If you’ve seen any Star Wars movie over the last five years, you’ve seen the work of Neal Scanlan. The Oscar-winning creature and makeup effects supervisor was responsible for reconceiving Chewbacca for the new Skywalker trilogy, as well as resurrecting Yoda in The Last Jedi and creating countless iconic creatures throughout the franchise. That’s certainly true of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, for which Scanlan and his team brought to life the instantly iconic Babu Frik and were tasked with bringing Emperor Palpatine back from the dead in unique fashion.
With Rise of Skywalker now available on Digital HD and hitting Blu-ray and DVD on March 31st, I recently got the chance to speak to Scanlan about his work on the film by phone. He discussed the process of creating creatures for Rise of Skywalker, and how early concept meetings—even without a script—lead to the design of characters that are vitally important to the film. In the case of this trilogy capper, Scanlan talked about the evolution of Babu Frik from originally being conceived as a medium-like character to the hilariously confident mechanic who works on C-3PO in the finished film, and how changes in the script affect the work that he and his team do. Scanlan also discussed how they visualized the return of Palpatine via a clone body, and the difference from early designs to what we see in the finished film, as well as creating—and shooting!—the “Eye of Webbish Bog” character and why it didn’t make the final cut.
The interview offers fascinating insight into how Star Wars movies are actually made, and highlights one of the most important creatives involved in bringing these films to life whose work is sometimes taken for granted. Check it out below..
NEAL SCANLAN: In the sense of Rise of Skywalker, the script was not whole. It was not a complete beginning and end. The Last Jedi, for instance, with Rian [Johnson], it was much, much more developed. It differs on different films. But for Rise of Skywalker, we literally started with J.J. almost from day one. We had a period of blue sky playing in a sense where we had some rough leads from J.J. He’ll give us some ideas of the keynotes of the movie that’s in his head, but we don’t have any script specifics at that time. So it’s really about conceptualizing, playing around with ideas and looking at certain things. We’re thinking, “Well, how could we achieve those?” For instance, if a character is only eight inches tall, then that’s going to place a certain demand on how we might do it compared with a character that’s maybe 15 feet tall or 15 feet long.
It’s a very fruitful period. It’s a very exciting period because you’re looking at designs that you want to show to J.J. with response to some of the comments he’s made, but you’re also making sure that you can deliver. You don’t propose something that he’s like, “Oh my gosh.” He’s taken the bait for that and now how on earth are we going to do it? (laughs) So, I love that time because it’s very freeing. It’s very freeing. It involves, certainly within my team, quite a lot of people who all have to look inwardly to themselves and say, “Okay, I think I can do that, so I’ll put my tick to that box.” And you have to show your colors at that point.
I definitely want to talk about Babu Frik which just is this really incredible character design and he’s instantly iconic when he pops up on the screen. I was wondering if you could walk me through the origin story of creating and building that character.
SCANLAN: The real idea from J.J. was that little Babu would be a character very much like he is in the film, but not necessarily doing the job that he’s doing in the film. He was much more of a kind of a medium almost. Originally, Rey went to see Babu in order to find some information and he almost would exist in an environment very specifically tailored to his own size, so almost scaled to him. So when we started to design Babu—Ivan Manzella designed him, and he was costumed very differently than what you see in the final movie. So as a character, he was there very, very early on in J.J.’s world, the role that he played changed several times.
It was really more about re-costuming him and looking at what his performance might be. So initially, we thought that we could do that almost without any digital removal by putting him in an environment that would have been built specifically to allow us to use the rods and to use the certain ways of puppeteering him by hiding those aspects. But as the story unfolded and we realized that now it was going to be much more involved, you obviously then turn to CG. So now we had a greater degree of freedom to be able to bring him to life and performing in a way that J.J. wanted for the particular sequence with C-3PO. So he was a character that stayed with us, but his size never changed. The methodology of how we were going to do him never really changed. So we always knew we were going to put a character of that size in that matter on the screen.
Oh, interesting. Did his role change pretty late in the game or did you have a pretty good heads up before filming started of the environment that he would be in?
SCANLAN: Yeah, pretty good heads up I think before filming started. We had several weeks at least. Certainly, enough time for us to make the changes that we needed to make. It was ample time.
Did you guys come up with how old he might be in that world?
SCANLAN: Yeah, I think it’s interesting when you look at concepting and the team of people that I have with me who come up with these ideas is that, when we sit around and we talk about a particular character, everybody sees that character slightly differently in their world. You go around and try and come up with examples and real world references that you could use, but that ultimately comes down to the individual person who puts pen to paper in a sense. And in this particular case, Ivan did a little maquette of Babu, actually to scale, and J.J. saw it and just went, “That’s it.” He has a slightly loppy eye. Everything about him is a little off. But for his size and things like what can we do to try to make his face expressive? Some of those things I think are all in the back of the mind of somebody when they’re designing something like that. Then certainly as we knew more about the role that he was going to take and the fact that he was almost like a little blacksmith or a little jewel worker or metal worker. Then other things start to happen as far as integrating things like goggles into the design, and so the head shape changed wildly in order to be able to make the goggles feel comfortable on his head. All these things work in unison. By the time we’ve been through maybe, I don’t know, three, four, five iterations of Babu before the final physical form and age, as you say, was signed off and we all felt that we captured what would be right for the moment.
Interesting. Well, I’m also curious about the design for the Palpatine clone at the end of the film. Were you and your team involved in creating that and the world surrounding him and his little Sith buddies?
SCANLAN: Yes. When we looked at Palpatine, we were doing the same thing I think that we did when we looked at Yoda and when we looked at Chewie. A friend of mine, a colleague of mine, Nick Dudman, who’s responsible for the original makeup on Palpatine, I remember hearing stories from him saying that it was a complete nightmare on set because in those days when the tools they were using were not as sophisticated as what we have available to us today, in many ways he was trying to keep the makeup on during the film sequence. But when you see what they did, it gives a quality I think, which is absolute. If you had done it in a different way, somehow it would have never been as gnarly or as threatening or as interesting as the original version.
So we very much look to that and hopefully paid the same respect back to Nick’s world when we came to creating Palpatine this time. We used old age stipple. We used prosthetic pieces. We used silicon-based prosthetic pieces rather than foam. But nonetheless, we sculpted them as closely as we possibly could to what Nick had created. There was a development from his first view that we see him, his first shape or form that we can call it, and then the second shape. So there was some evolution in that. But essentially what we were trying to do was to try and create as faithfully as possible the initial design. It would have felt wrong and almost arrogant to have ignored that.
Well and there’s an interesting challenge there. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe the idea is that this Palpatine is a clone and the body’s kind of rejecting the force inside him. Was that in line with your conversations with J.J. about what exactly this guy would be?
SCANLAN: Yes, absolutely. Luke Fisher, who is one of the concept designers that works with us, did a lot of sketches of Palpatine being on a kind of life support system. Something that is keeping him alive and keeping him in one piece. And then some parts of his physicality are almost independently being fed the necessary nutrients of life-giving entities. So the idea of him being held on a rig which allowed him to move around and almost the Nosferatu aspect of that sequence, all of those things were part of trying to come to understand how much we would show with that.
In the early concept days they were quite extreme. We explored a dismembered version of him. We explored more abstract versions of what he might be. You slowly get to the point where in J.J’s world, that [Palpatine clone] story is still being told, but to an audience that maybe is not so familiar with Star Wars, you don’t have to know the backstory so much. You can understand and be part of that story without necessarily having too much history. It’s that combination of being able to tell the story but at the same time have some depth to it, which is referring back to a larger meaning or a greater explanation.
I’ve seen there’s this character, the Eye of Webbish Bog, and there’s been some concept art and stuff and I was curious if you guys actually shot that? He looks really cool.
SCANLAN: Oh yeah! So that was a character that was designed very early on in the day. And Jake Lunt, who is one of my concept designers, we were all playing around with this idea and talking about it and he did this drawing and J. J. saw it and went, “Well, that is amazing.” Again, it was one of those moments where it’s like, “This has to be in the movie.” So we actually did build it and we took it to a place called Black Park in the UK, which is close to Pinewood Studios, where we shot it in a lake on location. And yes, that sequence exists.
Unfortunately, it didn’t make it to the movie story, plot wise, etc. It was a fully practical character shot on location and it is amazing. I mean, I hope that we can maybe bring that back in some way, shape or form on the TV series [The Mandalorian] or that we can revisit that in some way because it was a haunting image, a very unusual image, but one of which I think was incredibly Star Wars. So, yeah, somewhere there is footage of that.
That’s really cool. Was it just like extra story or did it take the story in a different direction versus what J.J. ultimately ended up doing in the film?
SCANLAN: I think it was just maybe too lengthy an explanation of something that he was able to explain in the movie much quicker. J.J.’s movies move very quickly, don’t they? And I think he felt that there was a—it was all part of Kylo Ren’s journey and I think he just felt that there was too much time being spent on something that could have been explained much quicker. Runtime is always my biggest fear on any movie. So much of what we do, so much of what we shoot, and I’m sure this is the same for every department, you invest so much time and love in it and you hope it will make the final cut but it doesn’t always do that. The movie would be four hours long.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is now available on Digital HD and will be released on 4K Blu-ray, Blu-ray, and DVD on March 31st.