Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Interview with... John Coppinger

Did you know a Wookie built Jabba The Hutt?
I didn't, until I interviewed the multi-talented and very nice John Coppinger.


Jabba The Hutt is such a revered character. What was it like to build him?

It was probably the best job I ever had in terms of new ideas for mechanisms and materials. Everything about Jabba needed to be discussed, tested and / or experimented with. The only thing that was really traditional was me doing his original sculpt in clay! Tom McLaughlin developed new foam chemistry so we could fill all the large moulds and cook all the pieces in one operation. Bob Keen and Jez Harris built radio controlled eyes and face movements and I designed artwork and forms for the eye interiors. A lot of new people had joined the film industry for 'The Dark Crystal' and Jabba was one of the most complex puppets attempted at the time, with up to nine people operating him. Animatronics in the UK really took off from there.

What process do you go through in building the Star Wars characters?

If it's a new character we start with drawings or small maquettes from the Art Department concept Designers. If we are re-making an existing character, as we did on 'Phantom Menace', we have pictures and sometimes originals from the Archives to work with. As many of them are major players, often with speaking roles, they have interact with other actors. So they need to be more subtle than just monsters or aliens and how they 'live' that much more realistic. There's discussion about what they have to do, how they must move and speak, and the mechanisms start from there. So from sculpting to casting in foam latex or silicone rubber there's a 'skeleton' to build, mechanisms to fit into it, possibly fur or hair to be applied to the skin, costume and finally rehearsals.

What influence did you draw on for Jabba The Hutt?

As a starter I had a small plaster maquette that was made by Phil Tippett at ILM. I used that to sculpt the basic form of the beast. Then we looked at amphibians, snakes, slugs and various creatures to decide how he would look and move in detail. His tail moved more like an elephant's trunk than a snake and was probably the most difficult mechanism to design and build.

People love the Wookies. What do you think is their appeal?

I guess they represent the original Wild Man, with a touch of the Hero thrown in! Or maybe it's your favourite hound, man's best friend, that's grown up and learned to speak. They are certainly my favourite characters and one of my best days in films was being on set as Senator Yarua.

How does someone become a builder in film productions?

That's always a difficult question. The best assessment I've read is on Cliff Wallace's 'Creature Effects' site - http://www.creature-effects.com/section149812.html and I'd recommend anyone wanting to work on films to read his advice there.

You have a distinct style. How has this changed over the years?

Hopefully not too much! I guess it was mainly influenced by working at the Natural History Museum and working out how fossil animals, particularly dinosaurs, might have looked. I've always believed form was much more important than detail for film creatures - The camera is usually moving round the 'horizons' of a body so the volumes and shapes need to be right from every possible angle. Of course the details of a face and the eyes and teeth are also very important for the close-ups.

What are you currently working on, and is it Star Wars related?

I'm mostly making props and demonstrations for the Royal Institution christmas lectures and similar (some models for Deafness Reseach for instance) so I'm back to my old interest in using Art to demonstrate Science. I'm also doing some portrait sculpts and getting back into drawing.

Do you have a production/event/charity you would like to bring to our attention?

Thank you for that - I've been invited to Celebration V, in Florida this August, so I'm looking forward to that happening. And the main charity I support is the 'Tibet Society'.

This closes up my Star Wars related interviews for the moment. I loved each and every interview I gave, and the people involved have been brilliant.
Being the last Star Wars related interview, I felt discussing Jabba and the Wookies was a sure fire blaze to go out on.

As always I'm very interested in knowing what you think of all these blogs.
I have a few more interviews to put up, and trust me, they're doozies!

It's 11pm though, and I'm off to bed now.
What did you think of this interview? Please comment, or email me directly at mgbouw@yahoo.com.au
Until next time!

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