To celebrate the Star Wars Fan Awards 2018, we asked some of the previous (and incredibly talented) winners of the Star Wars Fan Film Awards to take us behind the scenes on their own projects and offer some helpful advice for this year’s hopefuls.

The desert can be an unforgiving place, especially brutal if you happen to be a film crew or an actor encased in a droid costume. Not long ago, Jeffrey Henderson and a handful of dedicated friends returned to the same sands where Jabba the Hutt once sailed the Dune Sea to film their own take on a Star Wars fan film, The Sable Corsair.

The short, a gritty tale about a smuggler, some kyber crystals, and a Sith witch went on to capture the 2016 Audience Choice Star Wars Fan Film Award. But the production was not without its obstacles. The winds were so fierce they made flying a drone for aerial shots nearly impossible and threatened to take out the crew’s rented RV, says Henderson, whose many roles for the project included as co-director, co-writer, and actor.

The gusts succeeded in upending a big tent that had been set up to provide much-needed shade between takes.  “We woke up to find the whole thing blown about 50 yards into the desert — furniture and all,” Henderson says. “You know what’s cool about pulling lawn chairs out of 100-foot sand dunes at 8 a.m., in a desert windstorm, in clunky Jedi boots? Nothing.”

Jeff Shoemake, the actor playing HK-67, the ever-helpful droid sidekick, almost had to leave the shoot from heatstroke, Henderson adds. But he persevered. “He had that helmet and suit on all day, every day, trudging up and down those dunes, which is much, much harder than it looks,” Henderson says. “He was total rock star.”

Stormtroopers act out a scene in "The Sable Corsair."

The whole experience gave Henderson and his team an even deeper appreciation for the cast and crew behind the original Star Wars film, and plenty of hard-won lessons to impart on those still putting the finishing touches on their entries for the Star Wars Fan Awards 2018 (link). “None of us really had any idea” how hard it would be, Henderson says, “ and it gave me a whole new respect for what George Lucas and his crew accomplished back in ’76.”

The Sith Witch in "The Sable Corsair."

The concept

In the spirit of the original film, from the start Henderson’s project involved a smuggler and his crew, a crash that left them stranded on a hostile desert planet, and a lightsaber-wielding baddie. For good measure, he worked in a cameo appearance by a certain bounty hunter named Boba Fett.

Henderson wanted a bite-sized story that didn’t rely too heavily on special effects and CGI. “It would also allow for more character stuff, which to me, is much of what makes Star Wars so relatable in the first place. I’m not saying that we necessarily achieved that in five minutes, but the intent was definitely there,” he says. “I think the film resonated with fans because we really tried hard to make it authentic; the location, the costumes and props, the music choices, even the wipes and dissolves we used for the shot transitions. We really wanted it to feel like classic Star Wars.”

He knew early on that the core cast would include himself, actor friends and brothers, Chris and Nick Finch, Nick’s wife Alex Lynn Ward, and their friend Shoemake. “We had been talking about all doing a project for a while, but it never quite came together,” Henderson says. “The contest presented a great opportunity: a tight deadline, rigid restrictions, and having to use the materials that Lucasfilm provided meant we couldn’t get too ‘precious’ about it, because there just wouldn’t be time. I also think that working with less can sometimes force you to find more creative solutions.”

Then each of them asked around to friends, family, and other potential collaborators to put together a crew to get production off the ground. “The caliber of people who volunteered still boggles my mind,” Henderson says. “They all stepped up and did phenomenal work under a super-tight deadline and some pretty difficult circumstances.”

Character concept art from "The Sable Corsair."

Back to Tatooine

The shoot took place at the aptly-named Imperial Sand Dunes in Glamis, Calfornia, about four hours southeast of L.A. where Henderson makes his home working as a professional in the film industry. “It’s near where they shot the sail barge sequence from Return of the Jedi,” Henderson notes.

A storyboard and a final frame from "The Sable Corsair."
A storyboard and a final frame from "The Sable Corsair."

“I think a lot of the reason the film came together as it did was because most everyone involved was wearing multiple hats and made invaluable contributions. Everyone really stepped up and gave a tremendous effort,” Henderson says. On the first day of shooting, the creative team had already honed the script and drafted storyboards. “Having both at once helped us — and others — see the whole film before we ever shot a frame.”

Makeup is applied to the actor playing the Sith Witch in "The Sable Corsair."

Among the extended creative crew was Adriann Helton, an accomplished fashion/graphic designer who created the costumes, and Julie Marquez, “a ridiculously talented makeup artist [who helped] design and produce the makeup for the Sith Witch” (played by America Young).

To translate her dialogue, Henderson called in Ben Grossblatt, a linguist who previously worked to develop a Sith language for a book. “He not only translated the passages for me, but actually recorded voice memos of himself reading the lines, with correct and exact pronunciations, for the actors to reference,” Henderson says. “I geeked out hard on that one!”

Chaos

But even with all that planning and prep, Henderson still ran into some challenges. “It wouldn’t be a Star Wars film without some chaos and unforeseen disasters,” he jokes.

The weather — including sand storms and gusting winds — became such an obstacle, they had to cut pages from the script. “Ultimately we figured that it was best to focus on what we could get done, rather than lament what we couldn’t, so we adapted best we could,” he says.

A behind-the-scenes moment from the set of "The Sable Corsair."

The sudden shift to heavy clouds, normally a welcome reprieve when the sun was beating down, drastically altered their shots. “It would get very cloudy, very quickly, out of nowhere,” Henderson says. “As we were shooting, the colors, shadows, and palette would change so dramatically, hour to hour and day to day, that it created some real challenges matching the footage in post production.”

To complete the other special effects, Henderson called in the help of a good friend and digital wizard, Jeremy Thompson, “who, aside from being one of my best friends, is also one of the most talented and hardworking people I know,” Henderson says. “He did all the digital FX, CGI, color correction, mastering, and editing for the film pretty much single-handedly…. We would not have been able to finish the film without him. Period.”

“The very (literal) last minute”

For those still working to put the finishing touches on their projects ahead of the September 17 deadline, you’re not alone. Henderson says he and his team worked on postproduction “until the very (literal) last minute.” He and Thompson “spent the entire time leading up to the deadline staying up all night, every night: sending edits, scene tweaks, and FX passes back and forth every hour or so,” he says. “By the time we uploaded the finished film, which I did from an iPad in a Ralph’s parking lot, he and I had been up for almost 3 days straight.”

But it was worth it to have a chance to pay homage to the galaxy that Henderson had loved since he was a child. “Star Wars, quite literally, blew my mind…. It was huge, hopeful, and boundless, and to a troubled, creative kid of recently divorced parents, it was a perfect gateway to a world of possibilities far removed from the one I was stuck in.”

A behind-the-scenes moment from the set of "The Sable Corsair."

Henderson’s father was a commercial director in New York, at an agency where the younger Henderson started storyboarding professionally “while I was still in junior high,” he says. “I’ve been a storyteller my whole life. Everything I do creatively and professionally ultimately goes back to telling stories.” And the story that started it all was about a galaxy embroiled in a period of civil war. “Creatively, professionally, and personally, I’ll always feel I owe a profound debt to the universe that Star Wars opened up to me. To be a part of it; even in the little, teeny, tiny way that we are…is pretty awesome.”

Advice from an L.A. Times cover star

After they scored the Audience Choice award, their scrappy film started getting some spotlight attention. “The film kind of took on a life of its own for awhile online, and then we started getting a lot of media coverage: the L.A. Times put us on the cover,” Henderson says in disbelief. “Nick and I went on Good Day LA and ABC News did a big segment about us on Nightline. It was just surreal.”

The whole process also taught him a lot about organizing a film shoot, pivoting when plans fall apart, and trying to understand every aspect of the production.

Concept art for the Sith Witch in "The Sable Corsair."

All the expensive equipment, talented actors, and time can’t help you realize your dream if you don’t have a clear sense of the story going into the project. “Your best friends are your phone, a pen, and a ream of cheap copy paper,” he says. “Those simple tools will allow you to realize your entire movie on your own terms, before you shoot a single frame.”

Of course, you can’t expect things will exactly go according to that plan. “Don’t get mad,” Henderson says. “Be prepared and get out in front of it. Anticipate it. Being able to think on your feet and solve problems on the fly is one of the most valuable skills you’ll ever have as a filmmaker. Some of the best stuff will come from having to deal with disasters!”

Listening to your team is crucial. “You cannot, and will not, be able to do it alone,” he says. The more you understand about the different jobs involved, the easier it is to communicate with them. And don’t be a jerk. “Be professional. Be respectful. No one will respect you or ever give you their best if you act like [a jerk].”

And echoing the past winners recently interviewed here — the brothers who created Bounty Buddies and the fans who animated Star Wars: A New Employee Orientation — the most important thing to remember as you complete your mission and submit your work to the Star Wars Fan Awards 2018? “Have fun,” Henderson says.

NO PURCHASE NECESSARY.​ Enter contest between 7/18/18 at 12:00 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time (“PT”) and 9/17/18 at 11:59 p.m. PT. Open to legal residents of the 50 U.S. & D.C., Canada (excluding Quebec), Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Puerto Rico who are 13+ at time of entry. Limit 1 submission per genre per person. There are 34 Star Wars prize packs available to be won (Estimated Value: US$200 each). See Official Rules {https://www.starwars.com/star-wars-fan-awards-official-rules-2018} for full details on how to enter, eligibility requirements, prize description and limitations. Void in Quebec and where prohibited. Sponsor: Disney Online, 500 South Buena Vista Street, Burbank, CA 91521-7667.

Associate Editor Kristin Baver is a writer and all-around sci-fi nerd who always has just one more question in an inexhaustible list of curiosities. Sometimes she blurts out “It’s a trap!” even when it’s not. Do you know a fan who’s most impressive? Hop on Twitter and tell @KristinBaver all about them!