Tony McVey, the sculptor who designed and fabricated Salacious B. Crumb — including a new 1:1 replica statue from Regal Robot — and many other denizens of the galaxy far, far away, intended to have a career as a graphic designer.
Growing up in Glasgow, Scotland, McVey fell in love with movie magic and special effects after his father took him to see The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, with stop-motion by Ray Harryhausen. “I’d never seen anything quite like that before, so it really captured my imagination,” McVey tells StarWars.com. After the family moved to England, a then pre-teen McVey became immersed in researching Harryhausen’s other works and the world of stop motion animation. He can still remember the day he learned about King Kong. “(My dad and I) were standing at a bus stop waiting for the bus, it was taking forever to come. And he started telling me, for some reason, about this movie about a giant ape climbing to the top of the Empire State Building and swatting at bi-planes and being shot off. And I thought, ‘Wow, I have to see that.’ And I did see it eventually in a movie theater when I was 13, was on a double bill with The Thing from Another World.”
But when it came time to graduate and enter the world of higher education, McVey says he was encouraged to spend his time on something with a little more job stability. “I went to art school (in Southampton) for three years and studied graphic design, which was totally boring for me,” McVey recalls. “I was advised to get into that because that’s where the money was. If you wanted to be an artist, be a graphic designer, get into graphics.”
Ironically, after McVey finished the program, he couldn’t find any work in his field. So he took his skills and applied for a job as a model maker in the taxidermy unit of the Natural History Museum in London, where he worked for four years creating sculptures for display. That job connected McVey to Arthur Hayward, who had worked with Harryhausen for over a decade, sculpting creatures and effects “from Mysterious Island up until The Valley of Gwangi.” During their downtime on the job, McVey would comb through Hayward’s scrapbooks and examine an Allosaurus model that had been used for Hayward’s final film. Their shared love of movie making eventually led McVey to working in film. Looking back on it, McVey says his parents probably thought his foray into production was little more than “a phase I was going to grow out of and I’d come to my senses and get a real job,” he says. “But I’m still waiting for that to happen.” After a stint with Jim Henson’s studio working on The Dark Crystal, Phil Tippett brought McVey on for Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. McVey sculpted the bodies for the Gamorrean guards, helped Tippett with the first incarnation of the rancor suit that was intended to be worn by a human, and worked on the armature for the massive rancor hand that gripped Luke Skywalker actor Mark Hamill in close-up shots. Occasionally, he even stepped into the hand, he says, a favorite place to pose for photos among the crew.
But while McVey helped with the look of Sy Snootles and many background aliens for Jabba’s Palace, his work is synonymous with the cackling court jester that perched on Jabba the Hutt’s tail: Salacious B. Crumb. The Kowakian monkey-lizard was cooked up in a single night — in about 10 minutes, McVey recalled in The Art of The Mandalorian Season 1 — and was intended to perch on the shoulder of Ephant Mon, a blink-and-you-miss-it part of the crowd. However, the crew, including George Lucas himself, became so enamored with the creature that the puppet quickly got promoted to Jabba’s minion, coming to life at the hands of puppeteer Tim Rose and Mark Dodson who provided the voice. “One day I came in and here was Salacious and I fell in love with Salacious,” Lucas said in The Making of Return of the Jedi.
Recently, StarWars.com sat down with McVey and Regal Robot’s Tom Spina to talk about sculpting the new, limited-edition Salacious replica.
Tom Spina: Tony had worked with us previously on the Gamorrean Fighter maquette from The Mandalorian. It’s the first thing we got to see from Season 2. I immediately fell in love with the sculpt. I thought it was brilliant. Then one of our other sculptors here saw it and he said, “Look at those hands. That’s McVey.” [Laughs] “Nobody does hands like Tony McVey.” So sure enough, we find out that it was one of Tony’s sculpts. That was something that that really kind of put us together. We got to talking. We both love a lot of the same old stop-motion and things like that. And so, you know, the Salacious thing came out of [of that].
Through the whole process, I bugged him with photos and really, really pushed to match not just the character, but the prop. And Tony does — and I don’t know, he’s probably too humble to say — again, brilliant hands. But the texturing on the skin that he did looks like latex and cotton fabrication or latex and tissue, like you would do when you’re fabricating a prop like this. Everything on it is made to feel like that real prop, to look like the prop, to have that sense of kludged together effects [from a] guy working in the middle of the night, I’m sure, after many, many days. That was the whole goal. And much like Tony’s brilliant sculpt on the original prop gave [Salacious] a great foundation, Tony’s brilliant work on our sculpt gave me and our team inspiration. When we then went to do the paint mastering and to do the finished work on it, it has all these great little nooks and crannies that are just made to catch a wash and to pop those details and everything.
StarWars.com: The legend I have heard, Tony, is that you came up with the original in a night. He was going to be this little creature sitting on the shoulder of a background alien. And then everyone just fell head over heels for him and he became Jabba’s little guy. And then, of course, Tim Rose made him this unforgettable screeching thing. So I’d love to hear some of your recollections, both from working on the original, but then also taking that expertise and bringing it into this sculpt.
Tony McVey: OK, well, let’s see if I can remember that far back. Phil Tippett came to me one day in the middle of the 11 months I was working on this project, and he said, “We need a little pet character for one of the background of aliens.” It was for Ephant Mon, which I also worked on. “We need a little pet for this guy. Can you come up with something?” So I went home that night and I scribbled something on a piece of paper. It’s a cross between a parrot and a monkey. And I brought it back the next day and I showed it to him. He said, “OK, go ahead and make that.” It was as simple as that. There’s nothing to it. Just a little background monkey character. And I fabricated the body, which was then stuck to some kind of a, I think, it was a resin-impregnated canvas.… I fabricated the arms and legs, a dowel with rope joints and cover that up the foam to make muscles, and the head was sculpted and cast with foam latex right there in the creature shop. And once I got that back and fabricated a neck for it, we put the skin on it — it’s just tinfoil, wrinkled up tinfoil. I made the mold off of that and cast it in latex. It was very simple. It was very basic. If I’d known it was going to be put on Jabba’s tail, I would have spent more time on it because it was never, ever intended to be up front and center like it ended up.
Tom Spina: There’s something about puppets in general. I got my start in puppetry and I find there are people you’ll talk to who would swear to you that, you know, that they’ve seen a puppet character blink even when it doesn’t have the capacity to. And it’s because there is an immediate connection between performer and character that just has this direct one-to-one movement. And it imbues these things with a level of life that I really think fools you into thinking that they are more articulate than they really are.
The original prop is still in the [Lucasfilm] archives. We do a lot of research at the Skywalker Ranch archives and over the years with my other company, we’ve done restoration work for them on a number of pieces. So we did get to go and look at that real puppet. We got to spend many, many, many hours and days, actually, with it. We were able to measure things. We were able to take photos and really provide Tony with a foundation to make sure that this new sculpt was going to be one-to-one, 100% the same size, the same look, etc. And, you know, we sent Tony a lot of reference photos. Probably way too many reference photos. He can probably sculpt in his sleep at this point. [Laughs]
StarWars.com: So once you twisted Tony’s arm, you got all of that research in the measurements and all that, how long does it take to create the replica start to finish? And also, Tony, I am curious if now that he’s in the spotlight and this is something that’s going to be in people’s homes, if you are tempted or added additional details that you would have liked to see on the original.
Tony McVey: Not really, because I knew Tom was going to look at this thing with the eagle eye and say, “Oh, you can’t do that. That wasn’t in the original, dude, you can’t put that in there.” So, no, I just tried to stick to what was in the original piece. That seems about the safest route.
Tom Spina: We did talk that through early on and it was because as an artist, too, I know that tendency of if I’m redoing something I did in the past, man, I want to make it better.
Tony McVey: I had free time to work on it so I could just devote my time to that. But it still took a long time. About six months.
Tom Spina: Well, he’s bigger than people think, too. It’s the sort of thing that it’s careful, cautious, slow work when you’re trying to replicate something. It’s fast work when you’re creating something for the first time! But to replicate it? It’s a slog. You know, and I feel slightly bad for having asked Tony to do that.
Tony McVey: But only slightly.
Yeah. I’ve gotten used to all that stuff because I’ve been doing this for 48 years now. So you kind of get into a pattern of doing things. So I guess I’m there by now. This is the fourth one I’ve done.
StarWars.com: Why do you think this character has such enduring appeal and why do you think you keep getting asked to come back and create, if not a replica of Salacious Crumb, a similar version of that creature for The Mandalorian?
Tony McVey: Well, that’s a good question. I wish I had an answer for that. I don’t really know what is so popular. It’s kind of a mystery to me. But I don’t know, there’s something about his personality and you can thank Tim [Rose] and Mark [Dodson] for that.
Tom Spina: [Laughing] I’ll jump in because I fear that Tony may be too humble to ever say it, but…
Tony McVey: Well, I’m mystified by it, that’s what it is.
Tom Spina: There is life and energy in that sculpture. That is a character that even as a still piece — ours is a static replica — But even as a static piece, it pops. It jumps at you. It wants to live. And Tim certainly did a wonderful job bringing it to life for the movie. But Tony brought so much to the table in that initial sculpting fabrication of that puppet that you can’t help but find character in it. And to me, that’s the mark of a brilliant sculptor, that sense of character that comes through in what they make.
So with our Salacious, when we first started looking at him, we were trying to come up with the right pose for him. And I think Tony was the one who suggested doing a maquette, so he actually sculpted a little mini version. And I had in mind that I wanted him to sit on a stone block. And so he made a little block, I think, out of Bondo or something like that. It couldn’t have been more than six or eight inches tall in total, including the block he was sitting on. So it was quite small. But I found it useful to do stuff like that just to work out the pose and the proportions and so on before you get into the big thing. It helps save a lot of the time, actually.
StarWars.com: How big is the final 1:1?
Tom Spina: Sitting on the block? We actually just did his measurements yesterday like we were fitting him for a suit.
StarWars.com: He’s getting ready for his debut.
Tom Spina: He’s, I believe, about 28-inches tall, including the block he sits on and including a little hair. And it’s about 20-inches deep and about 16 inches wide. And that’s down to the tail sticking out a little and his foot sticking in the front. Overall, if you were to take him as a puppet and say from his bottom to the top of his fluff, he’s about 18 inches tall
It’s just so cool seeing it sort of slowly come to life. You have pieces, you have elements, things that are just maybe they came in and they’re [painted in] primer and they’re just gray. And then we’re figuring out, how are we going to make it so we can put the glass eyes in and all of this other stuff? And then to get your first samples that come out of the molds, the eyes get installed. And now this thing that you’ve been looking at is looking at you. And that’s the moment, you know, even before we put the paint on, that’s when this is like, “Oh, this is going to work.” From there, it’s a lot of hand paint, a little bit of airbrush paint, and a little gloss here and there, a little flat finish here and there, and the tufts of fur. Sure enough, before you know it, he’s ready to cackle.
Tony McVey: I think I did a few drawings before just to try and figure out what might be a workable pose. But, you know, those things like that can always change. I mean, you can still alter the position of the limbs a little bit.
StarWars.com: I imagine after 48 years of experience you have an eye for this at this point.
Tony McVey: You would hope so!
StarWars.com: And the block with the symbol of Jabba’s tattoo. Tell me about adding that in, because, of course, you know, nobody — well, somebody has a Jabba at home that this can sit on, but not everybody who’s going to get Salacious home has a Jabba to perch it upon.
Tom Spina: We wanted to find something fun to do with that block. We knew we wanted it to have the rounded vertical corners and the slightly sharper horizontal corners to match the feel of Jabba’s dais. And we knew we were going to stain it in the similar way with the brown drips and the stone look and all of that. But I wanted to give one little extra thing that really connected it back to Jabba’s Palace.
I love that symbol, Jabba’s tattoo. It’s this great asymmetrical, hand-drawn looking thing. We wanted it to just look ancient and old and, you know, that Star Wars lived in universe look. And I think it just makes it something a little special. And that sort of symbol, that’s my kind of thing. That’s stealth geek. People really have to know the property to know what that is. And, you know, if you’re coming to us for that 1:1 replica that feels like the prop, you’re exactly the type of person who’s going to know what that symbol is.
With so much of this, we’re just trying to capture what Tony did on that original. You know, once that sculpture is in place, we then have to do that finish work. Tony gave us these fingernails with lots of crevices and grooves and things like that in them, and that lets us find all those grooves and put dirt in. And that’s when things really come to life.
Tony McVey: That’s why the grooves were in there.
Tom Spina: You put the dirt on, you wipe the dirt away or whatever the prop wants, it keeps. That’s the way we like to do it around here. And so that gives him that life. That gives him some history and some story. He’s been around forever. His nails are not clean. He’s not getting a manicure anywhere. And then the little the fluff, the fur, we wanted to make sure that we were using the same shag fur that they used on the originals. Anybody that’s ever done a movie monster, a puppet can recognize that a mile away. Luckily, it’s still being made. It’s still in the same color. We do run a little bit of color into it just to age it a little bit. So it doesn’t look like it’s bright orange or anything like that and kind of like the nails. You want it to look like it’s existed for a while, but from there it’s patterning things up, make sure that everything lays in the right places and then we can glue everything on. We blend here and there. He gets his little tufts of fur on his cheeks and the tips of his ears, and of course, yes, the little top fluff is so important.
StarWars.com: Tom, you said it really beautifully before. You’re working on this, you’re looking at it for so long, and one day it looks back at you. So I’m curious, Tony, for your part of the sculpt when is the moment when you feel like, “OK, I’m done.”
Tony McVey: You need to be careful about that. If it matches the look I’ve seen in my brain before I started, or it matches the artwork, that’s when you know. Maybe it goes a little bit beyond just the point where you think, “OK, OK, this is good. This has a personality to it.” And you get to know what that moment is pretty soon.
StarWars.com: Tony, why do you think you’re so great at capturing these creatures and aliens that spring to life that are nothing of this world? What fever dream do you think these little guys come out of?
Tony McVey: That’s a good question. I don’t know where these things come from. I think it must be… when I was a teenager, I looked at a lot of comic books and science fiction. Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ray Bradbury and I don’t know who else. And I watched a lot of movies and got into the history of movies and all these classic monsters and so on. And it definitely had an influence on me. The rest of it, I have no idea where it comes from.
StarWars.com: It’s just that perfect stew of those things that you love filtering through your brain and coming back out creatively, I guess.
Tony McVey: Yeah. Wonderful. Funny how that works, isn’t it?
Regal Robot’s Salacious B. Crumb 1:1 Prop Replica Statue Dual-Signature Edition, signed by Tim Rose and Tony McVey, is limited to 150 pieces and will be available for order on August 24, 2021 at noon EST only on RegalRobot.com.
Associate Editor Kristin Baver is the author of the book Skywalker: A Family At War, host of This Week! In Star Wars, and an all-around sci-fi nerd who always has just one more question in an inexhaustible list of curiosities. Sometimes she blurts out “It’s a trap!” even when it’s not. Follow her on Twitter @KristinBaver.
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