Lynette Eklund (Ackbar puppeteer – Star Tours Tokyo)

Lynette Eklund
Admiral Ackbar puppeteer for the Star Tours ride in Disneyland Tokyo
Interview: November 2022

Alhough the buildings are different, the original Star Tours ride and pre-show were the same in Disneyland Anaheim, Disneyworld Orlando and Disneyland Paris. Tokyo Disneyland however was slightly different with an expanded pre-show that featured everyone’s favorite Mon Calamari: Admiral Ackbar,  on a viewscreen. The puppet and segment was created by puppeteer Lynette Eklund, who has contributed to many well-known films and franchises, including Jurassic Park, Species and even Teddy Ruxpin! For this website she answered several questions about her Star Tours contribution and teases the possible return of a classic 80’s alien!

What got you in the special effects business? Was it a movie, an experience or something else?

I decided when I was in 5th grade that I wanted to go to Hollywood and work for the movie industry. I didn’t know then in what capacity, but I knew I wanted to be involved. I loved watching movies, any kind of movie, drama, horror, adventure, musical… It didn’t matter what it was really, I was all about anything with a good story. But I have to say, I was partial to the Fred Astaire musicals and the Hammer mummy movies. I guess, at the time, I thought I would be a dancer in musicals, but then by coincidence, when I went to Hollywood, the first people I met were monster makers, so the monsters won out. Funny, how during my career, I not only build suits and puppets, but puppeteered and suit performed as well, so essentially, if you equate body movement in creatures with dancing, I guess you could say, I got to do both!

You created the Admiral Ackbar puppet for Tokyo’s Star Tours ride, as well as several other puppets for Disneyland. How did you get this job?

My dear friend, Terri Hardin, is an Imagineer. Imagineers are not allowed to simultaneously freelance for Disney. So, when the people in need of puppets for the Pan Galactic Pizza Parlor in Tokyo asked Terri for a recommendation, she gave them my name. I bid and was awarded the job, where I in turn hired her to work for me, so we could work together. The day I delivered the Pan Galactic puppets, which Terri and I also puppeteered, they were so pleased that they pulled in another gentleman to see them. He was looking for someone to make the Admiral Ackbar puppet. I bid and won the job as well, so Terri and I continued our little Disney shop in my apartment, delivered Ackbar and puppeteered him as well.

Lynette (left) with the Ackbar puppet
Photo credit: Lynette Eklund

What instructions did they give you? Was it like “we want Ackbar, good luck”, did they provide you with reference photos or something else?

They handed me a polyfoam pull of Ackbar’s head from the Star Wars mold and said, “match this, only in hand puppet size.” They didn’t check the progress along the way. They just told me when to have it done and we did it.

What was the hardest thing you experienced while working on the Star Tours project?

Puppeteering in prerecorded Japanese when you don’t know Japanese! Lip syncing is one thing, but giving Ackbar attitude and posturing was another. Terri knows basic Japanese, so she would roughly translate the line, so I could give his mechanical eyes the proper attitude.

Have you actually been on the Star Tours ride in Tokyo to see your creation “in action”? What is your opinion of the ride?

Oh, how I wish I could. I’ve never had the privilege of seeing either one of my Tokyo projects live. Both projects were filmed in Burbank, and then the footage was sent over for the installation.

Did you see any of the three Star Wars films prior to creating the Ackbar puppet? Were you a Star Wars fan?

I absolutely had seen all three movies before making Ackbar! I knew who he was, and was pretty geeked out over the idea of not only building the puppet, but over having an actual copy of his head temporarily in my possession, even if it was just a big white foam one. It was a bit of a touch behind the scenes of one of the biggest movie franchises of the time. I was pretty cool.

Photo credit: Lynette Eklund

Besides Ackbar you also created several aliens for a pizza restaurant in Disneyland. I looked those up and they look great. Very 80’s! Where did you get your inspiration for them?

Those puppets were quite a kick to make! The producer had drawn some thumbnail sketches on a big piece of paper. That’s it. Just thumbnails. No finished art. No turnarounds. Just concept sketches that were only a couple of inches tall. That’s all I ever had to reference. They turned me loose in a way I never dreamed Disney would do. I called them “junk puppets” because they were made with pieces from model kits, shower curtain rings, L’eggs panty hose containers, an old hair dryer hose, and all kinds of other miscellaneous pieces of whatever would give me the shape I wanted. About a third of the way into building these things in my one-bedroom apartment, I asked them to come by and see if I was on the right track. They came, they stood there and looked at them, and said, “They’re looking fine. See you on set.” They never checked on them or looked at them again until the first day of shooting. The trust they had in me was unreal!

Some of the Pan Galactic Pizza Port puppets made by Lynette.
Photo credit: Lynette Eklund

Of all the puppets you’ve created you must have a favorite. Which one is it?

Out of every puppet in my career, I’d have to say the coolest is obviously the Raptors for Jurassic Park: The Lost World and Jurassic Park 3, but the one I had the most fun with was the mouse from Mouse Hunt. Working with Gore Verbinski is every bit as much fun as you’d imagine it being. As for the ones in the Pan Galactic series, it would have to be the Trash Guy. He was shy and goofy, and we actually puppeteered him by sitting in a dumpster in the middle of Disneyland while the park was open. Now there’s something not many people can say. Lol!

Since this is a Star Wars site I put the emphasis on Star Wars, but you have done so much more in your career. Species, The Relic and even cult classics as Ghoulies II and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. A double question: Which project are you most proud of, and what is the best story or anecdote you can share from one of the films you’ve worked on?

Gosh! Picking favorites is always a tough thing. There are SO many projects I’ve loved for so many different reasons. One that comes to mind is the Sil for Species. When I was brought onto that project, it was right after I had wrapped on Tank Girl. Now, Tank Girl was a strange film with a budget that was too low for the ambition, so there was only enough money to sculpt one Ripper suit, but then the production hired people to be Rippers and stuntmen for the Rippers that ranged in sizes from 5’9″ tall to 6’3″, and weights fluctuating by a good 50 pounds. So, I became very good at altering foam latex suits that were never intended to be able to be altered. When I started, they, too, had sculpted and molded the Sil suit in foam latex. It looked beautiful on Dana (Hee, the actress who played alien Sil), until she moved. Then it buckled and wrinkled and ruined all those beautiful lines H. R. Giger had designed. I convinced Steve, my boss, to trust me, and right there in front of him, I took scissors and started gashing big pieces out of this incredibly expensive suit. It worked and Sil was able to stay smooth in every position. But that’s not ever where the coolness for me ended. There were a couple of different days where Dana wasn’t available, nor, for various reasons, the stuntwomen weren’t either. Since I was the same size, I ended up wearing and performing Sil for part of the underwater dream sequence as well as the birth sequence in the cave. And then, when it came time for the promo photo shoot, I wore the suit for the photography session, so it is me in the Sil portion of the posters and box covers. Right before the film opened, I was driving over the Hollywood hills to buy some fabric. I stopped at a stoplight and a public bus crossed through the intersection. Covering the entire side of the bus was a decal of me as Sil. How I wish now that cell phones with cameras had been a thing back then! I was only credited as effects team and puppeteer rather than cast, because the production insisted on only using stunt women in the suit, so on set, I was always told to “shhh…”. But I think enough time has passed now for them not to fire me. (Laughs)

Lynette as Sil, the main character from Species

What are you doing these days? Can you tell us something about your current and future projects?

I’m working on several things–almost all of which I cannot talk about because of Nondisclosure Agreements. I can say, one is for streaming, and a couple of others are for pilot web series. but other than that, until they are released, I will respect my NDAs and say no more. About the only ones I can mention are that I’ve been doing some commission fur suit things; I’ve produced a low budget movie that is turning out way better than the budget should have been able to create; and with Paul’s permission, I can tell you I rebuilt ALF’s body for Paul Fusco, for a reboot that is in negotiations. Beyond that, I’ve created the first in a line of fairy tale picture books set in middle America called Giggling Pumpkins, and I’m painting the pictures for the second one, Whispering Corn, right now.

ALF, I liked that show back in the 80’s, watching it every single week. I hope it returns to television. Thank you for your time!

For more information of Lynette’s work please visit her website! For the Giggling Pumpkins book check out Amazon!