IT’S NOT WISE TO UPSET A WOOKIEE. THE SPECIAL EFFECTS SHOP FOUNDED BY THE STOP-MOTION MASTER PHIL TIPPETT DELVES INTO A HOLOCHESS MATCH MORE THAN 40 YEARS IN THE MAKING.
As it turns out, the scene wasn’t supposed to play out quite in this way. Conceived as a way to pay tribute to the original stop-motion creatures that were created by Phil Tippett and Jon Berg for the first holochess match aboard the Millennium Falcon in A New Hope, the Solo: A Star Wars Story script called for the resurrection of the complete 10-piece set, based on the original models, says Tippett Studio’s Chris Morley, the VFX supervisor for Solo.
When Morley saw Joonas Suotamo’s performance (and the unintended effect his mighty acting had on the table) he decided his team should add the special effects to obliterate the two pieces on film, bringing the story of the complete holochess set to a conclusion on screen. “He slammed it down with such force it busted two of the little plastic buttons. It’s total serendipity that two of the glowing lights got busted and two of the lost chess pieces were on that board at that moment,” Morley says. He knew what he had to do. “Oh, it’s obvious, they have to glitch!”
Morley recently sat down with StarWars.com to talk about how the tiny puppets from the first Star Wars film influenced the newest set incarnation and why stop-motion is still an essential part of filmmaking today.
‘Waiting in the wings’
It can be said that Tippett, a special effects icon, puts himself into his work, with more than four decades in the field helping to design and shape the movements of stop motion creatures. His namesake studio in Berkeley, California, is brimming with treasures and trophies. Although absent during the interview, Tippett remains in spirit, his head poking up through the snowy terrain on Hoth in a behind-the-scenes photo of him puppeteering a tauntaun for The Empire Strikes Back.
And his presence is still felt in the menagerie on the Millennium Falcon’s dejarik table. After designing and animating the stop-motion creatures for the 1977 production, the props were posed as a trophy and gifted to George Lucas, Morley says. For a time, the puppets sat on the creator’s desk.
In 2015, Tippett Studio was called in to recreate the eight creatures for a scene in The Force Awakens, in which the game pieces flicker to life as Finn accidentally rests his arm on the table. “Phil remembered giving the gift to George,” Morley says, but the modern-day crew at the special effects studio was tasked with tracking them down inside the Lucasfilm Archives at Skywalker Ranch. Once found, they had to be scanned and refashioned. “There’s no touching these little puppets because they were made of foam and latex and after 30-some odd years, if you were to move the arm …it would just crumble,” Morley says.
Updating the puppets to a more durable silicone design, Tippett’s fabricators used some of Tippett’s real beard hair and locks from his daughter, Samantha, to add a tuft along the spine of the hulking puppet whose behind-the-scenes nickname is simply Mr. Big.
“These new silicone puppets, they move a little better and there’s more detail in them, and they’ll probably last a lot longer than the rest of us,” Morley jokes. So when the visual effects company was called upon again during the production for Solo: A Star Wars Story, “we had those guys waiting in the wings.”
A holochess mystery
This time, they decided to create two new pieces for Lando’s pristine holochess set, using the two remaining original sculptures intended for the game’s debut in A New Hope. The whole process took about three months, capturing 24 incremental moves for each second of footage.
“We had already been kicking around the idea of if we ever get to do the chess set again, there’s those two old characters that never made it into the scene,” Morley says, essentially rescuing Tippett’s complete original set from the dustbin of time.
Tippett himself had lost track of the two cast-off creatures. “This was long before Solo even came around,” Morley says. After seeing them in behind-the-scenes photos, Morley and his team asked about the puppets and where they had ended up. Tippett wasn’t sure. But during a regular lunch date with Dennis Muren, he asked his longtime friend and collaborator if he could recall. “And he was like ‘yeah, I have them. They’re in my cabinet,’” Morley recounts.
Nicknamed Bulb and Scrimp by the production crew, the puppets were in pristine condition and digitally scanned for later use. “You still wouldn’t touch them because they break,” Morley says.
When the team got the chance to work on Solo, they knew their day had come. “Because Solo took place before A New Hope and it was still Lando’s ship, it was super slick,” Morley says. “In Solo, the Millennium Falcon is new and clean, much different from the grimy, heavily modified version we see in the later years of its service.
“He kept everything super clean.” Morley and his team reasoned that, like a new board game just unsealed from its package, his holochess would also have all its pieces. “Everything’s in working order. He really takes care of this ship. This is the perfect opportunity.”
A happy accident
First, they had to do some surgery on the puppets from The Force Awakens. “They had been bent so many times for the poses that they had grown weak in the joints and broken,” Morley says, the wire armatures completely destroyed in the process. Kayte Sabicer, from the Tippett team, redid the aluminum armatures and reinforced the puppets’ joints with steel wire, slicing into the silicone and gluing it back together seamlessly.
Animators Tom Gibbons and David Lauer, himself about the same age Tippett was when he worked on A New Hope, worked on a soundstage to recreate the same classic move that Chewbacca fell for all those years ago.
After the shot was composited with the actors on set, they added the movie magic to make the two new creatures disappear. “We added a little spark and (ILM’s Rob Bredow) showed it to (director) Ron Howard who thought it was wonderful, too,” Morley says. “This really just told that story and then the story’s done. Move along, right?”
Special effects professionals are well-versed in the importance of happy accidents in the world of practical effects. “It happens all the time when we shoot,” Morley says.
Unlike its computer-generated counterpart, “when you’re dealing with physical reality, and this translates to the stop-motion animation, things start to happen that you didn’t anticipate and it makes things better…It’s not until they animate the shot one frame at a time where the things start to fill out and a funny thing happens where the characters seem to start influencing the animators a bit,” Morley adds. “Sometimes the puppet wants to move a certain way the animator didn’t initially intend…and these adjustments usually result in great and memorable moments of the animated performance.”
Utilizing traditional stop motion also made each incarnation of the holochess feel like it matched those that came before it. “They inherently had the same kind of feel because they came from the same world.”
Putting together a crew
Practical effects were what first got Morley interested in a career in filmmaking, the 40-year-old says. After discovering Star Wars and its many creatures with Return of the Jedi in the theater, a behind-the-scenes show called Movie Magicdrew him in further. “I didn’t just fall into this career,” Morley says. “I think seriously from when I was around 14 to 16 I knew that I wanted to work on films. I watched that and I would see these adults on miniature stages with models and miniature explosions and cameras and I said ‘whatever these people are doing, I want to do something like that. That would be amazing!’” In high school, an assignment on career paths led him to write a report on George Lucas and working as a special effects technician, he says. “I still have that at my parents’ house.”
But it was serendipity at work again when he landed his first job in the industry at 22 with Tippett, he believes. “I’ve been here 18 years. It’s a wonderful place to land because, of all the studios I could have gone to, this still has a bit of a practical feeling…I am getting to fill that childhood desire to work on practical stuff.
“I have an appreciation for practical effects,” Morley adds. “I also know when they shouldn’t be used and I’m not a purist at all, more of a pirate to where we’ve got to use whatever we’ve got to use to make the best looking image and that’s what it’s all about.”
To celebrate their achievement completing Solo, the Tippett crew made custom shirts with silhouettes of the full 10-figure set above the words “Corellian Chess Club.” It’s a fitting tribute to the team that brought Tippett’s vision for the Falcon’s dejarik critters full circle more than 40 year later.
“The stop motion crew is a pretty well oiled machine from fabrication to animation to cinematography,” Morley says. With Tippett still leading the charge as animation director, Gibbons and Lauer, “that’s three generations of stop motion animators,” he adds. “Being surrounded by so many years of experience tends to allow things to fall into the right place and keeps disasters to a minimum.”
Solo: A Star Wars Story is available now on Digital and Movies Anywhere and on Blu-ray 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, DVD, and On-Demand on September 25.
Source: Star Wars