In Creating a Galaxy, StarWars.com looks back at how specific elements from the Star Wars films, animated series, and more were made.
Tauntauns are some of the most beloved creatures in the Star Wars galaxy, even though they appeared only on one planet in one film of the saga. Behind the scenes, creating even one creature was a massive task that went from pre-production all the way until the film’s release. The process from conception to reality is a fascinating one and it all starts with a bunch of sketches.
The Empire Strikes Back Sketchbook features a pair of Joe Johnston drawings of tauntauns from the early days of pre-production. One drawing notes that these designs were before they even knew Hoth was going to be an ice planet. In Johnston’s version, tauntauns looked very much like dinosaur ostriches. Phil Tippett’s design is what would eventually be used in the final film.
Once drawings were made, the crew had to think about how they’d bring the tauntauns to life. Originally, they planned to use actors in tauntaun suits; Dennis Muren, Phil Tippet, and John Berg tried talking the production crew out of doing it, but that was something that money was spent on. Eventually, according to Tippet, “It was [George] Lucas’ decision to have something more original looking than a guy fitted into a suit.”
Fortunately, they decided to invest in the stop-motion animation and sleight-of-hand techniques advocated by Muren, Tippet, and Berg.
The Empire Strikes Back was the first big-budget Hollywood film since King Kong (1933) to use stop-motion techniques. “Previously,” Phil Tippett said, “it had been displaced into the gulag of low-budget fantasy pictures, which Ray Harryhausen had pretty much kept alive during the ‘50s and the ‘60s But now George was going into that territory — and he was upping the production value, bringing his cinematic expertise and design to it. He was very well read and studied in the history of visual effects and knew what you could get.”
To help get a more realistic look and a motion blur, which was absent in early stop-motion efforts, the Industrial Light & Magic team created a device that would vibrate the model at the second the frame was exposed, giving the illusion of movement on film. This technique was called “Go-motion” and was in use until stop-motion animation fell out of favor in major, big-budget films.
Not all of the tauntauns were stop-motion, though. On set in Norway, there was a full-body tauntaun that Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford were able to sit on for wide shots, and a half-tauntaun that was just a head, neck, and back operated by a technician. Gas tubes were run through the tauntaun puppet’s mouth so that the exhalation of its breath would appear on camera in the cold climate. One technician was in the tauntaun manipulating the rough movements. Two others operated the eyes and other wired features.
Tauntauns were much more vital to the plot of the film in early iterations, too. In scenes that were shot and later deleted, the medical droid Too-Onebee examines the bodies of dead tauntauns inside the rebel base. What killed them was a mystery, but it tipped the rebels off about the presence of the wampas, the ice creatures that also played a much larger part in the original story of The Empire Strikes Back. It’s hard to imagine what Empire would have looked like with these scenes still in the film, but there’s every chance people would have loved tauntauns even more than they already do.
One thing that hasn’t been settled is whether or not Luke and Han ever named their tauntauns…
Have some tauntaun thoughts? Let us know in the comments!
Sources: The Making of The Empire Strikes Back by J.W. Rinzler, The Empire Strikes Back Sourcebook by Joe Johnston and Nilo Rodis-Jamero