How did you get involved with Star Wars and concept art?
I had worked with Neal Scanlan on various projects on and off between 1999 and maybe 2005. After that our careers diverged – Neal was doing more SMUFX and prosthetics jobs and I was focusing more on storyboarding and directing in commercials. I don’t think I’d actually spoken to Neal for about five years when he called me out of the blue in early June 2013 telling me he’d got Star Wars and was looking to put together a concept design team. Would I be interested? Uh…yes, I think I would. I had to do a trial week putting some ideas together for a brief on a character that would eventually become Maz to get the job and started properly on the film mid-June.
For those who are unaware, what does your job entail?
My job title is Creature Concept Designer and I work under Neal – the CFX Supervisor – for the Creature FX department. This department provides all the practical creatures, aliens and many of the droids for the film in the form of animatronic heads, pull-over masks, body-suits, puppets and prosthetics.
My job is to create the initial ideas and designs for these creatures and to art direct their progress through the sculpt and build. For main or important characters like Maz or BB-8, there’s generally a lot of dialogue between us and the director to get the ball rolling on design; but for many of the other characters we might get a very simple brief such as “cool desert scavengers” for the background characters on Jakku or “puffin-people…like nuns” for the Caretakers in The Last Jedi. And for many other designs we have the creative freedom to just come up with ideas that we think would be great for Star Wars and pitch those to the director.
Things like the Luggabeast and the Happabore were just sketches that sparked something and got written into the script. But as I said, CFX generally have to make all these things practically, so always at the back of our minds is the consideration of their realisation and performance – how do we fit an actor into this suit or mask?; how do they see and move?; will it work as a puppet?; how many people will it take to operate it?; Can we hide them in the set or do they need to be in green suits? And so on. And this in turn means a lot of conversations within our own department – the performers, animatronic designers, fabricators – as well as VFX, Costume and Art Department.
Once designs get picked, I then continue to hone the design and flesh out the details, art directing the design right up to completion. The sculpting department need information on skin textures; sketches for hands, fingernails and if they are seen, feet; and mouth interiors and teeth. Eyes need to design for irises. The Fabrication team and Model makers need design details for props and tech that might feature.
What creatures/aliens/droids in the films are you responsible for designing?
Over the last four films there are probably over 75 individual designs that have made it into the shoot, though many never made more than fleeting appearances or not made the final cut at all.
The Force Awakens: BB-8, Ello Atsy, the Rathtars, Constable Zuvio, Bobbajo, The Steelpecking bird, PZ-4C0, the Luggabeast, the Happabore and Rey’s Speeder (not an alien…I know).
Rogue One: Pao, the SE-2 Worker droid and the A-LT Utility droid. This last one was barely seen in the movie, but ended up getting more screen time in Solo. Only a bit more.
The Last Jedi: Porgs, Caretakers, Thala-Siren, the Fathier stable-master, BB-9E, C’ai Threnalli, Slowen Lo, as well as many of the casino patrons.
Solo: at the Sabacc table there was the dealer, Karjj and Dava Cassamam; the pit-fight droids; on the Dryden Vos’s yacht, the concierge Margo; and Quay Tolsite on Kessel.
Are there any that you didn’t design that you wish you did?
That’s tough as often the designs are so personal that other people’s designs really reflect them and probably wouldn’t look the way they do if I’d done them. I love Luke Fisher’s Two-Tubes and Captain Ithano; Martin Rezard’s 6-Eyes and Sarco Plank; and Ivan Manzella’s Rio Durant.
You are behind some of the most iconic creatures from the sequel trilogy & standalone films such as the Porgs, Pao and BB-8; can you describe what it was like when you saw your drawings come to life in the movies?
All the way through I have wow moments – from seeing my ideas and sketches go from 2D to 3D in the sculpting phase to the first time we get a performer into their finished costume to seeing them walk on set. And yes it is exciting still to see them on screen, but it also goes way beyond that.
Seeing a toy version is actually weirder – because I’ve been involved with everything on screen I know its story and the people who put it there whereas the toys and merchandise are the product of many other people’s involvement around the world. But the absolute best bit is when I see fans’ interpretations of these characters – kid’s drawings, amazing fan art and cosplay, custom toys, Lego recreations and internet memes. Then you realise that a design has transcended the movie and been embraced into popular culture and people’s hearts. That’s the most satisfying point I think.
Despite there being some amazing new creatures/aliens/droids in the new movies, there are still a lot of requests to feature some of the older species as well. We saw some familiar faces in SOLO with the Twi’leks & Rodians which received positive feedback. Does this topic come up often in planning for the films?
Yes, I do get this question a lot. I think people forget that with the Original Trilogy, there wasn’t actually that much continuity of alien species from one movie to the next – off the top of my head all I can think of was Greedo in A New Hope and a Rodian dancer cropping up in Jabba’s palace in ROTJ….and a Jawa showed up in Jabba’s Palace too. And the Twi’leks were only in ROTJ.
The Prequels were better in that respect and you did get to see more Twi’leks and Rodians; and Rebels has continued brilliantly by having loads of Rodians and Ithorians as background characters. Discussions to use what we call legacy designs do arise in pre-production and we do try and get them in there but unfortunately many have fallen by the wayside (along with many, many of our new designs!) during the production process with scenes being cut before the shoot and after filming in the edit.
For instance we made a new male Twi’lek and his son for Rogue One as well as two versions of the medical droid 2-1B but both were in scenes that never made the final edit. And with each new film you also have to put yourself in the place of the director. Imagine you were given the chance to direct a Star Wars film…wouldn’t you want to use the opportunity to make the film your own; to introduce some cool new aliens? For what its worth, a few that did make it were the Mon Calamari in TFA, Rogue One and TLJ; the Hassk that appeared in a Ralph McQuarrie Cantina concept were made for Maz’s Castle in TFA; Ponda Baba for Rogue One; and as you noticed in Solo we got a Rodian and Twi’lek in there.
Of all the characters you have worked on, which has been your favourite and why?
BB-8, the Porgs, Rey’s Speeder and Auromae Iselo. BB-8, because that’s obvious. The Porgs and Rey’s Speeder because they are both in essence such simple designs and silhouettes that draw on a handful of inspirations and have gone on to become iconic Star Wars designs.
You probably won’t recognise the name Auromae Iselo, but he’s one of Enfys Nest’s Cloud Rider gang – an ex-bounty hunter who makes a fleeting appearance in Solo. He’s a favourite as he’s essentially my daughter’s design. She’s 11 now, but since I started on The Force Awakens she has also designed her own Star Wars aliens. Every now and then I would redraw the ones I thought were particularly good and stick them in with the other ideas we were submitting for background aliens. Some would get quite high up the selection process but ultimately not make the A-list and it wasn’t until Solo that one got picked. And to top it all, Pablo Hidalgo created his name using an almost-anagram of hers.
What are some of the most difficult challenges you have encountered whilst doing work for the franchise?
One is when we have to come up with the big hero character designs, like Maz, Kylo Ren, K2-S0, L3-37 or Rio Durant. These have involved months of design time with teams from CFX, Costume and Art Department all generating hundreds of ideas to find that ‘something’ that catches the director’s eye, to hit upon a look, style and form which can go on to become iconic.
Another is the fact that we are designing not just for a movie but for this bigger thing that is Star Wars. Knowing we are contributing to something that means so much to so many people on so many different levels, that our designs can live on beyond the moment of the movie and have to stand up to scrutiny and analysis can sometimes be an added factor to the process.
Who are some of your favourite characters from the films and why?
The Jawas are great – such a simple design but they really stand out. And I love the sand-crawler. For all their brief appearances you get such a rich suggestion of this culture operating out there in the deserts of Tatooine. Also the bounty hunters from Empire Strikes Back. All of them are brilliant designs in that moment and a fleeting appearance for most of them, but enough to suggest the possibilities of untold stories. And speaking of bounty hunters, I always loved Boushh. Firstly the design is just brilliant – the mask, the colour with that splash of yellow, the alien voice; and secondly that it’s not even the real Boushh, its Leia in disguise. And she looks so cool in that outfit.
Finally I have to stick up for the Ewoks. They get a lot of negative press as being commercial sell-outs but I’ve always liked them since I saw Return Of The Jedi. I was a 12 year old boy, so certainly wasn’t buying into the cute and cuddly tokenism they’ve been painted with. Yes, they were quite cute bear like things, but what I loved was the fact they were this fierce tribalistic society, talking in Ewokese (I loved languages and was fascinated to read in an article at the time that Lucasfilm had gone to the effort of creating a believable language), with witch doctors, shamen and a Chief [Chirpa!] wearing these cool leather hoods, brandishing spears and all living in this amazing tree-house village high in the canopy. And they were fierce – they were going to cook and presumably eat our heroes.
What are some of your favourite moments from the movies?
Mos Eisley and the Cantina in Ep.IV; the AT-ATs in Empire Strikes Back, particularly the moment when they are first spotted through the binoculars; Jabba’s barge and Sarlacc pit scene (though not with the later Little Shop of Horrors digital addition…the original was so much better) and the Speederbike chase from Return Of The Jedi; the asteroid monster cave/mouth gag in Empire Strikes Back; the Luke/Vader father scene in ESB; Rey’s intro on Jakku and the Falcon escape in The Force Awakens; Vader’s attack on Tantive IV at the end of Rogue One; the Rey/Kylo throne room fight and bad-ass Luke facing off Kylo on Crait in The Last Jedi; and Han meeting Chewie on Mimban and the Conveyex heist in Solo.
What does Star Wars mean to you?
I was 6 when it was released in the UK, but I don’t think I was really aware of it until ESB came out in 1980 and I remember going to see a double bill. From then on Star Wars was a seminal part of my childhood. My brother and I had lots of the action figures but none of the bigger toys, so we’d make our own ships out of cardboard. In fact we made a lot of stuff out of cardboard, cockpits we could sit in and our skateboard helmets liberally covered in card and packing tape to become Boba Fett-esque pilot helmets.
By the time ROTJ came out I was also drawing and designing ships and ideas for imaginary future Star Wars films complete with graphics and titles. Star Wars fuelled and spurred my imagination. At 13 I once wrote that my ambition was to be the “special effects designer and constructor for Lucasfilm”. So to have finally found myself actually being involved with the production of the sequels, to be able to contribute to this galaxy for real, to have achieved this ambition, is an amazing feeling.