STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER Exclusive Interview With Oscar-Winning Special Effects Artist Neal Scanlan

With Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker now available on home video, we were granted an exclusive opportunity to talk to Oscar-winning special effects artist Neal Scanlan to chat about his stunning work.

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With Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker now widely available on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital HD, CBM was recently granted an exclusive opportunity to get on the phone with Academy Award-winning special effects supervisor Neal Scanlan, who graciously took the time to describe the intricate process behind creating some of the film's most memorable moments. 

Among the many things we covered, he went into extensive detail on creating iconic characters like BB-8 and Babu Frik, breathing life into a massive practical effect like the Vexis snake, resurrecting the legendary Emperor Palpatine (as a clone) and finally, the emotional farewell for Carrie Fisher's General Leia.

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ROHAN:  I’m sure you’ve been asked this a million times, but would you mind briefly describing your responsibilities on Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker?

NEAL SCANLAN: Normally, I suppose, my responsibilities fall into creating and bringing to the table, the creatures, aliens, droids, all of which can be created in a whole number of ways. My responsibility is to listen to what the director, to what J.J., had in his mind and try to interpret and give to him his vision and then design them, make them, produce them, perform them as almost, hopefully, turnkeys as it were.

ROHAN: When you’re creating these extremely popular characters like BB-8 and Babu Frik, do you ever stop to think about how these characters could ultimately live on forever, etched in the minds of millions of fans across the globe?

NEAL: Well, you know, design is such an odd thing, the way you get to a design could be done in so many different ways. So, for instance, if you take something like BB-8, who was shown to me with just a simple little sketch on a napkin drawn by JJ. It was literally a ball with a kind of half-ball on top. So, in many ways, I attribute the design of BB-8 to JJ.

Then, there are other times when something may come up and the director JJ may say - for instance with D-O - that he kind of has an idea, but it isn’t concrete and you just have to go off what he tells you and go sketch ideas out. I have a team of concept guys with me and we discuss things, joke around, play around, and try to keep it fresh. Then, for like Babu, JJ will say he’s an eight-inch figure and so, you have to start thinking about “Oh, what’s that going to look like?” It’s such a collective thing and ideas and influences and all these come from so many different areas that if you kind of absorb and I think concept design is all about being a sponge and to listening to what people are saying, imagining what the scenario is thinking about what the story point is, all of those sort of things. So, you never really know, you know, that you're going to make something, a character, that people are really going to latch into.

I mean, some of the characters that we've made, for some reason, have become more favored than others and I honestly don't know why that might be. I mean some of them were obvious, they have a larger part to play in the film, but some of the background characters have also become quite favored and actually have almost become sort of characters with their own backstory through the fan base. So, it's very difficult to really know what those ingredients are. I think if we knew which design was going to work, then we’d have a smash hit every time. *laughs*

ROHAN: Another creature that I thought was very cool and I think has been underappreciated since the film’s release was the Vexis snake, which was a completely practical effect. Could you describe realizing that creature and the process behind making something so creepy but also quite cool and bringing it to screen?

NEAL: Thank you, and again, that’s one of those scenes that JJ described to us as best he could, telling us what he sort of wanted. We knew the idea of the tunnels, we it would it would be set in a sort of semi-darkness, and we sort liked the idea that there was no way out without going through this character when Rey just happens on it. You feel like you’re surrounded, there’s an atmospheric feel.

In order to do that, we create a very simple prototype that was made from effectively ventilation tubing, very large ventilation tubing and connected it to a pole arm and then, we built a little bit of set with some polystyrene and some cardboard cutouts and I said to JJ, when he came to our workshops, to work in this direction. We had to turn the lights out and we tried to be, in very modest terms, to try and create that scene that JJ had just described to us with all those practical elements that hopefully be there on the day. And, if he responds positively to that, we know that we are thinking in the right light as far as performance parameters and also the design is heading in the right direction.

We call them show-and-tells and we do it with a lot of the characters that we have in the film, whether they be one or groups of characters. We always do these things because it tells us so much about where we’re going with them and how we're going to do it, what the expectations are, what JJ's expectations are for the performance and where the emotion needed to lie. So once we knew what that was, we knew that we could pretty much build it the way we had mocked it up.

There were huge advantages of doing that because we can get people opportunities inside the body to roll around and impart movement into the body as well as for the head and then, it was really about designing the physical look, what did the face look like? For that, we did small little maquettes and then, eventually the largest sculpt. JJ would come in and we would look at it from different angles, the lighting guys and the cinematographer would come in and look at it from different angles.

There were so many things about the situation, when you see a character like that from the angle that you’re going to shoot it at, it tells you quite a lot more than when you just look at it from above or you look at it from, should we say, an uncertain perspective. It's an organic process that moves right the way through this final paint job on the day when you add in the extra flair or touches or any other thing you might need and obviously, with some things, we had Roger and the team at ILM, who were there and essentially came in and did quite a lot of over painting in certain areas. They added some vibration into the mouth and just generally took it to the next level, which is what we should be doing for today's audience. Taking the very best of all these techniques.

ROHAN: Yeah, and I think it really came out great. It’s dark in the scene, but how large was the actual creature when you were finished?

NEAL: I think it was about four-foot in diameter, it’s general body size, and about thirty-five foot long. And, then we made small sections, which were inserted inside the holes that were in the back of it. So, it felt like a worm that had sort of wrapped its way through these tunnels or actually it created a worm cast. We were able to get this feeling that although the head and neck were moving, a part that was clearly not attached to that was also moving because it was an insert section.

It was what we call fabricated, which was in order to make it that great size and quickly, we had to also make it light enough so that we could get the dynamics of it to work for our purposes. It was made by not sculpting the whole thing, but by sculpting sections that fitted together and then a team of fabricators - what we call fabricators are marvelous people - would effectively stitch and sew and glue and fix and all that and assemble it up as a sort of full-size puppet.

ROHAN: One of the biggest reveals in the movie was, of course, the return of Emperor Palpatine - well, I guess the Palpatine clone is more accurate. He’s the big villain, and he’s back.

You’re tasked with reimagining this iconic villain from the ‘80s and I know you wanted to initially make him a little more gruesome that what we see in the final product. Could you maybe describe the process and the realization you had when JJ came to you and told you for the first time that Palpatine was coming back? And, what your first thoughts were on how to reintroduce him to this new audience?

NEAL: Yeah, I mean, I think characters like Yoda and Chewie, Palpatine, for me, is kind of hallowed ground. Stuart Freeborn, his team and also Nick Dudman, who did the initial makeup effects on the Emperor, which to me was stunning in so many ways.

The medium, at the time, they were working with the foam latex, the old-age stipple and all of those things and then, I remember Nick telling me that he had a nightmare shooting that sequence because, by the end of the day, sweat is starting to cause the glue to become loose and he’s patching it back together and doing all kinds of things to try and keep it looking good.

Anyways, when we looked at that, what they did gives him that incredibly eerie, that incredible look and I just felt that the only way of recreating that was to go back and look at what they've done and actually use a lot of the materials that Nick had and use the same techniques because that connection is so important. We could’ve gotten involved with it and arrogantly thought that “Oh, we can do something better than that,” but that would be missing the point completely.

So, yes, absolutely. There were two stages to it and there was the sort of first day of school stage, the sort of hinting at what's to come and there is enough of a clue there and then, there’s the second stage, which was the full Palpatine at the end. The Emperor in the lair. We actually did that first and sort of reverse engineered back from that.

Again, we went into lots of ideas and explorations just as we did with the serpent animatronic. We did a very simple thing with Palpatine, as a clone, we looked at disembodiment, we looked at disfiguration, we looked at sort of life support, all those things. We did a few little mock-ups of things to get a sense of really just how this scene will play out and I think a lot of those are influential in the set design as well and with the concept guys. My concept guys have quite a lot of ideas of him on a kind of chair.

So, all of those things play off each other in order to get the kind of effect that we see. So, yeah, it was I think, in respect to what Nick Dudman had done on the original trilogy, and thinking about the sensitivity of how far you can take him, our original version was a bit too horrifying for children. *laughs*

ROHAN: There’s a big scene in the middle of the film with Luke and Leia where they’re seen training and fans finally get to see Leia wield a lightsaber. I imagine most of it had to be done with archive footage and a body double, but could you touch on just realizing that sequence because I felt like it’s one of the most touching moments in the movie.

NEAL: Yeah, I mean absolutely. Roger Guyett, who’s the visual effects supervisor, and ILM had already worked very hard on establishing the methodology on how to shoot Carrie and in so many ways, this was exactly the same.

The whole sequence, JJ acknowledged right from the start that there were just things we had to do on the day and he had to make the decision on the day, he had to commit to it on the day because there could be no other version of that if archival footage was to be used and so, the whole sequence was approached with that footage already there.

It was almost like these are the angles we've got, these are the parts that can be used. Roger had already established all of those things. I mean, we did look at potentially using pull over masks any of those things to help that composition, but really, it truly wasn't needed because once we broke it down and the sequence was shot in such a way that Roger knew that he could use that footage we had, then it was a case of just execution. It was done quite clinically in order to make it happen. Clinical from the perspective of a visual effect, but obviously shot with as much emotion, as much care that JJ needed to put in that moment.

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Lucasfilm and director J.J. Abrams join forces once again to take viewers on an epic journey to a galaxy far, far away with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, the riveting conclusion of the seminal Skywalker saga, where new legends will be born and the final battle for freedom is yet to come. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker opens in U.S. theaters on December 20.


Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker features:
Director: J.J. Abrams
Carrie Fisher as General Leia Organa
Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker
Adam Driver as Ben Solo/Kylo Ren
Daisy Ridley as Rey
John Boyega as Finn
Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron
Anthony Daniels as C-3PO
Naomi Ackie as Jannah
Domhnall Gleeson as General Hux
Richard E. Grant as Allegiant General Pryde
Lupita Nyong’o as Maz Kanata
Keri Russell as Zorii Bliss
Joonas Suotamo as Chewbacca
Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico
Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian
Billie Lourd as Lieutenant Connix
Brian Herring as BB-8
Jimmy Vee as R2-D2
Greg Grunberg as Temmin "Snap" Wexley
Ian McDiarmid as Palpatine/Darth Sidious


Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker arrives on Digital HD on March 17
and on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray and DVD on March 31
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