The Last Jedi's Neal Scanlan explains why Canto Bight is a game-changer

Contributed by
Dec 15, 2017

One of the biggest players involved in this generation's Star Wars films is Creature Shop concept designer Neal Scalan. A former designer for Jim Henson's Creature Shop and an Academy Award winner for his visual effects on Babe (1995), Scanlan joined the visual concept team at the onset of the new wave of Star Wars films, beginning with The Force Awakens (which earned him another Oscar nod). He has since worked on Rogue One and Star Wars: The Last Jedi and is currently in preproduction for J.J. Abrams' trilogy ender.

As his title alludes, Scanlan gets to create all of the critters and worlds that are part and parcel of any Star Wars film. In The Last Jedi, he helped shepherd into reality new elements such as the wide-eyed porgs, the crystal foxes known officially as vulptices, BB-8's robotic nemesis, Bb-9E, and the brand-new world of Canto Bight.

In conversation with SYFY WIRE over tea and a porg (a stuffed one was eavesdropping between us on our table), Scanlan details what it was like transitioning to director Rian Johnson's creative process, why they made practical creations of some of their new species, and why Canto Bight is his favorite creation in the film.

What was your creation process on The Last Jedi with Rian?

I think Rian's been quite unique, so far, because the first time I met Rian, the whole movie was in his head. I could have a conversation with Rian, and he could explain the scene to me. But typically, what we normally do is we start up with what's called a design scape. Effectively, it's the key ideas, and it's the key moments in the film, the key locations, or the key characters that might be in there. And the script is still evolving, and as it should do, remain fluid. So we tend to start very early on the project. For instance, we're already talking with J.J., now, about IX.

You and your team have to come in very early because so much has to be conceptualized and then built?

Yes, we're one of the first groups that get involved, because a lot of what we do isn't always script-orientated. We're working alongside with the art department, feeding ideas, and helping things. The difference with Rian was that he knew he wanted a porg. He knew he wanted a crystal fox.

And so we very quickly were able to kind of establish with him that there were key moments in his film that we needed to focus on and design. And there were other moments which were much more free-thinking, where he would just say, "We're going to go to this location, it's kind of like Monte Carlo, so think in those terms." And you just go away and blue-sky, and play with ideas.

What was the concept that Rian brought to you that was the most definitively described to you? And then, how much did you have to go back and forth until he went, "That's it!"

I think that he had already spent some time in preproduction with the designers over at ILM on the fathiers. The fathiers were quite well formulated. However, there was a big evolution, or a significant learning curve, when you look at a two-dimensional drawing of an 18-foot-long, 15-foot-high creature.

It's very different from that sort of visceral effect that you have where you walk into a workshop, and there is your beast. And you're not looking down on it, you're looking up at it, and you're looking through its chest, and through its eyes, and its eyebrows. So in many ways, that creature was very well developed in 2D, but we spent many weeks working with Rian. We would adjust the anatomy, he would come in, and he kind of would be able to lens it in his own world.

So the lore we now know about the porgs is that they were inspired by puffins. You can see an echo of them in the final porg design, for sure.

Yes, Rian was very good at describing it. I mean, the word "porg," if you close your eyes, kind of helps. And the fact that he said they're like little puffins, and seals, and pug dogs. That's a good start, but there was a lot of time spent throwing ideas out, until we hit the eureka moment, when something was drawn, Rian looked at it, and went, "Oh my gosh, that's exactly what's in my head."

What about the new worlds we'll see in this film?

When we come to Canto Bight, Rian didn't really have any specifics. It was just, "Think Monte Carlo, think Las Vegas, and the social set, rock and roll jetsetters, that might go there, and try and find your alien characters' versions of that world." So that was much more freestyle thinking. And as I call it, the "X-factor moment" where there were 150 designs, but only 80 are going to make it through.

What is your favorite creation of The Last Jedi?

I think that's Canto Bight, for two reasons, really. One is because there was no absolutes. And secondly, it's really significant thing to The Last Jedi, that there's a point in the film -- and I think you'll probably know what I mean when you see it -- that we wave goodbye, a little, to the established past, and start to take those first independent steps. You know, the genre has got to turn, stand on its own two feet.

So it represents a visual departure point in this new trilogy?

Absolutely, and from an artistic perspective, one can always refer back to the brilliance of Ralph McQuarrie, and George [Lucas], and all of those, but [Canto] was the point in which, not only did we have almost complete freedom to think for ourselves, but we also had the responsibility and pressure of saying, "Well, look, now you're really going to have to think for yourselves."

I'm going to be very interested to see how the audience responds to that, because that's this group starting to say, "Okay, here's where the future goes." We'll always take the past with us. It's of course important to do that, and tantamount to it, but you've got to stand on your own two feet at some point.

Let's talk practical creations versus CGI in The Last Jedi. What was the mandate considering J.J. did have a fair amount of practical in The Force Awakens?

I remember on The Force Awakens just chatting in the very, very early stages with J.J. I think one of the things about Star Wars, more than anything, is that Star Wars is always earth-bound, even when it's not.

There is a familiarity that George brought to it. You can't always put your finger on it, but somehow you always feel part of it. You're never excluded. And so the mantra is always now, and will always be, I think, to try and do everything practical. Now, that isn't a slur or slight upon digital, it's not. It's a way of saying, "That's what makes Star Wars what it is."

Now, of course, technology and artistry are going to demand things that practical effects can never always live up to, and actually true, practical effects are quite limited. But the wonderful world of CG liberates practical effects for the first time. The Last Jedi is the most cooperative experience that I've had so far. [Visual Effects Supervisor] Ben Morris go back a long way. We're old friends. He went into digital, and I went into practical. So we get around that table and discuss, "With the porgs, 75% of it can be practical, but when that little guy flutters up onto the shelf, CG can pick it up, and we'll land him."

And to me, that's what we should be doing. It's what ILM did in the very beginning, when they took the old matte paintings and the optical cameras and added motion control to them. I think we're maturing, generally, as artists. And I think that we are able now to really play.

And there's going to always be a clear-cut definition for some things. BB-8 was one, and I think the fathiers are on the other scale as, "We can't do an 18-foot creature running along, it's not what practical effects do. It's clearly going to be digital." But what we do now, and I find most rewarding, is to create as much as you can practically, to assist the CGI. Because it, in that way, Rian can direct it, and Daisy and John can see it.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is now playing.