A rusted portcullis rises, concealed machinery rattling as sand falls from the bulwark’s blunt durasteel teeth. Beyond, a pair of pinprick eyes gleam in the deeper darkness. Gnarled talons unfurl, and the snorting breath of massive lungs cuts through the laughter in Jabba’s court above. The rancor, portrayed by a foot-tall rod-operated puppet designed by Phil Tippett and the artists of the Lucasfilm creature shop, appears for all of perhaps a minute and a half, but its impact on both the field of special effects and the minds of the millions of children who saw Return of the Jedi in the spring of ‘83—and the tens of millions more who’ve seen it in the decades since—has been tremendous.
But just what is it about the creatures of Star Wars that has so captured the world’s collective imagination? To find out, we’ll have to look back not just through the series’ long lineage of oddities and terrors, but at the art that inspired it and the art which it has inspired in turn. From the gabbling tauntauns of Hoth to the freewheeling bestial carnage of the fighting pits of Geonosis, Star Wars has looked at creature creation from nearly every angle imaginable. Its progress through the art form has left the rest of us an atlas to pore over, and a way to both sharpen our visual sensibilities and understand the workings of our own psyches.
SLIME, STINK, SPIT, AND SWEAT
What a monster looks like is, in a visual medium, obviously crucial. The sounds it makes, both bodily and in motion, are just as important. But what about the rest? What about the coarse rasp of its scales and the thick, gluey consistency of its drool? What about the stink of rot on its hot, gurgling breath and the greasy roughness of its matted, bloodstained coat? You might not be able to feel or smell the monster, but in the flickering darkness of the theater, if the design is good enough, your brain will fill in the blanks on its own.
The monsters of Star Wars are textured. They drip and ooze and snuffle. There’s a sense of raw, natural physicality to them, especially to the pre-CGI creatures. It can be frightening, as in the case of the wampa’s dead black eyes and dripping jaws, but it’s also played for comedy. The burping sarlaac in Return of the Jedi, the farting eopie in The Phantom Menace; Star Wars pays attention to the reality of its creatures beyond their utility to the story.
For the filming of the prequels, the LucasFilm creature shop’s extensive pre-production design process for creatures and aliens involved selecting real-world textures to map onto the final CG models. Everything from the rinds of dried fruits and vegetables—studied to create the shell texture for the crablike acklay—to the earwig exoskeletons used to model the colo claw fish’s flattened and elongated body found its way into the team’s work.
In Return of the Jedi the rancor drools a viscous glycerin substance made in-house by the creature workshop and its pulsating hide was slicked with water between takes, giving it a greasy, sweaty appearance. It’s the kind of thing that can make the difference between a neat effect and a really convincing creation.
An element of mess, of grimy reality, is absolutely essential to rendering the pulpy swashbuckling at Star Wars’s heart immersive and believable. It’s the same idea that led from the gleaming chrome rocket ships of the 1950s to visual flourishes like the carbon buildup on the X-wing fighters; the universe is lived in, a place where Jabba the Hutt eating squealing amphibians out of a fancy aquarium is as integral to the tone as lightsabers or the Force.
THE KNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN
Think of the titular creature from Ridley Scott’s Alien, that rubber and fiberglass monstrosity which stalks the crew of the interstellar freighter Nostromo and picks them off one by one. Its shape is familiar, but the details of that shape are chosen with great precision to frighten and unnerve. The creature combines features of the reptile (shedding skin, sinuous tail) with features of the insect (exoskeleton, egg-laying through implantation) in a recognizable frame, an approach with a history reaching all the way back to master animator Ray Harryhausen’s eerily beautiful harpies in Don Chaffey’s 1963 Jason and the Argonauts and the lizard-horse-crab-inspired gocko from Stephani and Taylor’s 1936 Flash Gordon serial.
The elements of a memorable creature should suggest a certain emotion or combination of emotions. To continue with the example of Scott’s alien, famously designed by Swiss painter H. R. Giger, its insectile qualities immediately invoke a fear of penetration. Insects tap into our primal aversion to things we know could transgress the boundaries of our skin, creeping in through mouths and ears and nostrils. At the same time, its reptilian traits touch on our fear of venomous snakes and being ambushed, while its humanoid frame heightens and complicates the threat it presents.
This positioning of monsters at the interstices of various familiar categories makes us work more intently to define and understand them. Without its hyena-like cackle, mane of quills, and arachnid brace of eyes, the nexu from Attack of the Clones is really just a tiger. With those touches, though, it becomes something uncanny and anxiety-producing. It’s a sort of intentional short-circuiting of our ability to recognize and respond to common images.
Drawing viewers in with familiar visuals is also key to cementing belief in a creature, especially in a pulpy adventure series like Star Wars. Each design should pull us deeper into both the setting and the immediate action, texturing the fictional world with a sense of wonder and exploration. A confrontation with the truly spectacular and bizarre should happen only after that sense of immersion is established, providing a bedrock on which a genuine sense of wonder can be slowly and organically built up.
When the blast door of Jabba’s beast pit—its control panel sabotaged by a desperate Luke Skywalker—drops onto the rancor’s back and crushes it to death, it’s both the climax of a tense and tightly-edited action sequence and a surprisingly poignant shift in mood. The hulking menace that had our hearts in our throats just moments ago is revealed as an uncomprehending animal. Watching it die in pain as its keeper looks on sobbing is hardly a rush; instead it plays into the film’s themes of pacifism by treating the monstrous creature like a living, breathing, feeling thing.
A thread of empathy connects many of the more ferocious and unpleasant creatures found in Lucas’s generation-spanning saga. The beasts paraded in front of cheering crowds in Attack of the Clones are hapless animals imported to kill and die for the entertainment of spoiled technocrats. If the series runs elsewhere on the swashbuckling coolness of its violence, here it understands the importance of slowing down to make room for a richer emotional palette.
The cave troll sequence in Peter Jackson’s 2001 blockbuster The Fellowship of the Ring follows closely in this mold. The chain around the troll’s neck tells us it’s been dragged into the fray by its smarter orcish captors, and its death is treated more like a sad necessity than a triumph. It lumbers in a stupor through the ongoing skirmish around it, rubbing at its face with nerveless hands as its enormous body begins to fail. Details like this help audiences invest more fully in conflict by demonstrating its cost.
Giving audiences a chance to form emotional connections to creatures meant to amaze, frighten, and entertain can be the difference between B-grade shlock and a moving, thrilling film. Imagine James Whale’s 1931 classic, Frankenstein, without actor Boris Karloff’s bottomlessly sad stare, or Steven Spielberg’s The Lost World without the bond between the infant tyrannosaur and its terrifying parents. A good monster shows us something exciting or cool; a great monster shows us a part of ourselves.
STAR WARS AND BEYOND
From puppetry and stop-motion to the advent of modern CGI, the Star Wars movies have always been nexuses of boundary-pushing visual talent. When A New Hope hit theaters in 1977, it changed the entire game of creature design, throwing every trick at its disposal at the wall in hopes that something would stick. Cheap costumes cut up and repurposed, Harryhausen-esque stop motion, even real elephants draped in hairy barding to create the banthas ridden by the Tusken Raiders. It took its giant lizards as seriously as its story about the struggle between good and evil, and revolutionized popular filmmaking by doing so.
It’s easy to fall into the by now rote prequel-bashing that dominates so much of the discussion of Star Wars and its place in film history, but Lucas’s wild and woolly CGI-fests left an indelible stamp on film. Turn on any of the more science fiction-angled Marvel movies and you’ll see bargain basement ripoffs of everything from the rancor to Phantom Menace’s crab-and-angler fish opee sea-killer, while big-budget pulp flicks like Andrew Stanton’s 2012 box office bomb John Carter consciously echo the dusty grandeur and chaotic pacing of Attack of the Clones’s underappreciated arena sequence.
While post-Revenge of the Sith the saga’s creature work falls well short of its early highs, and while the modern dominance of paint-by-numbers superhero fare has led to a general creative slump in the field, the pioneering work done by Lucasfilm remains a bright spot in the history of movie magic. It’s a body of creature design that stretches our imaginations, challenges our emotions, and fills us with breathless wonder and spine-tingling fright.
If the art form has a future—and no one following the work of creature illustrators like Tiffany Turrill, Brynn Metheney, and Natalie Hall could credibly say it doesn’t—then that future is grounded in Lucasfilm’s vision. What Harryhausen was to the generation of animators who succeeded him, Tippett and his colleagues are to the monster-makers of today. It’s a hell of a thing, passing on the art of spinning substance out of light and rubber, slime and pixels. Wherever it goes from here, I’m looking forward to the ride.