Restoring a Galaxy Far, Far Away (and so much more) with Tom Spina Designs
The Haunted Cinema (THC) – You and your company have done some amazing work restoring old props and costumes, however, before we get into that, I want to know more about you and your interests. Many of fans can point to a single event, film, T.V. show, etc… that captured our imaginations and set us on the path. What was yours?
Tom Spina (TS) – King Kong and The Wizard of Oz were huge favorites of mine as a kid but it wasn’t until Star Wars came out in 1977 that things really clicked. Everything about the film just felt real… but my parents told me that everything was fake! I was so happy they did that. If it’d been real, well, then it’s not so special. Someone pointed a camera and shot a documentary. But knowing everything had been made, that meant someone had to make it… even as a little kid I thought, “I want to make stuff like that!”
THC – You are, with a doubt, the greatest authority/historian of the Star Wars Cantina aliens. The Star Wars Universe is so broad, and collectors and fans focus on lots of different things; Stormtroopers, Darth Vader, light sabers, weapons, etc… What was it about that short, 10-minute scene in the Mos Eisley Cantina that caught your imagination?
TS – Ha! Quite a title to hold! I think the coolest thing about the Star Wars universe is how diverse it is and the sheer depth of that world that George and his team created.
To me, the Cantina sequence exemplifies that depth like no other. Seeing all of those monsters as a kid, and again, knowing someone made all that, absolutely blew me away. When I began to research the scene as an adult, I found layer upon layer of effort and artistry put in by dozens of talented people.
Those folks became my heroes. And while we are fortunate to have a ton of photos from behind the scenes, that first film isn’t well documented as a lot of people think, leaving quite a number of mysteries to be discovered over the years. It just keeps getting more fascinating to me.
THC – Talk about your research into the Star Wars aliens. How much time have you spent? What was the most surprising thing you found out?
TS – Oh gosh, I don’t think I could (or should) calculate time spent on it! It’s been really rewarding though and I’ve connected with quite a few people who share the same admiration of that scene and its creators. I’ve even gotten to know many of those creators, which is a real treat.
I don’t know that it’s the most surprising, but one of my favorite things we’ve uncovered are photos of Laine Liska puppeteering the t-head alien with the glowing sparkly eyes… a glow achieved by jamming a 1970s metal flashlight into the back of the rubber puppet’s head! Even better was when Lucasfilm’s Pablo Hidalgo, my partner in crime on a lot of this research, noted that you can actually see a tiny bit of that flashlight in the final film, and that he had wondered for decades what it was!
THC – How many of the original Cantina aliens have made it to your collection. Which is your favorite? What other things do you collect? What’s your “Holy Grail” item?
TS – I’ve been very lucky to bring a handful of original masks into my collection. I don’t know that I could ever pick a favorite but the Cantina band member is a really tough one to beat. Some of my favorite pieces aren’t masks though. I’ve also put together a fair amount of Stuart Freeborn’s original notes about the sequence and to me those old scraps of paper are gold!
THC – The original Star Wars and genre films of its era were all practical effects and models. As filmmaking has advanced, we began to see the heavy reliance of CGI and digital effects, now it seems that modern films are using a mix of practical and digital. What are your thoughts on digital effects and CGI?
TS – CGI certainly has a place in modern film. To me I think a mix of practical and CG is ideal. CG allows for such seamless compositing, wire removal and even puppeteer removal, freeing practical fx creators from constraints that have plagued them since the beginning of film.
THC – Let’s talk about your company Tom Spina Designs. You successfully turned a hobby into a successful business. Tell us about the genesis of your company from its early days to what it is today. How did you gain the skills to do these restorations?
TS – It was a very slow transition. I’ve always been a bit entrepreneurial in nature and was fortunate that the skills that I had and the interest I held were in demand.
Restoration really became the hook that allowed me to take what was a hobby into a full-time business. It was a niche that wasn’t currently being served (broadly) and something to help my business stand out.
As for those restoration skills, I think a lot of it is just down to patience and mindset. The artistic skill is important but a sympathetic approach to and a deep respect of these works of art is key.
THC – What services does your company offer? Is there any project too small for you?
TS – We offer sculpture (which can range from wax figure and bronze work, to monsters, costumes and masks), theming (which includes foam props, theme park and trade show pieces and giant characters), restoration of original movie props, and display (which can be anything from acrylic cases and museum style displays to elaborate themed displays and custom mannequins).
We do occasionally have to turn away some very small projects and there’s sometimes a balance that has to be struck between the value of a piece (be it sentimental or market) versus the cost of the studio time to professionally restore something, but we generally try to bring in any project that is important to someone. Especially when it comes to restoration, where these pieces create such strong emotional attachments in collectors. We often say, every prop is important to someone.
THC – You have been involved in some amazing projects and restorations. Tell us about some of your most memorable. Have there been any projects that gave you fits?
TS – So, being a cantina guy, our work on original pieces from that scene is very special to me. Our restoration of the original Muftak costume for my dear friends Bob and Kathy Burns is by far one of the coolest things we’ve ever gotten to do. Restoring the original an American Werewolf in London wolf, made by Rick Baker was another for Bob and Kathy and just an amazing piece of history. So many of our projects for special though and I could go on and on here.
THC – For many years, the studios never looked at the production pieces as important after a film released. Nowadays, the collecting market for original props, wardrobe, and other production used pieces is growing bigger every year. Talk about the importance of preserving these pieces of film history.
TS – These are art, pure and simple. The creativity, the problem-solving, and the sheer genius behind some of these props/characters are a testament to everyone involved in their creation. Preserving these pieces, to me, is a love letter to all of the artist who’ve inspired me throughout my life.
THC – You not only do work for collectors, you also do work for the studios and museums. How did that come to be? What was the first project you undertook for a studio?
TS – We are all lucky to live in a time where the Internet allows people to share the work they’re doing relatively easily and connect with others who are interested in that work. Eventually the right people saw the right pieces that we had created or restored and good things happened. We eventually got to do some work for licensees, we got to work with studios on commercials and even work with the Lucasfilm Archives restoring original props and creatures from the films that inspired me so many years ago.
THC – Talk about some of your current projects? What are you working on now?
TS – At the moment Tom Spina Designs has several dozen projects going, so we are juggling quite a bit! We just wrapped one of the coolest things we’ve ever done – a Star Wars wheelchair costume for an amazing kid from New York with the outstanding charity Magic Wheelchair. How are costume was a life sized rancor head and hand. We were one of seven FX teams chosen to create a wild, over-the-top, costume for seven special kids. The charity then flew all seven kids and their families to San Diego Comic Con for the big reveal hosted by Adam Savage. It was an incredibly emotional afternoon and one I will never forget. You can see more about it here on our Rancor Magic Wheelchair page.
THC – You are not a one man operation and have some amazingly talented people working for you. Tell us about your team. How did you find them? How did they get their training?
TS – I’m lucky to work with some very talented and dedicated people. Nearly all have come through an internship program with local colleges. My start in the business was an internship with the Henson company and I love the idea of giving young folks a similar opportunity. Sometimes people we bring in are just such a good fit for the team that we don’t let them leave!
Above all we stress customer service. The work is the work, but the experience for the customer has to be great and we strive for that at all times.
THC – You weren’t content to just have Tom Spina Designs, you started another company that creates some amazing things. Tell us about Regal Robot. Where did the idea for this company come from? What is the coolest item you offer? What’s on the drawing board?
TS – Regal Robot grew out of concepts Richard Riley and I have been coming up with for a decade or so. We would brainstorm unique ways to take prop type items and give them function so that folks could bring them into their homes.
The famous Han Solo in Carbonite desk, which we created back in 2007, went insanely viral and that was the early genesis of what would become Regal Robot. Tom Spina Designs offers such a wide variety of services that it just made sense to create a new brand for this venture.
THC – Regal Robot partnered with Lucasfilm. Working with Lucasfilm has to be simply amazing. Talk about your partnership with them, and the support they provide.
TS – They are outstanding. The people that we work with over there are it-getters. They’re fans like us and really care about detail and quality.
THC – You have been closely involved with the latest Star Wars Celebration. What was your involvement? For the person who has never been to a Celebration tell us about the show, and it’s importance in fandom
TS – Star Wars Celebration is a unique blend of gigantic convention and intimate experience. It has the size of a larger comic con, yet the interest shared by all attendees really binds people together in a way that doesn’t happen at the other large shows.
For quite a while now, I’ve been a guest at the shows, hosting panels and talking about props, obscure details and behind the scenes factoids. My company has also been involved in creating props, costumes, and characters for the Star Wars Show live feeds that happen each year. We’re always excited to be a part of the show!
THC – The new Disney Star Wars films have been a bit controversial. How do you see the state of Star Wars fandom today? Are you still as excited for the new films as you were for the originals?
TS – I don’t think it’s fair to compare anything to its “original.” There are so many movies that are rebooted or get a sequel decades later. It’s just not possible to re-create that lightning in a bottle. That said I’m finding most of the modern era Star Wars movies a lot of fun and am glad they’re still using a lot of practical creations.
THC – How can people find you? If they have a project that they would like you to handle, what do you need from them?
TS – Folks can find us on Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/Youtube as @RegalRobot and @TomSpinaDesigns
The best way to reach us regarding a project is via email and they can find that on the contact page on each site. The more info, the better. If it’s a sculpture or trade show piece get us a deadline, a budget and any comp images or art you have. For a restoration, send us some photos of the item as it looks today, and how it looked in the film and any notes you have about specific concerns, the degree of conservation or restoration you’d like, or budget.