO Star Wars theme?
My first involvement was with the launch in 1999 and there was a set with a Y-Wing and Darth Vader’s TIE Fighter (7150). My first model was a sketch model for the Y-Wing. So that was my first model for LEGO Star Wars. I moved over as a designer in LEGO Star Wars in 2000, doing several of the models there, and then the year after I took over as being the lead designer.
One of the issues that frequently comes up in the fan community is the presence of stickers in UCS sets. With the UCS Snowspeeder in particular, there was a very large sheet of stickers. Is there likely to be a change in the scope of stockers in the UCS sets, or do we anticipate that stickers are going to be here to stay in the premium sets?
I have heard about this before, and it is something we are very much aware of, of course. I will say that we will not totally avoid stickers, and there are several reasons for that:
Firstly, we know how people feel about the stickers. In the UCS models, we are trying to create as many of the details on the models and ships out of bricks instead of stickers. We know that there have been cases, for instance, the snowspeeder, where maybe we went a little bit overboard with stickers, but there are details on the models that, sometimes, would require these stickers.
We are thinking a lot about where they go, and if they are needed and so on, because we know how people feel about it, but in the end though, I think they do add that extra to the model.
Then you can say ‘Ok, then what are you not just printing the bricks?” and that is simply because sometimes the print quality on some elements, for technical reasons wouldn’t be good enough for LEGO. Therefore, we would rather provide a sticker sheet. An example is, for instance, is cockpits, where there are frames around the cockpits, where the print might be out of register (not able to be printed in the right place), and that’s not LEGO quality. We are trying to avoid having large, clear areas covered by stickers. We know they are difficult to apply, and there can be air bubbles and things like that. You have possibly noticed – where there are stickers that are complicated to apply, we are trying to supply 2 sets of stickers, so you can have one set to actually practice with. The first time we did it was in the UCS X-Wing, and we would continue doing – it’s not happening every time, but if we find it difficult to apply the stickers, then we will supply an extra sheet.
I often have problems putting them down, moving them round, getting finger prints on them, and not having them stick down properly.
What I do, when applying stickers, it to apply them on the edge of the knife, and that helps you to place the sticker more accurately onto the brick.
Many people seem to use similar techniques – be it tweezers or something similar. I often use a LEGO min figure’s spanner to help line the stickers up, for a ‘Complete LEGO Solution’ [There is also a handy suggestion on LEGO.com for applying stickers here]
Maybe we should include a spanner in all of the sets with stickers from now on?
A Brick Seperator can also provide the edge…
I understand what you are saying about the LEGO Quality in printing, however there have been some significant issues in recent time, especially with printing light flesh tones onto darker elements – the Mercy Figure in Overwatch is an example of that printing not being to ‘LEGO Quality.’ I appreciate that’s not your particular theme.
Just to comment on that, I’ll just say that if people experience things that they don’t think are the right quality, I think they should contact our consumer service, to ensure that issues are recognised by the company.
On selection of sets to create
Looking to the future, and I appreciate you cannot give me specific details of unannounced sets – We grew up with The Original Trilogy. The Prequel Trilogy came out starting about twenty years ago. The kids that grew up with those films, as well as the Clone Wars television series are all now growing up, and being in a position to think about having a UCS Type budget for the sets of their childhood. Should we consider UCS sets as being limited to the Original Trilogy, or with time, might they move beyond those films, and also embrace later films as well as the non cinematic canon (Clone Wars, Resistance). For example, is it conceivable to see a UCS Venator in the future? Can you give some insight into what gets a model selected for the UCS Type of model?
You are right about the Clone wars – there have been a lot of fans of that. We created quite a lot of sets for the series. It was really really good for us. It was also something that engaged a lot of people, especially children, in Star Wars and also LEGO Star Wars. As you said, the kids that grew up with the prequels have grown up now, and they are starting to become parents now, and LEGO is something that can transcend generation to generation. So that is something that we are going to revisit with Clone wars, and it is quite likely that that is going to happen with some of our bigger sets such as the UCS product line. It has not been restricted to the classic movies. It is just that until now, the most requested models by our fans – and we are talking to them, and listening to them – and the majority of requests have been related to the original series.
They are definately something that we are considering and I know also that you mentioned the Venator. I can’t promise anything right now, but I can only say it’s something we would definately consider. So yes, very likely you will see models that are not from the Classic Trilogy made as UCS models in the future.
Is there anything that influences the redevelopment of classic ships in the LEGO Set Form? Over the years we have seen some vehicles subject to frequent rerelease, such as the snowspeeder and the X-Wing, as well as Slave I. We have not seen many variations on the TIE Bomber, the B-Wing, or the TIE Interceptor. Some sets seem to get relaunched frequently, while other sets don’t seem to have that cycle.
When looking at models such as the X-Wing or the Millennium Falcon, comparing LEGO Star Wars with LEGO City, the X-Wing is our fire engine or police station: something that basically needs to be on the shelf all the time. There are constantly new kids coming and these models just have to be available.
But we definately thought of you: definitely one of my favourite ships of all-time is the TIE Bomber – it has a super cool design. We have only done it once: that was on 2003. I designed the model of that, at that time. I think it is really cool, but the thing is that it is a little bit more niche, so it is a little bit more difficult for us to frequently relaunch products like that. We are doing that: we are trying to create a good assortment to make a good mix. So we have some of the very popular models, but also try to squeeze in some of the more niche things, because we know there are a lot of fans, and adults, out there, that appreciate us doing that. But it is also a business. We have tomato something that we know will be popular while it is on the shelf. So it’s a balance.
Some of the new sets – Black Ace TIE and Major Vonrig’s fighter – I understand these are related to the new series?
They are. It is a show that is running right now. It’s also a family show: that’s also important. It’s a cool story, and some new opportunities. It brings in some new designs. Major Vonreg’s TIE Fighter , with that colour scheme is such a striking design that it just had to be created as a LEGO Model.
So, I need to start reminding myself that this is part of the ongoing story, and watch it!
On Chance Meetings with Movie Stars…
Has your role given you the opportunity to meet any of the movie cast over the years?
Well, I have met a few of them over the years. I met one actor once by coincidence and that was a big experience for me. I was in a book shop, in New York. I was standing with a huge pile of LEGO Star Wars Books, waiting at the counter. There was a guy asking me “Hey, why are you buying all the Star Wars books?” It was a tall guy wearing a hat and sunglasses, but I recognised him instantly from his voice: that was Samuel L Jackson. This was around the time of filming of the prequel movies. He told me he was not only a huge Star Wars fan, but also a LEGO Fan. So, when I told him what I was doing … we ended up talking for about 20 minutes about LEGO and Star wars – so that was pretty cool. He was such an easy guy to talk to. The books were meant for the design team at work, but he signed one of the books for me, so that one ended up on my book shelf at home…
That sounds like an amazing experience.
Thank you so much for your time this morning Jens. I hope there event goes well over the weekend.
May the Fourth be with you.
What about the Events at Chatswood this weekend?
On Sunday 5th May, the surprise model (Now revealed to be an X-Wing) will be fully built and on display, there will be opportunities for fans to do some building workshops with Jens himself, a chance for kids to come and build their own models and get some tips from Jens. You will be able to look through the display of all of the Millennium Falcons which will be on display.
There will also be a mock up designers studio, with some nostalgic images from across the years.
It sounds like it will be pretty action packed!
Talking to Jens, his ongoing passion for both LEGO, and LEGO Star Wars is obvious. It’s an exciting opportunity to be able to talk to one of the senior Creative Directors from Billund. I especially appreciate the insights into the design process, the use of stickers in premium sets, and how he got into one of the, dare I say, coolest jobs in the world. I’d like to thank Jens for his time, as well as those who made this interview possible.
If you have enjoyed this article, why not share it with your friends, and follow the Rambling Brick: we have reviews, news, speculation and, in a few weeks, I am travelling to take part in the Recognised LEGO Fan Media Days – I am excited to be taking part, and look forward to bringing you news and interviews from the heart of Billund.
Until Next Time,
While you are here…
…have you heard about my Competition to Win a complete set of Disney series Two LEGO Collectable Minifigures, as well as a shopping spree from shop.lego.com? Check out this link for further details. Entries close midnight (UTC) May 12th, so you have just over a week to get your entries in.
Images in this article were supplied by LEGO Australia and attendees at the event, but JKF and I spoke on the phone the day before. Set images were sourced from Brickset.com