Spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi follow below.
After so much secrecy prior to the film’s opening, now that Star Wars: The Last Jedi is out in theaters, there are so many aspects of the film to discuss and marvel at, whether it’s the storytelling, characters, production design, visual effects, creatures, costumes or any endless number of things that have to come together in just the way right, like pieces of a puzzle, to make a finished film. Collider recently got the opportunity to chat with creature designer Neal Scanlan about creating some of the various species that populate this world, through both practical animatronics and CGI.
During this spoiler-filled 1-on-1 phone interview, Scanlan talked about the added pressure of successfully delivering for the Star Wars franchise, collaborating with a director as adventurous as Rian Johnson, the process for deciding which creature designs would make the film, the challenges of working with animatronics and puppets in real locations and environments, the relationship between the Porgs and Chewbacca, getting the milk scene to work, the importance of actually being able to interact with the Fathiers, and why they wanted to go back to the original mold for Yoda.
Collider: What’s the coolest piece of merchandise you have, of one of your own creations?
NEAL SCANLAN: Crikey! That’s a cool question! I have some really beautiful replicas that were made, like Rey with BB8. To me, they’re the coolest because I appreciate the art that’s gone into creating them. They’re beautifully sculpted, they’re beautifully painted and they’re beautifully presented, and I really appreciate that. Cool is not the word to use. They’re just to die for. Those are the sort of things where artists outside of the artists that I work with put their work out there, and I think they’re beautiful models and creations.
Every movie has its own set of challenges, but do the stakes feel higher because this is Star Wars? Do you feel an extra added amount of pressure, on top of just completing a project successfully?
SCANLAN: Absolutely! From the very beginning, when we first started to talk with J.J. [Abrams] and Kathleen [Kennedy] about what makes a Star Wars film a Star Wars film, and trying to identify the core ingredients, we hopefully have been quite successful in identifying those, so they become your responsibility to hold onto. Whenever we have conversations, and we were talking with Rian [Johnson], that’s always in the background. Our default is to fall back and say, “Is this true to the Star Wars world?” I always feel there’s something familiar about the Star Wars world because it’s not completely otherworldly. There are so many references back to our world that it keeps us engaged and keeps us feeling like we’re part of the journey. Things are not so unfamiliar that we can’t reach out and touch them almost. That’s very important to us. It’s a huge responsibility because it’s so easy to allow your own artistic enthusiasm or ego to get ahold of you, and you’re not allowed to do that on a Star Wars film You are a guardian and a caretaker of this beloved story.
When you realized what you would have to do for The Last Jedi, in particular, was there any specific thing that you were nervous about tackling?
SCANLAN: Rian is a very adventurous director. We took animatronics and puppetry onto a location, and we were shooting on an island in the weather conditions. That takes you out of your comfort zone. You’re not in a film studio where your support structure and your workshop is close by, and you can build specific rigs and things. We had to think very much like a guerilla team and work very efficiently, using the natural environment where we could. Rian had this desire to go do this in a real place with real practical effects, so that was a challenge.
Is it more challenging to have different creatures interact with each other, or will actual humans?
SCANLAN: They’re both challenging. When a creature reactions with a creature than we are very much in control. We can rehearse that and there’s no surprises. But as soon as you bring an actor or actress into the role, things become a little more spontaneous and you have to be spontaneous with your performance. You have to allow the person to feel free, so that they’re not constrained by the effects. The whole idea is that they should feel they’re acting against a normal counterpart, so we go to a lot of effort. Our puppeteers are chosen and they rehearse, so that they can present things on set with a real counterpart. It’s for the director, too, so that Rian doesn’t look at them like they’re extraordinary. They’re another member of the cast and crew. We quietly come in and do what we do, and we quietly disappear, just in the way that most of the actors and actresses do
There are a variety of different creatures in this film. Were there any creatures that you created, but then scrapped and weren’t able to actually use?
SCANLAN: No. We go through a long design process, which is really a creative marriage between ourselves and the director, which was Rian. It’s a way of getting to know each other, and certainly my way of getting to know how the director sees his film and his world. Most of the x-factor moments, as we call them, happen very early on, in the process. We put all of the designs out for a particular group of characters or a particular scene in the film, and Rian would walk along with a Post-It note. Each one that he would put a Post-It note on would go through to the next round. By the time we got to the end of the process, we knew the characters that we were going to make and that were going to be used in the film. Whether they end up in the film is a game of roulette, with run times and story. It’s all a part of the editing. I’m always a little apprehensive when I go see any of the things that I’ve worked on because I’m never quite sure what has made it to the cut.