Neal Scanlan On Making the Monsters and Cuddly Critters of 'Star Wars'

We talk with the creature and special make-up effects creative supervisor about his passionate journey on 'The Rise of Skywalker.'

Rise Of Skywalker Creatures
Lucasfilm

One can learn a lot about a person by their favorite Star Wars character. If they say it’s Darth Vader, then you nod your head and offer a fist bump. They got a dark side. They appreciate some stylish leather. If a person says it’s Princess Leia, then you nod your head with a simultaneous fist pump. They take gruff from no one and refuse to wait for others to come to their rescue. If a person says it’s Amanaman, then you stop dead in your tracks and deliver your most knowing smile. They watch Star Wars with a magnifying glass, checking those corners for the raddest alien and bounty hunter designs. They’re the kids who spent their pennies scooping up all the Kenner action figures they could find, spreading love to characters who received as little as a half-second of screentime in the films.

The kids who adore Amanaman are the kids Neal Scanlan works so tirelessly to impress. As the creature and special make-up effects creative supervisor on the last five Star Wars films, as well as Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and Prometheus, Scanlan is one of several responsible for manifesting the long time ago galaxy far, far away. Point to any entity found in the Star Wars visual dictionaries, and that little critter came through his office, as well as a thousand more beasties that never saw the light of celluloid.

Scanlan is no different than the Amanaman-obsessed child. The background buddies are who he gravitates toward. Asked which creature in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is his favorite and he quickly selects a pair of cuddly rodents that few will remember from the film.

“If I was honest,” he says, “one of my most favorite — or two of my most favorites — are the most insignificant characters in the film. They’re two little ear mice briefly seen when the Millennium Falcon flies over the Jordanian desert [the filming location for the planet Pasaana]. They were designed by Louis Wilcher, one of our concept artists, and they have their eyes inside of their ears. We built them as little practical puppets, and to me, in many ways, they are just so Star Wars.”

Neal Scalan Aki Aki Screenshot

Scanlan and costume designer Michael Kaplan dressed hundreds of extras as the Aki Aki people celebrating life on Pasaana. Crafting an army of partyers consumed a great deal of his time on the film, and he is immensely proud of how that particular pride parade came together, and how the celebration awakens a newfound joy in the character of Rey (Daisy Ridley), but it’s the teeny tiny additions like the Oki-poki sand-rats that often add the most texture to a scene.

That’s not to say that when a favorite design gets the short shrift regarding screentime that it doesn’t hurt. As seen in The Skywalker Legacy, the feature-length documentary attached to the digital purchase of The Rise of Skywalker, Scanlan is on his hands and knees in the desert, brushing particles of sand from the Oki-pokis’ fur, determined to give them their glorious moment. It’s clear that he and those around him are enamored with the cuties and are maybe even hoping they’d catch on like Porg-fever. Alas, it was not meant to be.

“It’s a dual-edged sword,” says Scanlan. “One would be dishonest to say that it isn’t. We’re all so passionate about what we do, and it’s always going to be a gamble as to how much you see of any character that you make unless you know that you’re in for a specific featured sequence. We have to give it our best, because who knows? It might be on the screen a little longer, or J.J. [Abrams] may want something else to happen with it. And, yeah, sometimes you look at things, and you’re a little disappointed. That’s just natural. Every single person that’s involved with a film is vying for the same amount of extra bit of onscreen time.”

The Oki-poki may only materialize for a millisecond, but they will forever live on in the visual dictionary, or, fingers crossed, a delightful plush figure. If we Star Wars fans can be counted on for anything, it’s that our dollars determine the characters that will live forever. The extended novel and comic book canon better prepare itself for an influx of sand-rats.

Neal Scanlan On Pasaana Screenshot

Scanlan and the rest of the creators never know which characters are going to take off. Having worked from film to film with a variety of directors, who each have their different take on creature design, Scanlan knows at the start of every project the most crucial aspect is overflooding the room with ideas. Once the first script is read, an armada of artists begins to pound the pavement, and there is no ceiling to their lunacy.

“We ‘blue sky’ quite a lot at the beginning,” he says. “We try not to hold any idea back. We generate 500 designs, and we put them all up on a board. Then, let’s say J.J., as an example, comes in, and we just keep the conversation free and open, and we talk about the visuals on the board. We start selecting a few: ‘Oh, they could be in this environment. Oh, that could be that character or this character.’ It’s a selective process that slowly brings those numbers down from 500 to maybe 50 images, and those 50 images are now the strong contenders for the script elements.”

How does Scanlan know when a design fits? You simply see it when you see it. The trick is not rushing to the deadline. Stress may be high, and the money spends quickly, but the worst mistake you can do is throw something at a camera before it’s ready.

“Some characters elude you way into the process,” says Scanlan. “They’re at the end of the schedule, and we still haven’t managed to find that character, but then suddenly you go, ‘Wow! That’s what we’re looking for.’ Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o) in The Force Awakens would fit into that category. Her design came very, very late into production.”

Neal Scanlan Oki Pokis Screenshot

Scanlan gives everything to Star Wars. His time, his blood, his being. Every inch of his spirit goes into concocting the population of pop culture’s most beloved mythology. He’s not alone.

“We have a thing,” he explains, “which are these director reviews. Some of my concept artists would hit a home run, and some wouldn’t. You could feel the highs and lows of their experience, depending on whether or not one of their characters had been chosen or spoken well about. It is quite emotional in its own way.”

The beauty of Star Wars is that, due to is popularity, it can afford to publish numerous “Art of” books on top of its visual dictionaries and endless stream of action figures. The outcasts left behind when the 500 become the 50 inevitably see the light of day in those pages. Darth Vader and Princess Leia are cool, but they’ll never be the same kind of cool as Oki-pokis, Amanaman, and Maz Kanata.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.