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Brad Lewis: Building A Better Lightsaber

2011-12-19

Coming across Sloth Furnace was a blow to my ego. Not because I’d ever tried to build a lightsaber – my tool skills peak firmly at “power drill” – but because the level of love and craft apparent in Brad Lewis’ creations are something I can currently only aspire to. He is unquestionably skilled when it comes to making props.
swtor-sloth-furnace.jpg

Coming across Sloth Furnace was a blow to my ego. Not because I’d ever tried to build a lightsaber – my tool skills peak firmly at “power drill” – but because the level of love and craft apparent in Brad Lewis’ creations are something I can currently only aspire to. He is unquestionably skilled when it comes to making props.

Perhaps even more impressively, Lewis’ prop construction work is a nights-and-weekends endeavor. From nine to five, he’s parked in front of a monitor, working as a Senior Visual Effects Artist on Star Wars: The Old RepublicCurious about the link between his day job and his weekend work, I asked him if he’d be up for an interview. He generously agreed to chat.


Kate: So, let’s start at the beginning. What got you into Star Wars in the first place?
Brad: Well, I saw Star Wars for the first time in First Grade or Kindergarten. It was a rainy day and they showed it to us. Later, when my mom came to pick me up, I told her, “I want to do the stuff in that movie when I grow up.”

“What, fly a spaceship?”
“No. Make the models.”

I’ve been hooked ever since.

Kate: So this has been a very long-building interest.
Brad: About 30 years. Yes.

Kate: Did you start out with lightsabers?
Brad: Oh no. I built my first prop when I was nine or ten. It was a blaster, cut out of wood. I cut the shape on my dad’s grinder in the shop. Pretty dangerous, I suppose, but I still have all my fingers.

As far as lightsabers go, the first ones I made were just broom handles with electrical tape hilts. But a few years ago, I ended up with a broken Master Replicas ForceFX Darth Vader lightsaber for ten bucks off eBay. I got it in and took it apart, and used the guts to make my first custom saber.

At that point, I really had no idea what I was doing. I had a lathe – I had been working with a lathe at the ranch for a couple of years – so I got one for my garage here in Austin. I didn’t have too much else as far as tools or experience.

Kate: I’d say that’s a pretty amazing result for a first go. Do you have a background in sculpting or electronics?
Brad: I never sculpted much, and never took a machine shop class. I just kind of… fell into it.

As far as electronics go, I had previously worked with a bunch of Nixie tube clocks, but the extent of my machining work was like… tops. Little things.

Kate: Were you working with BioWare when you started building these? Or did that come later?
Brad: I was working at Midway Austin. Actually, a lot of the first ones I built were from hard drive parts I harvested from Midway’s broken machines. The platter retainer discs are well-made and interesting to look at. They formed the basis of my A New Hope Luke saber internal chassis, which ended up being part of the Star Wars: The Old Republic assembly cinematic.

Kate: Speaking of Star Wars: The Old Republic… I heard that some of your designs made it into the game. How did that end up happening?
Brad: Well, one of the very first things I was tasked with when I started here was doing visual FX for the lightsaber assembly cinematic. When I asked what they had to work with, it was pretty much a blank canvas, so I just started modeling what I was building in real life.
Kate: Which was your A New Hope Luke saber.
Brad: Right. As I worked on the real life saber, the in-game saber took shape as well.
Kate: I had no idea it was a simultaneous creation process. I honestly just assumed someone just walked by your desk, saw your work, and said: “Hey. That need to be in-game. Make it happen.”
Brad: Nope. It was totally a coincidence.

At this point, Brad links me to a video of the lightsaber assembly cinematic so I can do a side-by-side comparison.

Kate: That does look like the internals I’ve seen in your sabers.
Brad: Thanks! I would have loved to have added more detail, but we can’t go full photorealistic.
Kate: Haha. It’s tough to do that in MMOs.
Brad: Yes, but I think it came close.

Kate: So do you plan on building any of the sabers you’ve seen in the Star Wars: The Old Republic MMO?
Brad: Oh yeah, I’m almost done with one already. The double-bladed consular saber from the Star Wars: The Old Republic "New Hope" trailer is the one my wife wanted.
Kate: So, of all the sabers you’ve made, is there any one in particular that you’d call your crowning achievement?
Brad: Yes. The Luke Return of the Jedi. It was… whew.
Kate: Tough?
Brad: I get tired thinking about that one. I had to cram six months of work into three.

It had a completely custom pommel lock system that released a spring-loaded crystal chamber, with a thin neck, detachable blade, sound, swing sensor, etc. It had everything I could do.

Kate: So it usually takes around six months to build one of these things?
Brad: Yes, from sketch to completion, about six months. It’s an after work and weekend hobby, and with a new baby girl in the house, it’s taking a bit longer to complete them. I used to tell people three months. Now I have to tell them a year.
Kate: Between the new kid (congrats, by the way!) and the lightsaber building, do you think you’ll have any time to actually play Star Wars: The Old Republic?
Brad: Oh yeah, I love playing SWTOR. I can’t wait for everyone to get into the game. It feels like we’re working on the biggest, bestest amusement park ever, and there’s a line forming at the gates. And it’s getting really close to opening day. I can’t wait to play along with the rest of the fans.

Kate: Anything else you want to add?
Brad: I’m just really thankful to be in a job where I get to do this. And happy that my hobby interlaces with my day job. I grew up baling hay and driving a tractor, and I never thought I’d be working on anything remotely connected to Star Wars. It’s a dream come true.
Kate: So all those people who say “Don’t make your passion your job” – totally wrong.
Brad: Right. Never let anyone talk you out of your dreams.
Kate: Thanks, Brad.


Keep an eye out for more of Brad's VFX work in Star Wars: The Old Republic, launching tomorrow. Copies are available for purchase on Origin starting at $59.99. You can also view Brad's full collection of hand-crafted sabers, blasters, and other creations at www.slothfurnace.com.

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