The man behind them Star Wars: The Force Awaken Creature Shop is the London-based special effects supremo Neal Scanlon, he’s chief of creature and droid effects for the movie.
Above we see him posing with lots of familiar faces from the film, including Rey’s head…what’s that all about?
The BBC’s Brenda Emmanus joined him at Pinewood Studios, where all six films were produced, to discover what it takes to bring these much-loved creatures to life… watch the video here
Extract from his interview with Wired Magazine
Under Scanlan’s direction, the creature workshop at Pinewood Studios built more than 100 characters for The Force Awakens, a combination of old favourites and all-new species and droids. “There are maybe 4 or 5 completely prosthetic characters. There are combinations of prosthetics and mechanic animatronic elements,” he explains. “Then you get into the physical characters — they could be as simple as somebody in costume with an animatronic head, to creatures that demanded there be 5 or 6 people inside.”
The focus on practical effects was one of Abrams’ founding ideas for the film. “The whole feeling of this was that we wanted to go back and find the DNA of the original films, A New Hope, Empire Strikes Back, and what have you,” says Scanlan. “Ralph McQuarrie, Joe Johnston, those kind of people defined a look, and it was really important from my perspective more than anybody’s to try to identify what makes a Star Wars character a Star Wars character.” Scanlan visited the LucasFilm archive to consult the designs from the original trilogy, “to get a real sense of how those original characters and puppets were made.”
The Force Awakens’ larger creatures — such as the Luggabeast already seen in pre-release stills — were inspired by techniques used in stage productions such as War Horse. “The first time I met JJ, he mentioned he’d seen War Horse and loved the idea you could bring character to life in that way,” says Scanlan. “And we said ‘well, if they can do War Horse, we can do much better than that — it’s movies, come on!”
Each creature starts out as a clay maquette, which prosthetics designers then 3-D scan. That way, engineers can simultaneously design and build the internal animatronics, and fabricate pieces using techniques like 3-D printing – a leap from the manual methods used on the original trilogy. Even characters that will end up being rendered in CGI started out in Scanlan’s workshop. “Maz [Kanata, performed by Lupita Nyong’o], for example, is a character who is completely digital. We designed her with JJ, we then sculpted and created her as a full-size real world entity, worked out how she would move, all in the real world. Then we pass that all over to digital.”
The creature shop’s creations could then be retouched digitally by visual effects artists at Industrial Light & Magic. “For instance, BB-8 was puppetteered in a few sequences,” says Scanlan. “That would never have been possible without some very clever opticals in the past. Now we can rely on digital to clean those parts away from the scene.”
“There are some things were we might say: it would be great to go in and tweak that in digital, because of the material we’re using, or we want to push the expressive range of something further than the material can allow.” They could also make CGI additions, like adding a more alien-looking eye.
The ultimate aim, he says, is not to make The Force Awakens’ practical characters look like CGI — but the opposite. “One of the things that JJ was very keen to do, and we all were keen to do, was to make the CG feel like the animatronic,” says Scanlan. “We wanted to say: OK, what are the qualities of a practical puppet, that we need to be able to put into a digital character? Great effort has been made to making those characters feel part of the real world, and to draw those textures, reflections, etc, in a way that maybe past characters haven’t.”
The combination of CGI and practical effects, he says, leads to something even greater: the endless possibilities of CGI with the tactile realness of Lucas’ used universe. “I think that the partnership will bring some really interesting new fields to CG,” he says. Although he was retired, he’s not planning to hang up his brush any time soon, and the workshop is already at work on Episode VIII and beyond. “What JJ has begun, hopefully, is the beginning of some quite exciting stuff.”