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The Creatures Of Episode I Take Form
Star Wars: Episode I has presented Creature Effects Supervisor Nick Dudman and his team with a daunting array of challenges in the realm of creating convincing alien characters. The broad and unusual range of life forms populating the worlds of Episode I begin their lives as sketches. In sketches, practicalities do not operate, and the artist is free to create according to imagination. But to make it off the sketch-paper into the movie, the creature has to take form…somehow. Once selected and modified to director George Lucas’ satisfaction, the creatures are computer-generated (CG) or realized as physical creations (animatronics, prosthetics, puppets).
Nick Dudman told us, “When they first approached me about animatronic or prosthetic work in the film, they did not know how much there would be. They had decided that Yoda would be a puppet, made the same way as he was before. And then the list of animatronics creatures started to grow. Gradually all these other creatures started surfacing, where they would say, ‘well, actually, maybe this should be a puppet too.'”
Dudman is the first to admit that some things simply belong in the realm of CG. “There are lots of things we can’t do that CG can. I have no intention of ever going to a full-size brontosaurus! With CG, you don’t need to.” And ILM is shouldering an impressive load of creature effects that draw upon the unique capabilities of the computer medium. At the same time, animatronics work remains the ideal solution for many effects. “There are plenty of things where you can say, ‘actually, for this shot, this sequence, we don’t need to CG it.’ And so we build it.” Meetings with ILM sorted out how the creatures in each shot would be most appropriately realized. It’s not unusual to have a single character realized in different ways. In Episode I, for example, Yoda will be performed by Frank Oz once more. In later films, should the Jedi Master need to walk and move around, a CG Yoda will “step in.”
Some of these decisions came late. One type of creature was always planned to be CG. Just twelve weeks before they were due on set in the schedule, Dudman was suddenly asked, “Can you do these animatronically? And they have to lip-sync.” Dudman replied, “Yes, I suppose we can.” It was a race. His department reached into its magician’s hat of inspiration, late nights and determined effort, and the creatures were ready the day before they were needed.
Other creatures were intended from the beginning to be CG, but were created physically as well for other reasons. Dudman’s shop created one ‘CG character’ to assist ILM for lighting and coloring reference. “They used our suit to walk through the set and allow light to fall on it and show where all the highlights are. It’s a reference for ILM when they do their rendering later on.” This approach saves ILM the considerable time and trouble of doing it from scratch. On-set animatronics creatures also assist the actors in reacting and relating to non-human characters. “That human connection is one of the reasons why I like building animatronic things or doing prosthetic make-ups, because you actually walk something that’s real in front of people, and you get a reaction from them. With a lot of our creatures, the real kick for us, is just to be able to have kids on the set and see the reaction you get.”
Dudman is always quick to acknowledge the special powers of CG creations. “CG creatures look and behave beautifully. They always look right and always hit their marks. They’re great. And we are fully aware of the limitations in terms of what we can get our creatures to do as opposed to CG.” Nonetheless, animatronics and prosthetic work, even puppets, still hold an important place in the world of Episode I. Dudman carries on a rich tradition in his creature shop, having worked on The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi with the legendary Stuart Freeborn. Dudman’s history with Freeborn and the Episode I re-creation of a certain Jedi Master are stories we’ll visit here in the future.