Neal Scanlan is the creature shop head and concept designer on Star Wars: The Last Jedi, just as he has been on Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and will be on Solo: A Star Wars Story and Episode IX. Scanlan’s role in the resurgent Star Wars franchise has been to design and bring to life — with the combined efforts of hundreds of craftspeople and artists — all the incredible creatures you see in these movies. Working with director Rian Johnson on The Last Jedi, he has been behind the creation of the porgs, the crystal foxes and so many other amazing and alien forms of life.
Since his days at Jim Henson’s Creature Shop — where he won an Oscar for Babe — Scanlan has been supervising special makeup and creature effects on both film and TV projects such as The Golden Compass, Gulliver’s Travels, Prometheus and the upcoming Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom. But Star Wars sits astride them all, both in its scope and the intricacy of its world and creature-building. We spoke with Scanlan about working with Johnson, what a “day at the office” is like, and more when we sat down with him in Los Angeles.
Den of Geek: What’s your goal every time when you start work on a new Star Wars film?
Neal Scanlan: The first thing that is paramount in the role that I play is to try to get to know the director creatively. Everyone’s going to be different. Everybody sees the world differently. All I am, at the end of the day, is a conduit between the director’s vision and realizing that vision. I’m there to try and listen and interpret as precisely and as accurately as possible their vision, in this case Rian’s vision, for the movie. The first thing is it’s really a kind of creative sort of friendship of just talking, listening, passing that information down the line and sort of returning back with suggestions that hopefully are close to a good interpretation of what I’m hearing.
The joy of working with Rian, in this particular case, was that he had the movie in his head already. It was there, in every single sense of the word, with a clarity I have not yet come across before. You could ask Rian specifically about a cut in a sequence and he would already know where that was. That made our lives very much clearer from the start. We got off to a flying start with Rian.
All directors have a sense of the visual, but I’m guessing some directors are more visually oriented than others in that they do have an idea of what they want things like alien creatures to look like.
Others may actually maybe lean on you a bit more to give them something, but I’m going to guess that Rian has some pretty clear ideas of what he wants.
Yeah. It’s a split thing really. There are certain characters: the porgs, the crystal foxes, Rian had spent a long time thinking about it, although he couldn’t draw them for us, in that sense of the word. I think he already knew in his heart, he would know it when he saw it. There were other times or other places where he just would say, “Go for it.” It’s great. Some of it is kind of almost like “Yes, this is absolutely a sense of assisting the director and helping him get to this final conclusion for this vision for a particular character.” Other times it’s like, “What do you think?” And we’d do like 500 designs and there’d be an X Factor-style judging by Rian.
What’s a “day at the office,” quote unquote, like for you?
In the early days it’s very much, as I say, really just talking with the director and then just talking with the concept guys. There’s a team of five or six of us and we’ll just talk stuff and get excited about stuff. Go have a game of bar football or whatever, just to clear the head. It’s very kind of free-spirited and really just about trying to sort of free up the imagination.
Obviously the pressure begins to build once you start to sort of get close to what we call pre-production, which is we’re now so many weeks out from shooting. At that point, we’re starting to sort of lean more heavily on not only ourselves, but more heavily on Rian, say in this case, to make those initial decisions because we’re starting to get ready to construct and build them.
As the designs become more fact and more grounded and finalized, then the team starts to grow. The guys and girls come in and we look at the 2-D designs. We start to create them as 3-D, full-sized sculptures. At that time we’re also having the discussions with several head of departments about how we’re going to bring that character to life. Is it a person in a suit? Is it fully animatronic? Is it a rod puppet? Those sort of decisions start happening, we go to the sculpture stage, which goes through an approval with Rian, a visual approval. Now he’s seeing this things for the first time at the scale they’re going to appear in the movie and can actually get a kind of lens on it in his own way.
Then we go through a manufacturing process. Now it’s crisis management. Now you’ve got 100, 200 people working for you, you’ve got a deadline to meet, things are going wrong, things are going right, there are snap decisions to be made and it’s my job, literally, just to go round and round and round all day…I liken it to sort of almost being the bus driver. I’ve got this great group of people. My job is to make sure we don’t take a wrong turn somewhere. I trust them implicitly. They’re brilliant. They’re wonderful. They’re fantastic. But occasionally, everyone gets a little binocular vision and I just got to make sure and nudge everybody and we get them back.
We go through the build process. They’re painted and finalized and made beautiful. Then we go into what we call kind of “the rehearsals.” This is where the performers join us. These are the people that get inside the costumes, or the people that are going to be the rod operators on the outside, or the people who control the electronics.
We put on a theater show for Rian, effectively. We have our characters come on and they all move in their own individual way. Rian and a few other people come in and we put the show on. Hopefully, that then means that: One, it gives him thinking time. Two, he sees all of this for real, for the first time. It’s not necessarily a shock or an affront upon him when he first sees them. Hopefully he then begins to see them not as animatronics or as puppets or as anything else, but just part of his cast. When we get to the day of the shoot and he walks into the set, he’s not sitting there stressing about the individual motion or anything. He’s just looking at the scene and going, “Okay, this is what happens in this scene,” and we’re looking after all of those things. It’s trying to take the visual effects out of the visual effects so that they’re not particularly special in any way, but they’re just part of the movie making process.
What would you say the ratio is of practical to digital effects overall on Last Jedi?
It’s tough to say because digital plays enormous role in the movie across the board. It’s outstanding, if you really think about it, how many backgrounds and how many enhancements and things. But if you look at the creatures, I would say you’re ending up pretty well with I would say is an average of 50/50 mix.
The goal always is to start practical. Everything in a Star Wars world, if you could do it, would be practical because that’s what makes Star Wars so real and tangible and touching and things. Of course, we have limitations, so what happens is we start practically, we work the sequences out obviously with Rian. There are limitations, of course, to the practical technology. We’re always relying on CG to remove a few rods here and there. We’re best of friends for that reason alone. But, no, it’s great.
Then you look and say, “This little porgs going to take off and fly over to there.” Well, we know we can’t fly over to there, so we initiate the takeoff. Then guys at ILM come in and do the digital version of that. Maybe on a character like a porg, I would say it was probably more 75% practical. But then you have other creatures that are going to be 95% digital and 5% practical. It’s difficult to say what an overall average is, but the effect itself often suggests very early on how much will fall into one.
There’s a middle ground as well, which is neither fully digital, neither fully practical. I think that will help very much in the future to keep the effects fresh, and a bit smarter. People will begin to think, “I’m not quite sure how they did that,” and that’s because, hopefully, we’re beginning to mix it up a little bit and keep it all fresh and vibrant. It’s a must. We must do that, I think, in order to keep visual effects, as they say, “special.” Otherwise, they’re going to become a little too easy to spot.
As you were finishing up The Last Jedi, you were also working on the Han Solo movie.
Are you also overlapping into Episode IX? Is it one continual loop and do things cross over?
Yeah. It starts perfectly and becomes very imperfect very quickly. Generally, what has happened is all of the movies are overlapping. But it’s fine because you’re normally at the tail end of production before the next production starts to be thought about. As I say, that early process is really more about sort of finding the feet, finding your way forward with the director and then, generally, the film finding its feet.
Occasionally we find ourselves — like the latter part of last year, we were actually working on four Star Wars movies at the same time. We were finishing up some parts of this. We were finishing some extended photography on another. It can get a little hectic, but it has a kind of natural wave with its highs and its lows.
We’re all about to take a month’s sabbatical, over the Christmas holiday break, in readiness for J.J. (Abrams) and the start of work on Episode IX. We’ll make sure that we’ve all got our creative mojo back, and the energy back, because here comes the next one.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi is in theaters now.