May the 4th: The incredible true story of the man who took on George Lucas’ Empire and won

Tom Butler
Senior Editor
FILE – In this Oct. 22, 2005 file photo, filmmaker George Lucas poses in front of a Stormtrooper exhibit at the Museum of Science in Boston, prior to the opening of “Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination.”(AP Photo/Winslow Townson, File)

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away… well, Twickenham… a young man received a mysterious message from a distant stranger.

They needed his help, and they needed it fast.

Little did our fledgling hero know that this was just the start of an epic adventure. His story would have twists and turns, he would meet some unusual characters along the way, and it would climax with our plucky champion taking down a mighty empire, virtually single-handedly.

Heck, it even involved trade routes and union disputes.

No, we’re not talking about Luke Skywalker, we’re talking about Andrew Ainsworth, the man responsible for creating the original Stormtrooper costume.

A new Bluetooth speaker, based on the original Stormtrooper moulds used on Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, is going on sale to celebrate May the 4th, and Ainsworth – thankfully not living on a remote island, drinking green space milk from the teat – was happy to tell us his tale.

Right place, right time

The Thumbs Up Original Stormtrooper Speaker has an RRP of £300 and will be launching exclusively on Amazon on Friday, 4th May. (Thumbs Up)

It was 1976, and George Lucas was deep in pre-production on Star Wars. Nothing seemed to be coming together, the sets at Elstree Studios were unbuilt, designs were not finalised, and the start of production in Tunisia was just weeks away.

The next thing on the young filmmaker’s growing to-do list was nailing the costumes worn by the Stormtroopers. The Imperial troops would feature heavily in the Tatooine scenes shot in Tunisia, so Lucas reached out to London-based TV and film artist Nick Pemberton for help.

Pemberton was tied up making puppets for a big Tyne Tees television project in Newcastle, but thought his neighbour – Andrew Ainsworth, a 27-year-old design graduate who was making plastic moulded kayaks in his workshop two doors down – could help the film, which he assumed was “a no-hoper”.

British prop designer Andrew Ainsworth arrives at the High Court on April 8, 2008 in London. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

“I was there at the right time,” Ainsworth tells Yahoo Movies. “I’d been through Ealing art school, doing industrial design, and came out with with all the ingenuity needed.”

“We could do it all, so whatever came along, we could handle it. That’s why we were able to make the Stormtrooper for Lucas who was out of time.”

This is the design he was looking for

Having enlisted the help of Pemberton and Ainsworth, Lucas sent over some Ralph McQuarrie sketches to work from. McQuarrie’s iconic design looked more akin to The Force Awakens’ Captain Phasma than the design we know and love today.

The thumbnail sketch showed a futuristic warrior clad in silver armour, armed with a shield and, weirdly, a lightsaber. And it was initially not intended to be a suit that a human wore, like John Boyega’s Finn does in The Force Awakens.

“[McQuarrie’s design] was a future character, not a present-day human being,” Ainsworth explains. “It was never meant to be human either, it was always meant to an android or something from another planet in toxic conditions, hence all the breathing apparatus, and things like that.”

Pemberton sculpted a design for the helmet in red clay, and Lucas picked it out for production. He then turned to Ainsworth to manufacture the helmet in his workshop.

The silver armour proved to impossible to recreate, so Ainsworth stuck withwhite plastic. “It was a pretty standard material to use, and we didn’t have a lot of time. Lucas was really out of time. So they ended up as white and Lucas accepted them quite well.”

“I made the helmet, and they were so satisfied with that, they rang me up and said ‘Can you make the armour as well? We haven’t been able to do that, and we’ve only got four weeks before we go to shoot in Tunisia.’”

Stay on target

Ainsworth quickly figured out how to make the 35-piece armour that he still sells to this day, using the same machinery he used to make kayaks and garden ponds.

“A set of armour I used to do every six minutes, the same speed as the kayak. It was really easy. Once you could make the mould, you lay them all out on this big long machine that’s 15 foot long, slap a piece of plastic over the whole lot, and – boom – there’s a set of armour,” says Ainsworth.

“It was inconceivable to anyone else at the time, but for me, who was actually in that industry, it wasn’t a problem.”

Imperial Stormtroopers escort Princess Leia in 1977’s Star Wars (20th Century Fox)

There was one slight complication with using Ainsworth for the production – he wasn’t a union member, so he wouldn’t be allowed into the studios. The production staff would send cars to his Twickenham studio to transport the plastic costumes to set.

“I wasn’t really allowed in the studios, because I didn’t have the union ticket, they just used to come out to me and they’d have a line of limos sitting outside, waiting for every bit of plastic moulding to come off the press. It was quite ridiculous, really.”

“Since I’d sort of stolen – by chance – all the work from the studios from the union people, I wasn’t very popular there!”

The work Pemberton and Ainsworth did for Lucas was speculative. From the outset, they were never sure if their work was going to be used, and so they never charged him for the initial design process, just the production of the armour itself.

“That’s why it didn’t really mean very much, that’s why I never bothered to charge anything for making them, it was just a plan to see if there was any work in the film industry. That’s why I just charged him £20 each [for the helmets] – that’ll do – I was making kayaks for £13, so I thought it was good money.”

Ainsworth also made costumes and helmets for a number of other characters on the original Star Wars, including the X-Wing pilot helmets and the imperial TIE Fighter helmets – one of which was recently valued at £50,000 on the Antiques Roadshow.

However, it would be a long time before Ainsworth realised the true value of the work he’d done on the “no-hoper” film.

Star Wars: The fallow years

Ainsworth’s Stormtrooper costumes were used in all three of George Lucas’ original trilogy, and by the time the prequels rolled round in the early 00s, the filmmaker had moved on to using CGI for the Clone Trooper costumes.

In the intervening years between the first two Star Wars trilogies when interest in the franchise had begun to wane, Ainsworth spotted an opportunity to cash in on his good fortune.

Andrew Ainsworth’s Stormtroopers in action on Tatooine, which was shot on location in Tunisia. (20th Century Fox)

Because he hadn’t worked at Elstree, the moulds for the helmet and armour remained in his studio, so in the 80s, he decided to make a few more and flog them down the market.

“I thought the films had become reasonably popular by then, and I think I tried remaking a batch. I stood on the railings at Green Park with the artists and their paintings there, and couldn’t sell any.”

“So then I moved on to Camden Market, couldn’t sell any there, so I gave up. We were only selling them for £11 as well. Couldn’t sell a single one. So I gave up.”

It was only years later, after Lucas reinvigorated the brand, first with the Special Edition re-releases in the 90s, then the prequels, that the true value of Ainsworth’s moulds became apparent.

“We had a couple of the old bits of characters on top of the wardrobe, and my partner Bernadette rang up Christies Christmas (2002) for an auction. They came down, realised they were the real thing, because we’d kept all the invoices, documentation, and moulds you know, and they sold all that.”

“It made about £60,000 at auction, and we couldn’t believe it. Then the phone didn’t stop ringing from America, people were wanting to get into business with us, and no-one had realised where all these characters had come from.”

The battle begins

Under the guise of Shepperton Design Studios, Ainsworth started selling Stormtrooper helmets, made using his original moulds, to people all around world.

Lucas soon took notice after Ainsworth had sold 19 to fans in California. He contacted him via his agent who wanted to know who he was, and why he was selling the helmets.

Ainsworth told them: ‘Well, I’m the bloke that made them all for you. Here’s the invoice, and here’s the copy. Do you want to use me again in the merchandising? I’m the originale. The original part of it all’”.

Lucas never responded to Ainsworth’s offer to collaborate, instead he issued a writ suing him for $20m. It took 9 years of litigation, but in 2011 Ainsworth won his legal battle with Lucas giving him the rights to sell the helmets and armours, and to license the design to other companies including Thumbs Up, the people behind the Stormtrooper Bluetooth Speaker.

Lucas won the case in America though, so Ainsworth can’t sell his designs over there, but he doesn’t hold a grudge against the filmmaker, in fact he credits Lucas’ hard work for the popularity of his props business.

“It was a bit shortsighted of them in a way, but there you go. Everybody has their Empire, don’t they?”

“It’s Lucas who’s done the work, really. He’s worked the tills, he’s done the merchandising, he changed the game. Now merchandising is the reason the films are made half the time, so he’s changed the whole thing. So we’re actually benefiting from his work, really. Admittedly we’ve got a lot of our input in there, but it takes two to tango, doesn’t it?”

The balance of the Force

Shepperton Design Studios continues to sell thousands of Stormtrooper costumes and helmets to dedicated Star Wars fans around the world (including one to Jimmy Choo), who appreciate the authenticity of his organic, handmade designs. A helmet sells for between £300-500, while a full armour sells from £1,099 up to £1,679.

Ainsworth’s helmets are not quite symmetrical, mainly because of the rush he and Lucas were in to get them ready for Tunisia, but he says that’s all part of the charm… for most people at least.

The rear view of the The Thumbs Up Original Stormtrooper Speaker. (Thumbs Up)

“This was well before computers you see. That was the benefit of it, that’s why it ended up with so much soul. It’s non-symmetrical. I did offer to [Lucas] to make them straight and square and whatever, but in all truth – now – because it’s so wobbly and uneven, it’s become a part of the iconic description of it.

“If you look at the speaker helmet, it exactly reproduces the CAD data that we’ve taken off the originals, and it’s quite uneven. And we sell these characters all over the world. When you send them to Germany and Japan, they can’t cope with it, they ring up saying ‘but it’s not square!’

“No, that’s because it’s real!”

Although he hasn’t worked on a Star Wars film since 1976, and despite the massive court battle with Lucas, Ainsworth says he did get contacted by Disney, the new torchbearers of the franchise, when they were in pre-production for the A New Hope-era set Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

“Disney rang up, said they were making this film, and can we have one of everything from the original film A New Hope?”

“I said, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t sell anything to America!’ So they copied them somehow. Anyway, I’m glad they have.”

The Thumbs Up Original Stormtrooper Speaker has an RRP of £300 and will be launching exclusively on Amazon on Friday, 4th May.

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