Animator (The Star Wars Holiday Special)
Interview: January 2020
In November 1978 one of the most notorious Star Wars productions ever aired on television: the Holiday Special. Whatever they say about singing Leia, Chewbacca’s family and Jefferson Starship’s performance, the overall opinion is that the animation segment was a highlight, also because it was the first encounter with fan favorite Boba Fett. The man responsible for animating Fett was John Celestri.
Over the last four decades you have worked in the animation business. How did you get started?
I’m basically a self-taught animator. I have always enjoyed being a cartoonist, telling stories, and performing. But my parents wanted me to pursue more practical occupations. As scholastic aptitude tests scored me extremely high in the areas of math, verbal comprehension, and abstract reasoning, my more artistic interests remained hobbies as I progressed through my high school and early college years trying to find a field of study that would provide me with an occupation. It wasn’t until I reached my early twenties that I discovered I had a natural ability to animate. I quickly learned that the field of animation encompassed use of both my academic and artistic talents. I became passionate about animating. Back in the early 1970s, there were few books on how to animate and fewer schools that taught animation. In New York City, where I grew up, the School of Visual Arts had a six-week, one night class-a-week, summer course, taught by a former Terrytoons Studio layout/storyboard artist. So I took that. I poured myself into my class project and by the end of the third week had shot my first pencil test reel on the school’s Oxberry camera stand. With my instructor’s recommendation in hand, I showed that 60 second pencil test to every studio in New York City I could. It’s a good thing I loved animating, because job openings were nonexistent and it took me twelve months to get my first freelance gig as an assistant animator on a couple of Hostess Twinkie commercials. But at the age of 25, I gave myself 5 years to see noticeable progress before going in some other direction. I even sent my portfolio to the Disney studio, receiving an encouraging letter but no job offer. However, six months after that letter arrived, I was hired in 1975 at the New York Institute of Technology as an inbetweener to work on the independently produced feature Tubby the Tuba. There I met and worked under the master Popeye and Max Fleischer Studio animators Johnny Gentilella and Marty Taras. During the 14 months I worked on that feature, I developed my skills into a Cleanup Assistant Animator, becoming Supervisor of the Inbetweener Department.
In 1978 you animated Boba Fett for the Star Wars Holiday Special. How did you get to work on this legendary TV show and was your initial reaction after hearing you got to work on an animated Star Wars segment?
I just happened to be animating at Nelvana Studies when the production started. I very much enjoyed seeing the first Star Wars film when it came out in the summer of 1977. I had watched reruns of the old Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials on TV back in the early 1960s, and knew first-hand Lucas’ movie references. It was a ton of fun watching cutting-edge effects being layered over a classic storyline. So, I was excited to get a chance to work on a non-Saturday morning animated adventure. I knew we didn’t have the budget to produce the quality of the Max Fleischer Superman cartoons, but we could give it our best shot! Villains are ALWAYS the most fun to animate. I was originally cast to animate the Devil in The Devil & Daniel Mouse and animated several scenes of that character but I had to switch over to Daniel Mouse because that animator drawing him dropped out of the production; so, I made sure the Nelvana producers made up for it. I jumped at the chance to animate what we at the studio thought would be a major villain in the sequel.
The animated segment of The Holiday Special is considered to be the best part. What is your own opinion about the Holiday Special?
I eagerly awaited the original TV broadcast of the show. Honestly, after watching the first 15 minutes of the live action, I was worried that all the viewers would switch channels before our animated segment which was the best part of the show had a chance to be seen.
The Holiday Special was the first time the general public saw Boba Fett. What kind of instructions did you get from Lucasfilm regarding his creation?
It was George Lucas who requested that the studio I worked for design the look of the cartoon in the style of French artist Jean “Moebius” Giraud, whose work could be seen in Heavy Metal magazine. That direction and a black-and-white home movie showing a person wearing Boba Fett’s prototype costume were basically all the cues we had to work with. All the color models and basic designs had to be okayed by Lucas before production of the cartoon proceeded. Regarding the animation itself, the biggest challenge was how to give a performance without facial expressions. I had to use hand gestures and body attitude. Not so broadly as a pantomime artist, but with economy of movement. I approached playing Boba Fett as a Clint Eastwood-style character in a spaghetti western, with mannerisms expressing a sense of extreme self-confidence. I used macho posing, tossed his rifle across his body from one hand to the other. In one particular scene, I had Boba adjust the fingers of his glove before gesturing with his hand. I timed tilting Boba’s helmeted head to go up and down, side to side to change the arc of the helmet’s rigid eye-opening to reflect the tone of his dialogue delivery. All of these were some of my touches.
In the mid 80’s Nelvana produced two other Star Wars animated shows: Droids and Ewoks. Why didn’t you work on those shows?
By then, I had left Nelvana Studios and was animating for other studios.
Right now Mandalorians are in the spotlight again thanks to The Mandalorian TV series. Have you, being a “Mandalorian Godfather”, seen it?
I don’t subscribe to any of the Disney cable channels, so I haven’t see The Mandalorian TV series.
How do you look back at your Star Wars Legacy?
Actually, I feel quite proud that the animation stands on its own as being the seed that helped grow the character of Boba Fett. Fact is, the Nelvana Studio staff was very young and inexperienced, myself included. I had been in the animation business a mere three years and had been a professional animator for only a year and a half when I did that animation. What it lacks in finesse is made up for with energy and commitment to doing my best and then it was the only performance associated with Boba until The Empire Strikes Back. I was extremely disappointed that the live-action Boba had so little screen time in Empire. Truth be told, I wish the animated sequence in The Holiday Special was officially acknowledged as being part of the Star Wars “Canon”, but that’s not my call.
You currently have an Indiegogo campaign where fans can get a hand drawn Boba Fett sketch. Sounds great! Can you share some information?
I have been a classical 2D pencil-on-paper animator for 45 years. I have always enjoyed capturing quirky personalities with my pencil; and now I want to share some of my favorite character drawings by presenting more than 80 of them in a large-sized 80-page 8.3 x 11.7 inch landscape portfolio, but I need your help to get the funding to lay out and print the book.