It's not wise to upset a Wookiee. The special effects shop founded by the stop-motion master Phil Tippett delves into a holochess match more than 40 years in the making.
Watch closely as Chewbacca and Tobias Beckett engage in a friendly game of dejarik en route to Kessel in Solo: A Star Wars Story, and you’ll see the frustrated Wookiee take his aggression out on the table, slapping at the holographic pieces in vain.
But his brute strength has a lasting effect, a clever Easter egg that explains at least one of the physical alterations on the ship as it changed hands from Lando to Han Solo. As the Wookiee rages, the table sparks, freshly-dislodged buttons tumble to the floor, and two of the game pieces fizzle out of existence, never to be seen again.
As it turns out, the scene wasn’t supposed to play out quite in this way. Conceived as a way to pay tribute to the original stop-motion creatures that were created by Phil Tippett and Jon Berg for the first holochess match aboard the Millennium Falcon in A New Hope, the Solo: A Star Wars Story script called for the resurrection of the complete 10-piece set, based on the original models, says Tippett Studio’s Chris Morley, the VFX supervisor for Solo.
When Morley saw Joonas Suotamo’s performance (and the unintended effect his mighty acting had on the table) he decided his team should add the special effects to obliterate the two pieces on film, bringing the story of the complete holochess set to a conclusion on screen. “He slammed it down with such force it busted two of the little plastic buttons. It’s total serendipity that two of the glowing lights got busted and two of the lost chess pieces were on that board at that moment,” Morley says. He knew what he had to do. “Oh, it’s obvious, they have to glitch!”
Morley recently sat down with StarWars.com to talk about how the tiny puppets from the first Star Wars film influenced the newest set incarnation and why stop-motion is still an essential part of filmmaking today.
‘Waiting in the wings’
It can be said that Tippett, a special effects icon, puts himself into his work, with more than four decades in the field helping to design and shape the movements of stop motion creatures. His namesake studio in Berkeley, California, is brimming with treasures and trophies. Although absent during the interview, Tippett remains in spirit, his head poking up through the snowy terrain on Hoth in a behind-the-scenes photo of him puppeteering a tauntaun for The Empire Strikes Back.
And his presence is still felt in the menagerie on the Millennium Falcon’s dejarik table. After designing and animating the stop-motion creatures for the 1977 production, the props were posed as a trophy and gifted to George Lucas, Morley says. For a time, the puppets sat on the creator’s desk.
In 2015, Tippett Studio was called in to recreate the eight creatures for a scene in The Force Awakens, in which the game pieces flicker to life as Finn accidentally rests his arm on the table. “Phil remembered giving the gift to George,” Morley says, but the modern-day crew at the special effects studio was tasked with tracking them down inside the Lucasfilm Archives at Skywalker Ranch. Once found, they had to be scanned and refashioned. “There’s no touching these little puppets because they were made of foam and latex and after 30-some odd years, if you were to move the arm …it would just crumble,” Morley says.
Updating the puppets to a more durable silicone design, Tippett’s fabricators used some of Tippett’s real beard hair and locks from his daughter, Samantha, to add a tuft along the spine of the hulking puppet whose behind-the-scenes nickname is simply Mr. Big.