If you loved or hated Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, chances are pretty high that you walked out of the theater loving Babu Frik, the pint-sized alien technician who helped out heroes in a time of great need. /Film recently spoke with creature and special make-up effects creative supervisor Neal Scanlan about the origins of the goofy little droidsmith, building the character model, collaborating with actress Shirley Henderson on the final product, and more.
/Film contributor Adam Frazier spoke with Scanlan to help promote The Rise of Skywalker‘s home video release, and while the full interview will be published soon, we figured all of the Babu fans out there might want to know a bit more about their favorite new Star Wars character. Here’s an excerpt from their conversation.
Babu Frik is an instantly iconic Star Wars character. Can you walk me through the origins of creating and building that character, and at what point was the decision made to have Shirley Henderson actually perform the character on set?
Scanlan: So Babu started very, very early on in pre-production. [Co-writer/director] J.J. [Abrams] had an idea for a character who was a bit more like a fortune teller initially. He had some knowledge that was an important story point and Rey was going to visit him in order to be able to glean this information. J.J. thought of him as living in his own little world — it was almost like you pull back curtains and behind them was this tiny character that you sat in the presence of.
And so, you can imagine the kind of creative conversations we were having. But functionally, one of the things that came out of these creative conversations was that we could do the character as a little rod puppet, but time goes on and story ideas change and develop and so did Babu’s role, though we had already committed to the fact that he was going to be rod puppet.
Ivan Manzella, who is part of our concept team, did a full-size, eight-inch maquette of this little character with a slightly offset eye and all these quirky features. We all saw it and thought it was absolutely stunning. J.J., Kathleen [Kennedy], and Michelle [Rejwan] (Senior Vice President of Live Action Development & Production) saw it and felt the same. So it was like, “Okay, we know what Babu looks like, and we know he’s going to be a rod puppet,” but we weren’t really sure what his role was yet.
Once his role was defined, Shirley got involved. J.J. wanted her to vocalize the lines and perform the character, so she came to work with us and became one of the puppeteers. We showed Shirley how to use the controller that operated Babu’s mouth and lips, and she worked with us for a weekend during rehearsals in which the voice slowly appeared. It started as grunts and unintelligible words and became this incredible voice she came up with. When you get this chemistry between the person vocalizing the line, puppeteering the line, and the other puppeteers, get this sort of synergy that happens between them and each one sparks off the other. You hear a certain giggle or funny noise that Babu makes and the puppeteers respond to that.
When we were on set, it takes on another level when you hear J.J. or the cast laughing because of something Shirley and the other puppeteers are doing. It became a really fun piece of live theater I suppose. And that’s how we arrived at the performance, other than just a sort of clinical analysis of what his mood needed to be or what his action to be. The rest of it was more just sort of these people working with each other and having fun.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is available on digital now and comes to Blu-ray and DVD on March 31, 2020.
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