The Making of THE LAST JEDI’s Space Horses and Crystal Foxes

Porgs may have commanded most of the attention leading into The Last Jedi, but they’re not the only adorable critters in the film. I’m still firmly pro-porg, but the fathiers (space horses) and vulptices (crystal foxes) also have pieces of my heart. These new Star Wars creatures came to life on screen through a marriage of practical puppets from Neal Scanlan‘s creature shop and visual effects from Ben Morris’ team. The two departments worked with each other to design the looks and movements for each creature in painstaking detail—down to hairs added by hand to each fathier.

The fathiers have been nicknamed space horses because of the way they race around a track in Canto Bight a la racehorses, but they were really inspired by lions, dogs, and cats. Morris told Nerdist, “Actually, they’ve got leg structures of dogs and cats. We looked at very fast running dogs, like greyhounds, and also cheetahs, and incredibly fast felines. We would reference that, and that would inspire our animators.”

The feline characteristics were there from the beginning with Rian Johnson‘s design for the fathier. “Rian had some designed already that were quite close, a sort of combination of a horse with lion qualities,” Scanlan said. “That majestic and soulful look that a lion has in the face, as well as an almost cat-like movement—it was that combination that he already penned as a drawing. Really, our role was to take that and envision it at full scale, which ended up being about 18 feet tall and 18 feet long.”

Scanlan continued, “So, when you then sculpt that as a real, full-sized entity, and you begin to see it not from looking down on it, but looking up at it, that was a very different experience to Rian. We spent a lot of time massaging the anatomy and getting the facial skull shape right, and the eyes, and the pathos. As much as we could to sell the soul of the fathier through its face and through its physical form.”

The team made a practical version of the fathier, which can be seen in the film the first time we meet one of the creatures in its stall on Canto Bight. This was also the first time Kelly Marie Tran saw the puppet, which the team kept from her until the day of the shoot to ensure that Rose’s reaction would be a reflection of how Tran responded to the puppet. Scanlan said, “It was at the back of the stable, so she couldn’t see it hidden in the darkness. We literally moved the fathier forward, and it’s animatronic so the head could come down, and we just performed that moment with her. I think she wouldn’t mind me saying she had a tear in her eye at the end of it.”

“She was left to act it in the way that she wanted to, and we could react to her by using the animatronic features of the head,” Scanlan added. “Since it was a full-sized animatronic puppet that was puppeteered from a platform behind in the shadows, she couldn’t see the puppeteers. And then we had mechanical animatronic elements for the mouth, the eyes—the eye blinks—the ears, the little tweaks in the nose, the jaw, and the flaring of the cheeks.”

The foam latex skin that covered the mechanics was covered in thousands and thousands of hairs, punched in by hand, one by one. Scanlan said it took weeks. That surface served as the basis for VFX. Morris’ team sculpted over the puppet digitally and used that to create the fathiers in the other scenes when they’re running. “All of the sequences that you see with the fathiers running and smashing through the casino are all done digitally, but the acting itself was performed on a rig which allowed them to feel like they were really participating in it and hopefully you, the audience, feel like they are actually on a fathier and the fathiers are real at all times,” Scanlan said.

The vulptices, a.k.a. crystal foxes, were entirely CG. Scanlan’s team built a practical version (that moves incredibly realistically), and Morris’ group used those concepts to build a digital version of the vulptex. “We literally looked at footage of arctic foxes, prairie foxes, and red foxes,” Morris said. “We would always work from nature to bring the believability into that movement. Matt Shumway animated or supervised the animation on the crystal foxes. He’s a genius.”

The look of the vulptices was off the wall from the get-go, according to Scanlan. Though his team ordinarily aims to keep their designs from veering too fantastical, they went way out there for the vulptex. “They were quite abstract right from the start,” Scanlan recalled. “We spoke to Rian in terms of chandeliers and sparkling quartz, and the idea that things could be grown—like crystals growing on little cotton threads that we used to do when were in the science lab at school. All of that sort of comes together almost like an art project, really. That’s how we find something that really was envisaged through 3D form, from looking at beautiful, natural photographs of female foxes, for instance, and some of the gorgeous coats that they have and translating that into a three dimensional object made of crystals.”

Scanlan continued, “It became very much like a piece of sculpture. We would turn [the vulptex] around on a turn table and show Rian in different lights to show how areas reflected and refracted and built it in that way. It was sort of a Swarovski or Tiffany’s version of a creature.”

Which creatures in The Last Jedi are you most obsessed with? Share all the gushing in the comments.

Images: Lucasfilm/Disney, DK Publishing

Amy Ratcliffe is an Associate Editor for Nerdist. She likes Star Wars a little. Follow her on Twitter.

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