Face To Face With The Masters
Any citizen of the galaxy may be summoned to answer to the Jedi Council. Here you may read the transcripts of such sessions.
Cellblock 1138 - 1997-1999 - 2000 - 2002 - 2003+
Interview with John Coppinger - Animatronics Engineer for Return of the Jedi
TheForce.net's Joshua Griffin got a chance to speak to one of the men behind Jabba the Hutt in this two-part interview with the man who also had a couple of cameos in Episode I. Read on for his thoughts on the new prequel, and reliving fun experiences of the past.
This is part one of the interview, click here for part 2 for topics outside of Star Wars!
TFN: How did you first hear of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi?
I was working on 'The Dark Crystal', at EMI Studios, and heard that Stuart Freeborn would be setting up a workshop to make creatures for the third Star Wars film.
I wrote him a letter and posted it at his office late on the evening before he was due in, so that it would be on top of the pile when he arrived. Devious maybe, but he did give me an interview!
He liked my folio of work, mostly from my previous career at The Natural History Museum in London, and gave me a job on what was then called 'The Revenge of the Jedi'.
I'll always be grateful to Stuart for giving me that chance; it was only my second job on a film crew.
TFN: What attracted you to the project in the first place?
Stuart's reputation first, but also the chance to work on the third Star Wars film - After the success of the first two films it was a project that everyone wanted to be on. And I was particularly interested in what creature designs were going to be asked for.
TFN: What experience could you offer the team, and what would you suggest aspiring sculptors and designers for success in Hollywood?
Stuart liked my thesis that restoring fossil animals, dinosaurs etc., was a good training for making realistic alien creatures. Putting flesh onto a fossil skeleton involves imagining how the animal would have lived and moved and interacted with its world to survive; so it goes a lot further than just designing an interesting shape around the bones.
I was also very lucky that my first film had been 'The Dark Crystal' - It brought a lot of new people and ideas into the UK film industry and allowed me to try out a lot of things while I was learning. Some were crazy, but most we got away with!
It was unusual then to go in unknown and sell yourself with a folio - Now that's usually the norm for someone starting out.
Even if someone has already worked in the industry it's still a good idea to have some personal projects to show.
TFN: What was your interaction with the stars (in front of and behind the scenes) and your impression of George Lucas?
The people I spoke to most on the set of 'Return of the Jedi' were Jeremy Bulloch (Boba Fett), Mike Carter (Bib Fortuna) and Mike Edmonds (operating Jabba's tail).
We couldn't hear Mike Edmonds on the radio circuit, but we always knew when he got to the punchline of a joke; the whole of Jabba would wobble from the rest of the inside crew cracking up.
For two weeks I only ever saw Mike Carter in his prosthetic make-up (designed and applied by Nick Dudman) - The dancing girls liked to play with his wattles and tentacles so I was always happy to go talk with him. But when we finally met up for a drink in the bar I found it hard to talk to him at first; for a while he looked wrong and had turned into a stranger.
Jeremy Bulloch was also always easy and fun to talk to. He also helped keep me awake with anecdotes between shots; it was during the shooting that we were running 120 hour weeks in rows!
Whatever Carrie Fisher was or wasn't on I always found her to be calm, very professional and very good company. She had a way of ignoring her own beauty, as if it was just part of the performance, that put people (men certainly) at ease. It sounds easy to say but my experience of being on set is that the stars really are just part of the crew - Maybe best not to discuss wages though!
The only person I remember giving us (the Jabba crew) any sort of a hard time was Harrison Ford - But that was when he was falling off a wall onto his head (out of the cryptonite in Jabba's sleeping chamber) so I guess he was just getting into the part. It was very minor, and David Tomblin, the first assistant director, came straight to our rescue.
He, David Tomblin that is, impressed me very much with the depth of his involvement in, and his control of, all the details of some very complex scenes and set-ups - The best compliment any of us are likely to get was his gruff comment that "you lot have done a good job on that thing"; jerking his thumb back at Jabba as he walked through us to cross the set!
I don't remember talking to Mark Hamill - He was getting a lot of press attention about his recovery from a major car accident, and I suspect that the pressures of working again were making him reserved. This is purely theory on my part.
George Lucas was naturally reserved, but also easy to talk with. I only spoke to him a couple of times; once about alternative colour schemes for Jabba and again when we were actually doing the colouring on the set.
I remember him chatting to us in an easy and relaxed way - Although I don't remember his words the gist of one thread of the conversation was that he felt constrained by his own success. He wanted to do something else for a while, but the money men would be happy if he just kept on cranking out Star Wars films. I think he actually said something like that, rather than us just reading between the lines.
TFN: You were one of the people who worked on Jabba the Hutt, the huge alien boss in Return of the Jedi. Tell us about the evolution of that character and the model you received from Phil Tippet.
Jabba was the only thing I worked on on that film - He was fifteen feet long and nearly six high so it took some time for me to sculpt him, six weeks I think, and six of us to build and assemble all his internal structures and mechanisms, put on his skin and artwork and finish him. The others on the crew were Bob Bromley, Jez Harris, Bob Keen, Mike Osborn and Richard Padbury.
I still remember that the combination of Phil Tippet's maquette and the character's name made something that seemed genuinely alien and strange. 'God Emperor of Dune' either hadn't come out or hadn't been published in the UK then.
I stayed very close to the maquette as it was very evocative of what a 'Hutt' should look like, especially the character of the face. That was also why I argued for keeping the oval eyes when Stuart wanted them round. We tried it but it became not just another character but another species.
I could write a whole essay about building Jabba and deciding how he should move - One thing that gave us a lot of trouble was making him look heavy enough while allowing the guys inside to move him. His main interior body was made of fibreglass floating on springs that angled down from posts set onto an industrial turntable - The problem was the weight of the stomach that would be mounted on the front of it. We tried everything from sacks of beans to water bags.
In the end the solution was counter-intuitive - We used latex sheet to fabricate a stomach shape, filled it with air to a slight negative pressure and used very thin (1/4") foam latex for the skin over it rather than a heavy layer.
I think it was Mike Osborn who came up with the idea.
It wobbled about like a tub of guts, took Carrie Fisher's weight when she leant against it, yet it was all just air - Proving that sometimes you can get 'win / win' solutions.
The only part of Jabba that I really felt we couldn't take any further was his eyes - I even got in trouble from some of the team for spending too much time on their interior structure and artwork. But the eyes just have to be right.
One of the weirdest things was to go on set before filming, put new batteries in for the servos and receivers, and then fire up just his eyes on radio.
I may have been tired but I stepped back instinctively more than once when the thing woke up and looked at me.
And I was the person operating it!
TFN: What was the most challenging aspect of your work in Return of the Jedi? Did they ever ask you for something you could not do?
Yes, all of it! To be serious the whole of animatronics was a fast moving frontier then; nearly everything we did was the subject of research and development. This was the main reason that we worked such long hours.
I knew I could sculpt, but even that area involved new techniques for moulds: Claying-in and modelling in reverse for different thicknesses and movement of the foam, and reversing silicone rubber master-casts so that seam lines were on the inside of the foam latex casts (Stuarts' idea).
I suppose the most challenging aspect, and the most fun, was working on the set. I'd done some set work on 'Dark Crystal' but with Jabba we had to operate and maintain him the whole time on three different sets. The Sail Barge was just insane, because of the restricted space and the violence of the action - We had to repair him after every take when he was being killed!
Our job was to say "yes" and then go away and worry about how to do something until we'd arrived at a solution. The whole process was like making prototypes - We had to get something that would work okay, with a lot of maintenance and swearing, onto the set on time, just at the point when any sensible person would tear it all down and re-build it properly.
Animatronics is less like that now - Most of the solutions we stumbled towards for Jabba are common practice today; and the engineering, detail design and fabrication standards have improved enormously.
I think he looked and moved okay though - I'll admit to being pleased by people saying he was still far better than the computer generated version.
TFN: Was that any different as you approached The Phantom Menace some 15 years later?
There were still a lot of challenges, but animatronics had matured - So most demands had a core of 'off the shelf' concepts we could employ; even if the details still needed original solutions.
For sculpting; if I can't do it now I'm never going to be able to! In technical terms it's an easy option. There are many people who are better, or more patient, with detail than I am - But my argument is that the form, volumes and the horizons of a sculpt, as the observer or the camera moves around it, are far more important than the surface detail. So long as the finished object can take colour and light in the right way for the set conditions and the camera, anything else is just salesmanship.
This argument fall down when a face is going to be seen ten foot high though - One reason I tend to sculpt large creatures more often than prosthetic make-ups.
TFN: You played a few characters in Episode I, what else did you do in the production of the film?
My main job, as always, was to sculpt characters - Some new, and some re-sculpts of classic 'cantina' aliens.
I was also involved in testing the body structure and stilts for Horox Ryyder / Graxol Kelvyyn when Jerome Blake wasn't available. He performed several characters, so I was lucky that he was often busy!
TFN: What is your official website and can fans of Star Wars get autographed pictures of you?
It's at www.johncoppinger.com - I have pictures of the Wookie senator and Graxol Kelvyyn from 'The Phantom Menace' and also the picture of me shaking hands with Jabba that's on the front page.
Stay tuned to MovieHeadlines.Net for tomorrow's part 2 of the interview with John, as he talks about upcoming projects like working in the Special Make-up Effects department on Harry Potter and new information about the Mummy 2 production! Update! Click here for part 2!