After cutting his teeth at the famed Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, Neil Scanlan rose to be one of the big names in creature make-up and animatronic effects, working on films like Babe, Ella Enchanted, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Munich, Prometheus and… er… Kangaroo Jack.
A few years back, perhaps reading the CGI writing on the wall like contemporary Rick Baker, Scanlan announced he was closing up shop and moving on to other interests. Of course, a phone call from LucasFilm and an offer to work on the new Star Wars film would be enough to give any movie craftsperson pause, and JJ Abrams’ practical effects-led vision was one of the elements that made The Force Awakens so great.
Scanlan spoke to Moviehole from his native UK about his life and times, BB-8 and just how much digital is in the film.
Was there a process of interviews and auditions much like actors go through, or were you approached?
I had actually retired from the industry and was pursuing, should I say, other interests. I received a phone call out of the blue from [exec producer] Tommy Harper. I wasn’t sure what the project was. I was asked if I’d be willing to meet with Tommy which I did. We had a lovely discussion about the project. I didn’t know when I left talking to Tommy that I had the job. It was a very informal discussion. In fact, when I left I even said to Tommy if he was looking for people to do my job, in a sense, that I’d be more than happy to give other recommendations and help him try to find this person. I didn’t assume that I had the job.
I had to wait for a few weeks before Tommy called me back. After a few weeks Tommy called back and said that he would like to offer me the job, would I be interested in taking the job. Of course I was and that was how I found out. I had a nerve-wracking couple of weeks where I was feeling that other people might be being spoken to. There was lots of rumors. We all knew that Star Wars was coming to the UK. Nobody really knew who had got it. For a period of time I was aware that possibly some of my rivals might be being spoken to. I just kept my fingers crossed and hoped it would be me.
Then how much of what appears on screen of BB-8 is CGI versus puppetry?
I think I spoke to Roger Guyett about this at one point. I think it’s probably true to say that 75 percent of what’s on the screen is practical and 25 percent is digital. I think I find it difficult, to be honest, to know exactly when it is practical or digital. Sometimes it’s more obvious. For instance, there’s a sequence where BB-8 fires out the little strings that hold him in position inside the Millennium Falcon. From a technical aspect, that’s very difficult for us to create. That’s where digital effects are really fantastic.
There are other times where maybe there were so many things happening in the frame that it’s more expedient and more economical viable to actually say ‘let’s put a digital version in there’. There are times he’s digital because it’s very difficult to practically and economically do it that way. I think in all cases they use [puppeteer] Brian Herring’s performance as a real-world reference.
Do you know if the thumbs up lighter gag was initially in the script, or was that improvised?
I actually wasn’t aware of it. Brian, who was the performer, was aware of it. I’m not sure that we were aware that BB-8 did the return thumbs up. We knew obviously that when John does the thumbs up that Brian needed to respond to that moment. None of us ever were absolutely sure what the reaction from BB-8 was other than what we had shot from the day. The first time I saw that was the first time I saw the film. It’s just the most endearing thing possible isn’t it? It’s just incredible.
There are a huge number of creature effects in Star Wars. When a job gets that big, how hands-on are you? Do you ever find yourself as an operations manager while the staff does all the ‘cool stuff’ and is that frustrating to you at times?
No, never. My day begins, and I just go round and round and round and round. I never end up as an operationist person. I have a fantastic team in the office. It’s all about communication. It’s all about information and it’s all about talking about how to do things. My job is to hold everybody together. The way to do that is to be there. I get down and dirty with everybody. I go from one department to another. I’m carrying that information from one department to another. When there’s a problem I bring everyone together and then we all go back to our roles.
Absolutely the only way to do a job and the bigger the job gets the more you have to remain at grass roots level and be talking to your crew, being there on the desk with them and problem-solving with them. Ultimately my crew doesn’t know exactly what any one character has to do. I’m the only person that’s had that discussion with JJ. I’m the person that ultimately has to deliver. It’s important I remain absolutely integral to that fabric so that what we’re building is the right thing to build and we’re building it the way that he wants it to be built. I never would allow myself to end up just in a sense confined to the office. It’s part of my job, but it’s just part of it.
After working on so many influential movies with so many great directors, you must have learned enough to design and direct a great movie yourself. Are there any plans or aspirations to move in that direction?
I have enjoyed in my time some second-unit work where I’ve been handed sequences to direct and I’ve enjoyed every moment of it. However, having worked with all of these incredible people, I have to tip my hat to them. It’s an extraordinary person that can hold an entire movie in their minds, all the emotion and storytelling. As much as I would love to do that I think I would need so much preparation time in order to make it a success I’m not sure that anybody would employ me.
In an ideal world, I would love to do it, but whether I actually have that ability to be able to think on the hoof in the way that these guys do, I’m not so sure yet. I would love to give it a try, put it that way.
Is it more important to think like a storyteller or a technician or a little bit of both?
I think it’s both. What’s very, very important is not to be one or the other. The real trick is to think of it as theater. I like to feel that if we were asked we could do this to a live audience. That’s the whole thing about practical faces that we should be able to show that to the world, to an audience. The main thrust is to be able to create a performable, believable character you can then take onto a set that can be directed.
One has to keep a keen eye on the technology and one has to make sure that you don’t over-specify and get lost in this technological frenzy. At the same time, one has to be careful you don’t underestimate what’s going to be required. It’s a delicate balance of using new technology with old traditional techniques and at the same time being very, very aware that ultimately it’s all about the performance. It’s all about the theater troupe of the moment and bringing these characters to life for the directors so that he can treat them not as special effects, but as part of the cast, and of another person who is playing a role in his storytelling.
What did you learn at Jim Henson’s Creature Shop that made you think you’d be very successful in your own operation?
I think what happened with my time at the Creature Shop was that I was lucky to be there as I often said, as a formative member. There was no Creature Shop initially. When Jim had finished shooting Labyrinth, he felt that it would be great to put together a more permanent facility that could live out his vision for the future. Unfortunately we lost Jim at a very early age as everybody knows.
I had the great opportunity of making things on the benches, we say, and going through every single process. I was lucky to be able to try my hand at all these different processes. Eventually when we decided that we should then start to take on projects in a supervisory role, I had a lot of systems to protect me and support me when I went solo for the first time taking on a project (which was Babe). I have a huge fondness of my time at the Creature Shop. It was really where I’d say I cut my teeth and I learned my trade.
When I finally left them, I left with a heavy heart. I left them only because in a sense you must move on with life and the time had come. For a period of time we enjoyed a fantastic relationship. I learned my craft at the Creature Shop in all senses of the word – how to build characters and create characters, talking to directors and understanding the movie-making process.
Would anything aside from Star Wars have convinced you to come back?
No, not really. I think I would have been hard, I can’t think of a project that would have convinced me to do that. Tommy was a very friendly and a very special person. His passion was clearly there. On meeting JJ, I also walked away with the same feeling that it was an incredible privilege to have these people. I think you learn a lot by talking to somebody and you get a sense of what it must be like to work with them.