Tag Archives: Kermit the Frog

Mike Quinn – His Star Wars Story

Greetings once again, exalted ones. We have a pretty good reading on who we are speaking to this time around and it’s another Star Wars legend, Mike Quinn. Mike brought life to one of our favourite characters, the wonderful Nien Nunb, but in addition he worked on a list of characters so long that even he loses track himself sometimes.

Little known fact, he worked on every trilogy as he was an animator on Attack of the Clones adding to his reappearance as Nien in the sequel trilogy. Mike’s got a great story to tell, one of determination and a love for what he does so, let’s get right to it…

Really happy to be speaking with you, Mike. You’ve been in some truly great films as a puppeteer, actor and an animator so before we talk about Star Wars, which is obviously why we are here, how did you end up in that field?

My sister was in the business as a child; she sang, played piano and was in a few pantomimes. She was winning talent competitions and things like that. It wasn’t really my plan initially. I had glove puppets, hand puppets and marionettes as a kid. My first experience with performing was when I was eight. I had a few magic tricks and illusions and a Punch and Judy style puppet booth so I would go to the park and do a few magic tricks and finish up with a puppet show that I’d written.

I was still a kid at that point and I wasn’t that good. I was shy and what I was doing was under-rehearsed. When I was about 12 or so The Muppets show came along and hit big in the UK; I became an obsessive original Muppet fan! I wanted to know what these things were and how they worked. I spent my pocket money trying to construct puppets and I would practice the moves in front of a mirror. I was the first boy in school to take needlework – they weren’t that pleased about it – but I got to make puppets in school. Then came the premiere of The Muppet Movie which I bought tickets to go see in Leicester Square.

I decided this is what I had to do with my life. I grew up in Enfield, London, and I would regularly visit the Muppets tapings and bribe my way into the studios. I tracked the crew down in Hertfordshire where they were filming in a village; the Muppets were landing in a pond with Robert Morley. I gave Jim a “Please can I have a job” letter and I think it was his birthday that day so he thought it was a card but sure enough I got a call from the Executive Producer, David Lazer, asking me if I wanted to do a bit of puppetry on the film.

I was initially a background puppeteer, but I was doing big stuff pretty quick, assisting Jim with Kermit and Rowlf the Dog and doubling up in wide shots. That’s kind of how it all happened…with will, determination and a bit of luck.

Is your path into Star Wars somewhat similar to the other puppeteers and performers who made their way into the films? It seems like that group was quite close?

Almost the same yes…I never really auditioned which was quite good. We rolled from The Great Muppet Caper to The Dark Crystal and they sort of dovetailed.

The next picture coming in was “Revenge of the Jedi”. Towards the end of 1981, Robert Watts took on a lot of us with the right experience because we were trained up as Animatronic performers already. It was a quick chat and I ended up assisting Tim Rose with Sy Snootles and Admiral Ackbar. Next, I found myself working the puppet closeup for Ree-Yees and everything sort of flowed from there really.

If my counting is correct you have been involved in five Star Wars films to date is that right?

I think that’s about right if you count Attack of the Clones!

I saw you did animation on Attack of the Clones…

I was a character animator on Attack of the Clones, so technically that puts me into all three trilogies. I’m in good company there with Warwick Davis, Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew and Anthony Daniels. A lot of people don’t know that I do animation at all; it’s another way of bringing something to life and an extension of being a puppeteer.

I think a lot of people will think your role was limited to Nien Nunb but you were behind or part of a lot of well-loved characters within Star Wars…

I was a huge fan of Frank Oz’s Yoda in Empire Strikes Back and I worked with him on The Great Muppet Caper with Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy, and a little in Dark Crystal too. He pulled me in to help on Yoda and because I was small I fit in well. I also did a baby Ewok, assisted with Jabba the Hutt…to be honest I forget them all now!

Before I go into much more detail, what story do you remember most fondly from working on the Star Wars films?

Well broadly speaking, being a fan of the first two films just walking onto those sets and seeing the next stage in these films. Being on Dagobah I could sneak onto Luke’s ship and look around, seeing the actors in their new costumes, watching Han come out of carbon freeze, seeing the Falcon. I was 17, it was my third movie so the excitement and the wonder is what comes to mind.

To be co-pilot of the Millennium Falcon was amazing; it wasn’t really planned. I just have a lot of joy and gratitude about it all. I was there to work and do the best that I could and enjoy it all. Anything I did on my first three films set me up for life in terms of puppetry technique. Where else is better to get training for that in such a short space of time?

It must have been amazing. You are one of just a handful of people to pilot the Millennium Falcon and for a person of your age that must have been unreal?

It was crazy and a bit abstract for sure because it was such a big thing. Going back onto it for Rise of Skywalker (working on Boolio) when he hands the data down to Finn and of course I was in the final scene of The Last Jedi…it feels like an old friend!

It’s really interesting that you were so young actually. A lot of the people I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to from the original trilogy seem to reflect that at the time it was just another job. Their recollection of Empire and Jedi especially is very different to yours. Yours is more in line with the sequel trilogy actors and performers I have spoken to in that you’ve got a feeling of wonder and excitement about it…

You know what, that hasn’t changed for me either – I haven’t become cynical or tired about it. When I walked onto the set in the new movies, I didn’t want it to end! I enjoy being around these brilliant, creative, wonderful people. These films will be seen long after I’m gone, and I don’t take that for granted.

Throughout your career who created the biggest impression on you?

It would have to be Jim Henson as far as my whole career goes. He gave me chances, mentored me and were it not for Jim I wouldn’t be here now doing what I do.

I was reading about Kipsang Rotich (voice of Nien Nunb) and how the producers wanted him back. Star Was must be full of great little stories like that. Did you meet and work together, or have you never had the chance?

I shot my scenes for Return of the Jedi and we knew there were going to be alien voices, so we used to just lay down a guide voice in English. When we finished the film, I had a chat with Ben Burtt about Nien Nunb’s voice and Kipsang was an intern at Skywalker Ranch at the time, Ben got him to do it.

They found him again a month before the release of The Force Awakens and got him to record some lines. They used him in the Disney rides, too. He was working as a teacher in Kenya when they tracked him down! I was hoping that at one of the Star Wars Celebrations we would be able to do a first-time dual appearance. I thought it would be cool to meet him for the first time on a stage.

Were you expecting the call about the new films?

I engineered it to be honest, but I suspect they would have contacted me anyway. I thought they will probably bring back Nien Nunb and I wanted it to be me, so I built a little web page about that. I was working with Thomas Dolby (Singer of ‘She Blinded me with Science’) andwe had just done a music video together. He was a close friend of JJ Abrams who facilitated a few things on his recent album and Thomas made sure that JJ had received my communication. So not a surprise, but a relief!

It must have been fantastic bringing back all of the original actors as much as they could for the sequel trilogy?

They didn’t have to do that; they could have got sound-a-likes or used anyone inside the costumes but J.J. (Abrams) and Kathleen (Kennedy) wanted to keep that continuity. It’s a nice addition for the fans, too!

What’s next on the horizon for you?

We’ve got the new Muppets series ‘Muppets Now’ which we did late last year for Disney+. There’s not been much in terms of new production for obvious reasons, and we would have been shooting the third season of ‘Kidding’ with Jim Carrey during this. I’m using this time to write and develop new stuff; I want more people to come into the Secrets of Puppetry training course, too. I took a lot of what I learned and created online workshops so I hope we can get some new blood in there!

To finish, one of my curiosity questions was not Star Wars related. How does Kermit the Frog do a Ted Talk? I saw you had assisted Steve Whitmire puppeteering him for that…

Oh, you saw that? That was amazing, my goodness. It was all about preparing to do a speech properly, he sat on a stool so he didn’t get tired standing up all the time and he had a drink so he wouldn’t get thirsty so that’s how Kermit the Frog does a Ted Talk…professionally anyway, ha-ha!

As well as his successful career in film and TV, Mike runs an online puppetry course called ‘Secrets of Puppetry’ for those aspiring to get into the field or with any level of interest. It’s the first ever of its kind and starts from the very beginning with the basics all the way into learning the top skills. Presently, Mike has a 60% discount on the Academy so joining the classes costs just $78.80 (just over £60) for lifetime access! If you are interested, click here to read more.

You can also contact Mike for autographs in the absence of conventions by clicking here.

Did you enjoy reading this interview? Why not check out the Star Wars story of Jabba the Hutt puppeteer Toby Philpott by clicking here. Toby had a life of travel and performance before a role in The Dark Crystal lead to him working on the great Jabba the Hutt.

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

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.

Did you enjoy reading this interview? Why not check out the Star Wars story of Admiral Ackbar himself, Tim Rose by clicking here. Tim worked with The Muppets and Jim Henson before his career defining role as Ackbar while also portraying numerous other characters including the mischievous Salacious Crumb.

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