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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Has it amazed you how much of Jabba seems to have taken on a life of its own, both in terms of his presence in popular culture and his blueprint for an entire race?

“It certainly has!  I put a tattoo onto Jabba’s arm, as a finishing touch, when the painting on set was finished. Now if you Google ‘Jabba Tattoo’ there you’ll find yards of information about Huttese tribal markings etc! At the time we were making Jabba the fourth book in the Dune series was published – God Emperor Of Dune – and there’s a description of Leto Atreides II, almost fully transformed into a sandworm, that is remarkably similar to Jabba in his underground palace.  But it’s Jabba that sci-fi fans seem to remember best.”

Why do you think Jabba’s such an iconic character?

“He has a lot of screen time in Return Of The Jedi, a film within the film really, and his palace is like a nightclub that the audience has been allowed into by the bouncers on the door!  But the depth of his appeal is a bit of a mystery to me. It’s more than the ‘lovable rogue’ effect and more than the villain getting his comeuppance.  Maybe he’s so different, in body and style, that he provides a kind of alternate universe within Star Wars. He certainly took on a life of his own on set. The crew has often told the story of how director Richard Marquand understood when we asked him to speak to Jabba as an entity, rather than any one us. He would talk to Jabba as if the beast could actually see him!”

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How do you feel about the balance between puppetry/prosthesis and CGI?

“I think directors and producers now understand CGI as another tool in the box, to be used when appropriate. Two directors who instantly got this were Peter Jackson and Luc Besson, way back on The Fifth Element.  I think the editing of Peter Jackson’s King Kong is almost a deconstruction of CGI possibilities: ‘Here’s your next CGI extravaganza, now can we get on with the story?’

“So when it’s a useful part of the story telling CGI allows just about anything the filmmaker might want, assuming the budget can cover it, but if it becomes an end in itself it gets too much for me. There’s a whirlpool scene in one of the Pirates Of The Caribbean films that goes on far too long, just because it could be done.  There also seems to be a backlash where both audience and actors prefer at least some of the action to have an illusion of reality, rather than occurring in a blue or green void.

“I did have a chance to switch to the virtual world, as several performers/creature builders did – Dave Barclay, Mike Quinn for instance – but decided to stay in the stone age with my clay and a sharp stick! I’ve built computers and love what they do, particularly for writing in my case, but for sculpting I prefer real world materials and tools to sitting in front of a screen. Maybe it’s just my age!”

How much involvement did you have in the Anx in Episode I? The finished product looks very faithful to the concept sketch.

“I really liked the concept sketch by Doug Chiang and only made changes that translated it from drawing to 3D when I sculpted the character, for example I added details and changed the proportions slightly. I also stood in for Jerome Blake in some of the early costume fittings.  We demonstrated the basic rig to George Lucas, with me on 24″ stilts and the head another 36″ above mine, so the whole creature stood nearly 11ft tall. George realised that standing the Anx beside Yoda would need the camera to be way back, so I’m fairly sure the two Anx characters were only ever seen sitting down. And Jerome was in another character when the Pod Race audience set was filmed, so I got the chance to play Graxol Kelvyyn for that scene. That was nearly five hours in an oven, so it’s great fun for a day but I’m not sure how the performers/actors put up with it for weeks at a time!”

What was it like getting out in front of the camera as various characters?

“It was great, I’d spent a lot of time making torture rigs for performers so it seemed only fair to get a taste of the pain myself! One of my best days in filmland was being in an original Wookiee suit for the voting scene in The Phantom Menace. It’s a powerful experience being ‘inside’ such an iconic character – grown men and women turn into little children when confronted by a Wookiee. And two years ago I finally got the chance to thank Peter Mayhew for not coming over to the UK to play the part!

“Of course operating Jabba’s eyes by radio was another high spot, but getting into full prosthetic make-up is both strange and the most fun. I was Ki-Adi-Mundi for a day when Silas Carson was in another character. The other actors thought Silas was having a bad day and being rather quiet, a testament to the skill of the make-up artist Kate Murray. I was also a Priest Mummy for a day in The Mummy when the one-armed actor couldn’t get to the studio – I had to remind SFX that I’d rather they didn’t try blowing my right arm off.  Even so they were bouncing gold bars – rubber grade – off us as the chamber was blown up!

What do you think the secret is to creating a truly alien alien?

“Truly alien is probably impossible. All the creatures we design are chimeras from real world experience. Look at a medieval cathedral and see what the stone-masons came up with, or into your garden pond to find the inspiration for ‘the’ Alien. I’ve researched and sculpted real species, when I worked at the Natural History Museum, that would have earned me a ‘calm down, you need a rest’ if I’d designed them for a film.”

Star Wars Complete Saga Blu-ray box set is available September 12 from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, price £67.49, and SciFiNow’s collector’s edition Star Wars issue is available now from all good newsagents and online from the Imagineshop.