If you got a kick out of the aliens of Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, you can thank Neal Scanlan. A veteran of the Henson Creature Shop, he got started in the animatronics field working on the likes of Return to Oz, Labyrinth, and Dreamchild. As concept designer and head of the Creature Shop for The Force Awakens, he’s also the guy to thank for the fact that more of the space creatures and otherworldly denizens this time around are practical effects than in the heavily digital prequels.
When I ask Scanlan, hypothetically, if a Hutt were to enter the Star Wars universe again whether it would be Phantom Menace-style CG or a Return of the Jedi-style puppet with multiple guys sweating buckets inside, he has no hesitation in answering: “Jabba is people inside—you know that it’s not real, but that’s the point. You’re not trying to say it’s real. You’re trying to, I feel, give the audience something that’s theater. It’s in their soul. It’s part of who we are. It’s hundreds of years of entertainment. To me, that’s the joy of practical effects. And that’s no way meant as a criticism of CGI, but I think practical effects, what you have to do is you have to bring them to life, using yourself. Your body, your hands, or your physique, whatever—you have to work in a real world environment. And I think from art, from theater, to ballet, to productions like War Horse to the Muppets, to all of these things, all of these things are part of our enjoyment of this real world, and to me, that’s the joy.”
Not that CG wasn’t used in the latest chapter of the Star Wars saga. In addition to the obvious digital motion-capture characters of Maz Kanata and Supreme Leader Snoke, Rey’s grotesque guardian Unkar Plutt, played by Simon Pegg, was given a bit of a digital facelift. Scanlan notes that both director J.J. Abrams and actor Simon Pegg agreed the character should be as gross as possible, and that moving the facial features beyond where they could be if Pegg were simply wearing a mask increased that disgustingly inhuman factor.
“So it was a prosthetic that we applied to Simon,” Scanlan says, “but then the guys later remodeled the front of the face, and they moved the eyes out. I think they did a little bit of CG enhancement on the inside of the mouth as well, to give him a slightly wider gape in his mouth than what you could do in real life. Obviously, it would have just been Simon’s mouth otherwise, so yeah, brilliant. Stretch the eyes and stretch the mouth, and gave it that sort of twist to make it feel like it couldn’t just be a person in a suit.” And it wasn’t full-on motion capture like Snoke and Maz, though they did use video of Pegg’s facial expressions for animation reference.
Check out the picture below of Scanlan’s workshop, and you’ll notice an Unkar mask with more humanly positioned eyeholes:
On the opposite end of the scale from making actors more inhuman was the task of making nonhuman objects more relatable, notably the cute new droid BB-8, who was based on a sketch by Abrams. Scanlan can’t take credit for the initial creation, but he deserves some for making the character as popular as he is. It was Scanlan’s job to, as he puts it, “really sort of fine-tune everything. Getting BB-8’s face right, for instance. [Figuring out where] what one might call the eye, which is actually a lens—where does that fit? Where does the projector fit? Where are the aerials in relation to this? So that was what we really spent most of our time, was getting the character. We wanted him to sort of speak and talk to you before he even moves, and so that was really the main thrust of our design contribution.”
An early T-shirt I bought on Force Friday featured blueprints for BB-8, with hints that his head could retract into his body, but Scanlan says there was never a scene specifically planned where that would happen. Not that it couldn’t later on. “But what we did do, when we looked at the panels, at his overall panels, was just sort of say this is a sort of Swiss army knife,” he notes.
“There are tools, there are things that he has, whether they are things that he uses to repair things, or whether they are protective system that he has,” Scanlan says. “So lots of ideas, and the feeling was could we at any one time bring that idea in and instigate it into the design, and as long as we felt that the panels, the general design, was versatile enough, I think we then felt was that any idea that J.J. might have had for the future use of BB-8, in a sense, we sort of laid those initial foundations for that. I mean, I love the little torch with the thumbs up; it’s just a magic moment, isn’t it?”
Most would agree that it is indeed, albeit not a characteristic you could ever implement on a toy. And speaking of toys, what’s the deal with the new action figure of a character named Constable Zuvio, heavily seen in early marketing materials but never in the film? “There was an awful lot of stuff that we shot,” Scanlan says. “Background stuff. Things that are happening in Jakku in the background, in the desert, and all of those things. And sometimes the roll of dice is in order to tell the story the way that they need to tell it, and J.J. wanted to tell it. Some things there just isn’t the screen time for them. So he exists on film somewhere. Whether we’ll ever see him, who knows?”
Scanlan believes there could be a cut of the film an hour longer that would work, and that he would love to watch. He calls the theatrical cut “so fine to the wire” in the way it hit the allotted running time while keeping as much of the good stuff as possible.
Scanlan may be billed as a creature guy, but not everything he made was monstrous. Kylo Ren’s scar during the final battle was his creation, as was the burned Darth Vader mask. Rey’s speeder, too, though he denies that it was based on a Fudgesicle or flash drive, saying old farm equipment was the inspiration.
Finally, though, since he’s been with the Creature Shop since the ’90s, I had to ask him a burning fan question: how did the Henson people react when Kevin Smith’s Clerks came out, and the characters in it declared Return of the Jedi to be “just a bunch of Muppets?”
Scanlan replies that he hadn’t actually heard about that, but he comes up with a thoughtful answer anyway:
“I think my feeling is that there’s a level where humor can become slightly slapstick. And I think that what I felt as a young man watching the films is that in Empire Strikes Back, I felt very grown-up to be watching that film. I thought the subject matter, although it was humorous, it was also very serious. I think also being that the characters like the Ewoks and things—which were much more, dare I say, childlike—maybe slightly offended the older cinemagoing fans. The slightly older fans who were above that now, who had grown through Empire.”
He continues, “And actually, that’s what the Muppets are. The Muppets are these slapstick, wonderful, comedic sort of things, and I suppose I sort of understand what they mean by that. I’m always very aware that one can slip. I have to say, ‘Take the Muppet out of the puppet,’ because there’s a point where you step that line and you’ve become almost slightly ridiculous, or slightly slapstick, or too clowny. And then it becomes childlike, rather than engaging, dare I say, across the board of your audience. So if you start targeting too low of an audience, then you lose the adult audience. If you just target the adult audience, then you also lose. So for me, it’s trying to find somewhere in the middle.
“So I do understand that comment,” Scanlan says. “I daresay that no one was offended by it. We probably all felt the meaning behind it, absolutely. Dare I say, a little bit like Jar Jar, wasn’t it? You know, I think Jar Jar pushed a little too far in a lot of the fans’ minds, and he became…he went too far out of what they consider to be an acceptable Star Wars character.”
Star Wars: The Force Awakens arrives on Blu-ray April 5.
IMAGES: Click Communications and Disney/Lucasfilm