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.