porgs

When you get the oppurtunity to sit down and talk with Star Wars creature designer Neal Scanlan, you’re obligated to spend the majority of the interview talking about possibly the most important artistic creation from Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Of course, I’m talking about the Porgs.

In our conversation, I learned how the porgs came into being, how many were created for the film, how they are related to the Caretakers on Ach-to, and most importantly, whether or not Porgs fly. Here is everything you wanted to know about the Porgs, revealed by Neal Scanlan.

Note: this review was conducted before I had seen the film and there are no spoilers.

Rian Johnson's porgs photo

How many practical Porgs were actually created?

I think all in all there’s about maybe about 30 or so Porgs. 

Wow.  How many different technologies and rigs…?

We’ve seen the little Porg that’s sitting on the dashboard.  That sequence is a moment.  It’s a much longer sequence that you’ll see in the film.  For that particular sequence, we would have built maybe 10 or 12 Porgs.  It’s the same Porg, but it’s built in a different pose with a different facial expression, a different ability to do something.  And so it’s kind of like approaching it as a practical animation.  So we know and that’s the joy of working with Rian is that he had the movie in his head so clearly that he could say, I can do that with that shot.  We can cut to this.  That action takes place.  And so we, in other words, when a Porg is standing up, that’s anatomically one shape.  But as soon as he crouches down, we can’t do that.  We can’t meld and weld our materials in such a ways that nature can.  So we re-sculpt it and recreate a version.  But we know there’s a cut between them.

So every scene that you’ll see with the Porgs, whichever scene it is, there will be multiple Porgs in order to shoot that sequence.  And mostly they’re rod operated.  They all had internal eyes, internal mechanisms for their eyes and facial expression.  And the rod, each one had five puppeteers behind it.  And one that’s doing the wings, one doing the head and the body, two doing the feet and then another person if that’s five or there may even be six doing facial expressions.  Obviously, they’re in green suits and they’re removed.  We don’t really see them very much.

The idea, they’re cute, little characters and we’re acutely aware that it’s a fine line to tread between making them too cute.  Or not making them cute enough that you kind of excluded a whole generation of other viewers, children for instance.  So it’s a very fine line and I always sort of say that the Porgs are very much to me like your pet dog.  Puppy eyes.  They’ve got an ability to be able to pull on your emotional strings.  So we were very aware of that within the sequence that. We were hopefully able to do that to the audience.

neal scanlan porgs

Do they fly at all ’cause they’re birds?

They do fly.  They flutter.  They’re not fur, they’re feathered.  The actual Porg is feathered.  500 feathers on each one.  Putting one at a time.

Wow. So how do you accomplish them flying?  Is that digitally or…?

Digitally yes.  There’s a perfect example.  So we’re ground-bound mostly.  I mean, you know, you could make them fly.  And use rod removal, process photography, bluescreen or whatever.  But there’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about, which is where you might have a little Porg fluttering around on the ground doing something and then the moment he takes off, we would initiate the takeoff practically and then CG will pick up and do the little flutter.  We may even do the landing practically.  But the bit in the middle is digital.

porgs sizzle reel

You mentioned before that they’re related to the Caretakers [another alien race on the planet]?

Yeah, we had a feeling that the island would have had an exclusively indigenous group population of creatures, like Australia if one might say that.  There’s no other DNA that’s made it to the island.  And so all the characters there are creatures that you’ll see on that island we felt should be have some form of physical or DNA relationship.  And so the Caretakers for instance have feet very similar to a Porg.  Their bodies are not dissimilar to a Porg.  They’re facially not that dissimilar to a Porg.  They’re just another branch of Darwinism of that particular island they’ve taken over.  So are other things that you may see there as well.

So are you saying that Porgs can only be found on that island in this?

That was our theory.  That was our theory.

Well it seems like they come off that island, so maybe they will migrate…

Possibly.

porg sketch

When Rian came to you and said that he wanted to do something based on these birds on the island, how long until you got to that? What was the evolution?

So close your eyes, say the word Porg. I think it’s very descriptive name, isn’t it?  A Porg. It’s like a ball or whatever.  Rian was very clear that they, like the Puffins are natural to the island of Skellig, which is the location that we shot on.  So those birds inhabit that island for several months of each year. I think that’s where the idea came to Rian and sort of engagement with that particular bird.  So to him, a Puffin with a seal and a pug dog was his verbal description to us.

The great thing about Star Wars…we feel about many of the strongest characters in Star Wars, take BB-8 or R2-D2, is they’re very simple silhouettes.  A child can draw BB-8 and the world will know what that child has drawn.  And so we always approach characters like this with the same ethos.  What we’re trying to do is to create a very simple silhouette.  And one of our concept designers, Jake Lunt, drew this sort of elongated potato with two little legs sticking out the bottom and two big eyes with a little tail on the back.  And Rian came in and that must have been drawing 100 or whatever…  And we’re trying to get to know what’s in Rian’s mind.  And he saw that one drawing and just in his really wonderfully endearing way giggled with approval.  And it was like we’re on the right track.

And so really once we had that silhouette, it was a case of filling the middle.  And looking at things like a Puffin or an owl and or a dog and trying to pull together those sort of things that pull on your heartstrings or emote you or make you want to own one or have one or stroke one.  All those things, you try and get the best of real nature.  That’s where you can’t invent that.  Nature’s already there.  It’s just being sensitive to it and trying to put it together in such a way that people would honestly feel that if they one saw one nesting on a branch outside of your garden window you wouldn’t feel that that was that strange somehow.  It’s like, oh, it’s a Porg.

Just judging from the trailer, it looks like you’ve been successful.

Cheers, Peter.  Thank you so much.

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