How 'Last Jedi' Used Real-World Animals to Create CG Porgs

Star Wars: The Last Jedi Still 4 - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Lucasfilm/Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Star Wars: The Last Jedi introduced audiences to a few new worlds and several fresh fantastical creatures living in a galaxy far, far away.

The film, which was among the 10 to make the visual effects shortlist Dec. 18, brought to life these new furry friends by blending animatronics and CG. "Hopefully keeping the audience guessing," says Neal Scanlan, creature and droid effects creative supervisor.

The fan-favorite porgs, small bird-like creatures that inhabit Ahch-To (Luke Skywalker's remote island hideaway), were designed as a cross between a seal, a puffin and a pug dog.

"These little characters provided a little moment [for the audience] to take a breath," Scanlan explains. "So we tried to tap into the traditions of theater and puppetry."

The porgs that appear on the ground are puppets operated with rods outside the character. "Inside are little mechanisms that allow the eyes to move, the mouth to chirp and express and the feet to bounce up and down," says Scanlan.

Each of these creatures was operated by four to five puppeteers, dressed in green suits and using green rods, all of which were removed digitally during postproduction. Additionally, fully CG versions were developed for use when the little creatures lift off the ground and fly. 

Of course, to fully realize the porgs, the sound team had to give them a voice. Director Rian Johnson "really knew what he wanted," explains sound designer Ren Klyce. "He didn't want them to be irritating or irksome or screechy. He wanted them to feel natural and sweet." The perfect blend was ultimately realized by combining the sounds of a chicken, recorded at Skywalker Ranch; a turkey bird call; and a dove cooing, pitched down. "It's actually very simple, but just to find it took forever," admits Klyce.

Another creature that combined practical effects and CG was the fathier — a cross between a horse, cat and lion. "It runs very much like a cat but has lion and horse features," Scanlan says. And it was challenging to create because of its size: 15-feet tall and 18-feet long.

The horselike creature becomes a key part of Finn (John Boyega) and Rose's (Kelly Marie Tran) visit to the seaside town of Canto Bight, where they help a fathier herd to escape. Action sequences like that chase scene involved CG. "We built a full-scale animatronic with [special effects supervisor] Chris Corbould," Scanlan explains. "It could gallop and buck just as the CG version would, so that the actors were physically on something that they were reacting to, [which helped] when they put together the digital sequences."

During the wild escape, the fathiers crash through a casino in one of the most challenging scenes. "The entrance through the huge glass window of the casino involved a steel skeleton of one fathier complete with steel-shaped head being propelled at speed along a captivated track and through the glass window, shattering glass optics and knocking over tables and chairs," says Corbould.

For more intimate scenes, "Rian wanted them to be practical so [the actors] could react [to each creature]," Scanlan adds. "We had a mechanical head, neck and upper body. On top of that is a foam latex skin that has been covered in hair — thousands of hairs are singularly punched in one at a time to give the coat to the animal. And a computer-controlled performance system allowed the puppeteers to move the eyes, eyebrows, lips, etc. in a choreographed way to get the expressions."

This story appears in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.