Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Designer of a "Galaxy Far, Far Away" That Lived Two Minutes Away

Most people would throw pennies in a fountain, dreaming to have a job involving Star Wars that can fund their hobby as a pilot. That dream is actually one local man's reality. 

Photographs and Text by: Christian Glass

- Chris Reiff in his Norwood home office. 

Chris Reiff never lets his excitement overtake his accuracy. While he shows me the second floor of his home office in Norwood, he’s sure to correct himself when he says the blaster he built, replicating those carried by stormtroopers, is made out of authentic parts, but not the same physical parts used on set. He drops this piece of my childhood into my hands, and it pulls me down with it; it's hefty. He goes into great detail explaining all the parts used (including a scope from a military tank) and their authenticity before resting it back in its quasi-shrine in front of a still of Darth Vader’s iconic first scene. Chris is meticulous and detailed in both his speech and surroundings, hiding boxes while I stare in awe at his grandfather’s war uniform, neatly and proudly dressed on a mannequin opposite another donning a replica "Band of Brothers" Easy Company uniform from the HBO miniseries.

- Chris Reiff loves learning how things work, and then doing it himself - as evidenced by his fan-made Star Wars E-11 blaster.

The home matches the heart for Reiff, who doesn’t shy from tangents about a Tatooine droid that used a WWII military light or how the Sandcrawler was made out of WWII tank parts. He shows me how the hydraulics worked for R2-D2’s arm during the chess scene in 1977's "A New Hope" with a pickle grabber and air cylinders constructed by a local company. He rattles off trivia, like Obi-Wan Kenobi's lightsaber being made out of parts from calculators, grenades, and jet engines. He speaks with authority, as if he had been working with Lucasfilm itself for the past 20 years. 

Which he has.

- Neatly and lovingly displayed, Chris Reiff's collection of lightsabers.

Reiff has been working on creative projects as an illustrator, designer and toy creator since 1996, a year after he graduated from Miami of Ohio with degrees in Graphic Design and Painting. He started his career by developing a line of mini-replica 1/4 scale helmets for Ridell, and in 2008 completed his first major illustration job, Star Wars Blueprints: Ultimate Edition.

- Replica helmets designed by Reiff.

“The standard line everybody says is, ‘Designing toys and drawing pictures must be great!’ Yeah, but, they wouldn’t pay me if it was easy. I still have deadlines,” Reiff says with a patient tone, like he’s had to explain this before.

Specifically with Star Wars, Reiff and business partner Chris Trevas have been resources for the fan community for years. The two founded partsofsw.com, a site that aimed to “develop an in depth database of the original parts used in the construction of the props from the entirety of the Star Wars saga.” The two earned enough respect to have a blaster named after them: the RT-97C heavy blaster rifle (R for Reiff, T for Trevas, 97 for the year they met, C for Chris). Over the past 17 years, he’s worked on well over a dozen official Star Wars projects, mostly related to manuals, blueprints, and how-to’s. Reiff is well aware that he knows more than you, but he also wants to share that knowledge.

- Framed photograph of R2-D2 and C-3PO's first public appearance.

It isn’t lost on him that he gets to have a case of the Mondays about helping build one of the most valued brands in the world, but he’s right: Everyone needs a hobby from their day job. His day job just happens to be Star Wars, and his hobby happens to be aviation. He received his pilot's license in 1994, but only recently had the means to get back into it. More opportunities have opened with having money as an adult, he says. It doesn't take long to find a photo of him, upside down in a Boeing-Stearman biplane at heights I get airsick just thinking about. His hobby makes sense, looking around and seeing army men strategically lined by his front door and the extensive fun facts he has about WWII technology (which bleeds into his Star Wars trivia). Chris Reiff didn't give up his childhood dreams: He just got better at them.

I initially met Reiff by accident, not realizing who he was. I posted this Reddit thread after he doodled an R2-D2 painting on an electronics store tablet. I came across it later, and wanted to give some recognition to someone who at the time to me was an anonymous, casual fan with talent. He showed up online to claim ownership after the image had received over 145,000 views. After seeing the post’s success, he’s almost disappointed the doodle gained so much notoriety.

“Calling it a doodle is being generous, I thought it was pretty horrible actually,” he laughs with a touch of grimace.

- The doodle that lead me to Chris Reiff.

That’s not him being humble, either. Reiff is respected for his work, evidenced by the unpacked stormtrooper armor behind me from Anovos and the Star Wars dinner set from Zak Designs freshly unboxed, sitting neatly between us. Compared to the Dragon Ball Z prototype figures and mini replica Star Wars pilot helmets in their clear casing to my right, and the self-built, functioning, to-scale R2-D2 to my left, a doodle doesn’t grasp what Reiff is capable of.

Reiff started the building process for his life-sized droid in 2011, and after 3,000 production hours, took his fan-made replica across Cincinnati to the Museum Center, Rhinegeist, charity events, and everywhere in between, even as far out as San Diego. He’s careful to emphasize “fan-made," while describing a creation that looks like it rolled right off the silver screen.

- Reiff's homemade R2-D2 looks nearly identical to the one seen in the films. 

“We always try to be clear: This isn’t R2-D2. This is a fan built copy. We don't want any implication that Lucasfilm or Star Wars or Disney or whoever is endorsing something. [They] can say ‘Chris brought his R2 down.’ Don’t say, ‘R2-D2 is visiting from a galaxy far, far away, and he loves Rhinegeist!’ You can’t say that. It’s not cool.”

Reiff points to the GQ/Amy Schumer fiasco from last year, where Disney “did not authorize, participate in or condone the inappropriate use of our characters in this manner.” Reiff has a standing agreement with Lucasfilm that he can't use their intellectual property for profit, but charity appearances are fine by his friends from Skywalker Ranch.

- Reiff created this bust of Kenny Baker, the actor inside R2-D2, to put in his own replica.

After the influx of support from the Reddit post, Reiff started a GoFundMe for an iPad Pro at the behest of users, fans and friends. After seeing the positive response though, he had second thoughts. He says he was uncomfortable taking money from strangers, and even more so from friends. “Once it got to $180, I emailed GoFundMe and asked, “Can you just refund everyone and take this down?’ The first couple people to send money were friends and I had to send them a note saying, 'STOP! I don’t want this!'”

- Reiff separates Lego pieces with library-like care.

Reiff has been working on the latest Star Wars film, The Force Awakens, for the past 18 months, including books and packaging art for Hasbro, along with to-be-announced projects he visibly restrains himself from talking about before the publishers are ready to roll them out. If that’s the worst it gets for him, he’ll take that over a cubicle any day.

- His home is overtaken by more than just Star Wars.

“A lot of people enjoy the repetition. I can’t stand that. ‘Regular jobs’ drive me batty. I drove a forklift and did construction. With toy design and illustration, no two days are the same. It’s stormtrooper armor assembly instructions one day, and lightsaber thumb wrestling books the next day. It’s all over the place...

...I, uh, I don’t know...

...I just enjoy it.”

Chris Reiff can be found on his online portfolio, as well as his Facebook and Instagram.

Christian Glass is a contributor to Queen City Discovery as well as an avid Star Wars fan who provided the photographs and text for this article. 

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