The veteran special effects artist and creature creator provides a fascinating insight into designing new inhabitants for the Star Wars universe, keeping things practical, and how the late Carrie Fisher’s scenes were achieved in The Rise of Skywalker.
STACK: How did the experience on The Rise of Skywalker compare with working on The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi?
NEAL SCANLAN: It’s always a great advantage, and also a privilege, if you get to work with a director more than once. On The Rise of Skywalker, the big difference compared with The Force Awakens was working with J.J. [Abrams] again, as we’d already built the creative connection and language that we used. So the second time you kind of hit the ground running, and there’s less hesitation and much more trust and belief in all the departments.
What was the most challenging creature and/or effects sequence to realise for The Rise of Skywalker?
In an odd way, the Aki-Akis were, in a way that doesn’t come across on the screen. In real world terms they were hugely challenging because there were so many of them – 500 in all. There were 25-30 close-up versions, 25 second rank, and 25 third rank versions, then we got into pullover masks and printed fabric masks. We had to sculpt, build and put all the animatronics in and literally make all of those things.
We also had to figure out how we were going to perform them all in that moment. How do we take the whole lot to a desert in Jordan, work with a whole group of volunteers as well as 300-400 Jordanian soldiers, and choreograph it all? That sequence, which passes so quickly, was a huge challenge in so many ways outside of the visual you see on the screen. That was the one that demanded everything our department had, really, from concept right through to organisation and infrastructure.
Do you prefer to keep the creature effects practical where possible?
I think the thing about Star Wars and the unique world that George [Lucas] created is that there are certain ingredients and language to it, and part of that is to try and achieve as much as you can practically – not just creatures, but also sets. That’s what you expect in a Star Wars film; it keeps you grounded – this galaxy never seems to be that far away. I think that’s what George did so brilliantly compared with other science fiction films that were maybe so out of this world that they were out of our experience, or complete fantasy.
So that’s a very important part of designing and why we try and do things practically. However, we now live in a time where almost anything is possible with digital. The exciting thing is to sit in a room with the VFX supervisor, Roger Guyett, and talk about what we want to achieve with an effect. And if we really can’t make it happen [practically], then let’s do it digitally.
It’s a fabulous creative, cooperative way of putting visual effects on screen. It takes commitment from everyone on the production, from the director down. Once we know what our blueprint is, it keeps the imagery really fresh and allows you to sort of prepare the viewer for the rollercoaster ride that’s about to arrive, which only CGI can take you on.
Why was the decision made to create Maz Kanata as an animatronic puppet this time, rather than using performance capture?
When we first started to talk about her on The Force Awakens, J.J. had always wanted Maz to be a puppet. Some characters can be like that, but it’s very, very difficult to find the design. We all struggled with multiple concepts of Maz and never really got the ‘eureka’ moment until almost towards the end of filming. So we missed the boat the first time around, but we did create a photorealistic version of Maz for ILM to use in order to produce the CG model.
This time around, J.J. obviously had a second chance at creating Maz as a puppet, but I think more importantly, Maz played in a lot of sequences with Carrie [Fisher]. Obviously we’d lost Carrie by now and J.J. thought that in order to do this in the most respectful, loving and authentic way, we should have Maz there as a real entity.
Maz was the most complicated puppet we’ve ever made and she’s performed using the most advanced techniques available. It was a challenge and a privilege to do it, and a great opportunity to stretch our technological and creative wings and push animatronics in that direction, and a little further.
Were Carrie Fisher’s scenes achieved with unused footage from The Force Awakens?
Mostly. Roger Guyett had already established the footage that was available; I think there was a little from Last Jedi as well. But essentially the options were there in terms of footage – they were the only options available – and the part they really use is Carrie’s face. The hair, costume and all of that are digitally created and they did an amazing job. The big thing was that J.J. had to commit on the day to specific angles and motion control cameras. He was brilliant at that, too, because he effectively said, ‘Tell me what I need to do and I’ll do it and I’ll write the dialogue around what we’ve got.’ So Roger literally pieced together as many options, angles and dialogue variations as he could. J.J. worked with what was available just so he could stay true to that philosophy that whenever you see Carrie on the screen, it actually is Carrie – it’s real footage, which is a lovely thing to do.
Star Wars creatures have a very distinctive look. What’s the first step when designing a new inhabitant of the Star Wars universe, like Babu Frik?
There’s a very fine line between inventing something, and the real world that exists around it. Intuitively we know when we look at something, the DNA and evolutionary process that creature may have gone through. If it’s got this or that on its head, it doesn’t feel like Star Wars, it feels fantastical. You could, for instance, wake up in the morning and it wouldn’t be that much of a shock to find a Porg sitting in a tree making a noise, or on a rock basking like a seal. So you’re trying to keep that aspect.
We look at actors to inspire the creatures we’re doing – with Babu, Ernest Borgnine was one of the actors we used for facial expressions. We try to refer to the world that we know, and distort and abstract it, but try to keep it familiar. It might remind you of somebody, or some animal or creature, and without that connection you don’t have a Star Wars character, you have something of a different world or a different genre, or a futuristic environment in which biological creatures don’t obey our laws.
Do you have an all-time favourite movie creature?
I’m an old boy now, so for me it’s Talos, which Ray Harryhausen created [for Jason and the Argonauts, 1963]. I was probably only six or seven when I saw Talos come to life and it defined my life, quite frankly – that was what made me do what I wanted to do. Ray’s work has always been inspiring to me, and that Talos sequence will be forever imprinted in my mind.