“Hi, I’m calling from Lucasfilm, we need about a dozen cantina aliens in Burbank by Friday.”
When it comes to Star Wars, everyone has that thing they geek out over the most. For me, that’s always been the cantina scene. Heck, I even use that to help people pronounce my name sometimes! “Spina, it rhymes with cantina!” Many of my crew are also Star Wars kids, children of the ’70s whose lives were changed after first seeing that cantina full of rubber monsters on the big screen. It’s fascinating to me how different people enjoy the saga. Some fans dive into the characters, others EU, while still others, folks like me and the people I work with, are enamored with what happened behind the scenes. Even at five years old, I enjoyed the heck out of Star Wars, but I knew that someone, somewhere, made everything I had seen on screen. While my friends wanted to be Luke Skywalker or Han Solo, I wanted to be Graham Freeborn or Jon Berg. I didn’t know who they were yet, but their work instantly inspired me and helped set the direction of my life.
It would ultimately lead me to start my own business creating sculpture, displays, and theming, and eventually the chance to create prototypes for official Star Wars busts and statues for Sideshow Collectibles and creatures and costumes for commercials and videos.
In 2012, we got to bring some of our favorite iconic aliens back to life for Volkswagen’s “The Dog Strikes Back” Super Bowl commercial, which took place in the greatest star bar of them all, the Star Wars cantina. The following year, a call from Nerdist hired us to create 18 aliens and 27 costumes to populate the cantina once again, this time for a comedic music video starring none other than Billy Dee Williams (who was an absolute joy to work with, by the way.)
So back to that call from Lucasfilm. Turns out we had two days to crate up as many costumes and alien parts as we could and get them, and us, headed to California to shoot three videos that we knew literally nothing about. But when someone asks, “Do you want to head up creatures for a new May the 4th collaboration between Youtube and Lucasfilm,” you geek out for a moment, say “Yes!” first, and ask about scripts later!
Lucasfilm and YouTube came up with a great idea — provide three popular YouTube channels with great creatures, great costumes and a phenomenal set (originally built by production designer Ryan Brett Puckett for the Nerdist “West Coast” video, relocated to a Disney stage) and see what they can do in the Star Wars universe. Each production had their own take and style, which made for a very interesting week of shooting.
First up was Corey Vidal. He and his ApprenticeA crew had a great concept. They were going to create an epic lightsaber fight through a crowded cantina. Just one problem — it takes a lot of bodies to fill that bar and production was short on extras! Nearly everyone got to play a background character or alien at some point that day. We dressed the assistant director, the Lucasfilm reps, the makeup artist (Jill Pugh, who did a lovely job on our Tonnika sisters!), my crew (Brian Lewis, Patrick Louie, and John Ciarlone) and yes, even yours truly! We’d all get in for a shot, and when the camera angle changed, we’d re-dress people, swap around wardrobe, and masks and come up with a whole new batch of aliens to create the illusion of a bustling bar.
And in that bustle, there were lots of folks in hot masks and rubber hands that had no way to get out of their alien heads to breath! We worked extremely hard to make our characters and masks accurate to the originals made by Stuart Freeborn and Rick Baker’s amazing crews. Unfortunately, that authenticity comes with a distinct lack of ventilation and it wasn’t unusual to see my crew running around with blowers, jabbing tubes into Bith mouths, Greedo’s ear, or whatever it is Walrusman has on his face!
But between the great camera work, wonderfully geeky attention to detail and stunt coordinating, the visuals were looking incredible. Of the three shoots, I think they seemed the most interested in being faithful to the original scene and coming up with interesting solutions to the limitations at hand (such as a limited selection of aliens and only half a set!). The final day of the Corey Vidal shoot ran long into the evening, as the complexities of numerous costumed characters and stunts challenged the crew, but they got their shots, wrapped their show, and went home. It was a lot of work and a ton of fun, but we, however, had two more shows to shoot…
College Humor would be the next production and my team was very excited about that. As huge fans of their work, we were thrilled to be a part of one of their videos. Their concept was simple and brilliant — Cantina Band auditions. Even better, they corralled lots of famous musicians into doing cameos, better still (for us!), it took place when the bar wasn’t crowded! This gave us (and the actors in the masks) a bit more breathing room.
Their production moved in for three days and immediately impressed. The scripts were funny, the talent amazing, and their lighting and camera work was gorgeous. They made our aliens look fantastic! We had a lot of fun on this shoot figuring out how Walrusman would text (hint, he’s a lefty after the events of Star Wars), how Figrin D’an might express exasperation, and just how high can Weird Al kick?
That last one is no joke. He is one flexible accordion player! And like all of the guest stars, he was a real treat. Many of them would head in for wardrobe with Sara Fox, who also worked on the Nerdist cantina video, then makeup where my friend David Woodruff was tasked with making up the guest stars as Sith, Twi’leks, aliens, and even droids and then stop by our “Monster Room” to check out our creations and even snap selfies. It became a popular room with the various casts and crew, and the question we were asked most was, “are these the original masks from the films?” That did my heart good and made me feel that all our passion (probably bordering on obsession!) and effort were well worth it.
That’s not to say there weren’t bumps in the road. At one point, the production was short a last minute Stormtrooper costume, which led one of Disney’s people to dig up exactly half a trooper for us. As we pointed that out, he was running out the door saying, “I think I know where the other half is!” Sure enough, about 30 minutes later, he returned with the rest of the suit, which we fit to Ben Folds, whose soulful rendition of what is sure to become a modern classic, “I shot an Ewok,” left nary a dry eye in the house.
When College Humor wrapped, we were left to prep for one more production. The folks at Bored Shorts TV came in to round out the week with a whirlwind one day shoot and some great, silly fun. They gave the Star Wars cantina scene their classic “Kid History” treatment. Back were lots of extras and aliens and also making an appearance was Dr. Evazan. We had makeup artist Casey Wong apply our foam face piece made by Rich Krusell. We even let the actor eat lunch before putting him in makeup and teeth, because we’re nice like that (ok, ok, truth be told, that’s an old makeup artist trick… we just didn’t want him loosening the glue by eating! Don’t let him know that, though!). It was another long day but with a great crew who laughed a lot and clearly loved and appreciated their chance to play in the Star Wars universe, even just for a day.
And that’s something we greatly appreciated as well. We love these movies. We love these aliens. We’ve got the deepest possible respect for all the artists who created them. There’s a surreal feeling walking onto a set like this. Sure, you know it’s a set, but when you step into the bar, surrounded by classic aliens, a bit of smoke, bright desert sunlight streaming in through the windows around shadowy figures… then you start to hear the music. Is that Cantina Band #2? Are there speakers running playback? Or is it just in your head? Is this just a final detail, fully immersing you into the world your inner five-year-old always wished he could visit?
Nope, it was someone’s ringtone. What a bunch of geeks. 😉
A lifelong Star Wars fan, Tom’s company Tom Spina Designs creates an incredible range of custom of custom work, from characters and statues to themed home theaters and genre inspired furniture, and has also restored and displayed many of Hollywood’s iconic original props and costumes, including quite a few from the Star Wars saga! Follow them on Twitter @TomSpinaDesigns and on Facebook.