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Watto’s Character Development – From Concept to CG
Described as a cranky curmudgeon, a shyster, and a crooked salesman by his creators in the Lucasfilm Art Department and at ILM, Watto may not be the noblest character Episode I has to offer, but he certainly has a strong personality. Watto is a pudgy blue alien with a wide girth, elephantine snout, and hummingbird-like wings. His love of money is rivaled only by that of gambling. His short leathery wings propel him about his Mos Espa junk shop as he yells orders in Huttese to his slaves.
“George knew exactly what he wanted for this character,” said Design Director Doug Chiang. However, says Doug, the strange combination of physical traits that George requested threw them off for a time. They went through a few rounds of concept designs before getting Watto just right. The designers were used to George talking more in terms of concepts than specifics and he often gave the art department a lot of freedom in creating initial designs. So, thinking in these terms, Doug and artists Terryl Whitlatch and Iain McCaig came up with a several variations on the Watto theme. Terryl’s interpretation of Watto was of a very pudgy parrot with full wings and an impressive waistline. Iain’s rendition was a hefty four-armed beast puffing a cigar.
When these concepts did not earn George’s stamp of approval, Doug decided to give him quite literally what he asked for. “I took a head from a previous creature design that George liked, put it on this funky body and gave it hummingbird wings and George came in and said, that’s it!” Watto’s costume came easily says Doug, who dressed him in a vest and toolbelt loaded with gadgets. George approved the design and requested only that Watto be given webbed feet and a pair of pants. “Watto was this conglomeration of odd things that really didn’t fit, but that in the end gave him a very unique and powerful personality,” says Doug.
When Watto moved from concept art to ILM’s CG modelers, a whole set of new issues arose. It was their job to realize Watto as a fully CG character. Modeling Supervisor Geoff Campell said that at first he was a bit skeptical. “It just didn’t seem logical that this old chubby alien was going to be propelled by wings.” But viewing Watto by our principles of physics just wasn’t going to work. So, they thought in terms of Watto’s alien environment and imagined him filled with a kind of gas. His wings became a means to propel him versus supporting his weight.
Watto was modeled by Modeler Steve Aplin, who spent about four weeks creating a library of his movements and facial expressions. “We had Steve use a variety of sources to create speech patterns for the bilingual alien,” said Geoff. Steve had video footage of Watto’s voice actor speaking, photos of ILM animator Rob Coleman doing his impersonation of Watto, and he also used a mirror to examine how his own face moved while speaking Watto’s lines.
The biggest problem, though, were Watto’s large tusks which gave him personality but prevented the alien from completely closing his mouth. For speaking the letters ‘B’ and ‘M’, for example, the modelers couldn’t achieve proper lip movement and they played with the idea of reducing or doing away with Watto’s teeth altogether.
A few other bits and pieces of Watto had already been lost in the modeling process because of complications, like a hat that would have kept Watto’s face in perpetual shadow, and a nose ring which created skin stretching problems.
But, Doug refused to back down on Watto’s teeth. “I felt very strongly that we needed those teeth because they really added to his personality. His other attributes that were lost weren’t critical to his character.” The end result was to actually add more than they took away. “As a compromise, I suggested that we break one tooth which would allow him to close one side of his mouth to give him an asymmetrical way of talking,” says Doug. In the end, Watto was given a war wound and a speech impediment which added to his mean-old-curmudgeon persona.