When it comes to the Star Wars universe, it can be hard to drum up sympathy for the Stormtroopers, those anonymous (and often hapless) foot soldiers who serve the evil Galactic Empire. Enter Jakku: First Wave, a new fan-developed short written and directed by 2008 Film grad Benjamin Eck. Set during the Empire’s disastrous last stand, the film centers on three Imperial Stormtroopers about to be deployed into battle on the desert planet Jakku. We’re told from the beginning that it won’t end well — none of the 7,000 troopers on the ground survive — and what follows in a humanizing look at the real people beneath those iconic white helmets.
Benjamin worked with Director of Photography (and fellow Full Sail grad) Andrew Brinkhaus on the the project. Andrew is a member of the 501st Legion, a charitable organization comprised of Stormtrooper cosplayers across the world.
“I was at Andrew’s house, and he invited me to check out his armor in person,” recalls Benjamin. “To hold the helmet in my hands and feel the realness of it, and then to put it on. It got me thinking about these guys as real people.”
Benjamin was also heavily influenced by his brother-in-law, a Captain in the United State Marine Corps. During development, Benjamin reached out to him to collect real stories from actual recruits.
“I wanted these guys to sound authentic. They’re soldiers. [My brother-in-law] bullet pointed the top ten best and worst reasons people gave for enlisting.”
Some of those reasons, to fulfill a dare or because the uniform makes it easier to get girls, made it into the final film. But it’s the last trooper’s monologue about the loss of his brother that delivers film’s emotional gut punch.
“That speech was directly informed by Giovani Ribisi’s monologue in Saving Private Ryan,” says Benjamin. “I didn’t want it to be a sob story, there had to be more to it. It’s not that his brother was killed, it’s that he feels responsible for his brother’s death. I think that sense of regret helps people connect to the story.”
Once Benjamin had an idea of the story he was trying to tell, he got to work figuring out how to shoot it. Originally, he planned to set the film around a campfire, but California law makes it difficult to obtain burn permits. A friend suggested setting the scene in the belly of an At-At walker. When he’s not making independent films, Ben works as a Director of Photography for Rhett and Link, the duo behind the daily YouTube-based talk show Good Mythical Morning. They offered to let Benjamin build his set on an unused portion of their soundstage. Each of the shots was pre-visualized in Cinema 4D, and the set was built to spec for less than $2,000.
“We built it to the camera angles. There are a few frames that are just riding the edge of the wall and there’s nothing beyond it. Our key light was just a couple of four foot fluorescent lights with 216 diffusion over it.”
Working on his off time, Benjamin built the set in about a month. Shooting took just over eight hours, which made for an easy production day for the crew but presented some challenges for the cast.
“The armor is not comfortable,” laughs Benjamin. “But I think that discomfort played into their performances, which made it feel even more authentic.”
Since its release in late September, the film has gotten over 200,000 views on YouTube. It’s been featured on websites like Nerdist, the A.V. Club, and Slash Film. Ben says he never imagined the short would take off like it has.
“We made it for ourselves, and for fans of the Star Wars franchise. Before I made the film, I had two YouTube subscribers. Now I have a few more. Ultimately, I’m just glad people are connecting with it.”