Collectors who spent a good portion of their childhood playing with vintage Kenner Star Wars action figures will tell you that those same figures stir up great nostalgic memories as adults.
Most collectors agree that their fondest memories from those days are centered on the toys. But while the toys get most of the glory, there are many who have equally vivid memories of the striking graphics on the packaging.
What kid wasn’t enamored with that silver double racetrack Star Wars logo and image of the character from the movie? I’m sure that many of you reading this article had a stack of used card backs that you couldn’t bring yourself to throw away after you’d ripped the figure off of it. Compared to the sensory overload times we live in today, images from the movies were relatively scarce in those days,
so card backs were yet another way to remember our favorite characters and scenes.
We’ve come a long way since 1977.
Today, information about the various stages of the figure production process is readily available, but by comparison, there is relatively little about the process used in creating the packaging. The purpose of this article is to identify the highlights of that process and to shine a spotlight on the people who were responsible for all those innovative and unforgettable card backs that left such a lasting impression on so many collectors.
Not only did he know exactly what he was looking for, George Lucas was in complete and total control over the finished packaging for the vintage Kenner Star Wars line says Jeff Rice, a former LPK (the Cincinnati company that Kenner outsourced the task of designing the packaging to) designer who, along with a man named Bob Wile, were responsible for the production of nearly all of the original Star Wars figure packaging. Kenner was so overwhelmed by the demand that they turned to outsourcing to meet it in a timely fashion. One thing Jeff made perfectly clear was that George had the final say on everything, and that meant he had to see it all in person. “Kenner couldn’t make a move without Lucas’ approval. George is such a visionary and he always had a very clear vision of what he wanted. Since he owned the licensing rights, he obviously had a vested interest, so he was involved in even the most minute of details. Needless to say, this created a lot of stress.”
Another thing that he stressed was the amount of time involved in the creation process. The pre-digital design/printing techniques and Kenner’s narrow production window resulted in many long days for Jeff and Bob. The work was painstakingly tedious and time consuming. Compounding the problem was the fact that there were three players in the design approval chain (LPK to Kenner to LucasFilm and back), and it often took longer than expected to get feedback, which resulted in further delays.
Work started before Star Wars hit the theaters, but the reference material provided by Kenner made little sense to them. They were bombarded with 35mm movie stills that LucasFilm had given to Kenner, but they knew nothing about the film or the characters. “We were working blind” says Jeff. But rather than complain about the tough conditions and time constraints, the talented people at LPK dug in and got busy.
The production of each card back can be broken down into two general steps: the design and creation of the mechanical, which was executed by LPK, and the creation of the final films used to create the printing plates by the printer.
Think of a mechanical as nothing more than a printer’s blueprint containing all the necessary technical instructions for final print production of the card back. It was constructed using black and white photo copies of the actual camera ready images which were pasted onto a piece of art board and contained details such as size, color specifications, and placement for all photos and other design elements like the Kenner logo, character name plate, Star Wars logo, text, etc.
The mechanical, along with all of the individual pieces of camera ready artwork and design elements were presented to the printer for completion of step two. To date, no known example of a 3-3/4” card back mechanical has surfaced in the collector market. A likely explanation for this is that once the final films were created, the mechanical became obsolete, and it is thought that most of them were destroyed or discarded by the printing company.
According to Jeff, one of the first card backs that LPK worked on was C-3PO.
The process typically began with a still image from the movie taken from a Lucasfilm 35mm positive transparency which was provided to LPK by Kenner. From this slide, an inner negative was generated and a traditional enlarger was used to produce a large positive color print.
This print was then retouched by resident LPK airbrush artist Bill Ellifon to add highlights, improve contrast and even remove unwanted characters that may have appeared in the shot. For example, the image used for C-3PO’s card back originally had R2-D2 in the shot.
See how Ellifon removed him for the final?