STAR WARS (Original Trilogy) Imperial Mechanical Crew (updated with Part II/fuer Ovy) - Fri Dec 25, 2020 12:11 pm
Spinoff Photo Story HERE.
It has occurred to me that we should be wishing each other stress-free Christmases rather than just Merry Christmases (or Happy ones, if you speak the more proper royal form of English). Given how long a certain key ingredient took to get here, it was a miracle I got it done before Christmas. And although it is not particularly holiday-oriented, I figured I'd post it up as a way of relaxing in the calm between two Christmas storms (figuratively, not literally).
While you are waiting for the photos to load, you might want to take a look at what turned out to be a whole research essay -- this time I had taken plenty of notes, as this one took a lot of effort to figure out with plausible accuracy. Was it worth it? To me, yes. So here it goes...
Call it a Christmas miracle. I thought I will never have one. No company had produced one in any scale, nor had it acknowledged its existence. But after never really looking into it, I ended up kitbashing and customizing a sixth-scale recreation of what may be one of cinema history’s ultimate amissible background characters (even if there was a whole formation of them lined up behind the two dark lords of the original Star Wars universe). I am referring to what has been called an Imperial ground crewman or Imperial mechanical crewman. No, I do not mean the newly invented closed-helmeted ground crew that provided an Imperial uniform disguise for Jyn Erso in Rogue One; and I do not mean the so-called “scanning crew technicians” (who wear black caps and grey jumpsuits, but surely do other things than simply operate scanners) or the various naval communications crewmen aboard Star Destroyers in The Empire Strikes Back (who wear standard caps and jumpsuits in either olive and grey or black and black). Blink twice and you will miss them. The guys I am talking about are both the creation and the victim of Lucas’ vision for the emperor’s arrival scene in The Return of the Jedi.
It is no secret that Lucas needed as many Imperial characters as he could to fill out the (artificially) vast hangar that served for the emperor’s arrival aboard the second Death Star. Stormtroopers, scout troopers, the newly-designed regular army troopers (“AT-ST drivers”), TIE-Fighter pilots, gunners, naval guards (“Death Star/Squad troopers”), “scanning crew technicians,” various officers, and a smattering of droids were called up in formation to greet the diminutive wizard-like emperor. The whole thing was supposed to evoke the military parades of totalitarian regimes, and the number of characters and vastness of space required for that led to the infamous decision to combine actual film with a matte painting, mixing real and painted characters for our viewing pleasure. The wide shot of this scene (photo A), the one combined with the matte painting, does not even feature the background characters that are the subject of this kitbash/custom: they must have been late for the set or, more likely, overlooked as unnecessary from that perspective; there is no one beyond or behind the formation of four rows of “scanning crew technicians” to the left (camera right) of the landed shuttle. But then the angle of view changes (photo B), and one can discover our new characters in formation (at least four rows deep) just to the left of the emperor’s shuttle, standing behind the aforementioned four rows of “scanning crew technicians.” Then the angle of the camera changes again (photos C and D), as we see the emperor and Vader begin their conversation and walk on: the “scanning crew technicians” have disappeared (they were apparently redeployed to swell numbers farther down the line), and our guys have advanced to the very front. This is confirmed by a set photo (photo E) of unused footage (which would have been nice to see in the film), where we see them lined up at the front, with only the red-robed Imperial royal guards between them and their ultimate boss. And, apart from a rare photo of one of their helmets (photo F), that is all the “primary” evidence on these guys I have been able to dig up.
Following the standard established or accepted by the 501st Legion, let us call them Imperial mechanical crew. The out-of-focus and limited footage led to a fairly late recognition of the characters as belonging to a new type of unit, as well as all sorts of misconceptions about both their purpose and their actual appearance. Actually, their true purpose is clear: they were there to take up space, swell up the ranks of the Imperials lined up to greet the emperor, and provide just a bit of additional variety for the assembled Imperial forces; possibly for the emperor and his officials, certainly for Lucas’ camera lens. Strangely so, since some previously attested uniforms are not seen here, like the cream-colored tunics of the security bureau from A New Hope or the olive and grey get up of the Star Destroyer crewmen from The Empire Strikes Back (who are also conspicuously absent from the deck of the Executor in The Return of the Jedi!), among others. These choices confirm the apparent and misleading preoccupation with overall optics in the staging of the scene. Closer inspection reveals plenty of missing elements, apparently deemed too minor to be noticed even when contradicting established uniform appearances: some “AT-ST drivers” helmets without chin-straps, some jumpsuits without Imperial cog emblems on their upper arms at the shoulder, some belts without utility boxes (they were there in A New Hope), all gunners without their ribbed tops and leather chest protectors (ditto), one of them infamously with his “bib” out over the collar of his jumpsuit -- surely a wardrobe oversight, not an intended uniform look or fashion statement; but Kenner stuck a photo of that one on the action figure card back (HERE), and it has caused a minor controversy). And I have already noted the inconsistencies and redeployment in the formation of attendees between different shots in the same scene. Our mechanical crewmen were put together to contribute to this slightly slapshot environment, and their fairly basic outfit is quite consistent with such basic needs.
Interpretation or Misinterpretation
Let us take a look at the costume and dispel some misconceptions. As mentioned above, the footage is limited and out-of-focus. So it is not altogether surprising that misconceptions should arise. One fairly detailed source, Curtis Saxton (HERE), who may have been the first to make me realize these characters existed, describes their appearance as follows, sometime before 2006:
• Blue-black overalls, single-breasted top.
• Black open helmet, cockroach brim absent or not clearly visible.
• Black belt with silver buckle and holster, no utility boxes.
• Long-sleeved black gloves.
• No rank badge or code cylinders.
Images: Standing at attention, left of Lord Vader.
These men probably aren't regular naval sailors, guards or technicians, because those uniforms are already identified. They must specialists of some kind, or have mildly dangerous working conditions, otherwise they wouldn't have helmets. They don't work in vacuum, otherwise the helmet would be sealed. Since the next two types of servicemen on this side of the bay are naval (black-capped technicians, then gunners) I tentatively guess that the mysterious men are also in the Navy.
Jason Mitchell notes that the holster implies combat/security, and the lack of belt boxes common to specialists, crew and technicians. For these reasons, he suggests that these personnel could belong to Military Police unit or a Shore Patrol unit."
Much of this is correct, but there are also a lot of errors, some of them unexpected, given the image he supplied: the overalls/jumpsuit IS navy blue (which can appear almost black on film), there are NO silver belt buckles and apparently NO belts or holsters, and there are NO long-sleeved (or otherwise) black gloves. Even without these mistakes, some of the otherwise interesting implications drawn by Saxton and Mitchell do not necessarily follow (presence of helmets and absence of utility boxes do not keep these characters from being ground/mechanical crew any more than their very similarly equipped Rebel counterparts -- see below).
Seemingly unaware of Saxton’s notes, Cal Pierce and associates drew attention to this character type in 2011, submitting the costume specifications to the 501st Legion, and posting their recreation of the costume on the Rebelscum forum (HERE). They correctly concluded the characters were thrown in “to fill in space,” that the jumpsuits were navy blue, and they created the “mechanical crew” designation. They also noted that “the costume is really plain Jane in the movie” and admitted adding (or being tempted to add) embellishments extrapolated from other Imperial uniforms, “such as gloves, belt, comm pad, code cylinders, cogs on shoulder,” in other words correctly realizing none of these were present in the actual film costumes; the featured photos of the recreated costume and the specifications adopted by the 501st Legion (HERE) ignored any such embellishments.
While Pierce et al. in effect corrected most of the earlier misconceptions (about the presence of belts, holsters, gloves), they introduced what appears to be a glaring, if somewhat easy to make, error, which has been overlooked and allowed into the 501st Legion guidelines. This is the Imperial cog emblem on the front (“forehead”) of the helmet. The glossy black helmets reflected the overhead lighting of the set like those of the gunners and “Death Star troopers” and TIE-Fighter pilots. The gunners and pilots do have cog emblems on their helmets, and the decoration on the gunner helmet (which in fact incorporates into a more complex design the same basic “talker” helmet as that of the mechanical crewmen) is in fact a single large cog emblem on the front (“forehead”). However, for all the reflection, distance, and out-of-focus imagery, it does NOT appear that the mechanical crewmen had a cog-emblem on their helmets; the evidence is as follows:
Exhibit A: in a movie still (photo B), the mechanical crewmen are seen standing alongside “Death Star troopers” and gunners; the reflection effect is identical for the mechanical crewmen and the “Death Star troopers,” while in the case of the gunners the cog emblem can be seen as a white circle with a darker center separate from and additional to the reflection of the lights.
Exhibit B: at least one photograph (photo F) of a mechanical crewman helmet exists, showing no trace of an Imperial cog emblem on it, despite some scuffing.
Between these two pieces of evidence, we can be certain that a reconstruction of the mechanical crew costume with an emblem on the helmet is incorrect. Like the “Death Star troopers,” the mechanical crewmen had NO emblem on their helmet. One imagines this should be good news to anyone trying to recreate this costume in either 1:1 or smaller scale – unless they have already gone though the trouble of applying an emblem where there should not be any.
Comparative Evidence and Reinterpretation
The costume of the Imperial mechanical crew is a fairly minor variation of the costume of the Rebel ground crew on Yavin IV in A New Hope. I use the term “ground crew” generally, following Brandon Alinger (Star Wars Costumes, San Francisco 2014: 22-23), whose close collaboration with Lucasfilm makes him an authority in my book; the Rebel Legion costume guidelines distinguish between two variations, which they label Rebel ground crew (HERE) and Yavin hangar technicians (HERE). Generally speaking, these wear grey jumpsuits that are identical to the Imperial ones except in having rectangular rather than chevron pocket flaps, and having four leg pockets instead of only two. The more specific “ground crew” variation appear to forego a helmet and a belt, but tuck in their pant legs into their black boots (photo I); the more specific “hangar technicians” variation wear light grey “talker” (US naval gunner Mk II, HERE) helmets with an added communication unit and antenna (usually in the same color), a modern-looking khaki or olive belt with mini-flare loops, and do not tuck their pant legs into their black boots (photos G and H).
This provides clues for interpreting what we see of the corresponding Imperial mechanical crew costume. The helmet is the same, in fact the exact same, simply repainted glossy black (Alinger p. 23). The helmet’s chin strap is all black (like those of the “Death Star troopers” and “AT-ST drivers”), as opposed to the black strap with a white chin guard used by the Rebels. The jumpsuit is the Imperial variant of the same garment worn by the Rebel ground crew (the differences being chevron pocket flaps and only two leg pockets), but dyed navy blue. Since it is worn without a belt (certainly no belt buckle of any kind is visible), it can be assumed that the jumpsuit is tucked into the boots. These are difficult to make out in the out-of-focus images but would be consistent with the overall draping of the garment and with the rules for the Rebel ground crew costumes in the films (no belt = pant legs tucked into boots). Given this parallelism to the Rebel crewmen, you can see why I would have preferred to label the characters in question “Imperial ground crew,” although I suppose “Imperial mechanical crew” remains a viable choice.
To sum up, the Imperial mechanical crew wears a glossy black “talker” helmet with a com box and antenna and black chin strap, a navy-blue jumpsuit, and black jackboots (probably the shorter jackboots seen with jumpsuits in Star Wars). This is a simple and not particularly striking outfit, although that is perhaps understandable for the type of character, especially in a film universe whose creator, George Lucas, said “I don’t want anyone to notice the costumes” (Alinger, p. 6, quoting John Mollo). There is certainly consistency in the parallelism with the corresponding Rebel type(s). Such continuity, even among secondary elements, is something that helps the film universe feel real. In fact, the continuity carries over, more subtly, to other trooper types, as the same “talker” helmet forms part of the more complex designs of the Rebel fleet trooper helmets, the “Death Star trooper” helmets, and the Imperial gunner helmets.
Recreation in Sixth-Scale
Such a simply-attired character ought to be easy to kitbash, right? Well, to a point. The boots were a relatively easy choice, between (among others) Sideshow molded Star Wars or DID leather German jackboots; both come in either shorter or taller varieties, but the shorter kind is more appropriate for Star Wars characters wearing jumpsuits. So I chose DID’s shorter leather jackboots, which are hard to find and (being fairly old) tend to be damaged or to be on the verge of falling apart. I might revisit this choice later. The jumpsuit is from a Sideshow AT-AT driver set (these garments are both rare and expensive these days, but for once I had exercised forethought, since they are useful for several different Imperial costumes); I re-painted it navy blue with a … Sharpie! (And left it to dry for days on end.)
The helmet was surprisingly difficult to find; US World War II gunners with clean no-frills Mk II “talker” helmets must either not have been recreated in high-end sixth-scale, or else be exceedingly rare (I know little about modern military figures and may well have missed something obvious). In the end, I found a sixth-scale version of the helmet on Shapeways for a reasonable price and purchased a couple, selecting the smoother surface option. When they arrived, they were still striated enough to betray a rough surface and it was apparent that they would require not only painting, but also smoothing to achieve the desired glossy effect. Since I am pretty bad at sanding (patience not being one of my many virtues), that seemed like a daunting task. Until I discovered a way around it in XTC-3D, a mix and brush-on coating that fills in striations. Perhaps I have not tried enough products, but I was surprised at how well it worked, even with a single coat (to correct some minor oversights, I applied a second). The hardest part was waiting for it to arrive: I could swear they used a snail-drawn open sleigh and the snails kept freezing to the ground. The chin strap is borrowed and slightly repurposed (rearranged, really) from a Hot Toys Solo Mudtrooper, while I made a mold of the communication box on a Sideshow Rebel fleet trooper to recreate that part from Kneadatite (here is where I thank Ovy for encouraging me in that direction a long time ago); the antenna is, predictably enough, a length of wire.
I also painted a second helmet (and provided it with a second communication box) in light grey to put together an approximation of a Rebel ground crewman (or “hangar technician”). I say an approximation, because in this instance I could not bring myself to alter the precious Sideshow AT-AT driver jumpsuit; besides, while making the pocket flaps rectangular might have been easy enough, how would I make two more leg pockets? I suppose knowing one’s limitations is philosophical. But I think it conveys enough of the right effect, especially for an approximation.
It seems to me that the all-important helmets are just a little bit on the small side, but part of that may be up to the head sculpt. The helmets do look better with smaller head sculpts, but unfortunately those usually do not work well with the DAM bodies I used. I selected medium- or medium-small-sized bald or very short-haired head sculpts as a compromise. All in all, I think this recreation of an admittedly bland and archetypically background character turned out pretty well.
More than enough text, on to the photos of the figure (and friends)...
and the approximation of the Rebel ground crew/hangar technician:
As always, what do you think?
Part II in Post 18 below.
Spinoff Photo Story HERE.
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