Neal Scanlan
Creature Effects Supervisor (The Force Awakens)
Interview: April 2016

Mr. Scanlan, you were retired but a certain phone call got you out of your retirement and working on The Force Awakens. How did this all happen?

I received a phone call from Simon Emanuel, the Production Manager, asking if I would be willing to meet a gentleman by the name of Tommy Harper at a hotel in London! I met with Tommy and we chatted for about half an hour, it was a very friendly and general conversation and I left unsure as to whether or not they were offering me the project. It was about three weeks later that Tommy called and offered me the role of Creature Effects Supervisor and asked if I would begin looking at putting together a team and a Creature Shop at Pinewood Studios.

In many ways you’re Star Wars’ new Stuart Freeborn! Did you study the creatures he did for the original movies before starting on The Force Awakens?

Stuart Freeborn was one of the people who inspired me when I was a young man wanting to get involved with the film industry. I was obviously aware of Stuart’s work but never really appreciated just how clever an artist he was until we tried to recreate Chewbacca. Our first attempts fell somewhat short so we decided to go back and look at exactly how Stuart had created the mask and suit. It is a phenomenal piece of work, for example, Chewie’s suit was knitted by Stuart’s wife. One might think this would be a rather primitive approach, but in truth it was the perfect solution as it gives a weight and fit to Peter Mayhew that cannot be achieved with any other fabrics, such as lycra. The mask was also beautifully made, in that Stuart approached it as a make up artist would rather than an engineer. It almost fit like a prosthetic and had very soft mechanics that allowed Peter to operate the jaw.

Your team designed Rey’s speeder. A lot has been said about this vehicle. Could you tell where the inspiration came from?

Rey’s speeder was designed by one of my concept artists Jake Lunt-Davies. I remember wondering around the studios with Jake, looking at all the old SFX gear and tractors etc as we wanted the speeder to feel almost agricultural, a cross between an old V8 Chevy/ Bentley and a piece of farm equipment.

The character Constable Zuvio (who has his own action figure and book) was created by you and your workshop. However, he doesn’t appear in the movie and there aren’t deleted scenes with him on the Blu-Ray. Where there scenes filmed with him and why was it all cut?

Constable Zuvio and several other alien characters appeared in the Jakku market place and these sequences were filmed. However, in the final edit, in order to tell the story, and meet the run time, he was unfortunately in one of the scenes that was deleted.

According to a lot of people your biggest achievement in the movie is BB-8. You had to fine tune him, like deciding where to put a lens on his head. How did you approach this task? Since he’s main cast and featured in a lot of promotional stuff it was important that it was perfect.

BB-8 was a huge challenge, the original design came from a sketch that JJ had done on a napkin, a little round ball with a half sphere on top. ILM, in pre production, had worked this design to a point that was familiar to the BB-8 in the movie. But JJ asked if we could spend time refining, not only BB-8’s head, but the panels, graphics, lights etc. Jake did numerous sketches, each with subtle changes and over a period of time we fine tuned the design until we were happy. We then modelled BB-8 in maya and produced very high end photorealistic renditions in different environments and under varying lighting scenarios. We did this in order to build our confidence that the design was correct before we engineered the BB-8 you see in the film.

You must have a favorite creature and droid.

My favourite creature is the large beast at the watering-hole in Jakku. I am particularly proud of this creature because of our essentially ‘low-tech’ approach. I showed Vanessa Bastyan, our Head of Fabrication, a simple wooden animal kit that consisted of many profiles slotted together and thought this might be a way of building a very large creature that could be physically performed rather than mechanically operated with electric motors or hydraulics. Vanessa did an incredible job of taking this idea and turning it into reality. The final creature consisted of those very similar profiles covered in a tailored latex skin. There was very little that we sculpted and moulded, so this creature was constructed from the ground up. Quite a novel approach I think!
My favourite droid is a tiny little sand droid that drives through one shot. This droid was made by Steve Wright, one of our Animatronic Designers, in his lunch time. It was never designed, or asked for, but I showed it to JJ and he loved it – so he put it in the movie!

What was the hardest thing you experienced while working on The Force Awakens, and what are you most proud of?

The hardest thing we experienced on The Force Awakens was the sheer volume of work, as everything we made, we also designed. It was a very organic process, but all in all we made over 110 creatures and droids in less than 20 weeks. The thing I am most proud of is that I think we reintroduced to a lot of the crew on the film, JJ and Kathleen Kennedy included, the positive aspects that can come from filming Creature Effects practically.

What is your opinion of the movie? Did you like it, and were you satisfied with the result of your work or are there things you would like to have changed?

I absolutely adored the movie, I have seen it over eight times at the cinema in all its different formats. Although you are never totally satisfied with your work, I am however very proud of the contribution that we made. If there was anything I would change, it would be that our creatures would be in it for longer!

You are also involved with Rogue One and Episode VIII. Will you work on the other future Star Wars movies as well? And could you give a tiny bit of information of what we can expect creature-wise in Rogue One and VIII?

Yes you are correct. We have finished filming Rogue One and are presently filming Episode VIII, and I very much wish to continue working on all the upcoming Star Wars movies. Although I can’t give details, each director brings with them their unique way of seeing the world of Star Wars and it is me and my team’s responsibility to help realise their vision. I think you will see, as the films unfold, that the Creatures and Droids will become more sophisticated, even bigger and better!

My last question: what was the funniest thing that happened while working on The Force Awakens?

I remember being in Abu Dhabi, in the heat of the desert and thought it would be a good idea to apply honey to the large beast in order to attract the local flies. Indeed the flies were attracted, however not to the beast, but to me and I spent the rest of the day fighting off swarms of very small, but very persistent sand flies.

I’d like to thank you for this interview and your fantastic work on The Force Awakens and I am looking forward to see your new creations in Rogue One and Episode VIII!