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Weak-minded fool: The puppeteering behind Jabba the Hutt

A 20-minute fan documentary explores the operation of Jabba the Hutt, including a new interview with one of the puppeteers.

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LucasFilm

The more recent "Star Wars" films feature a whole host of digitally animated alien species. For the original trilogy, though, the creatures that populate that galaxy far, far away had to be created by more practical means -- elaborate costumes, make up and puppets.

When "A New Hope" was re-released in 1997, a CGI Jabba the Hutt was introduced in a scene that had been cut from the original edit. This was widely considered by fans to be a pretty poor move -- not least because the digital Jabba did not have the sheer physical gravitas of the original. The 1983 release Jabba was a giant puppet, one of the largest and most expensive ever built, incorporating animatronics and operated by three puppeteers -- from the inside.

As you can imagine, this took quite some coordination: one puppeteer, Mike Edmonds, controlled the tail; another, Dave Barclay, the right arm, jaw and lipsynching; and the third, Toby Philpott, controlled the left arm and tongue.

It is Philpott who has shared his experiences in a new short documentary by Jamie Benning, whose behind-the-scenes explorations include "Jaws", "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and the original "Star Wars" trilogy.

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Jamie Benning/Filmumentaries

"After interviewing puppeteer Toby Philpott at great length over Skype I decided to go a step further and create a mini documentary about his work on Jabba the Hutt for Return of the Jedi," Benning wrote on Vimeo. "This led me down many paths. Here is the result."

Philpott, who started his career in film with Jim Henson and Frank Oz on "The Dark Crystal", details his experience from the time when he first encountered the puppet, explaining exactly how it works and the design process involved. He speculates that George Lucas' interest in CGI was well in place even in the 1970s.

"I think George Lucas wasn't as impressed by [the Jabba puppet]," he said. "I think he would have liked to have done it by CGI, even then, but the technology wasn't there. I'm not sure he was entirely convinced by a three-dimensional puppet."

Benning also obtained input from animatronic engineer John Coppinger, who designed the puppet, for an illustration of exactly how the puppeteers would have been arranged inside.

You can read more about how the documentary came about -- and follow Benning's future endeavours -- on his blog, Filmumentaries.