The Untold Story Behind The Force Awakens’ Best Easter Egg
Spoilers for The Force Awakens follow—tread lightly. (Do we still have to do this? Sigh.)
There are countless callbacks to the original trilogy in The Force Awakens, from trash-compactor jokes to AT-ATs. But one easter egg for eagle-eyed fans, which only appears in three shots, took an entire year to produce. After Han Solo and Chewbacca meet Finn, Rey, and BB-8 aboard the Millennium Falcon, Finn leans over a familiar tabletop—and a holographic board game, known as Dejarik, comes to life. It’s the same one Chewbacca and R2-D2 played against each other in the original 1977 film. And just as the Star Wars sequence was animated by special-effects legends Phil Tippett and Jon Berg, this one was created by Tippett Studio utilizing classic stop-motion animation.
Like pretty much everything from the original trilogy, the creatures from the game have been so mythologized that they’ve been given extensive backstories, despite only appearing in one scene: right after the Millennium Falcon escapes a group of Stormtroopers in Mos Eisley. “All of the holochess puppets actually now have official Wookiepedia names,” says Niketa Roman, Tippett’s PR Specialist. “But Phil calls bullshit on that. He used to call them, like, ‘the worm-looking one’ and ‘the green bobbly one.’”
It all started with Abrams approaching Phil Tippett with an idea for a quick gag for Dejarik’s reappearance. “The cool thing,” says Tippett VFX supervisor Chris Morley, “was that JJ wanted to create it in that stop-motion fashion.”
Fortunately, the team was already putting in after-hours time working on Mad God, a stop-motion movie that Tippett had first begun back in 1990. “If we hadn’t been doing that stuff when this came across our desks,” Dubeau says, “we probably would’ve punted on this—or insisted on doing it digitally.”
Tracking Down The Past
In order to recreate the holochess sequence as accurately as possible, the staff at Tippett first had to track down the original figures from 1977. Four figures—the only ones that originally moved—were housed in the Lucasfilm archives, a gift to George Lucas after the movie’s shoot wrapped. But since most of those figures were constructed with Sculpey clay, they weren’t exactly built to last. “They were in really bad shape,” says art director Mark Dubeau. “Some of them were crushed, frozen in action poses, a lot of the detail had been eradicated.”
Two other figures had been purchased at auction by Peter Jackson—which makes sense, given his affection for creature effects, both practical and digital—and were being housed at Weta in New Zealand. “That was perfect because at the time Weta had a much more robust system for scanning, says Roman: “They were able to give us real 3D scans, compared to the photogrammetry for the other puppets.”
The other two proved impossible to find. Roman tried to track them down, but apparently they had been given to Star Wars/Empire Strikes Back producer Gary Kurtz, who passed them to his children; ultimately they were sold at a private auction to a non-disclosed buyer. “I hit a dead end,” Roman says.
Ultimately, the Tippett team was able to use photogrammetry, Weta’s 3D scans, and original production photos to reconstruct all eight of the creatures. Once modeled, the designs were sent out for approval from the Star Wars production team, and then 3D-printed; those resin models were used to make molds so the creatures could be created from silicone, with metal armatures for articulated movement.
Then the team used two Canon setups with different lenses, fitted to a grid system; using Dragonframe software, they were able to see just how the creatures would appear in the actual shots taken during production on The Force Awakens. Their goal was to pick up precisely where the Dejarik game left off in A New Hope: R2-D2’s game piece lifting and slamming Chewbacca’s, a creature the animators referred to as “Hunk.” After analyzing the 1977 sequence, the team determined how to place the creatures in the exact same positions they were at the end of the original scene. In The Force Awakens, the game continues; once Finn turns on the table, as Dubeau says, “Hunk gets back up and exacts his revenge on the guy who threw him down.”
Appreciating The Future
Since Tippett was working on other projects throughout, it took about a year to complete the short sequence needed for the easter egg in The Force Awakens. (In contrast, it took Tippett and Berg only two weeks to sculpt and shoot the original sequence for A New Hope.) “What we were doing was essentially digital archaeology to match it up to the original,” says Dubeau, ticking off the process’s various steps. “To animate just one second of footage takes almost a whole day,” says Morley, “especially when you have eight characters.”
But the results are undeniably entertaining—another reminder that the spirit of the original Star Wars continues on with the new Disney trilogy. While Phil Tippett remains a practical-effect purist, though, some elements of the holochess reconstruction might just worm their way into future projects. “He hates computers, he thinks they’ve destroyed film completely,” says Roman. “But by the time it was over, he was like, ‘Wow, what else can 3D-printing do?’”
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