Tag Archives: Jim Henson

TOBY PHILPOTT – HIS STAR WARS STORY

The illustrious Jabba bids you welcome and will gladly tell you his Star Wars story. That’s right, exalted ones, it’s time for a new tale as we delve back into puppetry with everyone’s favourite giant-slug-mobster, Jabba the Hutt!

If you appreciate Jabba the Hutt then you are the right kind of scum for our guest, Toby Philpott. Toby had the honour of puppeteering the main body of Jabba with the equally honourable Dave Barclay. Together Dave and Toby were quite literally Jabba’s right- and left-hand men but as Toby will tell us later, the Jabba Team in its entirety would be the size of a rugby team!

Jabba was a huge character in more ways than one and pivotal in bringing the main characters of the original trilogy back together. From Toby we find that learning to juggle results in jobs on Star Wars, what being inside Jabba was physically like and that you could (probably) get away with hitting Carrie Fisher in the face with a giant tongue…

Thanks for talking us through your Star Wars story, Toby. I’m really excited to hear more about you and your experiences. How are you keeping busy at the moment?

My life hasn’t changed a lot. I’ve been retired more than five years and we moved to the country a year ago which is great for the dogs. Toby’s dogs introduce themselves in the lovely garden setting. I got my first proper job at the age of 51 after being self-employed for 30 plus years and that’s what I retired from. I don’t work in showbiz anymore, but I do go to conventions. I’m missing going to a few different cities, meeting up with friends old and new and having those little adventures.

I’ve read a fantastic list of things you were involved in before The Dark Crystal and Return of the Jedi. Have you always been drawn to performing?

My parents were both teachers and performers, so it was in my family. My mum thought I was going to be an academic but I fell into performing once I dropped out of that. I wanted to be self-employed because to me adults did something that they loved; they didn’t wear a suit and work nine to five.

It all started because I went travelling with a French girlfriend. We were living in a squat in Paris selling jewellery that her friend had made. Then we hitchhiked around America for 18 months and that’s where I learned to juggle. I was living in the town of Bolinas, California and joined a group of what you would probably call hippies. We used to get into concerts for free doing a bit of clowning and juggling. I got a taste for the benefits of performing.

We went to Mexico after that where jewellery wasn’t of much interest, but they loved the performing we were doing and I slowly evolved a street show. When I got back to the UK it was winter in London. I started doing a few classes and a few shows in Covent Garden and Portobello Road, then I was doing kids’ parties and I became a court jester at medieval banquets. I was drawn to performing in that it gave me the freedom to travel and learn anything that might fit into a show.

Sounds like quite an adventure! How did all this end up with you puppeteering Jabba the Hutt?

I fell into the film business. I was training to be a mime when my teacher called me up and asked if I had looked at a trade magazine called “The Stage”. They wanted people to do big creatures for this movie which turned out to be The Dark Crystal. There were not many people ready-made to do big creatures and so they didn’t really know what they wanted. The advert asked for dancers, mimes, acrobats, clowns and people like that.

The audition started with 200 people and it wasn’t a standard one where you stand up and do your thing. Jim Henson and Frank Oz put us in a room 20 at a time with a few gloves, heads, and stuff like that and got us to improvise. If nothing else I thought we were getting a workshop in puppetry from Jim Henson and Frank Oz so I took it kind of lightly. They got us down to the ten they were going to use, and they said four of us would start immediately while they were in pre-production. We were playing aliens who didn’t look like human beings and working in very uncomfortable positions. Some needed three or four people which was unusual; they had moving eyes, ears and so on.

Working together in puppetry you need to synchronize your body movements. The main trick with a puppet is to lose yourself in the puppet. Jim was a magician; Kermit the Frog is basically a sock with two half ping pong balls, and yet, he is alive. People naturally talk to the puppet and not the human being. You don’t have to coach that, and that belief is part of what brings the puppet to life, but also the puppeteer putting in their energy through the puppet.

The way I got the job on Jedi, I didn’t apply for it and I didn’t know it was Star Wars. I got called in by a producer who asked if I would like to do a big creature on their movie and I found out many years later that Dave Barclay got me the job inside Jabba the Hutt.

When you got the Return of the Jedi opportunity was there excitement there? I know you’ve mentioned to me you were not a fan as such…

It’s not that I am not a fan, I just hadn’t seen the first two films at that point. I had heard of them, of course, so the first thing I had to do was find a cinema showing them as a double bill. I came out impressed that I was going to be in the third one and started telling my friends.

The most exciting part was that we were the main character in the scenes and I had never felt before that my movement was so crucial to the scene. Jabba has around 20 minutes of screen time and it revolves around him. We had quite a lot of close ups; Dave was doing the right hand and the mouth with the dialogue in English and I am moving the head around and my arm is inside the tongue as well as moving his left hand. He’s left-handed because the right hand is over the body so I got quite a lot of moves. I got to hit C-3PO, eat the frog, smoke the pipe, grab Bib Fortuna…and they were shot close up on a set of about 100 people on it – no pressure!

One of the reasons I say Jabba is so important is that he draws all the main characters back into one place and then he is killed off because his work is done. Talking to fans at conventions, people love Jabba. He’s bad but not necessarily evil; he’s kind of a pirate comedy villain and not really in the overall battle of good and evil. He’s fun!

That’s true, despite the fact he is essentially a giant slug, he fits the typical characteristics of an Italian mobster!

There’s a bad guy in ‘The Maltese Falcon’ who is a fat jolly soul played by Sydney Greenstreet (Kasper Gutman) and he’s a delightful, mischievous villain. I saw Jabba like that.

They started off humanoid with Jabba then went very sluggish and settled on the appearance he ended up with; there were quite a lot of versions. When Dave Barclay and I first saw him, he already looked great before we started moving him around. When we brought him to life, we tried to give him as much glee as possible because inside he’s so many layers of fibreglass, airbags and rubber. Dave and I were diving around in there to get him to move – quite the experience!

What would you say is your best story from working on Star Wars?

Normally on set you can talk to the other actors but obviously in our role we couldn’t do that. We missed a lot of experiences; I never saw Carrie Fisher in the bikini for example even though she filmed with us.

This is a story I never heard the end of…when Han Solo comes out of the carbonite and the Gamorrean Guards bring Leia over, Jabba sort of wiggles his tongue at her and the tongue really was disgusting. The first take I did it cautiously but I heard over the headphones to push out the tongue further, so I checked they had told Carrie I was going to do it. It seems they didn’t, because they wanted a natural reaction from her. Between takes the guys who made Jabba put this gunk all over the tongue, some mixture of Swarfega and KY Jelly, it was like drool. On the second take I pushed it right out and they said OK do it again but not so much. When I came out, I asked what was wrong with the second take and they said, “Oh, you stuck the tongue in her ear and licked her face”. I never got to ask Carrie Fisher about it; I didn’t know what I had done so someone could have been winding me up…

Is that frustrating? The fact that you will never know if you attacked Carrie Fisher with a tongue…

Yeah, it slows it down to say that it may not have happened. Pranks on films are very common! They said if you want to see what we did yesterday and watch it back you can learn stuff. In Star Wars I didn’t get to see the rushes so I will never know, that’s why it’s my favourite story. If anyone knows the truth about that part of film, write in!

We shall put out an appeal for it!

Well I’ve asked a lot of people at conventions! Carrie Fisher always had a big group of people around her, apart from that she may have reacted angrily to me anyway, ha-ha.

Does it take a lot of endurance to play a part like Jabba the Hutt? I imagine there’s a side to it that’s quite mentally draining…

Yes, it’s physically much harder than you think and with Jabba we were in our street clothes and we weren’t wearing him, we were basically sitting in a little tiny cave. It was normally the two of us flinging ourselves around. Keeping your energy level up through a ten-hour day is just tiring and being ready to go at a moment’s notice.

If you don’t believe me, stick your arm in the air and hold it there for 10 minutes. All the blood will rush down…and then try to move a big head around!

You’ve moved away from the film industry now and you summarised your experience with, “I was just a street juggler who got lucky.” Do you look back on your time in film fondly now?

I tried very hard to not take a steady job. In the last five years there’s been more interest in the other films, especially Labyrinth since Bowie died, and Dark Crystal because of the Netflix show.

Films had been a few lucky years of my life. In 1999 I heard that people were interested in meeting me, 20 years after I’d done the work, but if you got signatures for the whole Jabba crew it would be a rugby team! It was Jabba who got me out and about in the convention circuit so I accept the fact that Star Wars is what impresses people, and I’m proud of Jabba and the team I worked with on that.

With that we that we thank Toby for his time and let him get back to his very excited dogs! You can read more about Toby’s experiences in film at his website by clicking here as well as order autographed items in the absence of conventions.

Keep checking back for more Star Wars Stories and until the next time, I’ll be there for you…Cassian said I had to.

Tim Rose – His Star Wars Story

Star Wars as a saga has numerous characters who have left lasting impressions on us, the fans. However, there are some you could show to non-Star Wars fans and they would likely recognise them due to the cult fame they achieve. One such character was portrayed by our guest, Tim Rose.

Tim was responsible for bringing Admiral Ackbar to life in Return of the Jedi, The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. Tim was also the puppeteer of the awesome Sy Snootles and Salacious Crumb in Return of the Jedi and fellow Mon Calamari, Shollan, in Rogue One. Basically, Tim has left an indelible mark on Star Wars history.

It’s a trap! I waited two paragraphs to write that – it was worth the wait. Yes, Ackbar is also responsible for a very famous internet meme, but as with all interviews on this site this story is about Tim, his journey and how he looks back on it all now. So, on we go to cover The Muppets, Guantanamo Bay torture techniques and disliking your writer’s choices of cosplay…

Welcome Tim!

Right so the long number on my card is…

I won’t start with that; I normally save it for the end! How are you keeping yourself busy during lockdown?

I haven’t really noticed any difference. About 17 years ago I had to move out of London or I’d have ended up in jail for a road rage incident. I moved out to the countryside and bought a Victorian hackney coach driver’s house. It’s got paths through leading to a barn where the old owners would keep the coach and horses, and that’s where I set up my workshop. Lockdown or not my commute is past the raspberries and up to the workshop.

Starting at the very beginning, what was your motivation to get into the Film and TV industry?

I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. When I started university, I’d enjoyed my art classes and I had done a bit of drawing and writing but I didn’t really know how to apply any of that. At university I started to go to drama classes, and I liked it, but I didn’t enjoy the applause at the end. Anyway, we started doing renaissance fairs and while doing the fairs I decided to do a Punch and Judy show.

I discovered that with puppetry I could sculpt; I could write scripts; I could draw and perform. I could do all the things that I loved without giving anything up, so from that point I stuck with the puppets. The main guy on our TV sets at the time was Jim Henson and The Muppets Show. I used to sit in front of the screen and work out how he was doing it. After a year or so when I left university, I managed to get a job with Jim, which is why I’m in England now because this is where Jim did all of his work.

I suppose there is no avoiding that Star Wars has been a massive part of your life, but when you first got into it how did you feel at that point in your career?

I’d been working with The Muppets and I already knew George Lucas because he was always coming around to see what Jim was up to. What I actually loved the most was starting from a design concept and carrying it on all the way through to performance with the actual creature that I’d built myself. The only two places to do that were The Muppets or Industrial Light & Magic or Lucasfilm. When I got a job at Lucasfilm, I was very happy because I’d worked at the two best places to do what I wanted to do.

Going straight to the two companies that were ideal for you is quite something! Is it something that came naturally to you?

Although I have a university degree, I got my job because of what my father taught me when I was playing on his workshop floor. My dad was into models and radio-controlled airplanes and so I always knew about building things from scratch.

I always joke that if you were to put a label on me, which in school they try to do, I would have been labelled dyslexic. When it came to being a designer, my brain shot off in five directions at once and I actually came up with a lot of really original ideas because I was putting things together in a way no one had ever thought of before. Was being dyslexic a problem or was it an asset? Ultimately, I think it was quite a good asset!

When I worked on The Muppets they were starting to develop the robot side of the puppets to make them more technical. It always amuses me that everyone knows the word animatronics, but do you know where the word came from? I do not. Jim was American but did all of his work in Britain and at the time the film industry was going through a bit of a nosedive, yet they didn’t want anyone coming in taking their jobs from abroad. Jim was told that what he needed to do was give them a job title that doesn’t exist in England, so they called us ‘Animatronics Designers’ and we didn’t displace anyone because no one had that title in the UK…because we made the name up! It was a title that needed to be made though.

What would you say is your best story from working on Star Wars, the one you look back on most fondly yourself?

I was just the right age that when the very first Star Wars movie came out, me and my buddies were teenagers. We would sit in the back of the cinema and pretend to fly X-Wings. We watched it over and over again. Two movies later, I’m saying good morning to Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford, walking past the Millennium Falcon to go into my own spaceship – every day of it was fabulous. I don’t have a favourite story. I enjoyed the entire process from beginning to end.

That’s still a good answer! I think if I were in your shoes it would be hard to choose one story…

What is fabulous about movies that you’ve worked on is that when you watch a scene, you don’t just see that scene in front of you. Your mind can see the camera guy, the sound guy, the lighting guy, the boom operator and you know it brings back the memory of the whole situation and the experience, not just that bit of film footage. It’s a really nice special thing about being on movies.

You’ve featured in the original trilogy and the new trilogy. For you, was there a different feel when you returned as Admiral Ackbar?

Entirely different! I wasn’t alone but I was heavily involved in creating the original Admiral Ackbar. There were two versions of him. There was the full body suit and a hand puppet head. Servos hadn’t gotten small enough, and because we hadn’t fully utilized how to use them a lot of the full body suits had cable-controlled heads, which is what Ackbar’s head was. With a person in there it doesn’t leave a lot of room for the mechanics, so I built a second version which was a hand puppet where I puppeteer the mouth and that left room in the rest of the head for the eyes to move. It allowed you to have a more animated character.

In the new movies I’ve got my carbon fibre helmet on, I’ve got 38 servos around my head, all chirping like budgies, and I don’t have full control of the performance anymore. I was much more personally involved in the original one.

You of course were the puppeteer for Sy Snootles and Salacious Crumb also. Did you prefer the puppeteering side of it? Or does a character’s performance come through no matter how you are performing it?

I was at a convention in Australia. We had finished filming The Force Awakens but it hadn’t come out yet. I couldn’t talk about it even though everyone wanted to, so I decided to talk about what it’s like being in a full body suit costume. I realised what we put up with was not dissimilar to the torture techniques used at Guantanamo Bay, ha-ha. When you start sweating in there it’s a bit like waterboarding because the scrim in front of your face gets blocked with sweat; you get full-on sensory deprivation and your whole body goes over 100 degrees…

You are making it sound very appealing!

What’s enjoyable is creating the character and seeing what you’ve created. From that aspect, Salacious Crumb was much more enjoyable as he was just a hand puppet. I could put him on and just walk around and entertain the crew with him, ad-lib and joke.

Puppets introduce me to parts of myself I didn’t know existed. I’ve always considered myself to be quite a nice guy but Salacious was a right little bastard and when I had him on, I became a right little bastard too, ha-ha. I guess you, Mr Dressed-In-The-Carbon-Outfit, know the story with Harrison Ford? I do indeed. That took place when the carbonite scene was going on and so the second I saw you in that photo I thought, “That’s it I’m not doing this.” Ha-ha! I still react quite strongly to seeing any references to the carbonite scene.

I’ll make sure I don’t trigger any bad memories! Ackbar was voiced by Erik Bauersfeld, who sadly is no longer with us. When you are acting as a character with a different voice, do you work together much, or are they separate processes?

With Jim Henson, the two most crucial things for the life of any character were good eye focus and spot on mouth syncing. If you heard that character talking you had to believe those words were coming out of his mouth.

I found out from Mark Dobson, who did Salacious, and Erik, who did Ackbar, that neither of them were shown my performance when they did their voiceovers. When Ackbar says “It’s a trap!” his mouth isn’t in sync with the words even though when I did it, it was spot on.

Most people don’t notice. I was trying to sound like a man in his fifties but I obviously wasn’t at the time. It needed that final bit, the mature voice to sell the character. What I love about the puppet characters is not one of them is done by a single character; they are all a group effort to create something that’s better than the sum of the parts.

Do you look back on playing the character fondly now?

From a convention point of view, one of the big things for guys like David Prowse (Darth Vader) and Jeremy Bulloch (Boba Fett) is they’ve always had to contend with that they weren’t the only guy to wear the costume. As time has gone on, at least I can say I was the only person to play Admiral Ackbar.

That’s true, there can’t be many people who can claim they are the only character in those suits…

I said to fans at the time, they are going to want a younger guy who can do it not an old man who needs to go for a pee. That actually did happen in Rogue One…I was Shollan in that one. We had gone for six hours solid without a pause break, and my character held up his claw and said, “I’m sorry but the old man has to pee,” and at that point we got a break.

I have BB8 to thank for coming back as Ackbar. The person doing BB8 was Brian Herring and we first worked together on Spitting Image in the 80s. When they were doing The Force Awakens he was in charge of getting the performers for the characters and he kindly said, “Tim’s not dead yet, he should do Ackbar.” I was at a convention in Australia and he asked me to sign something so I could talk to him. It was an NDA from Disney and he asked if I wanted to be Ackbar again and I said, “Of course I do!”

The next thing I did was pump up the tyres on my bike because as I’ve already said…full body suits. At my age you could die in there, ha-ha!

I’ve seen you at a couple of conventions and you seem to still get a lot of joy from meeting the fans. Does it bother you to be known for Star Wars, or is it something that you still get enjoyment from?

It just shows what a good actor I am, ha-ha. That’s not true!

I hit my mid-life crisis…why didn’t I listen to my mother and become an architect instead of running away to the circus and all that. CG was coming in and work was getting less and less. It was really when I started doing the conventions and meeting all the people that we had quite an amazing long-term effect on that I fully appreciated that I hadn’t been wasting my time after all. I’ve gotten to go to so many parts of the world. I used to travel all over the world making the movies. Now I travel all over the world talking about them…

You can check out more of Tim’s stories on his official website as well as purchase official autographs by clicking this link.

Keep checking back for more Star Wars Stories and until the next time, I’ll be there for you…Cassian said I had to.