Vober Dand, Chancellor Villecham, Luggabeast (The Force Awakens)
Interview: April 2016
Hi Mr. Arnold, let’s start at the beginning: how did you start your career the movie business?
I started acting as a teenager in Canada and then went on to drama school in Toronto. I moved to England in 2008 to continue my career in theatre and after a few years acting on stage I was given the opportunity to work in film and Star Wars was the first film I was cast in.
In The Force Awakens you played two parts: Vober Dand and Chancellor Villecham. Besides this you also puppeteered the Luggabeast. How did you get cast for The Force Awakens and how did you get these specific roles?
In 2012 I was part of the team that puppeteered Lord Voldemort in the opening ceremony of the London Olympics, where I met Brian Herring who was the puppet co-ordinator for The Force Awakens and puppeteer for BB8. At that time I was in rehearsals for the West End play War Horse and the week after the Olympics opened I began my contract as a puppeteer for Joey the horse.
The Luggabeast puppet was designed very much like the horse puppets in War Horse and they knew they needed two guys to be inside it. Brian remembered that I was in War Horse so he called me and asked if I wanted to help out on a little project he was working on. He couldn’t tell me what it was, only that I needed to meet him at Pinewood Studios to find out. As Brian walked me into the offices I looked around and all I could see was Star Wars posters and memorabilia. That’s when I found out the “little project” was Star Wars! So it was Brian who opened the door for me to be a part of such an iconic franchise. Obviously I jumped at the chance and signed all the non-disclosure agreements and then met Neal Scanlan (head of the creature department) and Paul Kasey (movement co-ordinator). I mentioned to Brian and Paul that I had done some physical ‘skins’ work in the past (animal and creature costumes) and they took that on board and went on to cast me in the other roles.
Your character Chancellor Villecham is seen in one scene, the one where his planet gets blown up. Were there more scenes filmed with this character?
No, this was Chancellor Villecham’s only scene. That being said, he did get his moment and I think all the people that worked so hard to create and build him were happy with the result.
In the Resistance base scenes you played Vober Dand. I think he has the looks of a real classic Star Wars alien. An amazing design! What do you think about him?
I really like Vober Dand, he’s such a fun character. Jake Lunt-Davies showed me his designs for Dand early on and it was great to go into the workshop every couple of weeks and see the progress of this character being built.
I agree he definitely looks like a classic Star Wars alien – he was very popular on set for this reason. He could easily have been running around the Echobase on Hoth!
What can you tell about the Villecham and Vober Dand costumes? Were the heads filled with electronics to operate the eyes, mouth and facial expressions for example?
The fun thing about Dand and Villecham is that their faces rest on top of my head, so I’m looking at my feet the whole time through the creature’s neck and it creates that hunched over look they have. The expressions their faces can create are amazing, Ady Parish spent days working on the mechanics of Dand and Villecham. The amount of detail he put into their heads is crazy. Their lips can curl and snarl, their noses can move around to sniff, I was so pleased when Dand got a line in the movie so that all that hard work paid off.
It’s one thing to be inside wearing the costume and animatronic head but the real magic comes into play when one of the puppeteers pick up the remote controls and manipulates the face. That’s when it really comes alive. The two of you (creature performer and puppeteer) have to really work together to create the character. Without that puppeteer the character wouldn’t be complete. Neal Scanlan had some of the best people in the business working on the film – the women and men who stood behind camera puppeteering each animatronic head made something technically difficult look effortless.
That’s the fun part for me, working with everyone in the CFX team and throwing ideas back and forth, creating something really special and something you hope the audience will remember and enjoy.
I was surprised when I heard you puppeteered the Luggabeast along with another performer; I thought it was some kind of animatronic. It’s a large creature and it has actor Kiran Shah (as Teedo) sitting on top. Could you explain what the technique behind the Luggabeast was and how itw as operated?
The Luggabeast took about seven months of development. It was another one of Jake Lunt-Davies ambitious designs that turned out great. Steve Wright and Jimmy Sands were always there while we were rehearsing and they spent countless hours making adjustments and fixing the Luggabeast so it was as comfortable as possible for us.
The basic design is two people inside standing up strapped into harnesses, like wearing a rucksack. I was operating the back legs, so each back leg had a rod attached to its foot and I was able to manipulate the legs with these rods. Tom Wilton operated the front legs and took a lot of the weight of the Luggabeast as most of it was in the front. In post-production they erased our legs and rods so you couldn’t see us. We both worked together in War Horse so this wasn’t totally out of our comfort zone and we both understood the ideas and principles of making a four legged creature move. We had to work with Kiran Shah as well, as he was on top playing Teedo and the movements he made affected us and vice versa. We also had our movement co-ordinator, Paul Kasey communicating to us through ear pieces so we could change or adapt the movement during the scene if we needed to.
The hard part was that by the end, once the Luggabeast was totally fabricated and dressed and Kiran was on top, it weighed around 20 stone (127Kg or 280 pounds) AND we were in the middle of a desert in Abu Dhabi in 40-degree Celsius weather. But again we had our amazing CFX team looking after us – they would run in after each take and lift the Luggabeast as much as they could to take some of the pressure off of us and bring us water and a fan to cool us down.
A lot must have happened on and off the set. Could you share some good stories?
Some of the best memories are of Abu Dhabi. They were long days in very hot weather but we all looked after and supported each other.
The three day Luggabeast shoot was a fun one and as punishing as it was, after each take when we had our CFX team around us helping to hold the Luggabeast up, we would all sing a song as loud as we could so Tom and I could try and take our minds off the pain. Surprisingly after three days of singing the same song it didn’t get old, it just made us laugh a lot and really helped to keep our spirits up.
Another great memory is of a very quick moment in the movie. BB-8 is in the desert by himself and as he rolls by, an alien with large red eyes pokes his head out of the sand and looks at him as he passes. It’s a very quick shot early on in the movie and one that almost didn’t happen.
The sun was setting and we were losing light, so we had about forty-five minutes to get the shot. We started to dig a hole in the sand to put the creature in, because it was on a lever system, sort of like a seesaw. I would push down on the lever and the head would rise out of the sand and then I could turn the head to follow BB8. Digging a hole in the desert is incredibly hard as the sand just starts to fall in on itself so we had a half dozen guys trying to do it. Time was running out, so Neal Scanlan jumped into the hole and started throwing out as much sand as he could. We eventually managed to make a pretty big hole, position the creature in it and then put the sand back in on top of it. Before filming we had a test run. I tried to push down on the lever but the sand weighed so much that it snapped and the head of the creature wouldn’t lift. At this point we only had twenty minutes of sun left, so again Neal came to the rescue! He laid down face first in the sand with his arm on the rod so that as I pushed he would lift the head of the creature the rest of the way so that I could then turn it to follow BB8. We only got about three or four takes in the end, so I was very happy to see that it made it into the movie.
In the 80’s puppeteering was at its peak. Star Wars, The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth are good examples. In the 90’s CGI took over and it seemed old fashioned puppeteering was gone forever. Nowadays puppeteering is coming back; The Force Awakens is a good example. What is your view on this?
I love talking to the guys on set who worked on the original Star Wars, Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, Legend, etc. They have so many great stories about those times. Those were all movies of my childhood and it’s very surreal to be friends with the people that brought those characters to life.
I think the two departments have found a beautiful marriage. It’s so awesome to see practical creatures and affects be so prominent in the film but there was a need for CGI to help us. As I mentioned, for the Luggabeast our legs and the rods attached to the beast were painted out. They also needed to remove Brian Herring from all the shots with BB-8 as he was puppeteering it and Unkar Plutt had some CGI help with his face, etc.
It’s great to be on set and see the two departments working hand in hand and I think that’s a great place to be moving forward from, not only within the Star Wars films but also in the industry as a whole.
Were you a Star Wars fan before you got cast? And in case you were: was being in a Star Wars movie some kind of ‘dream coming true’?
Oh I was totally a Star Wars fan and this was definitely a dream come true. That being said, until I got onto set and started speaking with some of the other guys I didn’t realise how limited my knowledge was! We have some true fans on set, so I’ve been working hard to catch up!
Rogue One is coming up this year and Episode VIII is currently filming. Will we see you in one of these movies as a new character and will Vober Dand return?
I’m really looking forward to the upcoming films. I saw the trailer for Rogue One and think it looks amazing!! Fingers crossed we see some familiar faces in VIII.
I’ll keep my fingers crossed as well! Thank you for the interview!