Welcome to From Concept to Screen, an ongoing series about the various stages of production that your favorite character, vehicle, creature, location, or scene of the Star Wars saga had to undergo before arriving on the silver screen.
Despite being associated with the vile Tusken Raiders, the bantha itself is a lovely creature and dubbed by Anthony Daniels (C-3PO) as “one of the best things in the movie.” With a toy version appearing as a prop in the infamous Star Wars The Holiday Special, the bantha quickly grew to be a favorite not only with the fans, but also among the cast and crew.
“Bantha” as a word appeared as early as The Star Wars rough draft (dated May 1974), in which we meet an enemy Sith Lord (who were way more frequent before Darth Vader and the Emperor) who was called — or had the call sign — “Banta Four.” With the Sith warriors mostly disappearing in later drafts, it was the second draft (dated January 1978) that introduced “Banta One” as a Rebel fighter during the attack on the Death Star. Curiously enough, the second draft also mentions a Grey Tusken — special soldiers working for the Empire to track down the droids.
Banthas as a creature were first mentioned in the third draft of the film (dated August 1975) as “monstrous banthas” ridden by a group of savage desert nomads called the Tusken Raiders. Their attack on Luke after he spotted the beasts of burden was also included.
Early concept art from Ralph McQuarrie imagined the bantha to be played by a horse, as he drew an image on how a bantha head might look over a horse head. The drawing features the familiar shaggy coat and what appears to be two horns around the mouth of the horse. At this point in time it also appeared that the Tusken Raiders were to be portrayed by little people or children, but after the Jawas became the pint-sized Tatooine dwellers, the Raiders grew to human form and banthas swelled to the size of elephants.
The well-known painting of Ralph McQuarrie featuring the Tusken Raiders on their banthas was a prime example of what George Lucas wanted to do with Star Wars: take something from the real world that everybody will know and recognize right away, and give it a twist so that it looks different and interesting. As Lucas would say: “You look at that painting of the Tusken Raiders and the banthas, and you say, ‘Oh yeah, Bedouins…’ Then you look at it some more and say, ‘Wait a minute, that’s not right. Those aren’t Bedouins, and what are those creatures back there?’”
The bantha was played by a 22-year-old female Asian elephant named Mardji. At the time she was a resident of Marine World Africa U.S.A. (currently known as Six Flags Discovery Kingdom and in a new location), where she was trained to perform tricks like waterskiing. It took six crew members to make Mardji a costume that would fit her and that she would tolerate. The base of this costume was a howdah (an elephant saddle) with added palm fronds to create the shaggy coat of a bantha. They then added a special head mask that was molded from chicken wire and then sprayed with foam to give it shape. The beard was made from horse hair, while flexible home ventilation tubing was the base for the curving horns. While the weight of the head mask caused some concern, it was actually the shaggy tail that was made from wood and covered with thick thistles that took some getting used to for Mardji.
It was in January 1977, after Lucas had to rearrange the pickup shoots due to the accident that Mark Hamill was in while driving to the shooting location, that Mardji’s scenes were shot. This happened in Death Valley, or to be more precise, in Desolation Canyon. For more information on this shooting location as well as the others that took place in Death Valley, visit StarWars.com’s Galactic Backpacking series.
It was the first time that Mardji came outside in the wild, and she apparently loved it there in Death Valley and played in a creek during shooting breaks. To make the shoot less unpleasant, one of her usual trainers was dressed as one of the two Tusken Raiders and she was fed many apples as a reward. Her trunk would pop out of her costume from time to time despite her training, but the cast and crew (George Lucas among them) loved the elephant too much to get impatient. To get the shot of the two banthas that Luke spots, they used optical compositing.
The distinct moaning sound of the bantha came from Ben Burtt’s need to record as many bear sounds as possible to create the voice of Chewbacca. Among those recordings are some that were given to Burtt from a documentary producer named George Casey, who had recorded animal sounds across the world. These bear recordings were then slowed down to create the sound for the banthas.
Mardji after her bantha career
During the production of The Empire Strikes Back, special effects artists Dennis Muren, Phil Tippett, and Jon Berg would pay a visit to the elephant and shot footage of her which was used as a reference for the movements of the AT-AT walkers. Mardji had to be euthanized in November 1995 after suffering from chronic bone inflammation. Her bantha costume was on display at Marine World Africa U.S.A. for quite some time, but due to it being unprotected against the elements it deteriorated and was later destroyed.
The digital bantha
With the digital era of moviemaking, it was considered easier to create a digital bantha rather than finding a new elephant to dress up in a costume. The first digital model was seen in the Special Edition re-release of Return of the Jedi in 1997, in which a whole herd of digital banthas was added to the movie right before we see Jabba’s sail barge sail across the Tatooine sands towards the pit of Carkoon and the mighty sarlacc.
This model seems to be re-used and slightly updated with shorter horns for The Phantom Menace, in which the digital bantha appears in the background when Qui-Gon Jinn, Padmé, and Jar Jar enter Mos Espa. It appears again in Attack of the Clones — a small herd can be seen in Mos Espa next to the docking bay that Anakin and Padmé land in.
Due to the unique style of the 3D animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars, a whole new model was made for the bantha’s appearance in The Clone Wars movie, where it was seen once again grazing in a herd among the deserts of Tatooine. While we had seen bantha graveyards before in Legends materials, we also saw a bantha’s skeleton in the film.
Sources: The Making of Star Wars, The Making of The Empire Strikes Back, The Sounds of Star Wars, and A Gallery of Imagination: The Art of Ralph McQuarrie.
Sander de Lange (Exar Xan) from the Netherlands, worked on the “Rogues Gallery” feature in Star Wars Insider and wrote the backstory for Niai Fieso through “What’s the Story?” He is an editor for TeeKay-421 — the Belgian Star Wars Fanclub — and is an administrator for the Star Wars Sourcebooks page on Facebook. Being born in Deventer, a city used to shoot the world-famous movie A Bridge Too Far, he’s always had a passion for shooting locations and tourism, in which he hopes to find a job.