Hello there once again! We are back telling stories, truth be told we were on our way back but we got a little side-tracked…
Where have we heard that before? We suppose that we are his kind of scum…fearless and inventive but we wouldn’t want to become one of his decorations! That’s right readers we are revisiting everyone’s favourite slug lord, Jabba the Hutt.
John Coppinger joins us as a bit of an unsung hero within Star Wars, he sculpted the iconic Jabba but was also drafted back in for a Rancor size list of characters for The Phantom Menace too. John isn’t only a Star Wars guy, he’s been involved in some great projects during his career from Harry Potter to Babe to the classic Santa Claus: The Movie and he’s sculpted some fascinating items for the National History Museum.
We cover all of that and more whilst also finding out the answer to the burning question; where is Jabba’s skin now? What are we waiting for… it’s time to say “De wanna wanga, John”
Great to speak with you John and I’m excited to hear your Star Wars story! I just spent a frankly fascinating time reading your website which is a rabbit warren of links to interesting bits of information from your career. I’d like to start by asking what got you into science fiction sculpture?
I wanted to study Biology and English at A-level but could only follow Science or Arts. So I wound up making welded sculpture in the art room instead of studying. Bob White, the art master, covered for me and then got me a place at Maidstone Art School.
A Diploma in Art & Design led to a job at London’s Natural History Museum (NHM) as a scientific model-maker – a perfect blend of Art & Science at a time when there were many new materials and ideas about exhibition spaces to explore.
To answer your question! I believe it was the process of imagining fossil animals, mostly dinosaurs, as living creatures when all you usually have is their bones. It’s informed guesswork; very much like designing an alien creature and considering its environment and lifestyle to make it a believable entity.
Were there other potential career paths that you were going to take?
While waiting for the result of my NHM interview I’d applied to be an artificial eye fitter at the North London Eye Clinic and was offered the job! Previous to that I’d gone some way to finding a career as a journalist – The thing I thought I was best at, aged eighteen, was writing.
At 23 I worked a summer season as helmsman on a tourist day-trip boat out of Brixham, Devon. I then applied for a post at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory to design and make traps and sampling equipment, then operate them at sea and in estuaries. It didn’t happen, but years later I visited there on a research trip for the NHM regarding a life-size model of Architeuthis dux, a giant squid.
Was Star Wars one of your first major projects?
I felt that Return of the Jedi was my first ‘real’ job in the film industry. I’d gone freelance to work on ‘The Dark Crystal’ through knowing Brian Froud, the concept designer, and visiting the Henson Workshops in New York at his invitation.
I had to convince Stuart Freeborn, the famed make-up artist and supervisor, that I could do the job. Luckily he liked my ideas about restoring dinosaurs, and my work for the NHM generally, and gave me the job of sculpting Jabba the Hutt.
Normally, we don’t delve into small details immediately but as I am very keen to know having seen the picture, where is Jabba’s face skin now?
We sold Jabba’s face skin, and the tip of his tail mechanism, to Brandon Alinger who runs the Los Angeles division of Propstore of London. It had survived many years longer than expected for a foam latex piece but just in case it might eventually deteriorate we took a plaster waste mould from it and converted that to a production silicone rubber mould for making fibreglass casts. I believe the original foam was sold on and preserved on a custom built display stand.
We’ve had the pleasure of talking to some wonderful people involved in Star Wars already, including Jabba performer Toby Philpott but your experience within Star Wars is slightly more unusual as you came back for the prequels as well. Besides the obvious technology differences how different did ROTJ feel to Phantom Menace for you?
I remember thinking ‘I’ve come back fifteen years later and now I can sculpt Jabba as a young wormling!’ That wasn’t to be as the Hutts were rendered with CGI, but I got to reprise several of the original creatures – Tendau Bendon the Ithorian, Greedo, Bith musicians and others. I also did the ‘fish’ seller, Gragra, the two headed Pod Race announcer, Fode & Beed, Barada the Klatooinian and various Jedi Senators – Adi Gallia, Oppo Rancisis the Thisspiasian, PoNudo the Aqualish and Yarael Poof for instance. Not sure I got all those names right, but hopefully expert fans will put me right!
The sets I worked on were smaller, largely because of CGI, but there was an indefinable ‘Star Wars Atmosphere’. I got to stand-in as Graxol Kelvyyn for the pod race scene, Ki-Adi-Mundi at Theed Plaza, and perform all the Wookiee Senators, including Yarua, in the voting chamber. A favourite creature species, Wookiees, and they had an extraordinary effect on other people: One young Assistant Director’s voice going high as he squeaked “Cor, it’s like meeting the Pope!”
I would say one other serious difference was security – Our boss, Nick Dudman, said “If you’re caught with a camera, even if it has no film, you’ll be fired and there’s nothing I can do about it.” Back in Jabba days the film’s Still’s Department gave us prints of his construction and finishing and trusted us not to sell them to ‘Starlog’ etc. – We did know of course that that would be a career ending move but it was a different experience of being ‘Crew’.
“Jabba Days” should certainly be an official measurement of time! What would you say is your best story from working on Star Wars?
The ‘Platinum’ award goes to the day David Tomblin, first Assistant Director on ROTJ, stomped through our operating crew on Jabba’s throne room set with his bullhorn, jerked his thumb back at the Slug Lord and said “You’ve done a good job on that thing!”
Maybe second was demonstrating the Anxx character, the rig for both Graxol Kelvyyn and Horox Ryyder, to George Lucas and his team. With stilts two feet high and the creature’s head and neck above mine it stood eleven feet tall. George pointed out that, given the film ratio they were using, if an Anxx stood beside Yoda both would need to be a quarter mile back from the camera. So both characters were only ever seen sitting down.
Is it strange now to see the legacy of Jabba the Hutt in things like the comics, Spaceballs, Family Guy etc. being that you were involved in his creation?
Very strange indeed! To look back over thirty years and still be asked what it was all about and what it was like. My classic response to the next, young generation at conventions who recognise Jabba is to think, or say, “You weren’t born, and likely neither were your mother and father, when we did this!”
And you are also an action figure as Graxol Kelvyyn! It must be nice to have your characters immortalized in such a way, I assume you’ve signed quite a few?
It’s both strange and wonderful! There’s even Wookiee Senator Yarua figures out there, and I posed for the stills shots on the back of the boxes.
I also lip-synced a short internal video for Lucasfilm in the Wookiee rig – Voiced by the producer Rick McCallum. It was about a new video format they were developing I think, but I never saw the end result to see how I’d done, or even know if it was used.
More important matters now, you were on the team creating the reindeer from Santa Claus: The Movie, iconic! I read this was an 18-month project for you, did it make you dislike Christmas by the time it came around?
We did develop an aversion to Christmas music, particularly when surrounded by Santa’s Elves in the Pinewood canteen. They were a tribe of short, particularly grumpy men who began to feel dangerous, maybe because they’d been singing happy songs all morning and far too often. Someone pointed out that they were handling sharp things and were probably best avoided!
We did do some crazy hours and only really had four days off the whole time – Two Christmas Days and Boxing Days. I may be exaggerating but that was what it felt like, never really sure what season it was outside our windowless workshop.
I also remember the first time we fired up the air-ram powered reindeer on the front-projection set. They were made from real reindeer hair transposed onto flexible fabric and as they began to gallop they disappeared in a cloud of fur. I decided we had a couple of minutes at most before they were bald and I might just take a gentle walk to the front gate!
What was actually happening was reindeer fur is so dense that what the animals had already shed in life had survived all our processes until the rigs began to run. I should say that our skins were selected by Derek Frampton, the taxidermist who worked with us, from animals in Norway that were already marked for slaughter and the animals that came to be trained in England went on to an honourable retirement in Scotland.
And you created a 34-foot giant squid for The National History Museum in London! So, my final question is what is your fondest creation among your many projects?
I always say my two favourites have to be Jabba and The Diva, from ‘The Fifth Element’ – A classic cliche; Beauty and the Beast!
But I’ve been remarkably lucky in my career – Making props for the Royal Institution’s Christmas Lectures was the most complete fusion of Art and Science, just as I’d wished for way back at school; rigs and models being operated in front of a live audience. High stress sometimes but also the most rewarding and extraordinary fun!
Do you attend conventions? If so, where can fans meet you next?
I still guest at conventions, with gratitude for the attention paid to all our old tales of life in the ‘Steam Age of Film’ – Like telling war stories in the pub, but people really want to hear them! I don’t have any in view at the moment, but something will turn up!!
With thanks to John, we bid him farewell! A reminder you can check out John’s work particularly sculpture on his official website here. If you enjoyed this interview why not check out our chat with Gamorrean Guard, Stephen Constantino by clicking here.
Keep checking back for more Star Wars Stories and until the next time, I’ll be there for you…Cassian said I had to.