Interview: Colin Jackman, Key Sculptor with Lucasfilm’s Creature Department

Colin Jackman Interview
Image Credit: Cinefex

Behind every great creature of the Star Wars universe, there are plenty of humans working hard to make them believable for the audience, even if the character might only appear for a few moments on screen. Given how much details goes into even the most minor of background aliens, it’s no surprise one of the creatures could go on to have a giant fan following no matter their screen time. If you’re curious to learn more regarding behind-the-scenes details for the creation of said creatures, specifically those from the most recent of films The Force Awakens and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, then we here at the Manor have a treat for you. Thanks to some connections by Elliot (his network of spies rivals that of only the Bothans, pre-Death Star II of course), we managed to get an interview with Colin Jackman, a sculptor and special effects man who’s not only worked with Lucasfilm on TFA and Rogue One, but has a long list of projects including Guardians of the Galaxy, Jurassic World, Harry Potter, Band of Brothers…and then some. Together Ryan and Elliot cooked up some questions for Colin (though both Qs & As got looked at by Lucasfilm so don’t go expecting any scoops on upcoming films like The Last Jedi), and his answers are full of insightful looks behind the curtains of creatures like Grummgar from TFA and Bistan and Pao from Rogue One, how to have calm under fandom pressure, and advice for anyone looking to get into the field. Check out our interview with Colin Jackman below!

Perhaps you could start by giving our readers some details about yourself, your background, and how you got to be where you are today?

I’m a freelance sculptor working in film and television as well as other entertainments such as Madame Tussaud’s. I decided I wanted to become a sculptor and make ‘monsters’ after watching Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” when I was about 6 or 7, way before I’d even attempted to sculpt so I’m incredibly lucky I can get away with it! I studied art at a level, foundation and degree, all the time sculpting away in my bedroom and taking photos that I could send to as many companies as I could to try and get some work experience. I had to get addresses from a directory called ‘the knowledge’ as there was no internet then! A couple of years after completing my degree I finally got some work at Aardman in Bristol. I worked my way around various animation companies down there before getting my first paid film/tv work on Band of Brothers. Not a bad maiden voyage!

What exactly does the role of Key Sculptor entail? What’s a typical day during production on a film?

A key sculptors work is pretty similar to a sculptors role it just means you’re a bit older! You might oversee sculpts as they go through the process a bit more. You work with the designers, the head of the department and the director and producers, developing ideas to finalise the sculpts exactly as the director sees the character or creature.

I’m not sure there is a typical day! You never quite know whats going to come your way. It tends to be more methodical during pre-production, but once shooting starts there might be all sorts of requests that need a sudden turn around.

The Force Awakens: It’s our understanding you were heavily involved with the creatures in Maz Kanata’s castle, a scene we at Mynock Manor particularly love. How did you and the rest of the Creature Department go about approaching the scene? Was there any added pressure considering Maz’s castle was to be a spiritual successor/callback to the cantina scene in the original Star Wars film A New Hope?

There was a real buzz on Force Awakens as I’m sure you can imagine! We were on a Star Wars film! Something I, along with many others never thought we’d be on! The aim for everything was to create the universe that was created in the original trilogy. Although we created droids and creatures for a lot of the film, Maz’s Castle was our big scene. Hundreds of designs would be pinned on a board and J.J. Abrams would go along and put post it notes on the ones he liked. They would then get selected into areas of the film. Everything we created would get scrutinised by various people to make sure it had the right feel of the original trilogy. As things were sculpted and later mechanised and painted, J.J. would be working out how to use them and where he wanted to see them. I was lucky enough to be given Grummgar as a design. When I was blocking him out J.J. came round and really engaged with him. He then went away and the next day he had his own little spot in the film. Things would either develop like that or we would be told they want certain characters and we would put things forward. Captain Ithano was a bit like that. We were told there was a need for two pirate characters so we put designs forward and they were approved. I got to sculpt his helmet. It’s always nice when things you work on are used let alone get featured more heavily.

Favourite Star Wars film and and character and why?

I know Empire is the one most people sway towards and I guess now as an adult I can see why, but as a kid it was A New Hope, that I taped on VHS one Christmas so could watch over and over again. I think because of that it’s the one I saw as my favourite. Chewie was always my favourite and maybe later Salacious Crumb. They were just creature-y and cool to me. Something I wanted to have made. That first moment Chewbacca walks past in the workshop, that’s when you know you’re on a Star Wars film!!

Favourite non-Star Wars film any why?

Not sure I have 1 favourite. Ghostbusters. Little Shop of Horrors. Labyrinth. The Dark Crystal; were always on repeat in our house just because I needed my fix of animatronics!

Since the creatures of Rogue One found themselves frequently part of the big action scenes, is it harder to make the sculpts practical for a performer to wear as well as more durable in anticipation of the added stress that’ll be put on it?  How do you balance practicality with the required aesthetics?

It can be tricky sometimes to make them practical for a performer. It depends on the design. Obviously the concern is to make them easy to breath in and for the performer’s vision. We will look at designs and work out the best place to position the performer’s head inside to help aid all these things; Whether they look through the eyes, nose, mouth or costume of the character. 2 characters I worked on were very different in their approach. Bistan used the performers actual eyes which means he has perfect vision and being able to breath through the characters mouth means it’s more comfortable to move in. The other was Pao. He was more difficult because the design had such a big mouth, which made it difficult to disguise the performer inside, and almost non existent eyes. Head of the creature shop, Neal Scanlan decided he wanted to use the performers mouth as part of the character’s. I positioned the sculpt so that as Pao opens his mouth so does Derek the performer. You then follow into Derek’s throat from Pao’s. Derek’s eyes were then buried in Pao’s head so I had to leave holes in the roof of Pao’s mouth and position his teeth to have strategic gaps to help Derek’s vision as much as possible. It still ended up being limited vision though so a lot of Derek’s performance was aided by in ear communication from people off camera.

Considering you’ve worked on lots of projects, from Resident Evil (2002), several Harry Potter films, Guardians of the Galaxy, and so much more (as your IMDB can attest to), do you feel it’s harder to work on a franchise people know so well because you have to fit the mould of their expectations or does it help give you and the department you’re working in a clearer focus?

I think it does give you a clear idea of how things need to look but that in turn makes it hard to make something that people instantly accept.  I’m not sure you’ll ever please everyone with films that are such a part of people’s lives. There’s always people that aren’t happy with something you’ve done for whatever reason. I think the more films you work on the more you just realise that.

Is there any sculpt you feel particularly proud of in The Force Awakens and/or Rogue One? Have you personally came up with the design for any creature, if so, which one(s) and what inspired it?

LuggabeastI’ve never designed a character but sometimes you do get to help develop them. Grummgar was a relatively lose design so I could work with Ivan the designer on the final look. When we added the shoeless feet (which bear a striking resemblance to another creature I did, the Luggabeasts!) it reminded me of Bossk, which meant we then tailored the rest of him, including his colouring and costume to have a flavour of Bossk. I’m proud of anything I work on that makes it onto the screen, just by the fact that they’re their on such iconic films. There’s plenty of things that haven’t over the years!

Though you work on one part of a much larger whole, can you still enjoy the films you work on or do you find yourself looking too close at your work?

I do think it’s harder to watch something you’ve worked on. Partly because you’re looking for things you’ve done and how they look. And partly because they feel so familiar it’s hard to see them for what they are. Blockbusters!  Sometimes they feel less ‘Hollywood’ than films that I don’t work on even though they are equally huge!

What’s different about working in the Creature Department on a Lucasfilm feature compared to other big budget films or is there not a whole lot of difference?

I think probably the main difference is that with the Star Wars films we’ve been doing is that the practical creatures are key to the look they are trying to create. With the other films I’ve worked on it feels like it may get replaced with CGI. It’s great to sculpt something that has a real chance of being on screen. Also, since I started working, animatronics have been reducing and things have been getting smaller as they can be scanned and recreated digitally. On Star Wars things are big again. Sometimes really big, with full, updated animatronics. It feels like the films I wanted to get into as a kid!

Any close calls or minor mishaps with the work you and the Creature Department did in the films that you can now look back on and think are funny?

I’m not sure I can answer that! Obviously health and safety is key!

Have any advice for aspiring sculptors?

Follow the dream! Keep trying to improve, persevere and don’t get put off if it doesn’t happen straight away! There’s a lot of people that want to do it but eventually, if you keep looking, you’ll find a gap where you can get in. Once you’re there, hang on and keep trying to get work. For me to have worked on the films I have, is a dream come true. And I think to have worked on the characters I have, on a Star Wars film is the icing on the cake. I thought I’d missed out on working on a Star Wars film not only once, but twice after the prequels we’re made. To get a third chance just doesn’t happen! If I can get that, then you can get there! Just don’t nick my job!

You can follow Elliot on Twitter @despecialised. Ryan is Mynock Manor’s Head Butler and can follow him on Twitter @BrushYourTeeth. You can follow the website @MynockManor.

The interview has been edited for clarity.