“Dad, you’ve got to tell me.”
“Dad, you’re torturing me.”
“Has it been an hour yet?”
“How do you read that clock?”
“What are you writing down?”
We’re in the back of a black Mercedes, being driven to an undisclosed location — an airplane hangar somewhere in the tristate area. I know where we’re going. Nate Kolker does not. He is 7 years old, a first-grader with dusty brown hair and two missing front teeth. He is excited, mostly because he got to skip his after-school program, but also because his older sister spilled the beans and let him know this had something to do with LEGO.
The hangar is housing the largest LEGO sculpture ever made. I haven’t been told what it is yet, exactly, but the company has offered us this chance to play with its new sculpture a week before its debut in Times Square on Thursday, May 23. (The sculpture is a promotion for The Yoda Chronicles, a new Star Wars show on the Cartoon Network, and the first to feature not human characters but their animated LEGO avatars, button eyes and claw hands and everything.) I’ve signed a nondisclosure agreement to embargo the information before that day, and so when I smile and tell Nate I can’t say anything, citing contractual obligations, I’m not even lying. It’s one of those moments parents live for.
Then the ride gets rough. We get caught in traffic. The car lurches forward and stops, and forward again. Nate says he’s going to throw up. We open a window. Before he has a chance to vomit, he falls asleep. After more than two hours on the road, we arrive at the hangar, walking together through a narrow side door.
Before us is an X-wing fighter — full-size, an 11-foot-tall and 43-foot-long replica, 42 times the size of the LEGO X-wing you can find in the store (Star Wars set #9493, if you must know). We meet Erik, one of a select few “master builders” who work full-time for LEGO creating large models like this one for store displays and media events. Erik leads Nate under and around the model, explaining that the X-wing took 32 master builders more than 17,000 hours to complete, using 5,335,200 LEGO bricks. The result is nearly 46,000 pounds, with a wingspan of 44 feet. The fighter was built in the LEGO Model Shop in Kladno, Czech Republic, then broken in to pieces and brought to America by boat. Its final destination, after being paraded before tourists in Times Square (emerging from a large-scale replica of a LEGO box), will be, naturally, the Legoland theme park in California.
It occurs to me, looking at Nate, that I was 8 when Star Wars came out. I wonder what I would have made of this moment back then. Erik seems as interested as I am in what a little boy thinks of it all. We both stare at him, scanning for a reaction. Nate is silent at first. He rubs the sleep out of his eyes. He still says nothing. Finally, he says something.
“Why didn’t you make it with the X-wing open?”
I had the same question, actually. Erik is ready for us. “The X-wing is closed when the fighter has landed,” he says. Then, sotto voce, he allows that the structural braces needed to prop open the X-wing in X formation would look like crap.
Erik doubles down now, determined to dazzle the 7-year-old. He points to the top of the fighter, where they’ve remembered to place a full-scale R2D2. Nate chuckles. He points at the millions of little LEGO bricks as Erik explains that the bricks aren’t just glued together; they’re fused into one with solvent. Then the whole thing is sprayed with some sort of polyurethane to make it shiny. “I wish it actually flew,” Nate says dreamily.
Erik brings a ladder over and offers Nate a chance to sit in the cockpit. He might be the first boy ever to do it. Nate nods and scurries up. Facing forward, he notices that there’s a huge TV screen inside. Erik tells us that the monitor is for pictures: The cockpit is a photo booth for the kids who will board it in Times Square. Nate nods; he likes photo booths. But he has a better idea: turning the X-wing into a POV video game. “Why don’t you turn the thing on so it looks like you’re flying, too?”
This gives Erik an idea. He brings Nate around to the back of the X-wing and shows him a gray panel at about Nate’s eye level. Erik removes the panel and shows Nate two knobs and a switch. He glances conspiratorially at Nate and turns them all on. Suddenly, we all hear it: that crazy, high-low X-wing hum from the movies, like an airplane engine but with more sizzle. Then comes the familiar beeps and hoots of R2. It’s like we’re in the Dagobah system with Luke.
Nate’s eyes are darting everywhere now. “Where does the sound come from? Does it come from inside the LEGOs? How long does it go? Until it runs out of huge batteries?” Erik is smiling. Then Nate starts speculating about what might happen in Star Wars movies he hasn’t seen (he is only halfway through Empire and hasn’t seen Episodes I through III).
Our visit is ending. Erik shows us the proprietary software he uses to design models like these — he can dump in any 3-D object and it is transformed into a workable LEGO model. We shake hands and head back to the car. On the way home, Nate is as talkative as he was quiet in the hangar.
“It was awesome. It was really big and there were wires, but they made it so you can’t even see the wires. So you can’t. And there’s this little thing I’m not allowed to tell you about it, but it’s in the ship and it makes R2 talk and it makes the engines fire. But it doesn’t really float in midair. If I could, I’d build something somebody already built, but I’d add a couple things to it. A couple dozen. I thought they might have a preview for Episode VII, but they didn’t. And then you signed this thing that I don’t know what it was. What did you sign? I liked how you pull out this thing that looks like regular LEGO pieces, but it isn’t, and there’s two switches straight ahead of your eyes and one up here a little bit to the left, and then you switch it to the right and R2 starts talking and the engines start going. That’s when Yoda comes and saves them, I think. Hey, look, there’s the sun going down! Dad, you don’t think I liked it, but I loved it.”