Tag Archives: Sy Snootles

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.

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.

Did you enjoy reading this interview? Why not check out the Star Wars story of Chris Parsons aka Bounty Hunter 4-LOM by clicking here. As well as portraying the Bounty Hunter, Chris also doubled for C-3PO!

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