#05

Winter2015

Jabba Jabba Hey!

Monstrous alien slug creature found in film studio!

t was 1981; a freezing day in the satellite town of Borehamwood, north of London, and something strange was coming to life. Deep in a disused kitchen, in the bowels of Elstree film studios, a director’s wildest dream was taking shape.

Alien beyond belief, and of unknown origin, the creature had plunged its small team of creators into a wormhole of possibilities. What on earth or elsewhere was it and what did it want? Even its name made no sense. So how could they birth this thing called a ‘Hutt’ into slimy life? But it was too late to turn away; driven by deadly ambition they were condemned to slave until Jabba was made real.

This was the third film in the series and Star Wars had become a phenomenon, so when I approached legendary make-up artist, Stuart Freeborn, for a job it was ambition that drove me. I’d only worked on the one film so far.

Jim Henson and Frank Oz had recruited a whole new cadre of makers into the conservative realms of British film for their dark fantasy ‘The Dark Crystal’, and taken Walt Disney’s ‘Imagineering’ to describe a new blend of puppeteering, make-up effects and creature design that created its characters.

For a brief golden age new materials and mechanisms were researched and developed, so monsters and alien characters might walk, talk and interact with human actors in real time. And in the case of Jabba, possibly the largest puppet ever built, just about everything was new or heavily modified, from his skin to his stare.

 

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The first, most obvious complication was the number of people needed for his performance on set. We realised very early on that he was too big for one performer to operate; moving his body and lip syncing his dialogue would need at least two. Then there was his tail, his facial expressions and the all important eye contact.

So two primary puppeteers sat side by side, one for each arm, and a third curled beside and below them: David Barclay for right arm and lip syncing, Toby Philpott for left arm, head movement and tongue, and Mike Edmonds for the tail. Union rules of the time required anyone inside a ‘costume’ to be Equity card holders, which left the problem of who would operate the eye movements and facial expressions. David, Toby and Mike had more than enough to do without trying to ‘see where they were going’ and there was no more room inside.

Technology, plus a slight bending of the rules, allowed the eyes and expressions to be performed by two external ‘technicians’, using radio control, and the main men were freed to concentrate on laughing, talking, tail thrashing and hitting people! Operators below the set worked cables for lip movements, bladders for cheek puffing, bellows for brain pulsing and cigars for Jabba’s hookah. There were eight of us co-ordinating the performance for some shots, which is why we asked the Director to avoid confusion and address his requests directly to Jabba!

From ice-planet Elstree in late 1981 through to a re-freeze in early 1982 Jabba was born in the kitchen and grown up in a dusty shed. Once he’d graduated onto stage he could be dressed in colour, iridescent make-up and slime and begin to learn his moves and his lines. Then it was ‘lights, camera, action!’ and our Hutt was the star of an endless, smoky party: Bee smoke for atmosphere, cameras running film stock and the anxious wait for ‘rushes’ each morning to see how our monstrous charge had performed. The technology was changing rapidly though: The inside performers had some idea of the outer action from small, grainy monitors fed from a video camera set alongside ‘A’ Camera, and radio earpieces helped all of Jabba’s carers to create a unified character.

From today’s perspective the film may seem limited, Jabba couldn’t get off his throne and slither around for instance, but luckily he wasn’t required to. The script had already pushed the boundaries of what was possible in the early 1980s and we all felt we were working on a frontier of experimentation in materials and mechanisms; inspired by ‘eureka!’ moments when we found solutions or designs that worked.

 

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Socially and politically the film industry was changing too, from a ‘museum of social attitudes’ where men worked in closed shops for the various trades (plaster, carpentry, rigging etc.) and women were restricted to make-up, costume and the offices. An industry where unions dictated and nepotism ruled; operating in ‘four wall’ studios where all services were provided in-house.

There had always been powerful women in production and design but by the late 1990s men and women were sharing benches in the construction shops and equal opportunity was on its way. Maybe those messages were in the new films, it would be good to think so, but either way the endemic sexism and racialism within the studios began to dissipate as the industry went through its latest renaissance.

Now the screen product has changed beyond recognition; offering images and spectacle that would have been utterly impossible to create in the 1980s. There’s an argument that stories and characters are being swamped by a cornucopia of computer effects but I believe producers, directors and editors are learning to select the best tools to express their visions, as they always have done.

Even so, back then was a fine time to be in the business of making monsters. And helping them come to life on a working film set was an exciting, creative, sometimes Frankenstein-like experience. One memory: Testing Jabba’s radio eyes, while alone on the set, and being thoroughly startled when he ‘woke up’ and stared at me!

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John Coppinger is a freelance special effects model maker, animatronic designer and sculpter famous for his work on Star Wars, Walking with Dinosaurs and Harry Potter.