Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Echo Base News interviews Jabba the Hutt (Part 1)

Jabba SWSB.png

Bo shuda! Today we have Part 1 of a very special two-part interview months in the making. It's an interview with Jabba the Hutt! Well, not exactly, but it's the closest we could get. Chris and I were able to chat with four of the amazingly talented puppeteers and sculptors that brought everyone's favorite loathsome slug to life in Return of the Jedi nearly thirty years ago. John Coppinger, Dave Barclay, Toby Philpott and Mike Quinn have given us an incredible behind-the-scenes look at what went on inside the belly of the beast during the filming of Return of the Jedi and given us all the slimy details about how one of the most popular villains in film history was created. Here's Part 1. Enjoy!

John Coppinger and the Jabba design team.
(Image from Muppet Wiki)

Echo Base News: 
How did you get involved with Return of the Jedi? Did you have previous experience with puppetry/creature design?

Toby Philpott: It’s a two part question, but I’ll do them in reverse order. My dad was a puppeteer, so as a small child I made puppets, operated puppets that other people had made, and saw a wide range of puppet shows. As my parents were separated, I didn’t follow through... But I dropped out of my academic education, and became a clown, juggler and acrobat. I worked with masks and mime, and did a lot of physical training. When my mime teacher steered me towards auditioning for the large animatronic puppets that Jim Henson was devising for The Dark Crystal (remember he had already had a part in creating Yoda) I felt ready, as they were looking for a particular quality of fitness and expressiveness - and I got a part in that experimental and innovative film. I had six months work on puppetry and filming, under the tuition of a Grand Master.

So when I was offered a role as part of the Jabba team (George Lucas and Jim’s Creature Workshop still worked closely together) I was very excited, but not over-awed by the responsibility, as it seemed like a natural progression at that point in my career. Bear in mind that I had a love for the dynamic kind of puppets that Jim used – puppets (whether on the hand or as a full-body creature) which contained flesh, blood, muscle and a nervous system (humans inside). Such creatures can really appear alive, and seem better suited to comedy, and slapstick. String puppets (marionettes) lack those dynamic, earthy qualities, and appear better suited to performances that resemble those of dance and mime performers. They don’t have any real weight or presence (much like CGI images). Don’t get me wrong, they can be truly magical (think “Being John Malkovich”), but Jabba is very earthy, and you can feel his weight and presence on the set, coming through the screen. He was really there for the other actors.

John Coppinger: I applied to Stuart Freeborn for an interview when I heard that he would be running the make-up department for the third Star Wars film. My work on The Dark Crystal (my first job in filmland) was coming to an end so I was looking for a new project. Stuart liked the work I'd done previously at The Natural History Museum and offered me the job of sculpting Jabba the Hutt. The Dark Crystal had given a lot of new people their first taste of the film industry so I'd had a crash course in working in an Art Department and some experience of being on set. It was also a highly innovative film that introduced 'Animatronics' to the UK; or at least redefined it in the sense that major characters, with speaking parts, were now being created as life-like and believable entities. So Stuart liked my ideas about restoring fossil animals linked to the practical problems of fitting people and operators into the filming process. On The Dark Crystal we'd made rigs with operators under various sets and inside 'root suits' for a 40ft walking tree! I understood that he was trusting a relative newcomer to the industry and knew I had to come up with a new level of ideas and innovation. That was true for everyone who worked with Stuart; we were all inspired by his depth of experience and willingness to try new materials and methods. It was sometimes hard to convince him, but once it was done nothing could stop him!

Stuart Freeborn. (image from GalacticBinder)

Dave Barclay: 
I had worked with Stuart on The Empire Strikes Back, in the make-up department, on the build team, then the performing team for Yoda. After The Empire Strikes Back, I was the first British puppet builder to start on Jim Henson's The Dark Crystal (where I met Toby, John, Mike Edmonds, Mike Quinn, etc.) As a second generation puppeteer, I had built dozens of puppets and prosthetics as a kid, and that gave me the skills to be useful for Stuart and the Henson Creature Shop for The Dark Crystal.

Stuart called me in October ‘81 to ask if I would supervise the Jabba build. I had to turn down his offer as I was in the middle of the prep for Crystal’s release and was on contract to Henson’s. I thought that was the end of my chance at working on another Star Wars movie.

But a little later Stuart called again, asking would I be chief puppeteer for Jabba. It seems my puppeteering of Yoda on The Empire Strikes Back for the final week when Frank Oz was not available had been well received by Robert Watts and George.

I begged the Henson Creature Shop to release me to work on Return of the Jedi, and as the bulk of the work had been done for the release of The Dark Crystal, they agreed. But I still had to complete my Henson work before starting Return of the Jedi, so I worked crazy hours to clear that workload.

 In jabba.jpg
A schematic showing the Jabba puppet.

Echo Base News: What role did you play in creating Jabba?

Dave Barclay: I was chief puppeteer. I performed the jaw and lip sync, his right arm and with Toby, the rest of his body movements. I was guide voice for while we were filming, and remember the Americans loved the way I pronounced Chewbacca.

Toby Philpott: If I was honest I would say I had little to do with actually creating him, my job was to bring him to life.

The build was pretty well complete when I met him, so although we had ‘costume fittings’ and some test runs, I doubt I did more than make minor suggestions about how he worked. The amazing team of builders could have performed him themselves, I am sure, after all their testing and experimenting. Film, however, is a highly specialized world, and everyone on the set has a different job to do. The crew who built Jabba were on constant standby, to repair him, maintain him, and do both major jobs (like radio-controlling the eyes, and talking to the director) to adding important but lesser details to the performance, with breathing, grimaces, etc. – operated from under the stage. Some poor guy even had to add gunk to Jabba’s nose and mouth between takes!

So this is why they bring in performers to bring him to life (it’s also a Union thing). Dave Barclay was Chief Puppeteer, speaking the dialogue (in English) through a microphone headset, and operating the mouth. He was also the right hand. My job was to supplement the script with body language, as I controlled the body and head moves, as well as the left hand (which got most of the actions, because Jabba’s body impeded Dave’s hand from doing as much). With the left hand I ate frogs, hit C-3PO, grabbed Bib Fortuna, smoked the hookah, etc. We both pulled Oola’s chain! Oh, and my right hand was also inside Jabba’s tongue, when needed...Mike Edmonds did the tail on wider shots, to express Jabba’s mood.

John Coppinger: My primary role was to be the sculptor (clay mechanic!) but right from the start the construction team discussed structures, made test models and rigs and researched materials. Once I'd finished the sculpt (6ft tall and 15ft long) and the outer moulds were made they were reassembled and I laid and sculpted a layer of clay inside - This gave us the shape of Jabba's skull and 'skeleton' and established the depth of his foam latex skin. The skull and body parts were cast in fibreglass, the moulds disassembled and the inner moulds made so foam latex could be injected later.

The whole construction team then worked on the inner mechanisms - jaw and head, body / belly, shoulders piece, tail mechanism and a giant turntable that would support the whole rig and allow Jabba to twist left and right. His head could turn left / right, back and forwards and also sink into his shoulders. Jez Harris and I worked on the eye mechanisms and I sculpted and painted the foam pieces that went inside - I'm not sure you see the movement on film but I figured the eyes had to be the most detailed parts of the beast if he was to be a convincing character. I did get some flak from the others for spending so much time on them! It's kind of Toby to say we could have operated Jabba, and I'm certainly grateful we could operate the radio mechanisms on set (mostly the eyes for me of course!), but he and Dave (and Mike's E & Q) did an amazing job of co-ordinating and bringing Jabba to life - I certainly didn't envy them being inside, it was a really tough job. And they missed the party! I've been inside a few rigs since but nothing like the confines and demands of such a giant and complex puppet. I'm also grateful that Toby and Dave forgave us for a limited rehearsal time - I believe they were inside while I painted the outside with several gallons of toluene based colour!

But it all came together on the day. We asked the Director (Richard Marquand) to talk directly to Jabba about his performance, rather than any one of the team, and somehow we all pulled the right strings to make him live.


Echo Base News: Who got to lick Leia?

Toby Philpott: Um, that would be me! The tongue was done with my right hand. After eating the frog, for instance, I would lick the lips. I really don't know if we ever actually licked Leia, because we had very little visual feedback. After Han Solo is released, Leia gets pulled forward to Jabba, and I was directed to lick the lips in a rude and salacious way! Before the second take I had a note (secretly, over the headset) to try to push the tongue out further. I asked Richard if he had warned Carrie that we had changed the marks (previously rehearsed moves) but he said he hoped for a surprise, and a natural reaction. I reached out further, and wiggled the tongue, but we heard "Cut, cut!" So we stopped. I have no idea what actually happened, and have never seen out-takes, or asked Ms. Fisher what happened. All I know is that I was asked to do 'a little less, this time', for the next take. When I asked around later (after we had climbed out from inside) I was told that the tongue had made contact (covered in gunk, remember, and pretty disgusting). Whether the tongue licked her face, or was stuck in her ear - as one crew member said - I may never know. Film sets are famous for wind-ups (deadpan put-ons) so I may never hear the true story!

John Coppinger: I do remember the tongue action during the scene in Jabbas' bedchamber, and wondering if that would make it past the editors!

Carrie Fisher seemed to like Jabba and not be too upset by his dribbling - at one stage of testing we tried a garden sprayer rigged to nostril tubes for a dramatic 'snot' effect. But firing green slime more than ten feet across the set seemed like a gross too far, so we stuck to injecting gunk up his nose before each take. That task fell to the last one in each morning, so I made sure to be in early whenever I could!

John Coppinger and Toby Philpott. (Image fromFacebook)

Echo Base News: What is the best part about your involvement with Return of the Jedi?

Dave Barclay: It was a dream to land the chief puppeteer's role as one of movie's most memorable bad guys. Jabba and Yoda are still the most recognized characters I've built or performed, and I feel very lucky and privileged to have been invited to join one of the movie industry’s most esteemed and respected group of celluloid characters.

It wasn't for the money. I made very little for puppeteering Jabba. As a Brit (unlike the US and Screen Actors Guild) I never saw another penny after the salary was paid, and when Frank Oz found out how much I was being paid he said he was shocked at how little it was. Another case of the “green” naive youngster. But working on Star Wars was more important than money.

Mike Quinn: Being part of such a great legacy and having put my mark on it! That's the best part. This movie will be watched centuries after I'm gone, albeit with the same strange fascination we watch silent movies now. It has inspired and entertained many people. I can't wait to be reincarnated so I can see it for the first time, lol! Also being a part of this has kept on giving back in many magical ways. I have travelled far and wide thanks to Jedi, been moved by fans and their kindness, and made many friends for life. It even helped me meet my wife Jerri! The feedback has taught me people do care and we can make a difference. The whole experience has been both humbling and gratifying. Star Wars has been a gift that keeps on giving!

Toby Philpott: I feel inclined to take this in two directions.
People often assume that any connection to Star Wars is like winning the lottery, a life-changing event. I spent over thirty years in show business, and Return of the Jedi represents just a two month gig in amongst all that. In that sense, it didn’t change my life, as it was (at the time) just another contract completed. Well paid, and fun, but a year later I was broke and out of work again, for instance.

And yet, and yet – no one remembers me teaching myself to juggle (when that was still a novelty), and making a living at it, re-opening the possibilities of working as a street performer, promoting new circus, and all that – which is how I spent most of my time.
Most stage, television and even film work fades into oblivion. But as Mike pointed out, this particular film will outlive me. And although I didn’t think about it for twenty years after, once I found that fans still appreciated what we achieved, I have been delighted to meet up and chat at conventions, and so on.

(l to r) John Coppinger, Mike Edmonds, Dave Barclay, and Toby Philpott with Jabba at a convention.

John Coppinger: Ah, I remember standing on the sail barge, when it was all over, and thinking, “whatever else happens in life, at least I've been on a Star Wars set.” Maybe I was just tired, but it was quite emotional at the time. Nowadays, having done a few conventions, it's a strange effect to meet the fans and pass on some of that experience. I usually say it's like being the old guy in the pub, telling war stories, but in this case folks really want to hear those stories. Quite a privilege in fact.

On a more practical level, at the time, working on Jabba gave the whole crew an insight into what was possible with new techniques and materials. And at that time animatronics was still new to the UK film industry so we had some resistance, even aggression, from some of the ‘old guard.’ I guess there was an element of jealousy; because we were usually working on major characters we had access to the director and the rest of the hierarchy, particularly on set if our characters were interacting with the main actors.

Mike Quinn: On an even more practical level than that, the Elstree Studio bar was right next to Stages 7, 8, and 9! Ahh the good old days…

Toby Philpott: That knowledge led me to startle David Bowie on Labyrinth by arriving at the rushes with a perfect gin & tonic, only seconds after the wrap. I heard him say to the man sitting with him, “How did he DO that?”

If I had any style I might have handed it to him and gone back for another, but it had been a long day, and I figured he had runners for that kind of thing. Hey ho. It might have proved a better story…

Interview by Chris Wermeskerch and David Delgado.

And that's just Part 1! Check in later this week for Part 2 of our interview featuring John Coppinger, Dave Barclay and Toby Philpott! We'd like to thank John, Dave, Toby and Mike for taking the time to share all these details with us. 

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