It’s a cool November afternoon, and I’m standing on the edges of a sprawling meadow between Mount Joy and Elizabethtown. With notorious bounty hunter Boba Fett.
The setting sun glints off the battle-damaged spots of his armor. I wonder briefly if Mandalorian helmets have air filters to clear out the pungent smell of Lancaster County manure that wafts in on the breeze.
The face behind the helmet is that of Mike Bryant, a police officer with the Northwest Regional force who, in his spare time, is a member and officer of the local chapter of the 501st Legion.
What’s the 501st? Well, the best description I’ve seen comes from the 6,000-member-strong organization’s website: This is a group of Star Wars fans who aren’t content with just collecting action figures – they want to be action figures.
“These guys put their heart and soul into everything they do in terms of creating these costumes,” Bryant says, “and then they go out and share their love of Star Wars with the world.”
The 501st is also deeply committed to charity – the members appear at countless events, many focusing on children. But whether it’s a gala party, a small library fundraiser, a holiday parade, or a visit to see kids in the hospital, it’s all done on a volunteer basis. These are truly “bad guys doing good,” as their website says – any payment that’s offered is declined, and encouraged to be donated to charity in the name of the Legion.
Talking with Bryant in the home he shares with his wife, Amy, and their two children, I’m struck by how much he clearly cares – about his community, about Star Wars, about the 501st. The walls of the family room are decorated with a mix of toy police cruisers and Star Wars action figures; police patches and fine-art-style Star Wars images.
But how, exactly, did this small-town policeman end up spending his weekends trooping around in homemade Mandalorian battle armor?
The road to the 501st
Unsurprisingly, Bryant, who was 4 when Star Wars came out in 1977, was a fan from the beginning.
“I can remember that part of my childhood very vividly,” he says. “I remember going to see the movie the first time, even though I was very young.”
Like many kids his age, he was a huge Star Wars fan. But unlike most of those kids, he decided to take his fandom to the next level.
“I wanted to be a member (of the 501st) from the moment I first heard about them, which was probably around 2002,” Bryant says.
Founded in 1997, the 501st Legion was not originally part of the Star Wars saga – it was just a dedicated fan group that took a name which they thought would sound like it fit into the Galactic Empire of the movies.
However, in 2004, author Timothy Zahn got Lucasfilm’s OK to include the 501st in his novel Survivor’s Quest. From then on, the Legion – also known as “Vader’s Fist” – has been a part of the books, comics, videogames and TV shows that have continued the Star Wars saga.
But even after he had discovered the 501st, Bryant says, he was reluctant to join up.
“What held me back for so many years was I just felt that I didn’t have what it took,” he says. “I know nothing about building anything, and I’m not mechanically or artistically inclined at all. And I thought there’s no way I could ever do this.”
But in early 2010, Bryant learned that the local chapter, the 200-member-strong Garrison Carida, had a unique feature – an academy program, in which aspiring costume-makers could be partnered with experienced builders to help guide them through the process.
He got in touch, told them he was interested in building a Boba Fett costume – and was immediately asked to reconsider.
“Right away, they were like, ‘We don’t recommend that for your first build.’,”
Bryant says. “It’s extremely expensive, it’s extremely difficult, and people will get discouraged, because we live in a society where everybody wants things right away.”
He persisted, and eventually was partnered with Mark Santucci, an experienced builder in Pittsburgh who was working on a Boba Fett costume at the time.
In February of 2010, Bryant got started, vowing to have his costume finished by Halloween of that year.
Building Boba Fett
Boba Fett may have been a daunting build, but with Santucci’s help (plus information gleaned from Boba Fett costuming websites such as TheDentedHelmet.com), Bryant was able to pull it together.
Because the images and costumes of Star Wars characters are copyrighted material, you can’t just go out and buy a Boba Fett costume. You can, however, buy certain pieces in an uncut, unpainted form. These are generally made of super-durable plastics, fiberglass or rotocast resin.
Many other pieces of the costume are handmade, often from repurposed parts (see graphic).
Throughout the build process, Bryant stayed in constant contact with his advisor, getting a thumbs-up when things were done correctly and a gentle correction when mistakes were made.
Each costume – stormtrooper, Darth Vader, etc. – has a set of stringent requirements that must be met for approval and acceptance into the 501st.
After about 9 months of effort, Bryant got the OK to join up on Oct. 30, 2010 – a day before his Halloween goal.
The Force Awakens
Now, Bryant has four costumes in his closet – his prized Boba Fett, plus a biker scout, an AT-ST driver and an AT-AT driver.
But as you know – unless you’ve been living in a cave on the moon with your fingers in your ears – there’s a new Star Wars movie hitting theaters this month. And that means new costumes.
Bryant hasn’t started building any costumes from The Force Awakens, but he knows a couple of fellow Garrison Carida members who have built First Order trooper costumes.
How do they build costumes from a film that isn’t even out yet?
With a staggering level of obsessive detail, of course.
They pore over every frame of the trailers; analyze publicity photos and inspect toys and models from every possible angle.
The 501st already has its standards set for First Order troopers, and the standards for Kylo Ren costumes (he’s the new movie’s bad guy) are being finalized right now.
With all the hype surrounding the new movies, those members of the 501st who have built new costumes are getting some nice perks – as there’s less than 100 of them worldwide, Lucasfilm is flying them all over the world to appear at movie publicity events.
And though he hasn’t started down the build road again, Bryant knows he will eventually. He’s got his eye on the sleek new Snowtrooper costume for his next build.
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