Sometimes I am asked “how do you make that _____ I saw?”, which is a question that requires some pretty long and involved answering, and I don’t exactly know how to answer. I usually just shrug and say “you dig in, and … and eventually you have the model on your bench!” which I know is a cop-out. But it’s like asking a mechanic “how did you strip that engine?” or a doctor “how did you sew up that incision?”. These are really impossible-to-answer-without-teaching-a-skill questions. So hopefully by picking the AT-ST from The Empire Strikes Back, I can explain what is involved in making one of these filming replica miniatures. It’s quite daunting and deceptive, expensive to get off the ground and build, but absolutely exquisite when finished!
Now, none of these models happen in a vacuum. There is almost always a long trail of contributors behind every thing you see on a model bench, and this AT-ST is no exception. Briefly, as I recall, here’s the hows and whos: First off, this is a strange model. There is not a lot of public reference for this AT-ST, and as is usually the case when it comes to a poorly-documented model from ESB, the Studio Scale gang falls in love. We want what we cannot have, right? So, armed with the scant few seconds of screen caps from the film, and the two or three published photos of the model from various magazines and books, a fella named Isel made a master pattern of the AT-ST, that was then cast and sold by Steve Neisen. Isel was able to ID some of the key donor parts to the model from these small ill-defined photos, but the angles were not ideal, so some of the model was idealized. This is not a big deal, as it almost always happens with a replica, even on ones that have been photographed to death – there is no substitution for a direct hand-study, and even then, it is almost impossible to capture asymmetry that is almost always found in the original.
Now, to backtrack for a second, I should explain what “IDing donor parts” is all about. With most of the models I talk about, we run into surface and even sometimes structural details that are made up of model kit parts – literally just visually interesting elements from various model kits that have been snipped from their sprues, and applied to the model, which is usually clad in styrene or plexi/acrylic. It is, as you can imagine, a very daunting process to ID these model parts, and over time you amass a basement full of vintage armor and aircraft kits, all of which have been slowly picked apart in the process of building your latest and greatest triumph. You also learn to spot “the usual suspects”, which come from kits that the model shop must have loved, as they appear over and over again, on many different models. That’s how everyone in this hobby ends up with things like 5 8-Rads and 12 Morser Karl kits!
Anyway, back to the AT-ST. Neisen’s kit was released, and people loved it, though there was a structural problem. Since the entire model was cast in resin, the legs would weaken and warp over time, from the weight of the resin body and head. A small group of like-minded modelers decided to draft a partial armature to solve this problem, thinking that laser cut acrylic legs would keep the AT-ST upright. As this was snowballing into ideas of metal parts, I took a trip to Japan with my wife, for vacation and Maschinen Krieger-related reasons. While in the offices of Art Box (to study original SF3D models from Kow Yokoyama), we were introduced to Seiji Takahashi, one of the most talented and famed Star Wars modelers in Japan. He has co-written a few of the “bibles” that we model builders use, like Chronicles, and was excited to compare notes with me on projects and builds. I had been told of this meeting ahead of time, and had asked for a small wishlist of photo reference if he had it, with the AT-ST being among them. Imagine my surprise when Takahashi-san reveals a binder with amazing crisp large format prints of the filming model, from almost every conceivable angle!
This was amazing for a few reasons. Chief of them being that the AT-ST itself does not exist in it’s original whole form any longer. It is now a naked armature with feet, a few remnants of details, and a battered and stripped head. This is due to the fact that it was dissected some time in between ESB and Jedi, as the model makers were refining the AT-ST for the final film. This is also partly fortuitous for us, as Takahashi-san also had a few well-taken photos from 1993 when this stripped-down model toured Japan, because they show us a lot of detailed information about the underlying metal armature, which would never have been well-documented, and hidden from view in the final configuration! Takahashi-san surmises that his photo survey of the model, post-filming but pre-dissection, are from an ex-Kenner employee. It is unknown if ILM even have these photos, as nothing has ever surfaced in literature. These of course would have been taken by the production and given to Kenner to make their AT-ST toy, which did indeed come to market for ESB. It is a taller, sleeker, and I think sexier design. Good enough reason to build, if you ask me!
So, once back from Japan, and armed with this reference, that small group realized we could NAIL this model, accuracy-wise, and start from scratch, with a complete metal armature, and built as the original was, with a vacuum formed head. Over one year, two armature revisions, many part IDs, and refinements to head shapes later, everything was in place to build what you will read about below. I truly am building this model on the backs of others – talented model makers like Allan, Lee, Julien, Quincy, and a few others who banded together to bring these replicas to life. I know I speak for all of us when I say it will always be a jewel in the display case, and represents the power of working together under a shared near-unhealthy obsession with the golden age of ILM miniatures.