TRANSCRIPT: Making the Stop-Motion Holochess Scene in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

By Kristen Lomasney

Read Adam Savage's interview with Phil Tippett, Chuck Duke and Tom Gibbons about restoring and animating the Holochess creatures for Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

[Note: This story contains some very minor spoilers for a special effects sequence in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.]

Visitors of Tested know legendary director, producer and visual-effects pioneer Phil Tippett well. In the past we've talked to Phil about animating Robocop 2's Cain robot and making his stop-motion masterpiece Mad God. And he's shared amazing behind-the-scenes stories about his iconic creatures and props from Jurassic Park and Starship Troopers.

Phil was also instrumental in creating and animating many of the creatures in the Star Wars series, including the Millennium Falcon's Dejarik holochess, which makes a return in The Force Awakens. Adam Savage stops by Tippett Studio to talk about the restoration and animation of these classic characters.

Photo credit: Norman Chan

Adam Savage: Hey, everybody, it's Adam from Tested and of course you know that Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Episode VII, has just come out. What you might not know is that they brought in the original creature master of the first three Star Wars films, Phil Tippett, to replicate the Dejarik holochess sequence for the new Star Wars film. I am in Phil's studio right now; they are just about to start animating this sequence. So cool. We're going to talk to him about it.

Phil, it's 38 years later and the Dejarik holochess is set up in front of you. Can you talk about the process by which they brought you back into Star Wars to do this?

Phil Tippett: Well, we got a call from Kathleen Kennedy saying that they wanted to restore the original chess set from Star Wars. The problem was that the characters that we had made close to 40 years ago were in a horrible state of disintegration. We had given the original characters to George [Lucas] on a little plaque and he had it in his office for the whole time. They were made out of a rubber that disintegrates over time, turning in to something like graham crackers. What we did was go to the archive and use photogrammetry to reconstruct the characters, got them into the computer, and did an archaeological reconstruction of what the characters looked like in the computer and spit those out. Those got 3D printed and then molds were made.

Photo courtesy of Tippett Studio

Adam Savage: These aren't made of the same materials. These are not made of foam latex anymore.

Phil Tippett: That is correct. They're all made out of the silicone that holds up. They're better.

Photo courtesy of Tippett Studio

Adam Savage: So they're soft?

Phil Tippett: Yeah. They're very squishy.

Adam Savage: Oh, cool. They won't rot?

Phil Tippett: They'll last for thousands of years.

Adam Savage: What was the process by which you built and animated these figures for the original Star Wars?

Phil Tippett: George saw this particular character that I'd made when I was in my early 20s, the stop-motion character. That gave him the idea ... He was originally going to do the chess set with people in masks, but Michael Crichton had just come out with Westworld, did some holograms with people. He wanted to do something different and said, "What if we did it with stop motion?" Jon Berg and I were hired and we turned around all these other characters in a matter of a couple weeks and at the very end. In fact, they were having a wrap party at ILM at the time. Everything was pushed right to the very end.

Adam Savage: What were they made out of, the original figure?

Phil Tippett: This character was a foam latex creature that was cast from a mold and the rest were just fabricated using Sculpey, different materials, urethane foam covered with latex. They were put together really quickly in a matter of a couple of weeks. The reconstruction process ...

Adam Savage: Took a lot longer?

Phil Tippett: It took a lot longer.

Photo courtesy of Tippett Studio

Adam Savage: When you originally animated, did you get a script from George about what to do or did you get to free-form it?

Image courtesy of Tippett Studio

Phil Tippett: We set them up and George went, "This one can go here and this one can go here. This one does this and this guy does that." I was like, "Okay."

Adam Savage: Chuck, you guys had the job to animate this for the new movie. Can you describe a little bit about the process -- how you guys actually shoot them moving?

Chuck Duke: Oh, yeah.

Phil Tippett: One frame at a time.

Chuck Duke: It'll take forever. Gibby [Tom Gibbons] was on these two guys, and I did all the rest of them.

Photo credit: Norman Chan

Phil Tippett: When you're doing that, you have charts of every little piece of them that can move. Right? Their eyes, their hands, their legs.

Chuck Duke: Not really. We work out a dance between us because we danced on James and the Giant Peach a long time ago.

Adam Savage: Which is similar armature and character.

Chuck Duke: Same thing. Each person was on each side of the peach, so I was just following along.

Adam Savage: Every second this is on screen, you guys have made 24 individual movements for every single character?

Photo credit: Norman Chan

Phil Tippett: Right. For one second of film.

Adam Savage: For one second of film. Okay, talk to me about these guys.

Phil Tippett: Well, these are called surface gauges and it's a machinist tool. This technology was incorporated by Willis O'Brien I think as early as 1925 for The Lost World and definitely used in King Kong in 1933. There are frames in King Kong and Mighty Joe Young where you can see these things popping in and out. They didn't bother to just cut back or anything; they just kept going. "No one will ever see that." They're used to locate a point in space when you're animating.

Adam Savage: Once you've shot a frame, you come in with this to register where a piece of the character is.

Phil Tippett: Exactly. Then you know by just positioning it incrementally where you are in space, and it's not much. Then once you've made your move, you pull it out, take a frame, and then you put it back in and adjust the character again.

Adam Savage: There's been a lot of talk and J.J. [Abrams] has been a great advocate of bringing back some of the old -chool techniques from Star Wars. Phil, you've gone all the way from original latex armatured figures to the most modern CG. Having seen this whole arc of technology, how does it feel going back to the old-school way of doing it?

Phil Tippett: Luckily I didn't have to do it. These guys are a couple of the best stop-motion animators in the world, so it was great to be able to have the opportunity to hand it over.

Photo credit: Norman Chan

Adam Savage: Okay. Can you talk a little bit about how you guys keep global track of this stuff as it goes?

Chuck Duke: I just take one character at a time. In my head I figure out what these guys are doing and pretty much all these guys are just watching.

Photo credit: Norman Chan

Phil Tippett: Every animator has their own particular way of doings things. We're all totally different from each other.

Adam Savage: Oh really?

Phil Tippett: Yeah.

Adam Savage: Some people use charts very specifically and are very ...

Phil Tippett: Well, I think Gibby used a dummy sheet to lay out some of the very basic key poses that you wanted to go for so you have a map of where you want to go.

Adam Savage: This is like, "By from 40 I want to be here, by frame 70 I want to be here."

Tom Gibbons: Yeah. It's the only thing that keeps me organized. I have to work out everything on paper first. I spend a lot of time doing that and I act it out and I time it with a stopwatch to make sure I'm counting down the sheet at the appropriate speed so I hit my marks. That trick and when I actually come to the table after every frame -- it looks silly but I always try to come at the table the same way. After I take a frame, I actually position my body to then approach the table.

Phil Tippett: You're using all the same muscles.

Tom Gibbons: Yeah, so it's all muscle memory stuff. When I get to the puppet, I'm already situated to know where my hands are. Then I use my hands to just hold it for a minute. Then I start to make the move because I use my fingers in space to look in case I go too far. Somehow I can remember how to get myself back without having to go back to the frame grabber and check it.

Adam Savage: The frame grabber, which is the ability to look at the last frame and the current frame, isn't something you had back then.

"We called dailies the Mylanta moment because you never knew what you were going to get."

Phil Tippett: No, you had a 35 millimeter camera and you didn't know what you shot until you saw dailies the next day. We called dailies the Mylanta moment because you never knew what you were going to get. Once you know what you're doing, what the intention of the scene is and you've rehearsed it yourself and used a stopwatch or made whatever notes you need, once you dive into it, it's pretty much an improvisation. You allow yourself to at least have an intention and a starting point, but then anything can happen. You can start getting into it and go, "Oh, wow. What if it ..." It's like being an actor and being able to be free with having a more spontaneous idea rather than being locked to ...

Chuck Duke: Also the puppet will tell you where to go sometimes too because ...

Adam Savage: It will move in specific ways.

Chuck Duke: This one's a ball and socket. If you lock it up and you can't move it anymore, you got to come up with a different direction that throws everything off a little bit. That's why I always say it's a dance because you're always playing off of each other.

Adam Savage: It's fascinating to think of improvisation on such a long-time scale.

Chuck Duke: Yeah, it's very slow.

Adam Savage: Can you talk a little bit about the lighting of this?

Phil Tippett: It was engineered with Chris Morley and we got Dennis Muren to come in as a day player to come back and help reconstruct what he did way back in the day.

Adam Savage: That's cool.

Phil Tippett: Yeah, he jumped at the chance.

Adam Savage: The scenario that you guys set up, it has a lineage to the original holochess from Star Wars. Does it?

Phil Tippett: Yes. Certainly. In the original one that we did, this character comes jumping in and hops in. Then this character reaches forward and picks him up and throws him down. We elected to pick up where we left off and have this guy on the ground and this guy coming back to do another attack. We just swapped out who wins this time. This was the winner 40 years ago. This guy is the winner today.

Adam Savage: Guys, Phil, thank you so much for taking me on a little tour down memory lane and also the new Star Wars film. Thanks, guys!