Steve Neisen had to repeat the fifth grade because of “Star Wars.”
“(From the moment) when the Star Wars music played and the star destroyer came across the screen, I was lost,” Neisen told Cowboy State Daily – lost in “a galaxy far, far away.”
He was so lost that he completely neglected his school work, Neisen said
“I remember my mom showing up to the school, and the teacher walked over to my desk, which had the flip-up lid,” he said. “And when they lifted that lid, nothing but Star Wars cards and action figures and drawings and Star Wars fell out. So we moved to Louisiana after that, and I got to repeat the fifth grade because of Star Wars.”
His fascination with the franchise never waned, Neisen told Cowboy State Daily, and led him to the career he has today – creating scale models for collectible companies who own licenses for Star War and Star Trek and work closely with Lucasfilm/Disney and other major movie companies producing licensed studio scale models.
From Photos To TIE Fighters
Neisen said that he was never into “toys,” as they were never accurate enough for him. Rather, from a young age he enjoyed building model airplanes and other replicas.
“Every Saturday, I would go pick up comic books from the Piggly Wiggly (grocery store),” he said. “They had the magazine rack, and they had this behind-the-scenes of ‘Empire Strikes Back’ special edition book. It showed how they made the movie, and I started noticing these guys are working on these models.”
Neisen said he started making his own models using whatever parts and pieces he could find, drawing from photos as his patterns. He joined the military in 1986, and during his 20-year tenure he discovered a treasure trove of information about model building on the internet.
“I was part of one of the first forums, called RPF, Replica Prop Forums,” Neisen said, which put him on the ground floor of the studio-scale replica industry. But he was still in the military, so his hobby often got sidetracked.
“I went to three or four combat zones during that same time,” Neisen said, “and what I ended up doing is researching these models and finding all the little kit parts to make them exactly like the ones that they used in the movies.”
Neisen said the first Star Wars model that he ever built was a TIE (Twin-Ion Engine) fighter, piloted by the Empire’s forces in the series.
“I taught myself how to do rubber molding and casting, pressure casting and things, and then folks liked what I did,” he said. “I could replicate this for folks if they wanted one of these in their collection, so I started doing that on the side.”
His work soon became noticed by none other than the special effects team for Lucasfilm, which caused him a bit of alarm at first.
“I’m a military policeman, you know, and a phone call comes from this company, Master Replicas, the license holder,” Neisen said. “I’m thinking I’m in trouble. And they said ‘No, no, no, you’re not. We want to know if you’d help us.’”
Neisen was asked to provide lists of the model parts necessary to build an AT-AT Walker, an armored troop carrier introduced in the movie “The Empire Strikes Back.”
“Fast forward, I made a ton more kits, I’ve made a ton more models, and then I’m retired from the military,” he said. “I joined the Cheyenne Police Department, and while I was on patrol, my phone rings and it’s this guy, he used to work for Master Replicas, but he started his own company called EFX Collectibles.”
EFX offered Neisen work as a subcontractor, designing and building licensed scale model patterns for the Star Wars franchise, which he did for several years, while still building his own models on the side for fun.
Then, in 2014, Disney called.
“We’re going to do a Star Wars Land at the parks, and we want you to provide the models for the Star Wars Launch Bay,” was the offer, Neisen said, explaining that the Launch Bay was an area that was open to the public while Disney was developing the Star Wars attraction at both Disneyland in California and Disney World in Florida.
“We’re looking at 30 models – 15 models, two of each, and it’s a 4-foot Star Destroyer, a 6-foot Blockade Runner, X-Wings, drop ships, Slave 1, everything you could imagine,” Neisen said, “to be delivered in four months.”
Needless to say, that kind of work couldn’t happen in his off hours. So after 20 years in the military and another eight with the Cheyenne police force, Neisen decided it was time to devote his full attention to the “hobby” he’d been fascinated with since childhood.
“Model making has gone from all by hand, then a little bit of computer, now mostly everything’s done in the computer,” Neisen said. And the advent of 3D printing has made model-making light years faster than in the past.
“With 3D printing and 3D modeling, if I can’t find the part and I have a good reference for it, I don’t have to wait or leave it off the model,” he said. “I can create it on the computer and then print it.”
From Comic Books To Comic Con
Neisen said he’s a regular now at Star Wars conventions and other sci-fi gatherings around the country.
“I leave for Comic Con (in San Diego) on Tuesday, (working in the EFX booth),” Neisen said. “I think we’re going to have a baby Yoda with the ‘pram’ that he rides in. I’ve gotten to meet all my model-making heroes, who now come look at my models.”
And he’s had other dreams come true, as well.
“I’ve been to Skywalker Ranch, like, three times,” Neisen said. “I stayed in the little villas, rode a bicycle to the archive. It’s a magical place. I mean, it’s a whole little community. The green is greener, the blue is bluer. I spent four or five days in the archive taking pictures and re-measuring (the original models) and having full access.”
Adding To Sci-Fi Universe From Cheyenne
Neisen’s hyper-accurate models have been the basis for computer generated images in a number of blockbuster films, in franchises outside of the Star Wars universe.
“I did work on a lot of other movies, different franchises,” he said. “I’ve done Star Trek stuff. We had the Marvel license for a long time, and we did Loki’s helmet (from “The Avengers”). We’ve done a couple of Iron Man.”
And Neisen said he creates fully licensed models for other companies as well, not just for the movies.
“A watch company called Cross, they took one of my models, the studio scale model (of the Slave 1 ship from Star Wars), which is about 30 inches by 26 inches, and they had me convert it to a wristwatch holder,” he said. “You take the canopy off, and then you put their $175,000 watch on this little pillow inside the cockpit. I’ve got a contract for 11 of those, so in the next year, I’ll be doing one a month.”
Expanding His Own Universe
Neisen has created a network of people who help him with the bigger jobs, but he said he does most of the model work himself.
“I just sent off yesterday, a studio scale Slave 1, the Boba Fett ship,” Neisen said.
Up until recently, Neisen has put together all of his models from his 2-car garage. But his equipment needs are growing as fast as his business, which is why he recently bought a 5-acre piece of property, on which he is constructing a 2,500 square foot shop.
“I bet I have the largest 130-watt laser in the state,” he said. “I have a 63-by-54 inch laser that I use to help make patterns, and I’ve got 3D printers, I’ve got a heat sublimation t-shirt manufacturing setup, I do all kinds of stuff.”