Between 1999 and 2009 Lightsabre.co.uk brought news, fanfic, podcasts and much, much more to the masses. Our one hundred and twenty-fifth guest was the man inside the Wampa suit in the Special Edition of The Empire Strikes Back – Howie Weed.
Lightsabre – Howie, welcome to Lightsabre, great to have you here.
Lightsabre – You’ve had an amazing career in special and visual effects spanning back two decades, and that CV includes a number of Star Wars projects. How exciting, as an effects artist, is it to be involved in signature effects films like the Star Wars saga?
HW – I’ve been very fortunate to have worked on the Star Wars films. When I got into the special effects industry back in the early 80’s I really had no idea where exactly it would take me. Effects artists tend work project to project, hoping for interesting work to come their way. Having Star Wars return to the big screen in the form of three Special Editions and three brand new prequel films was like a gift.
One of the best things, from the point of a effects artist, about a Star Wars production is the sheer amount of great designs for creatures, spaceships, and worlds that we get to work on. A standard big summer movie might have one or two big creatures to build. Or maybe a couple spaceships but Star Wars is about building a whole universe with dozens of everything, so there is plenty of room for creativity and everyone on the crew gets to take on something memorable.
I remember when we first starting seeing Pod Race designs for Episode One. Doug Chiang’s artwork suggested worlds and action sequences that were just enormous. Then new creature designs by Terryl Whitlatch started showing up in the ILM creature shop. Again, just beautiful, imaginative work.
When we finally got into full swing production, there was a feeling at ILM that we were all part of something very special. This was the next chapter of Star Wars, and it was connected directly to why many of us were in this industry in the first place.
Lightsabre – You came from a production background and moved into the hands-on world of effects. What instigated that career change?
HW – At the age of seventeen I got a chance to work on a independent horror movie called “Dracula’s Disciple” and met this interesting group of artists doing special makeup effects. They needed some help, so I jumped right in. I remember helping to make a human face that could bleed when a vampire pulled off the foam rubber skin. We had one chance to get it right. We shot that puppet late one night in a real church, and it worked out great. Before I knew what hit me, I was hooked. Still, I wasn’t sure how I could get a regular paying job doing just effects, so I went back to film school at San Francisco State University.
About two years later I got an opportunity to work on a movie called Gremlins. When I took the job, I didn’t expect there to be a next project. As it turned out Gremlins was part of a trend in summer VFX heavy “Event” films that has become the big, epic summer of tent pole films we now see each year. So the special effects work just kept coming in, to my continued amazement.
Looking back on it, my path to working on Star Wars began by donating my time on a vampire movie. A long, winding road that is still taking me places I never expected.
A quick word about this photo above. I was on a break between camera setups and ILM’s photographer Sean Casey was taking some pictures of the miniature Hoth ice cave set the Model Shop had built. It was such an amazingly realistic set, with handmade ice-crystals and great foam and foil rock sculptures. I had the Wampa’s head off so I could cool off for awhile. I remembered that an issue of Star Wars Insider magazine was sitting on a stool just off the set, so I asked if Sean could take a picture of me reading about Star Wars while working on Star Wars. I thought that would be a pretty amusing photo to have for the scrapbook.
Lightsabre – What is it like to be a continuing part of the Star Wars phenomenon?
HW – It’s been a pleasure. My first project for Star Wars was building a head and shoulders sized puppet for A New Hope Special Edition. George wanted to spice up the Cantina sequence so the “Ketwol” creature was designed by Terry up at Skywalker Ranch and passed along to the ILM Creature Shop. As I was sculpting that character in clay, I remembered thinking, “This is really surreal. Am I working on a creature for the Star Wars Cantina scene?” I couldn’t connect what I was doing to that classic moment in the original Star Wars. Then several weeks later when I brought the finished puppet over to the ILM stages for it’s shoot day, I walked in to see a small familiar set piece. The shop had built a perfect reproduction of the Cantina wall, with a little square window inset into it. Just seeing that odd shaped window was enough to bring a flood of memories from seeing the original Star Wars when I was 14. Suddenly I knew where I was in the film. I sat the Ketwol puppet down in front of the set piece and the two universes started coming together in my mind. A great, but bizarre experience.
In terms of fandom, I attended Star Wars Celebration IV in Los Angeles over its 4 days and had a blast. I got to meet and talk with so many Star Wars fans. One fellow even showed up in a full head to toe Wampa costume, which was amazing. We took some photos and shared some stories about building the suits. Another young lady asked if I might repeat a little Tagalog so I could say hello to her Star Wars club back in the Philippines, which we video taped. The whole experience was overwhelmingly positive.
Lightsabre – We often hear funny stories from the sets of the movies. You have been a part of so many hugely successful ones you must have a wealth of stories to tell.
HW – Oh sure, part of the culture of working on a set is playing a few pranks. Star Wars was no exception. I recall a particularly evil prank that was played on myself by a co-worker. It happened when we were building the new Wampa suit for The Empire Strikes Back Special Edition at ILM. The suit was about half built, with a foam rubber body and a mechanical mask I could fit onto my head with a cranking mechanism. We got word in the shop that a group from the Star Wars production office wanted to take a look at our progress, so I quickly jumped into the suit. We locked the mask down tightly onto my head so it look solid with my movements. What I didn’t know is that someone had placed a sardine in my mask. A nice ripe one that smelled pretty horrid. I took a couple breaths and started shaking my head trying to figure out what that smell was. The sardine was right under my nose. Then the production team walked in. I could see their feet line up in front of me through the eye holes in the mask, so I went into character. I walked around in the suit, doing the best show-and-tell I could while this thing wreaked inside the mask, getting stronger and stronger. Eventually we got the thumbs up and the production team left. As soon as my mask came off I saw that everyone was laughing hysterically. I looked inside the Wampa head and saw what was going on.
Yes, a good one on me. I had my revenge later on.
HW – My hat goes off to Des Webb. Trying to walk on stilts in the snow inside a 100 pound monster suit? What an undertaking.
As far as following that up for the Special Edition, there was the question of whether there would even be a guy in a monster suit at all. The idea of doing the Wampa as a computer graphics creature was dangling out there.
With a big meeting coming up with George in about a week I decided to make a study model of how an actor could fit inside the Wampa’s proportions and look correct with no arm or leg extensions. The idea was that instead of making the monster bigger, we would make the cave smaller. So I grabbed a small wood jointed study model of a human figure and posed it in a hunched over position. I locked all the joints with glue and quickly sculpted the basic shape of the Wampa over just half of it. So on one side you saw the performer, and on the other, a rough sculpt of the Wampa.
I took that study to the meeting where it got passed around, and eventually the idea that the model shop could make a man in a suit work successfully was approved by George. That has a happy day for everyone in our shop. We had our official green light to build a full Wampa suit.
In the end I feel we got the right feel for the Wampa creature. The original Empire never gave us a good look at what Luke was facing. At our meetings George had always said that he wanted to show us that threat, in a shocking way. He wanted to startle the audience. I think we got there this time. The final results seems to fit into the film pretty seamlessly.
Lightsabre – You moved from physical to digital construction of The Phantom Menace. Coming from a background where it’s part of the job to get your hands dirty, how different is it working at a computer instead of working the characters up in latex and clay?
HW – The transition from building things with my hands to working with a computer was pretty exciting actually. I wanted to take all the experience I had sculpting and painting in the ILM model shop and translate that into the CG world. It took me about five months of full time training to get the very most basic skills I needed to work with the ILM CG creature pipeline. Instead of clay, I had wireframes. Instead of armatures I had animation systems. It was like learning a new language.
I found that sculpting in the computer was a quantum leap in some ways. I never had to worry about my metal armature falling over in the middle of the night, and my clay never dried out or cracked. Best of all, quick changes in the computer made the whole design and redesign process much more artist friendly.
Do I miss my days with clay and plaster? Even with the amazing flexibility CG affords, there is nothing like creating a real world model or puppet. The physicality of building something and seeing it come together is such a satisfying process. Plus, just having a three dimensional representation of your work standing there for all to see is very rewarding.
That said, I learned during the Star Wars productions that one approach never trumps the other.
On The Phantom Menace the ILM Model Shop built every Pod Racer we see in the movie as a highly detailed miniature. There were so many Pod Racers that the final assembly had to occur on a shooting stage with work tables lined up from one end to the other. I built Teemto’s Pod and Ben Quadinaros’ Pod in the computer. I toiled over every detail in the artwork until both were getting a thumbs up in our weekly reviews. Just before I called them done, I walked out to the stages and there were the model miniature versions of the same Pods. The model shop versions were just amazing. In fact, better than what I had built or what was drawn in the artwork. The Model Shop had gone the extra mile by adding a fine level of detailing that really sold the scale of these Pods. After seeing that I went back to my work station and added more and better detail to my CG versions.
It’s really the best of both worlds that pushes VFX work to their highest level. Both sides pushing and complimenting each other. I have always been a believer that the real movie magic, especially for Star Wars, is on the final film. It’s the whole package, whether its an element shot on stage, or sets shot on location. Puppet or CG incarnation, the final shots are what matters most. Knowing when to use each respective approach is the real challenge.
Lightsabre – Of all your projects, which one gave you the most satisfaction as an artist and which was the most fun?
HW – Well, nothing quite beats being a monster in a movie, unless you get to build the monster as well. So being on the team that was building the Wampa suit and then getting to perform the character ranks right up there. Sure, it was over 100 degrees under the foam and fur, but the end result made it all worthwhile. Inserting that work into The Empire Strikes Back was really a dream job.
Lightsabre – As you mentioned earlier you worked on the classic monster movie Gremlins. That always seemed to be a crazy production, which fed into the amazing inventiveness of the effects. What are your memories of that show?
HW – Gremlins was a big gamble on everyone’s part. It was very ambitious and pretty much pushed the fledgling effects crew to the limits of what was possible at the time. Really, up that that point, no creature project had taken taken cutting edge animatronics and brought all that it could do into the spotlight in quite that way. These weren’t just going to be isolated effects inside a live action film. This was a film starring the effects. The puppets where central characters that carried the whole film.
There were Gremlins that danced. Gremlins that could walk. Gremlins that could sing and some that could stretch and transform in full frame. It’s the show that launched a niche industry of sorts.
I was 19 when I joined the creature crew at Chris Walas Inc and the energy was amazing in the shop. For most this was their first professional project, and the skills and techniques to do the work weren’t yet battle tested as they are today. So we really did invent as we built our puppets.
I recall working in a part of the C.W.I. shop that was across the street from where most of the Gremlins puppets were put together and painted. So I would gather a bucket of Gremlin arms and a box of Gremlin heads and fill a shopping cart until there was no more room. Then I would walk this Gremlin filled cart down the street and into the other shop. At the time it didn’t seem all that unusual, but now it’s become a memory that keeps me smiling. I was working in the industry I loved, making monsters for a living.
Lightsabre – If you were made to choose a favourite creation of yours to bring to life, which would it be?
HW – O.K., definitely not the Wampa. As I recall, when we last saw that sucker he was pretty pissed off, holding his smoldering arm stump.
The Colo Claw Fish from The Phantom Menace was pretty dramatic and was my first digital creature at ILM. That was the big sea snake with the glowing spikes down its body. I’ve seen some deep sea 3D IMAX films that approach the bizarre look that creature had. I think the Sea Killer could make it in today’s oceans. Of course, as I’ve heard it said, “There’s always a bigger fish.”
Lightsabre – What do you foresee for yourself in the future?
HW – My ambitions are to continue to work on cutting edge visual effects, and contribute to this art form. The projects are only getting bigger and more demanding, which is always a good thing. VFX technology is moving very fast right. In fact, I attend update meetings on new tools on a monthly basis, and very often, the tools are a ‘game changer’ for the artists. Just keeping up to speed on the latest techniques is a full time job.
I think I might also have a few short films in me that need to get out. Nothing monster movie related, but just fun character pieces. O.K., maybe a few monsters. But no speaking roles.
It’s so easy now to make and show a short film to the world. I think if I had a video camera and YouTube 26 years ago, I might have been putting out a short film every couple weeks. So, we’ll see about that as well.
Lightsabre – A quick question about our site. Any comments?
HW – I like that your site is keeping everyone updated on Star Wars, and up to speed on all the persons who are connected to the universe. The fans have a great resource with your site. I hope it gets the attention it is due. Well done Sir.
Lightsabre – It’s been a great interview, and thanks for being our guest. Just one final question. The Wampa, a Gremlin and RoboCop are standing in a queue waiting for the next bus to arrive when Slimer from Ghostbusters jumps the queue. All three are incensed, but which one makes Slimer pay first and how?
HW – Oh, that’s easy, but it wouldn’t just be one creature taking on Slimer. That slippery sucker needs to be triple-timed. Stripe would jump on the Wampa’s back to charge, then RoboCop would circle behind Slimer to make sure he wasn’t going anywhere. They they would just wipe that green smile off Slimer’s face. Just a puddle of ectoplasm left. Team effort. Done deal.
Thanks for the interview! It’s been fun thinking back on the Star Wars productions. It really was a special time for all of us at Industrial Light and Magic.
This interview was originally posted on lightsabre.co.uk on 26th October 2008.