Star Wars superfans may live and breathe their favorite galaxy far far away, but theyve got nothing on Neal Scanlan, the designer of all the aliens, droids and creatures scaly and otherwise in the new film, The Last Jedi, out Dec. 15.
For the Oscar-winning British filmmaker, its an enterprise thats taken over his life.
Its 24/7, Scanlan tells The Post of the five years hes worked on the space-adventure movies. We havent stopped since Force Awakens, which came out in 2015.
In fact, before we start IX, [the final film, due out in 2019], as we call it, were due to have a short, one-month hiatus, which I have to say I am very much looking forward to, just in order to really energize and, in a sense, find that sort of creative mojo.
We always try to reference in some way, shape or form, the world around us.
Scanlan also worked on Rogue One (2016) and Solo (due in May). For The Force Awakens, he designed about 100 creatures from scratch, including fan favorite BB-8, R2-D2s cute successor, and Maz Kanata, the diminutive orange bartender who was voiced by Lupita Nyongo. For The Last Jedi, that number has ballooned to more than 180 new beings, which took 18 months to create.
Its the most creatures, I think, thats ever been done for any Star Wars film so far, he says.
Regardless of the intimidating to-do list, Jedi director Rian Johnson and Scanlan and his team of 120 crewman and 80 puppeteers lovingly crafted each character, many of them actual puppets. Its that meticulousness, Scanlan says, that makes the difference between a character beloved by fans, such as C-3PO or Jabba the Hutt, and a loathed one, like Jar Jar Binks.
I have always felt that one of the great things about Star Wars, one of the vital ingredients, is that it feels somehow recognizable, Scanlan says. Although were in a galaxy far away, there are elements constantly [in] any scene that make you feel that somehow youve seen them before, or you feel comfortable with them. We always use that as our kind of mantra.
We always try to reference in some way, shape or form, the world around us, he says of creatures like the porgs or crystal foxes that audiences will recognize from their similarity to real-life animals.
What makes a Star Wars citizen iconic, Scanlan says, is its striking look. They have a very strong silhouette. Anyone can draw BB-8 now, and that shape is instantly recognizable.
In fact, thats how J.J. Abrams first conceived the little round droid.
J.J. sort of designed the initial sketch of BB-8 on a restaurant napkin, Scanlan says. And I have to say the first moment I saw it, I did marvel at the simplicity and brilliance of it. Its just incredible. Like all great design, it just gets it in the moment.
Here, Scanlan tells The Post about some of the new characters theyll meet in The Last Jedi.
In 2015s The Force Awakens, Rey (Daisy Ridley) landed on the watery, craggy planet Ahch-to, where Luke Skywalker had been hiding out. That world was filmed on Skellig Michael Island in Ireland.
Rian had visited [the island] in Ireland and, at certain times of year, puffins reside there, Scanlan says of the director. In fact, its a sanctuary, in which puffins are protected. And I think they were a great inspiration to him because they are quite mischievous. Theres something very cute about them.
Johnson directed Scanlan to combine a puffin with a seal and a pug dog, and thus the porg was born.
I honestly dont think I would be too surprised to find one nestling on the branch of a tree at the end of my garden one day, Scanlan says.
Unlike the George Lucas prequel series, which was dominated by CGI, these new sequels are filled with practical puppets, what Scanlan calls a physical prop. Computer animation is still used, but only to achieve what puppets cant.
There are many, many practical porgs in the film, says Scanlan, and Rian wrote some really kind of clever sequences, which allowed us to approach them from an effects perspective and let us say, We can create this little puppeteered moment.
How do you follow an act like the adorable BB-8 droid? Give him an evil doppelgnger.
When we had a look at how to perform BB-8 with J.J. initially, we, dare I say, used the [pull the] heartstrings approach, with the slight cocks of the head and the cheeky ways of using body language to convey his emotions, Scanlan says of the sweet soccer ball-like robot.
So when Rian said there was the idea of an evil counterpart, it really just sort of was the same thing, he says. Hes much more cold, hes less emotional.
Theres something lovely and cute about a soft-domed head that BB-8 has. Its almost like a baby, whereas a more conical head is much more military, much less engaging, Scanlan says of the new bad bot. The same with the grills, you know, the simplification of a very strong geometric grill and the technology sitting behind [them] is much more threatening than BB-8 as well.
Theres a lot of threat and a lot of badness in this droid.
For 40 years Star Wars films have been unleashing memorable creatures on audiences around the world some more popular than others.
Yoda the Vampire Slayer? George Lucas almost named the little green guy Buffy, according to StarWars.com. But Leigh Brackett, who wrote the screenplay of The Empire Strikes Back changed the characters original name to Minch Yoda, which was later shortened.
Luke Skywalkers trusty steed in 1980s Empire Strikes Back, the tauntaun, was nearly going to be a puppet with as many as three actors inside it, according to StarWars.com. But instead, designer Phil Tippett employed stop-motion technology, the same frame-by-frame style of animation used in childrens movies like Wallace and Gromit. It marked the first major movie to employ stop-motion techniques since King Kong in 1933.
They may look like fluffy teddy bears, but the Ewoks from 1983s Return of the Jedi were loosely based on the Viet Cong, George Lucas revealed in a making-of featurette on a 2004 DVD.
Jar Jar Binks was intended to be the new comic relief of the Star Wars universe when he made his debut in The Phantom Menace in 1999. But the Gungan quickly became the most hated character in the series history. The backlash actually upset the characters voice actor, Ahmed Best, who said in a Reddit interview, You put your heart and soul into something groundbreaking for two years and it gets slammed, that hurts.