Star Wars interview: John Coppinger

Catching up with the man who made Jabba the Hutt to celebrate the release of the Star Wars Complete Saga on Blu-ray

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Already an old hand at creating otherworldly beasties, animatronics engineer John Coppinger sculpted for the Natural History Museum, before moving into film with Dark Crystal, and later Return To Oz, The Fifth Element, The Mummy and Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets. He was part of the team that no only constructed Return Of The Jedi’s pus-dripping crimelord Jabba The Hutt, but also operated him, and later returned to the franchise with The Phantom Menace. Join us as Coppinger recalls three decades of crafting critters.

Can you tell me a bit about how you got involved on Return Of The Jedi?

“I was working on the end of The Dark Crystal when I heard Stuart Freeborn would be running the make-up department, the creatures, for the third Star Wars film. I put a letter through his door at the last minute so it would be on top of the pile! He gave me an interview, liked what I’d done at The Natural History Museum, and that I’d turned up with a folio, so I got the job of sculpting Jabba.  This was quite early, we first had Blue Harvest and later Revenge Of The Jedi crew shirts.”

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What can you tell me about the creation of Jabba?

“Initially there was just me, sculpting, but the team discussed methods from early on and started designs and models of possible rigs as the clay work progressed.  At first it was Bob Keen, Jez Harris, Mike Osborne and me, then Bob Bromley and Richard Padbury joined us when full construction started.

For the original concept I had just a small plaster maquette to work with, from Phil Tippett at ILM, so there was a fair bit of freedom on the design details.  This was a good thing!

“I guess the main challenge for me was the sheer size, that and considering how the creature would be moulded and then constructed. The folds over the shoulders for instance were there to allow separate arm ‘gloves’ for the performers to be put on after they got inside. And around his chin to allow full head movement and also to hide the join when we dismantled him to move from set to set. There were three setups in all – Palace to Bedchamber to Sail Barge.”

What was the biggest challenge for the crew working him?

“Just about everything! No-one, to my knowledge, had attempted such a large, complex ‘puppet’ before. Every aspect, including the foam latex material, had to be tested.  So there was a lot of R&D.  Most things we tried worked first time out, with various amounts of tweaking, but some didn’t. I tried several methods to make the belly work then someone, I’m pretty sure it was Mike, suggested an air bag – simple, light but looked like a ton of guts. So, a win/win result! I guess installing and moving him was a challenge, apart from needing so many people to operate him.  But that was the fun part in the end.

“It was difficult to work out where he was in relation to the ‘A Camera’, and where he should be looking. The inside crew only had tiny monitors and they were fed by a ‘wild’ video camera, not through the main lens. Plus operating the radio eyes meant finding somewhere on the set to get a decent view, especially on the Sail Barge which was small, narrow and very crowded. So all eyelines and movements involved a degree of guesswork.”

Do you remember your reaction to first seeing him come alive on screen?

“It was excellent, even better than we’d all hoped. Eight, even nine people had co-ordinated in real time to make the character live and it had worked. Most days I would go onto the set when it was still empty and change the batteries for the radio-controlled eyes. That was impressive to test – when the beast ‘woke up’ and looked at me! But of course some of our best moves fell by the wayside if something else wasn’t right in a shot. In those days we could go and view the previous day’s rushes, so we saw all the action before it was edited.  Even so we were happy with the takes that did make it into the final film.”

Had everything in the final design turned out as you intended it?

Pretty much, yes.  I was particularly pleased with the eyes. At one point I worried that the right eyelid drooped, then realised that as Jabba’s face was hardly symmetrical it added to his dissolute, slightly drugged look. So we didn’t fix it!  We always wanted more movement, in the tail for instance, and in the lips but in the end the sum of the parts was enough. The lips had cable controls to put in waves of movement but the cables were just too long, when the throne moved forwards, to work how I wanted.  But that was how animatronics developed – on the next project we found smoother cables and Teflon liners that we didn’t have access to for Jabba.”