Star Wars Makeup

Star Wars

Creating 'Jabba the Hutt' by John Coppinger

This is the story of how I sculpted Jabba the Hutt, as part of his construction team and one of the operators on set. I was working for Stuart Freeborn on ‘Return of the Jedi’, when the film was still called ‘Revenge of the Jedi’. That was in 1981.

[The Jabba Construction Crew, clockwise from back to front left: Bob Bromley, John Coppinger, Jez Harris, Richard Padbury, Bob Keen, Mike Osborn]

Stuart had granted me an interview, during my last weeks on ‘The Dark Crystal’, promised me a job and the first thing he asked me to do when I started was to sculpt the enigmatic Jabba character.

I remember how strange and compelling that name was… Jabba the Hutt.  And how bizzarre the body design that was sent from ILM (Industrial Light & Magic) in the form of a small maquette by Phil Tippet.

It was like nothing we had seen or thought of before, a unique new character.

In the end we had at least five people operating the puppet at any one time, and sometimes as many as eight.  So when we got on set we asked the director, Richard Marquand, to talk to Jabba as a character, rather than any one of us, and the team then coordinated to achieve whatever action was wanted.

But, back to the beginning…
My first task, as a ‘clay mechanic’, was to scale up from Phil Tippetts’ maquette and work out the proportions and general form of Jabba’s body.  Then establish his character and his face, bearing in mind how that might move and be operated.

We decided very early to have two lead puppeteers, each ‘wearing’ one arm, because of Jabba’s sheer size and the weight and workload of making him move.  This solved one problem but it automatically put a unique demand on the people who would be inside.  One person would be moving the head left / right, up and down and forwards and back.

The other would be the voice of Jabba and therefore moving the jaw to synchronise his speech.  And between them they would have to move his whole upper body as well as his arms. (David Barclay and Toby Philpott became the main puppeteers of Jabba.  Consider then that the director would want them to toss a rubber frog from one hand to the other for one scene.  Their only view of outside was via small monitors, worn around their necks, so you can imagine how interesting that request was!)

Now we had a basic layout and a prototype ‘cockpit’ for the two main puppeteers.  We knew how big Jabba’s head, body and tail should be, both from scaling up and being given the size and design of his throne by the Production Designer, Norman Reynolds.

I could establish the armature, for the maximum possible size, and start creating him in clay.  He would be sitting six feet tall and fifteen feet to the tip of his tail.  This wasn’t going to be a shy or retiring character!

As Jabba’s bulk began to take shape it was time to think about details like arms, a tail  and some eyes.  I’m not sure now if it was my arms that were life-cast, one of the puppeteers’ or a pair we had lying a around in the workshop!

Whatever, I had two fibreglass arms that I could build clay onto.  This clay thickness represented the air gap we would have between the puppeteers’ arms and the foam latex arms of Jabba.  I cut a series of rounded cone shapes down to the fibreglass arms then each one was moulded and cast again.  These made cores for the final arm moulds.  A layer of clay onto these new cores became the depth of Jabba’s skin, the texture and detail was sculpted on and the outer moulds completed.

When cast in foam latex the rounded cones became inner stubs that supported Jabba’s skin on the puppeteers’ arms and allowed some air to circulate.  This only kept them cool in a relative sense…

At the same time we were discussing mechanisms, and testing prototypes, for the long moving tail.

We wanted something very dynamic, even threatening, and it soon became clear that a third person would be needed inside Jabba to operate it.

But space was very limited despite the creature’s size.  As Stuart’s workshop was full of small people being fitted out and tested as potential Ewoks the obvious answer (with hindsight) was to ask one of them to suffer for the sake of a tail.

So it was that Mike Edmonds became Jabba’s tail gunner and chief joke teller!

Even so the means for Mike to move nearly ten feet of tail clear of the floor and lash it about was the subject of much creative argument.  This, like most aspects of Jabba, was something never attempted before.

I should say here that the best thing about building Jabba, despite the long hours necessarily involved, was the frontier nature of nearly all his structure, mechanisms and materials.

For instance the size of all the foam pieces that made up his body required new ideas about moulds, mould-making materials and foam chemistry.

By now I was working on Jabba’s face and head in clay; establishing the size and shape of his mouth, nose and eyes.  And his character centred in those eyes.

At one point I remember arguing with Stuart about eye shape – He wanted large, round eyes which I felt made the creature far too frog-like when I tried them in the clay.

So, more discussion, creative arguments and the suggestion to make oval eyes with round internal pupils that could be opened and shut like giant cats’ eyes.  Another new and untried mechanism to be developed; something that always appealed to Stuarts’ inventive and exploratory mind
I did colour designs for the eyes that were later shown to George Lucas and Norman Reynolds for approval.
I worked with Jez Harris on the eye mechanisms, most of which he designed and built, while Bob Keen was sorting out servos for radio control.  I modelled the interior supports and made sculpts for foam latex inserts; so that the interior of the eye moved as the pupils opened and shut.  Also the vacuum-formed oval shells for the front of the eyes.  These were made in the studio vac-form shop.

I’m not sure if the internal movement is visible on the film but it was worth a try.  I know the weirdest thing was to put in new batteries for the eye servos first thing in the morning and then walk back to test them.

One area that gave us a lot of grief was Jabba’s belly.  It needed to be huge and disgusting; looking heavy and gross when Princess Leia was chained in front of him.  But David and Toby already had a huge foam body to move, mounted on a turntable and trampoline springs so it could twist and lean, and extra front weight would have been a real problem.

I tried bags of polystyrene beads, beans and even water.  Then someone, I think it was Mike Osborn, suggested heavy latex sheet cut and glued into air bags.

This worked really well; thin foam over a softly inflated latex bag wobbled, looked heavy but was actually very strong and light.  A real win / win solution.  We also made an air bag for Jabba’s brain the same way.

The tail had one set of cables for its’ main body and a secondary set for the tip. So it moved in a very sinuous and realistic way. Mike Osborn had the unenviable task of weaving a net, from nylon fishing line, that would support the foam latex skin on the ‘skeleton’ and allow it to flex without sagging.

Stuart had come up with the idea of moulding the tail sculpt, taking a silicone rubber cast, turning it inside out and making a new mould core from the inside. This new core now had all the sculpted details on it. This was given a clay layer, to the right skin thickness, and an outer mould was made in two pieces.

Then the foam latex tail skin was cast from the new mould, turned inside out and was free of any seam lines.

The rest becomes a bit of a blur… We moved to a new workshop, started to assemble and test all the main parts of the puppet and fitted the first skins as Tom McLaughlin, the foam technician, cast and cooked them for us.
It was a very cold winter and we were working long hours now.  We stencilled our boiler suits with a Jabba logo, and tried to fill them with hot air from the jet heater whenever we could.
When we finally installed Jabba in his throne room set he still had to be painted and finished.  I remember using gallons of xylene based paint while Toby and David were trying to stay alive inside and rehearse their movements.  
I’d done a series of colour sketches and we got this one approved.

Three of us also went to the nearest shopping centre, unshaven and probably not smelling too good, to try out iridescent powders that would make Jabba’s skin glisten.  I believe we seriously frightened the girl at the make-up counter!

Just about the last thing I designed for Jabba was a tattoo for his arm. We were advised to keep away from anything that looked like script so I came up with this anchor pattern. Then we were on set for real and it was all the excitement and tension of making the creature work on camera.

Still one of the best times of my life.  I remember thinking at the end: ‘Whatever else happens at least I’ve worked on a Star Wars film’.

So, thanks to Stuart Freeborn’s inspiration and trust, Jabba came to life in Borehamwood Studios and lives on in the memories of film fans as a real character.

©  John Coppinger

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