Follow the story of Chris Lee of Nashville, Tenn., the founder of The Full Scale Millennium Falcon Project, as he evolves from a 12-year-old boy drawing R2-D2 sketches in 1977 to a full-fledged ‘Star Wars’ universe maker—38 years later.
Story by Leslie I. Benson, Photos by Jason Reed Milner
Republished from Two Clones magazine
What motivates film fanatics, especially followers of epic classics such as Star Wars, to recreate their favorite movie in real life? Some may believe that by reconstructing parts of the film, they’ll enter its universe, in essence becoming an extension of the story itself. It may be this passion for film—a childhood desire to see their favorite movie come to life—that drives talented inventors, designers and artists to dream big and make it happen.
With a mindset similar to those who find themselves dressing up for comic book conventions or steampunk gatherings, these fans transport themselves into a fantasy universe. They become their alter egos. They become their own super heroes. And heroes to the rest of us, too.
So what is it about Star Wars that drives people worldwide to spend half their lives figuring out how to replicate their favorite fantasy? For Nashville, Tenn.-based sci-fi and technology enthusiast Chris Lee, recreating the Star Wars universe is something he’s wanted to share with the world for 38 years and counting.
It’s happening now, and you can help.
The Birth of Dreams
“Since77.” Lee’s license plate sums up his perspective on life perfectly.
If you’re as big of a Star Wars fan as Lee, you probably live on a BSW (Before Star Wars) or ASW (After Star Wars) timeline, too. After all, when the first film was released in theaters in 1977, it changed the lives of fans forever—especially Lee’s. When he was 12 years old, the film lit a fire inside him. He had to find out how Hollywood and the mechanics behind its movie magic worked.
Lee had three big dreams: to build his own robot; to build his own spaceship; and to build a tool that would help others to do the same. Lee, now 49, has already achieved one of those dreams, and he’s close to fulfilling the others.
Dream one, building his own robot, began with early sketches of R2-D2, the quirky droid made famous in the Star Wars saga. “I had a huge imagination and the support of my family,” Lee says, who realized hundreds of thousands of other kids who had done similar drawings were now grownups too.
“As an adult, you’re dangerous,” Lee continues. You actually have the resources to pay for the things you want to make things happen.
In 1995 (18 ASW), while searching the Internet, Lee stumbled upon a comic book storeowner in Texas who was selling a Stormtrooper costume he had built out of fiberglass. “I never really wanted to be a (Star Wars) character,” Lee says. “But I wanted to be in the universe.”
Nonetheless, how could he refuse? He bought the costume, wearing it to parties and even surprised his youngest brother’s elementary school class in it, scaring a roomful of 6 year olds. It was the start of something great.
In 1997 (20 ASW), Lee found another resource online—a group of master craftsmen and professional prop designers who were sculpting higher-quality Stormtrooper uniforms. That group, First Through the Door, would eventually rename itself the 501st Legion of Imperial Stormtroopers (501st.com).
“I ended up getting good replica fiberglass armor,” Lee says of his costume. “Albin Johnson, the founder of the 501st, told me I was the only member in Tennessee at the time. Each member has a call sign. (Mine) was TK-326,” he says.
Today, the 501st has more than 11,500 members in 47 countries worldwide. Lee was No. 61. The MidSouth Garrison (MidSouthGarrison.com), covering Tennessee and Kentucky, of which Lee is a member, currently has 145 active members, according to its website. The all-volunteer 501st, which is unaffiliated with Lucasfilm Ltd. (purchased by The Walt Disney Company in 2012), wear their Stormtrooper garb to conventions, parades, festivals and fundraisers.
Members of “Bad Guys Doing Good,” the 501st’s fundraising branch, often suit up to visit burn units at children’s hospitals, raising money and awareness for organizations such as the Make-A-Wish Foundation. “(We’re) highly recognizable, and kids love it,” Lee says, who has since added the call sign TB-326 to his repertoire for his new Biker Scout costume, noting that it’s the only set of armor from the Star Wars realm you can sit down in.
However, Lee couldn’t bear to part with his first fiberglass suit, so in 2009, he epoxied more than 7,000 glass mirrors to it over a period of three months and topped it off with RGB LED lights. Now he’s known as Disco Trooper at Star Wars events.
Thanks to all their handcrafted costumes, the Stormtroopers of the 501st have made a huge impact in the lives of others. In 2013, Lee says, they indirectly helped raise more than $32 million in charitable donations: “Not bad for nerds wearing white plastic!”
Building a Robot
Become a real-life Stormtrooper: Check. Now, Lee was onto fulfilling his first childhood dream—owning an R2 droid. All it would take was pulling out his old sketches and tracking down other fans’ drawings and research to make magic happen.
In 1999, Lucasfilm began throwing official Star Wars celebrations to coincide with the prequels, which Lee jokingly refers to as the “children’s films.”
At that first Denver convention, Lee met twin brothers who had constructed their own R2 robot—the first full scale replica he had ever seen. Lee jumped online again looking for others who had done the same. He found the R2-D2 Builders Club (Astromech.net), a meticulous group of Star Wars fans (also unaffiliated with Lucasfilm) that had designed, named, numbered and catalogued every part used to make an R2 droid based on their film research.
“There’s even a set of standard blueprints two master draftsmen keep,” Lee says.
In 2002 (25 ASW), Star Wars Celebration II took place in Indianapolis, Ind. “That’s when I started working on my R2,” Lee says, showing a TEDxNashville audience in Tennessee in March 2014 a photo of miscellaneous gadgets and gears. “This is what we call ‘part porn!’ (laughs) By this time, I had accumulated a pretty good set of parts for R2.”
Along the way, working toward making his childhood dreams come true gave life to other movie-inspired miracles as well—like dating (and later marrying) a fellow Star Wars fangirl named Leah D’Andrea-Lee (who, resembling a young Carrie Fisher, pronounces her first name the same way as the princess).
Addressing an intimate crowd of fans at Yazoo Brewing Company in downtown Nashville on June 16, 2014, during a post-TEDxNashville networking event, it’s evident how passionate Lee and his wife are about Star Wars—and each other—as they finish each other’s sentences, retelling past stories of convention memories and when they first met.
“My girlfriend at the time (who is) my wife now—and yea, her name is really Leah—we recorded (her) on a green screen in our house,” Lee says.
Through his technology background, a decent costume, cue cards and blocking, Lee and his wife were able to recreate one of the most memorable scenes in Star Wars when Leia appears as a hologram projected by R2-D2: “Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.”
“Mine is the only droid with a Princess Leia hologram,” Lee says, proudly.
In 2005 (28 ASW), Lee had finally finished building his own R2. He and D’Andrea-Lee debuted it at Star Wars Celebration III in Indianapolis. Since then, their R2 has been a ring bearer at six weddings. “If he could talk, people would just have me hand the phone to him when they call,” he says.
Lee’s R2 has celebrity fans too. Afterhours during the Celebration III convention, George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, and some of his crew met with Lee, D’Andrea-Lee, R2 and their friends. “Lucas saw the hologram projection and said, ‘That’s incredible,’” Lee says. “The droid wrangler for Lucasfilm, Don (Bies), showed up and hung out too. It was the payback moment I never thought I’d get.”
In 2012, The R2-D2 Builders Club made an appearance at Star Wars Celebration VI in Orlando—its largest droid gathering yet. Lee and fellow R2 builders from across the country came together to showcase their robots, including a Lego and Ironman version of the beloved droid. “This whole community is built around guys and girls with the same passion,” Lee says, who also met Kenny Baker, the English actor who wore the R2-D2 costume in the original films, and Ben Burtt, the creator of Star Wars sound effects (and the “voice” of R2) during the event. “It was a ‘meet your heroes’ kind of moment.”
The robot’s #R2selfie has even made its way to Felicia Day of “The Guild” fame. Lee’s droid has gained much popularity, but not as much as one very special pink robot.
The Legend of the Pink Droid
In November 2004, 6-year-old Katie Johnson was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. In April 2005, her dad, Albin, the founder of the 501st Legion, turned to Lee and his friends in the R2-D2 Builders Club with a request for a one-of-a-kind pink droid that would watch over his ill child.
Jerry Greene, one of the primary draftsmen and manufacturers of R2 parts from the R2-D2 Builders Club, asked his friends for donated parts, volunteering his own time to construct the droid. Over 4,000 501st Legion members and other Star Wars fans rallied together to support Katie’s last wish. Unfortunately, she passed away on Aug. 9, 2005, before the custom-built pink droid known as R2-KT had been completed. (She had, however, been introduced to a prototype of the pink droid she was able to enjoy).
In Katie’s honor, her family and friends created a website for the droid (R2KT.com) and members of the 501st and began taking R2-KT on tour to raise awareness and funds for charities of pediatric cancer and other childhood illnesses. In 2007, Hasbro produced a limited edition R2-KT action figure, the sales of which raised more than $100,000 for the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
“The pink imperial droid with the heart of gold” was really living up to its name. A year later, R2-KT made a cameo appearance in the animated feature film Clone Wars. R2-KT continues to tour children’s hospitals and the convention circuit to this day.
It’s a cause close to Lee’s heart, as is his dream to share a spaceship with the world.
Don’t Worry. She’ll Hold Together.
In 2005 (28 ASW), Lee began dreaming up a way to create a full-sized replica of the Millennium Falcon spaceship in the Star Wars films. He bought 88 acres of land located an hour west of Nashville for the purpose of building a spaceship on it.
Lee founded The Full Scale Millennium Falcon Project in hopes of finding other fans like him with similar big dreams. Together, through crowdsourcing, he believed he could make this dream come to life. So far, he has been right.
Through extensive research and conversations with other Star Wars fans, Lee discovered people who do 3D modeling that could help him start designing and constructing the spaceship, which will be a one-to-one replica, minus the working engine, of course.
Lee also found the Replica Prop Forum (TheRPF.com), an online haven of professional replica builders who see something they love on film and spend years reconstructing it. One of their members, Stinson Lenz (DeeplyObsessed.blogspot.com), of Philadelphia, Penn., had already completed 3D modeling of the Millennium Falcon cockpit console when Lee tracked him down.
“I said, ‘I want to build this thing,’” Lee says. “He went on to design the whole ship.”
Using the DK Ultimate Collection blueprints as a guide, the Full Scale Millennium Falcon team calculated the outer dimensions of the structure as follows: 114 feet (length); 81.5 feet (docking ring to docking ring); 24.9 feet (height to top of body, not counting quad-laser turret); 30.9 feet (height to top of dish); 7.8 feet (clearance from ground to landing gear bay level); and 13 feet (clearance from ground to outside bottom of cockpit tube).
The Falcon is bigger than Lee’s house.
“It would fit inside the aquarium at Epcot,” D’Andrea-Lee adds.
Stinson’s 3D models included the rest of the spaceship, including interior and exterior details, to scale. The plan is to use a conglomeration of concrete, steel, sheet metal, fiberglass, resin, 3D printing, hand sculpting and many other parts to recreate the spaceship—one piece at a time.
Another RPF member, Greg Dietrich, of Huntsville, Ala., where the Millennium Falcon is now being built in its entirety, took Stinson’s 3D designs and starting constructing the physical elements of the spaceship, starting with building the console of the cockpit where Han Solo and Chewbacca sit in the film.
“These guys are as crazy as I am!” Lee says.
Lee and his friends debuted the console at a Nashville Mini Maker Faire and at conventions, where several “Game of Thrones” actors showed up and had their picture taken with the iconic replica set. “Even Adam Savage (of ‘Mythbusters’ fame) came down to Huntsville and hung out with us,” Lee says. “He said, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve been following this project (online) for over a year.’ He actually signed it, too, so now we’re officially ‘Mythbusters’ approved!”
Hundreds of people have been involved in helping the project thus far, though Lee says he has a team of about a dozen people “actively building it.” Star Wars fans around the world are contributing over the Internet to the construction of the Falcon too. The project has had volunteers from cabinetmakers to contractors offering their services, pouring their dreams into Lee’s idea.
Project supporters have been able to successfully identify and catalogue the many parts of the Millennium Falcon—many of which are known as “greeblies,” referring to random bits and pieces that are later added to a model to make it look complex for the sake of storytelling.
Most greeblies on the spaceship in the original Star Wars films came from 1960’s-era British tanks, planes and vehicles, Lee says, which his friends are tracking down to bring back to the workshop. For any unidentifiable parts, Stinson is 3D printing them.
“In order for us to build this ship, we have to add greeblies,” Lee says.
In 2015 (38 years ASW), Lee is also using his technology background to put the final touches on fulfilling his third dream: Creating a community of online resources for dreamers and makers just like him.
Lee, along with Make Nashville (MakeNashville.com) and a coding community, are launching a website aptly named Greebli.es, a crowdsourcing tool that will allow inventors and tinkerers to collaborate on real-world fabrication projects such as the Millennium Falcon.
Lee is unsure when the Falcon will be complete, though he hopes it will happen in the next few years. “The journey is the reward,” he replies.
Ideally, Lee wants to build an entire creative campus around the Full Scale Millennium Falcon—a maker’s retreat with an education center for workshops where kids can learn how to weld and build things, and more. He also wants it to become a destination for the Star Wars community—a place where fans can rally together in their own universe.
Whether the Falcon ends up outside of Nashville or on the grounds of a U.S. museum is up to fate. But one thing’s for sure, Lee says: “You grow and mature, but (you) never let go of that dream, or that notebook.”
WHO IS CHRIS LEE?
When not recreating the Star Wars universe, Chris Lee works as the vice president of technology at Anode Inc. (Anode.com), an award-winning interactive web development and marketing company in Nashville, Tenn. He is also the co-chair of the Nashville Mini Make Faire (NashvilleMakerFaire.com) and a founding member of Make Nashville (MakeNashville.org), a nonprofit organization dedicated to opening a public makerspace and supporting makers of all ages in the Nashville area.
Lee debuted his presentation, “Robots, Spaceships, and Greeblies: Build Your Dream,” which you can watch on YouTube at TEDxNashville on March 22, 2014, in Nashville, Tenn. A few months later, he invited fans to meet with him at an exclusive TEDxNashville Social event, held at Yahoo Brewing Company, on June 16, 2014. Among those in attendance were his wife, Leah D’Andrea-Lee, their R2-D2 unit and a documentary film crew making a movie about The Full Scale Millennium Falcon Project’s incredible journey.
Follow Chris Lee on Social Media:
GET INVOLVED. SUPPORT THE FALCON PROJECT.
The Full Scale Millennium Falcon Project is looking for prop builders, model makers, painters, special effects techs, contractors, detailers, forum moderators, heavy equipment owners, and more. Lee and his team are organizing build weekends where supporters can gather and help with various jobs. To join the team, contact email@example.com.
Join the discussion in the forums and sign up for the mailing list at FullScaleFalcon.com.
THE NEXT ‘STAR WARS’ FILM
Disney (Lucasfilm Ltd.) will release Director J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens on Dec. 18, 2015.