Singapore, Spetember 7, 2017 — This date marked an important occasion in the pop culture history as a preview of the Singapore Toy, Game, and Comic Convention’s 10th birthday celebration. Guests from Eastern and Western pop culture fare graced the short gathering at Central Perk cafe.
We sat down with Stefan Cembolista. “So we’re gonna talk about Star Trek?” he started, flashing a cheeky smile. That’s when we knew we were in one hell of an interview with one of the best propmakers in the industry. Stefan and his team (Belgian Costume Division vzw) have been crafting full scale replicas of Star Wars sets and props for quite some time now.
“Now the prop-making industry got me when I was about 8 or 9 years old,” said Stefan as he recalled the start of his lifelong career. He built his first prop at such an early age, based off the German war movie, Das Boot. “I figured I need a big part of the submarine to play with my action figures! So I actually built it. It was a couple of meters long. My father complained because half my room was a submarine. That was the moment when I came into prop-building. I became geek very early.”
A Star Wars Career
“Many years ago, I actually found this fan community in Belgium, first building costumes. We were acquainted with 501st, Rebel Legion… the common Star Wars communities that exists still; and it got bigger and bigger. Then came the moment… the costumes look cool on a convention, but it would look even cooler when you have a set behind the costume,” he said as he found his way into the Star Wars fandom. Be it a Death Star wall and together with Stormtroopers, Stefan said that an accurate-looking set, despite it being a fan-made replica, would make photos look like the person is inside the real thing and make them feel part of the movie.
“Star Wars, from the very beginning, was the major core feeling in my heart. I watched the movie in 1977 when it came into the theaters.” As he described the feeling of seeing the massive Star Destroyer, and Darth Vader’s entrance in the film, he knew he fell for the film hard. “I was sold, I was sold for the rest of my life. It never stopped.”
On Darth Vader and the Rogue One film
“Actually, I was speechless,” Stefan quipped after asking him about his first impression of Darth Vader. “First, this door exploding and these Stormtroopers running in, killing everybody… those faceless helmets, and then… Darth Vader! He was known from the posters before, but seeing him for the first time in action, I was like… WOW, what a blast! What a character!”
“For me, at this moment, he was already the most evil villain ever in movie history. And I think he still is!”
Stefan also recalled Darth Vader’s final scene in Rogue One as the villain tore through Rebel soldiers, to which our legendary prop-maker joked, “Disney made a huge mistake. They brought out Rogue One and this film tops all!” But Stefan made his claim serious about Rogue One being the best Star Wars film among all. “You can combine it perfectly to Episode IV: A New Hope, which was for me, of course in ’77 the first Star Wars movie that existed. But now, when you see Rogue One, you have exactly the same feeling!” Stefan explained that the Star Wars characters had 40 years for the fans to know and love the main characters. “But with Rogue One, they had new characters who only had the chance with one movie to get in to our skin, in to our hearts, and they created this build up from the character, the drama… this entire content of the movie with this very crucial end of Darth Vader, this badass man, swirling around his Lightsaber, killing those rebels to get those plans but just don’t get it!” It was because of Rogue One that made Stefan excitedly skeptical of how good Episode 8 will be, and if it would be enough to nudge Rogue One out of the top spot.
On their most challenging prop
“All of them are difficult, to start with, because you want to recreate something that exists based upon limited information that you have. But the most difficult one by now was for me… Rey’s bike,” Stefan recalled. He lobbied for the detailed schematics of Rey’s Speeder to Lucasfilm, to which the latter obliged. “It took a long time to get the approval from the studio, to get us this information. We got tons of production pictures, the full plans with all the sizes before the movie came out, which is in Star Wars terms, that’s top secret material! They wouldn’t even leak a picture to the public, and we got it all! It was a blast, it was an absolute honor for us that they shared and trusted us with this information,” he said with a proud smile. But this was not without caveats. When the schematics came, Stefan and his team only had five (5) weeks before the Speeder had to be sent to Anaheim for ReedPOP’s Star Wars Celebration. Stefan and his team of 35 members worked round the clock to meet the strict deadline, and still create the exact replica of Rey’s Speeder down to the last bolt. “We wanted to replicate it, like put the original next to it and you won’t see the difference!” The schedule was so tight that when the Speeder arrived in Anaheim, Stefan and his team still had to do weathering and finishing touches to the replica. It was only completed a mere 30 minutes before J.J. Abrams walked in to see the Speeder personally.
Stefan also used professional prop-building materials normally used in small scale props. “For example, the nose section, which is a very odd shape… we had to make molds of very tall parts. So we actually used concrete. We shaped half of the nose in foam, put it in a wooden box and filled it with concrete. So we had a mold with a weight of 150 kilos,” he said. Due to time constraints, these materials were the fastest to set, the cheapest and easiest to work with, given the circumstances.
On the love of prop-building
As Stefan described their Millennium Falcon and Speeder exhibit in STGCC, he also chimed on the satisfaction that his career has brought to himself. “We build it for the fans, because we are also fans. We love to build it, we love to show it. And we just enjoy that people come over and have fun, and see the inside… feel the inside. Our Star Wars is Star Wars in touching, not only looking at it. We all look at it in the movies, that’s enough looking! Taking a seat… and feeling like I’m in the Falcon! This is the experience for a fan, for us that is not comparable to something else. It’s special. And that’s the reason why we’re building this, especially for the kids! And you see those faces and those shiny eyes… put them on the bike and make their day. That feels so good! That’s worth all the work you put in to, so… we hope to see all the fans and we hope to share the joy with all the fans here.”
Imparting inspirational words
“The most inspiring thing about costume building, prop building, is to join in to this family. We are all individuals, but themes like Star Trek, Star Wars, or Marvel… they create communities,” Stefan smiled as he opened up his advice. “Our fandom for everything, be it Star Wars or Marvel, makes the world a very little space, but it makes our family our bigger and bigger. Star Wars and the other themes, they’re a family. If you are a costumer, join this family, share your information… your knowledge. Get to know other people, and your fun will be unlimited.”
He also recognized that there are fans who are afraid to join in, to which he also had parting words for them: “Maybe they don’t have the skills… or whatever! Don’t think about it! This is a hobby you learn and process. If you compare the things you learn, and the joy that you get from it… that’s so worth it.”
“You know that you have great prop builders in the Philippines. I’ve seen their work. I haven’t met them live, and I’m so looking forward to meeting those guys.” It’s because of this that Stefan would love to visit the Philippines in the future.