The Star Wars franchise and Jim Henson’s merry band of muppeteers have shared a (rainbow) connection since Frank Oz uttered Yoda’s first words in The Empire Strikes Back four decades ago.
While Henson’s famed Creature Shop never officially designed or built alien critters for Lucasfilm’s far, far away galaxy, the two companies partnered in other ways, be it fan-friendly crossover cameos or George Lucas executive-producing ambitious Henson projects like Labyrinth. Future Star Wars creature guru Neal Scanlan was a fledgling F/X artist on that 1986 favorite, and he reveals to Yahoo Entertainment that he found a way to bring the Henson-Lucas connection full circle for JJ Abrams’s concluding episode of the Skywalker Saga, The Rise of Skywalker.
“I worked on Sir Didymus during Labyrinth, and I remember watching the character, Ludo, being built,” remembers Scanlan, referring to the hulking, but kind-hearted furry giant that becomes a “fwend” of Jennifer Connelly’s heroine during the course of her adventure.
After Labyrinth, Scanlan went on to work on such films as Babe, The Golden Compass and Prometheus before signing on as the “creature and special make-up effects creative supervisor” on all three entries in the Star Wars sequel trilogy, as well as the spinoffs Rogue One and Solo. “I remember Ludo coming together, and Jim seeing him. When it came time to do The Rise of Skywalker, I said, ‘Why don’t we do a version of that?’” (Henson died 30 years ago in May 1990.)
So Scanlan and his crew built the Star Wars answer to Ludo, complete with a furry exterior that would keep him warm on the icy planet of Kijimi, where Resistance heroes Rey, Finn and Poe go to extreme lengths to recover a crucial piece of information from C-3PO’s circuitry... and Poe encounters an old flame. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to easily spot this Labyrinth homage in the version of The Rise of Skywalker that’s available digitally in HD and 4K Ultra HD™ on 13 April, before it lands physically in 4K Ultra HD™, Blu-ray™, 3D Blu-ray™ and DVD on 20 April. Scanlan says that the character was part of a longer sequence on Kijimi that was cut from the finished film.
“To my knowledge, he didn’t make the movie,” Scanlan says, but allows that eagle-eyed viewers might spot him somewhere in the background. “He may be in the Kijimi bar momentarily. If he is, some fan might pick up on it, and say, ‘Oh, that looks like Ludo.’ And they’d be right! He was envisaged the same way and performed in exactly the same way, because that technology was amazing in its day and still is, in my opinion.” Yahoo Entertainment can provide a visual aid for home viewers with this exclusive image of Ludo’s Kijimi cousin.
Scanlan also isn’t ruling out the possibility that we’ll see his Ludo homage again in some future Star Wars story, maybe even the Cassian Andor series that he’s currently working on for Disney+. “We always have a little backstory of our own for every character we make — it gives us a bit of a giggle. So it would be wonderful for my crew’s work to be seen, because everyone puts so much of their life into it. My hope is that in the worlds we go to visit and the stories we hope to cover, some of these characters that we haven't seen, or have seen only a small amount, will have a legitimate role in the storytelling process. It won’t just be a case of bringing them back for the sake of bringing them back; it also happens that it's the right timeline, and the right location.”
Here are some other secrets Scanlan shared with us about his Star Wars creatures, from the different versions of C-3PO’s encounter with Babu Frik to why he expects the Cassian series to restore some of Rogue One’s grittiness to the far, far away galaxy.
C-3PO’s mind-wipe scene was filmed multiple ways
It’s the moment that had Star Wars fans preemptively tearing up before The Rise of Skywalker even hit theaters: protocol droid C-3PO (played by Anthony Daniels) bidding farewell to his friends before being taken offline for good. In the film, of course, it’s only his memory that’s erased, only to be restored before the credits roll. Scanlan says there was never a version of the film where Threepio’s mind-wipe was permanent. “From what I was given, that’s what always was going to happen.”
But Abrams did film several different versions of the memory deletion process overseen by Babu Frik — one of Scanlan’s most treasured Rise of Skywalker creations and the internet’s favourite Star Wars creature not named Baby Yoda. “We shot different versions of how that happened,” Scanlan remembers. “One of them was more mechanical where Babu knew what he was doing and was a bit more purposeful about it. In the version that we see in the film, we’re not quite sure he knows what he’s doing, and that adds to the jeopardy a little bit.”
In another version of the scene, Rey asks Babu how much the procedure will cost. “He looked at her, formed a little zero with his hand and literally went, ‘Zero,’” Scanlan remembers, with a chuckle. “It was a lovely little moment.” That exchange wound up being supplanted by one of the film’s funniest moments: Babu busting out his first “Hey heeeey!” “When that happened, we knew it was the one we had to use. It brings a smile to peoples’ faces.”
As hard as it may be to believe, there was almost a version of Threepio’s farewell that didn’t feature Daniels at all. Because the set for Babu’s shop was fairly small and crowded with actors and crew members, Abrams and Scanlan gave the actor the option of having an animatronic version of the character take his place. “We built this sort of puppet version of C-3PO for sequences where we felt like we couldn’t get Anthony in for whatever reason,” Scanlan reveals. “But in the end he said, ‘No, I want to be there and be a part of it.’” Needless to say, that was a day Daniels won’t soon forget.
Scanlan’s team created Babu Frik, but Shirley Henderson gave him life
Scanlan describes the origin of Babu Frik as one of those sought-after “home runs” where the design team nails the look of a creature on almost the first pass. “J.J. had described Babu as sort of eight-inch-tall fortune teller, so one of our designers, Ivan Manzella, went away and did some sketching. He’s also a brilliant sculptor, so he did a little maquette and we had an almost instant ‘Eureka’ moment where it was like ‘That’s Babu, isn’t it?’” But a crucial part of the character was still missing: the voice. Enter celebrated Scottish actress, Shirley Henderson, who developed and honed the character’s unique speaking patterns and puppeteered his mouth and lips on set.
Scanlan remembers hearing Henderson’s first line readings as the character — which were filled with grunts and other guttural noises — and thinking, “She’s lost her mind!” Over the course of the week-long rehearsal process, the actress gradually found a happy medium between cute and crazy.
“She began to form the sounds into words, and found a mix between legible and illegible. She found her own way to the ‘Hey hey!’ moment, and it was a delight to hear it evolve. She’s a great actor, and could see where she was going; she just had to train her voice for the performance. It’s almost like she invented a language.”
The Cassian Andor series will have a serious Empire vibe
The Empire Strikes Back didn’t just introduce Yoda into the Star Wars mythos: It also brought a level of seriousness to the franchise that sparked the imaginations of young fans like Scanlan. The F/X artist was 19 when the sequel hit cinemas in 1980 and, 36 years later, he found himself designing the droids and other creatures for another serious-minded Star Wars movie, Rogue One.
“So many people of my generation look to Empire as the strongest Star Wars film. It felt more adult in the way it took its subject matter very seriously. I was at the right age to respond to that form of storytelling, and what I love about Rogue One is that it also feels like it’s delivering that story on a more hard-edged level.”
Besides Scanlan, another key creative force from Rogue One returning for the Disney+ series that will follow Diego Luna’s Rebel officer: Tony Gilroy, who famously oversaw extensive reshoots on the Gareth Edwards-directed film.
“We’re going to see the hard edges again with Tony at the helm,” Scanlan teases. “It feels slightly less compromising and gritty in many ways. I look forward to being a part of the tapestry of that aspect of Star Wars. I mean, a droid like K-2SO is formidable! It’s like, ‘Wow, what a presence.’ I like that particular language, and it’s used very well in Rogue One.”
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker arrives digitally in HD and 4K Ultra HD™ on April 13th, two weeks before it lands physically in 4K Ultra HD™, Blu-ray™, 3D Blu-ray™ and DVD on April 20.