One of the most crowd-pleasing “easter eggs” in The Force Awakens is when the Dejarik (holo-chess) table on the Millennium Falcon briefly turns on, and once again we see the familiar holographic mini-monsters that taught us both that it was always wise to let the Wookiee win, and that Star Wars characters themselves play with action figures too. The easter egg gets even better when you learn that Phil Tippett, stop-motion animator on the original Star Wars trilogy (AT-ATs and Tauntauns? His work), was rehired solely to recreate the game he had brought to life decades ago.
Tippett became involved with the original Star Wars through his friend Ken Ralston, who had been working on the spaceships, and got involved towards the end of production when Rick Baker was recruiting a team to create insert shots of cantina aliens. “That’s where George saw that we were—he saw one of my stop-motion puppets up on the shelf, and that gave him the idea to do the Star Wars chess set, and everything kind of just took off from there,” he remembers. “That kind of established a relationship, then we got hired on for Empire and Indiana Jones.”
You might have thought the recreation would be CG, but you’d be wrong, says Tippett. “The directive from the very beginning was to…reconstruct the actual chess set that we did in the first movie, and do it quote/unquote ‘old school,’ with stop-motion animation.” And that posed at least one significant challenge: while “a number of the characters were still in existence, a few had been given away, and had to be reconstructed. I think Peter Jackson ended up with a couple of them.” When they did manage to collect all the originals, they were “very fragile and disintegrating,” Tippett says. Using a process called grammetry, they created 3D scans of everything…and used those to create molds and rebuild the monsters in rubber.
Nowadays, with fans like this…
…creating not just fully functional replicas, but game rules as well, we wondered if George Lucas and Tippett had ever actually sat down to work out how to play the thing.
The answer may disappoint from a nerd perspective, but it’s amusing and to-the-point: “George said, ‘Make me a bunch of alien monsters.’ We showed up with them in a box, and George plays with them around on the set. And we said, ‘What do you want to do?’ He says ‘Well, what about this guy jumps in and picks him up and throws him on the ground?’ ‘OK, you got it.’ And it was that simple.”
Like many of us fans, Tippett laments the fact that stop-motion doesn’t generally get the love it once did (J.J. Abrams excepted). “I think if you do any more it’s relegated to the PG-13 kind of stuff that Laika’s doing right now,” he says. “Anomalisa was quite a phantasmagorical approach to doing stop-motion animation, so that was a pretty amazing one-off, but I think right now stop-motion is pretty much in the toilet in terms of theatrical feature films.” But as Tippett is a director himself at times—he made the direct-to-video Starship Troopers 2—could he help bring it back?
“I really enjoyed the process,” he muses, “but I don’t think that my mindset works very well with that kind of corporate Hollywood system, in terms of directing within it. I’m definitely still interested. I’m very interested in filmmaking, but the kind of thing I’m interested in is kind of off the commercial beaten path.”
Here’s hoping some Dejarik royalties will help him blaze a new one.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens comes out on Blu-ray April 5.
Images courtesy of Click Communications and Disney/Lucasfilm