Star Wars’ Master of Puppets: Neal Scanlan Explains When Not to Use CG, and Why Image

For three sequels and two spin-offs, Neal Scanlan has been the creature creator for the Star Wars universe. And he’s not done yet–once the virus-mandated hiatus is over, he’ll be heading back to the saga via the Cassian Andor Disney+ series (he has not been involved in The Mandalorian). In the meantime, there’s a Rise of Skywalker Blu-ray to promote. With the closure it brings to the main saga, Scanlan can now look back on his entire Disney-Lucasfilm journey.

“On The Force Awakens, all of us—J.J. [Abrams], Kathleen [Kennedy], myself, everybody in production design, all the way through props–everybody–we were all trying to find that beat,” he says. “We all tried to sort of get our head inside of George [Lucas] ‘s world, about what really makes a Star Wars film unique, and what’s special about a Star Wars film. Having done that through the second film, you begin to get a confidence.” By the time they were two films in, the directors would look to Scanlan’s team for guidance at times, “to make sure that in a sense we are heading the right path, and that we’re keeping on the right path…I think also it helps them and helps to sometimes curtail or sometimes even push ideas firmly in another direction, in order to make them feel more part of that world.”

“…that chance to reunite and recreate the puppet and freeform with Frank, was rather extraordinary…”

That push could be useful when the saga’s new directors came in with ideas unlike any that had been seen prior. Rian Johnson, for example, devised “places like the casino, which was quite extraordinary and very different than the worlds we had visited before. Everyone’s wearing suits; you have to try and find a way of making that vision work without you feeling you’ve somehow betrayed the roots of Star Wars.” Scanlan himself would love to recreate all the vintage aliens–most recently, he got an Ithorian (Hammerhead) into Rise of Skywalker. But, he notes, “we constantly will suggest them, but again, you have to be careful. Otherwise it becomes a kind of, ‘Oh, there’s another one, there’s another one.’ Just sort of a logistic way of doing it, rather than having a good story reason to do it.”

So naturally, he was delighted when the story brought back Yoda in The Last Jedi. “Yoda had a huge impact on me as a young person,” the former Henson Creature Shop employee recalls. “I knew it was Frank Oz puppeteering it when I went to see The Empire Strikes Back, and to have that, and I’d worked with Frank Oz on Little Shop of Horrors, to have had that chance to reunite and recreate the puppet and freeform with Frank, was rather extraordinary, and just because I think Yoda is probably the most iconic puppet of all time.”

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