From an Emmy, to the UN, to ‘Clone Wars,’ artist finds her independent voice

When it comes to the geek cred game, artist Alina Chau has leveled up about as far as any of us could dream. After all, she’s on a first-name basis with George (that’s Lucas to you) after working as a 3D story artist on the popular animated series “Star Wars: The Clones Wars.”

After studying at the University of California, Los Angeles, Alina won a student Emmy for her thesis film. Her first student film, “Frieden — The Tree of Peace,” plays daily at the United Nations’ headquarters in New York City. 

This auspicious beginning led to an internship and then a full-time gig with video game maker Electronic Arts and a more than decade-long career in the gaming and animation industries.

Alina’s gorgeous personal watercolor illustrations reflect her lifelong passion for causes including children’s rights and the environment. Her artwork showcases the diversity of her multicultural upbringing, as well as her love of travel.

An adjunct professor with picture books in the works and a graphic novel due for publication next year, Alina took a moment to chat about her love of the films of animation legend Hayao Miyazaki, her pop culture-inspired gallery and exhibition work, fond memories of her time on “The Clone Wars,” and her experience as a woman working in animation and gaming. 

You’re an artist who worked in the animation and gaming industries for more than a decade. How did you come to work in those fields?

I was an animation major at UCLA Film School. When I graduated from school, I applied to animation-related jobs. I start working for a couple studios as a PA and intern. Then I interned for Electronic Arts. When the internship ended, they brought me in as a full-time animator. That’s how I got started in the industry … from there, I just kept working for different projects and studios.

Were you artistic as a child? I read that you inherited some of your talent from your grandmother.

I’ve loved drawing since I was very little. That’s kind of the only activity that could keep me out of trouble. Art was a hobby when I was a kid … it didn’t occur to me that art could be a career until I was applying to college.

You earned your master of fine arts at University of California, Los Angeles. What was the most important thing you learned during your studies?

I would say it’s important to develop an independent voice. UCLA education philosophy encourages students to develop their own voice and vision. The longer I stayed in the industry, I discovered having a personal vision is one of the most important factors to maintain a healthy and sustainable career. This is especially important with today’s industry, it develops and evolves much faster than ever. Knowing how to maintain one’s vision and passion helps you grow and evolve along with the trends, as well as really helps to overcome creative blocks and burn-out.

You won a student Emmy for your thesis film, “E=mc2.” That must have been an amazing experience. What was that like?

It was an honor to be selected among many wonderful and super talented candidates. For a student, it was an eye opener. In a short time frame, I got to network and went to some big industry events. It was humbling and a great experience for a kid who’s still in school. At the time, I was busy graduating and looking for a job. It helped to have an Emmy on the resume to find a job.

Another of your films, “Frieden — The Tree of Peace,” shows daily at the United Nation’s New York headquarters. Tell me more about that.

This was my first year student film. When I was younger, I often participated in various humane organizations and activities, such as UNICEF, OXFAM, World Wildlife Fund, etc. I was an activist in children’s human rights. When I finished my first year film, I decided to donate the film to the UN.



Your personal watercolor illustrations have a sweet, dreamlike fairy-tale quality that I love. How would you describe your style?

I never really think of how to describe my artworks. I love storytelling. That’s why I choose to be an animator and story artist. I try to tell a story in my paintings.

What would you consider to be the biggest influences on your art?

It would be my memories … I tend to draw a lot of inspiration from my childhood.  I also love a wide range of art forms for inspiration.

Your work is very culturally diverse. Does that have anything to do with your love of travel?

I do love to travel a lot. I also come from a culturally diverse upbringing. My family are Indonesian and Chinese. I was born in China, grew up in Hong Kong during the British colonial era, studied in the UK briefly, and immigrated to the U.S. My personal cultural upbringing is a mixing pot of Indonesian, Mandarine, Chinese, Cantonese Chinese, British, and American. Growing up, I never felt I completely fit in each culture, yet I am also a bit of each. It’s this mixed cultural upbringing that made me extra aware and sensitive about the important of diversity.

I saw a few pieces in your portfolio that were a bit political. (I thought they were excellent!) What was your inspiration for these works?

I do have opinions in certain political subjects. I was always a bit of a sensitive child when it comes to standing up for children’s human rights and environmentalism. Looking back, I think this could be because I was kind of an immigrant all my life, moving from one country to another. I personally experienced that it could be challenging to adapt to a new life in different regions, but there is much beauty to sharing life with a diverse range of people. This experience make me very aware of the importance of appreciating different cultures, races and social interests. To learn how to appreciate differences, it’s important to openly discuss and share the experiences.

Looking through your artwork on your website, I detected many pop cultural influences, especially Disney, with illustrations ranging from Beauty and the Beast, to The Little Mermaid, to Coco, to Aladdin. What is it about Disney characters that inspires you?

I don’t do fan art for myself. All the pop culture influenced paintings I did are created for the official tribute shows with galleries or studios or commissions from collectors.

I also recognized many other unique interpretations of fandoms, including Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away,” He-Man, “Bob’s Burgers,” Super Mario Bros., “The Simpsons,” Lord of the Rings, Voltron, “Game of Thrones,” “The Shape of Water,” and “Pan’s Labyrinth.” 

They are all created for specially invited official tribute shows. Although I love pop culture and love all these titles, I personally do not create fan art for myself. This is because when I was working for studios, I always developed titles for the studios. When I get the chance to develop my personal art, I prefer to explore my own potential and find out what I can do, discover my own voice. I also try to be respectful to other’s intellectual property.

When it comes to fandoms, you said you “like a bit of everything.” What are some of your favorites?

That’s a tough choice … I would always have a special spot for Star Wars, since I worked on “The Clone Wars,” and had many wonderful memories working with the Lucasfilm animation team and George Lucas.

I grew up with Miyazaki films. Growing up, every summer after finals, it’s a tradition to run to the theater and celebrate the end of the school year with the latest Miyazaki.

Spielberg, Lucas, Pixar, Disney, Dreamworks, etc. Frederic Back is another of my all-time favorite animators … too much to list.

You said if you had to choose just one fandom, it would be the films of Miyazaki. How did you discover him and what do you enjoy about his work?

I grew up with Miyazaki and watching tons of anime and manga as a kid. My first Miyazaki was “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.” It blew my mind away, it’s epic. She is a princess, but unlike most other animated princesses, she is beautiful, strong, smart and kick-butt! It’s a unique universe with awesome creatures … it was very different from most animated shows I saw at the time. I’ve been hooked on Miyazaki since.

I understand you especially love “Howl’s Moving Castle.” Why?

“Howl’s” one of my favorites, but I wouldn’t say I especially love “Howl’s.” I like each Miyazaki for different reasons. “Totoro” is a very special one, ’cause it captures childhood so beautifully. This movie grew in my heart over the years. I learned to appreciate his mastery of capturing children’s emotions and acting the older I became.

When I was a kid, it was one of my least favorites, because the characters in the film feel so much like me (when I was a child).  But as I grew older, when I watched that film, it just brought back all the childhood memories because of the same reason, the children felt so real and believable that we could all relate to them.

“Howl’s” is enchanting and beautiful. I love “Spirited Away” for its perfection. The storytelling is so well done and tight … it’s amazing!

You worked as a 3D story artist on “Star Wars: The Clone Wars.” Wow! For those who don’t know, what does a 3D story artist do?

3D story at Lucasfilm is like storyboard, except George doesn’t believe in storyboard. So instead of going from script to storyboard, we get the script and we go straight to Previsualization in 3D. Think about it as storyboard in 3D with rough animation. So the directors could see the entire episode with rough key frame animation, cinematography, and close to final edit … the end result is the same as an animatic in a traditional animated film.

What was the experience of working on “Clone Wars” like?

It was a lot of fun. The team is awesome. We get notes from George, one learned a lot very fast from the master. The studio is in Big Rock Ranch overseeing a lovely lake, which is next to Skywalker Ranch. It was a beautiful location, which feels more like a Japanese spa retreat than a studio.

Are you a Star Wars fan?

I own a Vader lightsaber and a Clone Trooper helmet (wink).

Tell me about your work in the gaming industry. What was challenging about it and what did you enjoy most?

The turnaround in gaming is very fast, one learns how to animate very fast and good. The workflow of the game animation pipeline is very different from TV or movies. Instead of thinking in shots and sequences, you think in assets. The scheduling in games was rough, there was a lot of crazy overtime. At least this was the case when I was in gaming. It was hard to have a normal life, since we needed to work almost every weekend and tons of late nights.

It was a good learning opportunity. I think the biggest takeaway is understanding the technology and the pipeline, especially with our everyday technology becoming more and more gamified. It’s a good learning experience to understand the thought process of game development.

Are you a gamer?

Not at all. I died in a game in less than five minutes and get motion sickness in almost all first-person games and some RPGs. I could make a game, but not play it. I can never play any game I made.

What was your experience like as a woman in the animation and gaming industries?

When I first got into gaming, I was one of only one or two women in the animation production team. But over the years, there were more women joining the industries. In animation, there are more women in the production team, but last time I worked as a story artist, I was the only girl on the team. I do feel as a woman we have to work harder to have our voice heard or our achievement recognized. I left the industry for a few years now. From what I heard, there are more women in a production team now.

You’re also an adjunct professor at several universities, including Savannah College of Art and Design. Why is teaching important to you?

I felt it’s important to give back to the communities. Being a teacher also keeps one in touch with the latest, you learn a lot from the students as well. Also, sometimes when one works in the industry for years, we get a bit jaded. Sometimes we forgot about the passion and love of the craft. It’s nice to see the students with big dreams and passion. It is a good reminder of why we choose the career path … keep the fire and passion burning.

Your art has been featured in dozens of exhibitions in L.A., New York, Paris, Japan, Spain, and other places. What’s it like to have your work on display like that?

It was an honor as well as a humbling experience.

You’re currently developing a children’s book publication and some art projects. Can you tell us more about what you’re doing?

I am working on three picture books, which I am very excited about, but unfortunately I can’t share the information about those books. The project I could talk about is my graphic novel, “Marshmallow and Jordan,” with First Second. This would be my first graphic novel and will be released in winter 2019. You can learn about the graphic novel from the School Library Journal announcement.

Are there any dream projects you’d like to work on in the future?

I hope to author and illustrate a lot of books.

All artwork by Alina Chau.

For a film about one of Star Wars’ biggest badasses, ‘Solo’ is lacking in badassery

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Is it just me or was the arrival of “Solo: A Star Wars Story” a little underwhelming?

Despite the fact that Disney and Lucasfilm unleashed the usual merchandising and promotional blitz for the film months ago and despite much discussion and debate on the part of fans, “Solo” hit theaters without the fever pitch of excitement and near veneration that typically accompanies the release of a Star Wars movie.

Perhaps this was to be expected. After all, if we’re going to be experiencing a new Star Wars movie every year, we can’t sustain the level of enthusiasm and intensity that surrounded, say, “The Force Awakens.” We’ve got to pace ourselves, lest we burn out. Thus, the generally “meh” reaction.

“Solo” is the first of several planned prequel or spin-off films focused on popular characters from the original Star Wars trilogy. A Boba Fett movie was recently confirmed, for instance, while an Obi-Wan Kenobi prequel is rumored to be in the works.

Already there are two contingents forming on social media in regard to the merits of “Solo,” or lack thereof. They seem to be split evenly into one camp that thinks the movie is just fine and another that thinks it could have been much better.

It also feels to me like everyone is slightly nervous and bracing themselves for an outpouring of vitriol similar to the wave of pure hatred that crested after the release of “The Last Jedi.” I don’t think anybody has the strength or energy to go through that again, and this raises an interesting point.

Since we’re now living in a world where we have a virtually endless supply of Star Wars stories, we’re going to have to start allowing for subjectivity and personal taste and accept the fact that not every person is going to like every movie, nor should they be required to.

As a passionate fangirl, I’m preaching to myself when I say, let’s allow everyone to have their own opinions when it comes to the galaxy far, far away. Let’s not attack each other and squander our time and energy trolling each other. I’m issuing a call for a more tolerant, peaceful, pleasant Star Wars fandom.

With that said, I’ll open myself up to the trolling and declare that after seeing “Solo,” I’m leaning toward the more disappointed side of the spectrum of reactions.

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There are many things I enjoyed about the movie, and considering its tortured production history – during which director Ron Howard pretty much rebuilt it from the ground up – perhaps the fact that it isn’t a complete catastrophe is impressive in and of itself. On many levels, though, I wouldn’t consider it a success.

Surprisingly, this has nothing to do with star Alden Ehrenreich, who plays the young Han and was subjected to many rumors during production questioning everything from his resemblance to Harrison Ford to his acting ability.

As it turns out, Ehrenreich does a fine job portraying the roguish smuggler in his formative years. He’s enough like Ford to be recognizable as the beloved character, but he’s not enslaved to showy imitation. Confidently tossing off some of the cocky Corellian’s best one-liners, he’s got the Solo swagger down and adds a touch of vulnerability, befitting a man who has yet to turn cynical.

A script by legendary Star Wars producer Lawrence Kasdan and his son, Jonathan, ushers us into the seedy underbelly of a galaxy under the control of ruthless mafia factions. It opens on Han’s home planet, where the scrappy survivor and aspiring pilot, and his resourceful girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), are forced to do the bidding of the “foul” Lady Proxima (voiced by Linda Hunt). Meanwhile, they scheme to procure their own ship and escape the planet to find freedom among the stars.

Han’s relationship with Qi’ra is sweet, I suppose, but it didn’t work for me because Clarke, out of necessity, plays her as such an enigma – she’s part femme fatale, part girl that got away, with a hint of a dark side – that I could never get a complete read on her and who she is. (She’s also the definite type of leading lady Lucasfilm is stuck on – the brunette, white female. Can we get a woman of color or maybe a redhead next time?)

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Howard infuses “Solo” with vibes that are half “A New Hope,” half “Return of the Jedi.” The film is well stocked with weird, but likable aliens, eccentric scoundrels, and an underworld atmosphere that calls to mind the comically debauched palace and barge of that most famous of Star Wars gangsters, Jabba the Hutt. The movie is rough around the edges in a way that perfectly suits the story of a scruffy-looking nerfherder like Han. (It’s also annoyingly under-lit and has the most hyperactive soundtrack of any Star Wars film yet, but I digress.)

At the start, this is all very promising. Things are looking good as Howard treats us to a fun speeder chase and an unexpectedly visceral scene set on an Imperial battlefield that has all the grit of a World War II skirmish. It is here that Han hooks up with a band of thieves, led by Woody Harrelson’s Beckett and his right-hand lady, Val (Thandie Newton), one of several characters who exits the movie far too quickly.

Howard dutifully walks us through the requisite origin story details. We learn where Han got his name, how he met Chewbacca, how he came by his iconic blaster, and how he acquired his beloved Millennium Falcon.

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The Falcon, of course, comes into his possession after he meets charming gambler Lando Calrissian, played in his younger incarnation by Donald Glover. Glover’s Lando is undoubtedly one of the highlights of “Solo.” Clad in a fabulous sleek and silky wardrobe, he oozes irresistible charisma, elegance, and deadpan humor. Every minute he’s on-screen, the movie feels more substantial and satisfying than it actually is.

Lando presides over one of the weirdest scenes in the film, which involves his droid sidekick, L3-37, a sassy, egalitarian ‘bot voiced by “Killing Eve” writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge. L3 carries on Lucasfilm’s tradition of creating lovably memorable droids, but as with many of the best personalities in “Solo,” she’s not around long enough to make much of an impact.

After the initial introduction of Lando, “Solo” struggles to find its footing. It’s a funny movie, but a lot of the humor falls flat, as does the romance between Han and Qi’ra. (The bromance between Chewie and Han, however, is timeless.)

There are large swathes of the script that just drag in terms of pacing and hooking the audience. Even a visual-effects-heavy sequence built around that legendary OT reference to making the Kessel run in 12 parsecs is depressingly blasé. For a large portion of the film, I just couldn’t muster up the enthusiasm to really care about what was happening.

When it ends, “Solo” feels incomplete. Perhaps that’s intentional given the rumors that Lucasfilm may be planning a sequel. However, the movie doesn’t earn that right in the way that, say, the recent “Avengers: Infinity War” did.

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There is a moment in the film’s third act where we catch an electrifying glimmer of what “Solo: A Star Wars Story” could have been. I don’t want to spoil it, but it involves a character whose true identity is suddenly revealed and it is so stunning, I nearly leapt out of my seat.

Up until then, “Solo” displays a considerable lack of badassery for a film built around one of Star Wars’ biggest badasses.

I hope with all my being we see this magnificent character again in future chapters of the franchise.

Photos: Disney/Lucasfilm. 

JPL’s PlanetaryKeri finds the droid she was looking for

I hereby mandate that, from now on, the role of the cool female scientist in every science-fiction movie be played by Keri Bean.

Keri, aka Twitter’s @PlanetaryKeri, has more nerd cred than anyone I’ve met.

I can’t even begin to describe the awesomeness of her educational background (studying the weather on Mars),  job (at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory), and hobbies, which involve everyone’s favorite droid, R2-D2, and everyone’s new favorite Star Wars heroine, Rey.

At JPL in Pasadena, Keri works on Mars rovers; the Dawn, which is orbiting the dwarf planet Ceres; and other fascinating space missions. She’s also part of the lab’s outreach team, making the science accessible to the general public.

In her downtime, Keri has quite the obsession with a certain sassy, blue-and-white Astromech droid. As a member of the R2-D2 Builders Club, she and her husband built their own functioning R2 unit, which goes well with Keri’s other hobby, cosplaying as Resistance Rey with the Rebel Legion club. 

And though we didn’t discuss it because it occurred after this interview, Keri was recently at the premiere of “The Last Jedi,” where she met Daisy Ridley, who signed Keri’s Porg.

Perfection!

You work at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. It sounds like the best job ever. What do you most enjoy about it?

It absolutely is the best job ever! From the moment I was exposed to what JPL does when in high school, I knew I wanted to work there. I’ve now been working at JPL for over four years, and I still get excited to come into work every morning. I often can’t believe I work here. I think my favorite aspect is that I get to work with some of the best, brightest, and most passionate people in the world. Where else can you work on Mars rovers??

For the sake of laypeople like me, I’m going to ask you to explain some things — or maybe everything — about what you do. You’re a missions operations engineer. What does that entail?

My job is to operate spacecraft and tell them what to do. Since I have a scientific background, I focus a lot more on what’s called science operations. That means I spend a lot of time making sure as much data is taken as possible so scientists can use it to make amazing discoveries.

Currently, you’re working as a science planning and sequencing engineer for the Dawn mission. The Dawn is orbiting and exploring the dwarf planet Ceres. Could you explain your role in the mission?

So we use bits of code we call sequences to control each spacecraft. On Dawn, my prime responsibility was to work with the instrument teams to develop the sequences that would fulfill the science objectives safely. I am part of a small, four-people team that designs and executes all of the science data acquisition.

What information about Ceres has the mission yielded so far?

So, so much! Before Dawn arrived, all we had were these small fuzzy pictures of a round object. We found a large amount of evidence towards water ice, organic molecules on the surface, a transient atmosphere, and so much more! You can find out more at https://dawn.jpl.nasa.gov.

You are the tactical uplink lead and mobility/instrument deployment device engineer for the Mars Explorer Rovers. What do those titles mean? 

The Tactical Uplink Lead means you are in charge of the team planning the activities on Mars that particular shift. It’s a very mentally intense job because you have to remember a lot, make tough decisions, and more under a time crunch. I find it really satisfying. I get to tell a Mars rover what to do!

The latter role (we often shorten to Mob/IDD) is a downlink analysis role. After the rover drives or uses its arm, I’m one of the people that looks at the data and figures out what actually happened, did the activities complete safely, etc. It’s one of the first steps towards becoming a Mars rover driver!

That must be an exciting mission to work on! Tell me about that experience.

Opportunity, and her past twin, Spirit, were actually the first missions I worked on when I was an undergrad. I’ve been on and off the team since 2007! Both my undergrad and master’s thesis were based on data from Spirit. And now I’m a part of the Integrated Sequencing Team, and one of my responsibilities is also training people new to the mission on how to operate it. It’s a dream!

Keri Bean, dressed as Rey from “The Force Awakens,” with the Opportunity rover.

I read that you were interested in weather as a child and watched the Weather Channel a lot. What was it about the weather that fascinated you?

I wish I knew! It was an innate draw.

I also read it was the 2003 Columbia disaster that sparked your interest in space exploration. Tell me about that. 

I remember being at a Texas statewide academic competition called UIL, and they brought all the students into the auditorium. They announced the space shuttle had broken up over Texas and we had a minute of silence. I remember being angry. Not at what had happened, but why didn’t I know we had a space shuttle around Earth at the moment? I knew of the ISS, but what were they doing up there?

As soon as I got home I started reading as much as I could about space. My interested really got locked in a few years later when I got to witness in person the STS-114 launch, the return to flight mission post-Columbia. I went to Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, the following two years. Between all of that, I got the space bug hard.

You attended Texas A&M University because it enabled you to combine your love of weather and space. You studied with Dr. Mark Lemmon whose focus is weather on Mars. Please tells us, are all the movies about Mars terribly accurate?

Mostly not. But you know, they’re movies and for entertainment! I’m willing to separate fact from fiction. “The Martian” is the closest I’ve seen to accurate, although even that has flaws.

If you could tell us only one fact about the weather on Mars, what would it be?

It snows!!!

You were able to work on several NASA missions as a student. What did you discover about yourself during this experience?

I found a couple of things. One thing was that I enjoyed astronomy as a hobby and not as a profession. I also found that I really like working with a team. A lot of my school experience was sitting in a cubicle by myself coding, and I just didn’t like the social isolation. I’m glad I got to experience spacecraft operations, as that was the balance between having a cool technical job while requiring social skills and interacting with people on a daily basis.

Are there many women working in your field?

A lot, actually! On Dawn, my manager, in the Science Operations Support Team, is a woman. Our deputy principal investigator and project scientist are women. On my JPL management side, almost all the managers up the chain are women. On MER, women rule! Up until very recently, all Tactical Uplink Leads were women for many, many years.

Right now, our lead systems engineer, lead Rover Planner (aka Mars rover driver/arm operators), and lead Mobility/IDD are all women as well. We also have more women Rover Planners than men. It’s quite often that mostly women staff the tactical team on Opportunity. I’ve seen quite a few shifts where there has only been one guy! But I also know that my experience is an anomaly, and I know many other women who tell me they’re the only women working on the team or in their job type. So while things aren’t perfect, I think there’s tremendous progress at JPL.

You’re a member of JPL’s Advisory Council for Women. How did you become involved with that? What does the council do?

So I try and help out with events that the Advisory Council for Women puts on. They have a yearly banquet (and this past year I nominated my best friend and STEM outreach extraordinaire Dr. Nicole Sharp to be the guest of honor, and she was!) and also do other events on lab.

Keri does some outreach for JPL.

You also do a lot of public speaking and outreach. And you’re an Internet celebrity with a big Twitter following @PlanetaryKeri. How did you get started in outreach? Why does it appeal to you?

I like people! A lot of my job is “translating” between the scientists and engineers, and that skill allows me to translate for the general public as well. I know there are so many people that want to do what I do, so I feel being public about it on social media is the best way to get people to experience what I do.

I could probably ask you about your job all day long, but I’d like to move on to another very important topic: Star Wars. You’re a member of the R2-D2 Builders Club. For those who are unfamiliar with the group, what is the purpose of the club?

The club is for those who want to build their very own Astromech!

How did you become involved with the group? Are there many female members?

I met a member who had built his own R2. I don’t know what it was, but when I saw R2 in person, I just knew I had to have my own. Luckily my husband was immediately on board, saying it looked like a fun engineering project. I wanted to wait a bit until I had a house, but then I saw all the droids in the droid builder’s room at Star Wars Celebration Anaheim and I just couldn’t wait anymore. I went home and ordered my first part that night. As far as I can tell, there aren’t many women in the club, but there are some! There’s now a group called Stardust Builders Initiative that spans over all the builder clubs (so BB-8, Mouse droids, etc.) and there’s close to 100 women or female-identifying people in the group.

Keri works on the dome of her R2 unit.

You built your own R2 unit. Tell me about that process. 

Oh gosh, where to begin?

It’s a long process. Most people take two to three years to build their droid. Mine was two years and a month. I had joined the forum and been reading for a good six months before I bought my first part, and that time isn’t included in that two years and one month duration.

My husband’s skills and mine complemented each other well. I took care of figuring out ordering parts, making sure they were cut/sanded/painted appropriately, etc. My husband has a background in electrical and computer engineering, so he did pretty much all of that. We still had a lot of help from friends! In fact, I have been having anyone that contributed sign the back panel of my droid.

It took a lot of nights and weekends to build. Honestly, over a year of that time was just waiting to get enough parts to actually assemble the droid. The first part we got was the dome, so we actually had our dome nearly complete in the first month of our building process. Then we had to wait a long time to get a frame, legs, and feet so we could actually assemble and stand R2 up. Once we could stand R2 up, things went pretty quickly. The last three months or so of building were pretty constant.

Once the droid is built, what do you do with him? Does the club do events? I’ve seen them at conventions and the droids are always a big hit.

I’ve only had my droid done for about six months now, so he hasn’t done a lot. We actually had a big, big push to finish because I had signed us up to troop at Legoland for their Star Wars weekend!

So we finished very late on Monday night on Memorial Day weekend, did a “soft opening” troop that Friday at a local school, then on Sunday was Legoland! It was super stressful but absolutely worth it since I got to troop as Rey with my droid there. I’ve brought my droid to JPL a few times and he is well-loved there. My husband and I want to make some more refinements before we really take him out and about more. Droids are never really done!

Tell me your personal Star Wars saga. How did you become a fan?

My first memory of watching Star Wars was in a car on a tiny 8-inch TV screen with an attached VHS tape player as my mother drove me across the country. I don’t remember exactly how old I was, but I was in elementary school. The copies I watched were ones my parents had recorded from on air in the ‘80s, so commercials and everything.

So I liked Star Wars, but it wasn’t my main obsession until recently. I mean, I always gravitated towards the droids and had a small collection of R2-D2 things and I went to the midnight premiere of the prequels. But it wasn’t until I met the R2 builder that my love really expanded. “The Force Awakens” compounded that. I connected with Rey long before the movie came out. Now I’m hooked!

You’re a member of Rebel Legion, specifically the SoCal Sunrider Base. How did you discover the Legion?

I don’t remember exactly, but I have been going to comic cons for quite some time and probably first heard of them at one. I knew about them for years, but never had a strong desire to join since I didn’t have costumes that were up to requirements. I had a lot more fun costumes, like a feminine Han Solo, R2-D2 themed Jedi outfit, etc., that aren’t what the Rebel Legion is for. I finally decided that I would get a Rey costume up to snuff and join not only to enjoy being Rey, but also to find events to take R2-D2 to as well. The R2 builders aren’t organized in that regard like the Rebel Legion and 501st are.

What requirements did you have to meet to join the group?

Since I knew I wanted to be Rey, I had to pick which Rey costume to focus on. I really like her Resistance Rey (gray vest outfit), so I focused on that one first. I read the requirements listed on the Rebel Legion website and went from there.

Resistance Rey is an amazing character. Why did you choose her?

I just really connected with Rey in a way I have never connected with a fictional character before. She has so much of my personality and we share a lot of common traits. I eventually want all of Rey’s costumes, but I started with Resistance Rey because I loved the vest!

Was it a challenge to put the costume together?

Yes, especially since I don’t sew! I’ve tried to learn many times but I just can’t seem to do it. So I had to wait for the movie to come out then find someone willing to make it to RL standards on Etsy. I picked pieces from a few different vendors, and luckily it all worked out.

A large part of Rebel Legion’s mission centers around charity and volunteer work. What are some of the events you’ve participated in? 

I joined in January of this year and I’ve already done 18 events! I tried to pick more STEM-focused events since that’s what I’m passionate about. The highest profile events I’ve done were Legoland and Star Wars night at Angel Stadium. My first two troops were back to back for a STEM workshop for Girl Scouts. Another fun one was the El Centro Airshow since there were a lot of fun planes to take pictures in.

What kind of reactions do you get when you show up as Rey?

Rey is so popular, so I get a big response! I was a little worried that since this version of Rey is in so little footage in “The Force Awakens,” I wouldn’t be recognized. Luckily, I haven’t had that issue. Maybe it’s her distinctive hair that helps. Either way, I’m well received! It’s especially fun if I get to troop with a Kylo Ren and we play off of each other.

The little kids always think I actually am Rey, so I get to act a little bit and act like Rey for these kids. At my first troop, a young girl approached me asking me what my favorite food was. I said I had only ever eaten Unkar Plott’s portions, so I asked what her favorite food is. She said spaghetti. I said I had never heard of it, so what was it like? She said it was a plate of noodles. I asked what noodles were since I had never heard of them. At that point I could see the gears turning in her eyes and her blanking out so I said, “Ok, ok, I’ll look it up in the Resistance database. So cute!

When I was at Angel Stadium, I locked eyes from a distance with a small boy, maybe 3 years old? Anyway, he started sobbing and I had no idea what to do. His parents comforted him, and after a minute he bolted straight to me and wrapped himself tightly around my leg and through his sobs I heard something like, “Don’t let Kylo hurt you. I love you too much,” so I comforted him and told him the Force is strong with me and I’ll be ok. It was super touching.

Are there other characters you’d like to portray in the future?

I’m working on a few other costumes, but no other named characters besides Rey yet. I’ve got a Jedi and a Rebel Fleet Trooper costume in the works. I might do one of Jyn Erso’s because I really like her style.

Are you excited about “The Last Jedi”? It’s almost here!

I’m super excited! I’m excited to see where Rian Johnson takes us, and I absolutely can’t wait to see where Rey goes on her journey.

You once gave a talk about the Dawn mission to Lucasfilm and Industrial Light & Magic. Please tell me about that!

Through the R2 builders, I ended up meeting someone who works at ILM and he invited me for a tour any time I was in San Francisco. So, of course, I had to go visit as soon as possible! My husband and I took a mini vacation up there. When coordinating my visit, I asked if he thought there would be any interest in me giving a talk about Dawn while I was there, and the rest is history! I’ve now visited a couple of times and it’s really fun every time. Once I even visited Skywalker Ranch … and when checking out at their store I met Dave Filoni!

What other fandoms are you interested in?

I think it’s obvious Star Wars is my main thing now, but I also like Star Trek, “Doctor Who,” “Battlestar Galactica,” Harry Potter, “Lord of the Rings,” and probably more I can’t remember right now. I’m not a huge comic book person, but I did like the Christian Bale “Batman” trilogy and the “Wonder Woman” movie. I used to really be into anime in high school but that faded when I went to college.

As a kid you were into Disney movies. Are you still a Disney nerd?

I’d say so. I go to Disneyland once or twice a year. I have watched a lot of the recent movies (for example, I just saw “Moana” over Thanksgiving break).

You once gave talks about Star Wars science and Dawn at Gallifrey One, the Doctor Who convention. Are you a Whovian?

A little bit! One of the things my husband and I want to do is have our R2 cosplay as a Dalek at the next Gallifrey One. Last year, I attended as Jakku/Scavenger Rey but used 4th Doctor scarf-patterned arm sleeves. That was well received.

I have to point out that there is a YouTube video in which you talk to Morgan Freeman about science. Morgan Freeman! How did that happen? Did you ever recover from it or do you still hear that magnificent voice in your head?

So the JPL media office contacted me that he would be doing an event at JPL and I had been picked to ask him a question in advance, since he wanted all questions pre-screened. So I asked him about how to do more casual outreach to reach the general audience without formal events like talks. It led to a bit of an interesting discussion. It was pretty neat. And the voice in person is just as awesome as you’d expect!

You’ve done so much professionally and personally. What is still on your career bucket list?

Well one thing I never expected to get to do is become a Rover Planner, as I thought that was mostly for robotics/computer science people. But I’ve now begun down that path, and over the next few years I’m working towards becoming one for Opportunity. So I guess there’s only crazy things left. Director of JPL? Astronaut? I don’t know! All I know is whatever I do, I’m going to have fun along the way.

What is on your geek bucket list?

I want to head to Ireland and hike Skellig Michael in my Resistance Rey outfit!

Let’s close with a few key Star Wars questions:

Is R2 the droid you were looking for?

Absolutely!

Besides R2, obviously, who is your favorite droid?

I think next I’d pick Chopper. I love the snark. K-2SO is almost tied on that front.

If you could visit any Star Wars planet, which would it be?

Definitely Ach-To. So pretty! And Porgs!

The Han Solo spin-off. Terrible idea or should we give it a chance?

I think we should give it a chance. I trust the people working on it to make it great!

And finally … Porgs. Yes or no?

Yes!!!!

 

Star Wars director problem presents a golden opportunity

Star Wars has a director problem. That much is clear.

Last week, it was announced that “Jurassic World” helmer Colin Trevorrow and the studio were parting ways due to that notorious, old standby, “creative differences.” Trevorrow was deep into the development process of “Star Wars: Episode IX,” and word is there were issues with his script as well as conflicts with studio chief Kathleen Kennedy.

Lucasfilm is now considering replacements with rumors suggesting seasoned “Force Awakens” director/producer J.J. Abrams or “Last Jedi” helmer Rian Johnson could step in.

This supposedly amicable divorce comes on the heels of the firing of directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller during production of the Han Solo spin-off. Veteran Ron Howard is in the process of mopping up that mess.

The cast of the Han Solo movie.

Before that, Gareth Edwards managed to survive the entire making of “Rogue One,” but only after Tony Gilroy stepped in for rewrites and reshoots. The patchwork, crisis-barely-averted nature of that relationship is on full display in the entertaining, but uneven spin-off, which became a box-office hit anyway.

And nobody seems to want to remember the dismissal of director Josh Trank, who was set to shepherd an unnamed Star Wars film until his career imploded due to his unprofessional behavior during the production of “Fantastic Four.”

I hope I’m not the only one who finds it annoying that online journalists have swallowed hook, line, and sinker a narrative that portrays Kennedy and company as victims doing their best to corral an unruly stable of volatile, out-of-their-league filmmakers who aren’t up to Lucasfilm snuff.

“Star Wars: Episode 9, who needs movie directors, anyway?” declares a headline from Den of Geek.

Meanwhile, on the Nerdist website, Alicia Lutes writes: “The news comes as a shock to many, and a welcome surprise to others who were concerned about Trevorrow’s spotty track record. … However, it is important to note that Trevorrow’s firing is completely reasonable.”

Well, actually, we have no idea if the sacking of a director who was once an indie darling, delivered a massive, albeit critically panned hit, followed by flop “The Book of Henry,” is completely reasonable. It will be awhile until full details of his exit from “Episode IX” emerge, if ever.

So far, it is anyone’s guess whether the Star Wars director problem can be chalked up to the studio’s perfectly innocent bad luck in hiring a bunch of edgy, young upstarts or the fact that Kennedy and company don’t really want these auteurs to put their unique vision and original stamp upon the hallowed franchise that George Lucas built.

I suspect the latter, but I can’t prove it. Maybe it’s something in between those two dichotomies.

I’m not here, however, to defend Trevorrow. I loved his debut film, “Safety Not Guaranteed,” but his work since then doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. Neither does his seeming inability to champion strong, female characters in his films.

I am writing, instead, to issue a challenge to Kennedy and Lucasfilm.

Now that the “Episode IX” director’s chair sits empty, it is the perfect time for Lucasfilm to step up and hire a women to take over production of the last chapter in their latest trilogy.

Kathleen Kennedy

Kennedy is one of the most powerful women in Hollywood, a veteran producer, co-founder of Amblin Entertainment, and Lucas’ appointed successor. She is an advocate for women, maintaining an executive team that is more than 50% female.

Nevertheless, Kennedy seems to be dragging her feet when it comes to giving a woman the opportunity to helm a Star Wars film, even though she has said in the past she has every intention of making it happen at some point.

Why continue to delay the inevitable?

There’s no reason an experienced woman can’t take over production of “Episode IX,” and it would be fitting, considering the film is the culmination of the saga of Rey, one of the strongest female characters in cinema history.

If Lucasfilm is wondering who they should hire, I’ve got some ideas for them. (Keep in mind that I have no idea if these women would even be interested or available to direct a Star Wars film, but there are lots of good possibilities, nonetheless.)

  1. Ava DuVernay: Hiring DuVernay would be an absolute no-brainer. A veteran, critically acclaimed movie and TV director and producer, she is already a member of the Disney team, in post-production on “A Wrinkle in Time.” The movie is an adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s sci-fi/fantasy classic, which gives DuVernay the necessary special-effects experience, not to mention showing off her flair for wonderfully diverse casting. As a bonus, the “Selma” and “Queen Sugar” director is a science-fiction fan and a buddy of J.J. Abrams, who apparently turned to her for advice while editing “The Force Awakens.”

  1. Patty Jenkins: She’s probably going to be too busy directing the follow-up to this summer’s “Wonder Woman,” but Jenkins has proven she possesses all the chops needed for a big-budget sci-fi extravaganza like “Episode IX.” The filmmaker of indie hit “Monster” clearly has a gift for showcasing powerful women, like Rey, and recently negotiated a historic deal for the second “Wonder Woman” film, making her the highest paid female director in history. Delivering a critical and box-office hit would be no problem for her.

  1. Kathryn Bigelow: The most famous woman director in Hollywood, at least until Patty Jenkins came along, Bigelow is known for her gritty, emotionally harrowing films of combat and conflict, including “The Hurt Locker,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” and “Detroit.” Who knows? With her pedigree and expertise in entering typically male dominated territory and helming complicated, sizable productions, maybe she could finally win a Star Wars film a best picture Oscar?

  1. Michelle MacLaren: MacLaren’s achievements are in the world of television, which some would argue may not provide the experience she needs for a massive sci-fi movie. But the director of big-budget fan favorites, including “Game of Thrones,” “Breaking Bad,” “The Walking Dead,” and “Westworld” certainly has as much experience as some of the aforementioned dudes hired and fired by Lucasfilm. The fact that she’s worked on some of the best written shows in TV history – and we all know TV is better than movies now anyway – is an epic bonus.

That’s just a short list for Lucasfilm to work with, but there are many other possibilities when it comes to female directors and they are no riskier than, say, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who directed “The Lego Movie” and “21 Jump Street,” for god’s sake.

They include “Frozen” director Jennifer Lee, S.J. Clarkson of “Jennifer Jones,” “Deep Impact” helmer Mimi Leder, “The Night Manager” director Susanne Bier, “Punisher: Warzone” maker Lexi Alexander, “Bobadook” director Jennifer Kent,” Karyn Kasuma of “Girlfight” and “Jennifer’s Body,” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” director Reed Morano.

So there’s the challenge, Lucasfilm.

Your move.

Photos: Lucasfilm, The Collectors Cantina, The Playlist, CBC.ca, AMC.com.