At the home of Dragon Con’s Star Wars Track inside the Marriott Hotel a filled-to-capacity crowd came to hear about the Special Effects and Make-Up of The Force Awakens. Frank Ippolito was a one-man panel.
While Frank has worked on projects like a Han Solo in Carbonite refrigerator and Adam Savage’s Admiral Ackbar costume shown on Tested.com, his official Star Wars work was as Head Puppet Fabricator at Tippett Studio for The Force Awakens.
He began the panel by diving straight into the project he was a part of for the movie – the Dejarik Holochess sequence. Frank worked on the construction of the stop-motion puppets that are seen when Finn accidentally turns on the board on the Millennium Falcon.
The original chess pieces all needed to be relocated and 3D scanned. Phil Tippett originally made 10 chess pieces for Star Wars (A New Hope), but only eight were used in the movie. Four of the original-used figures were on George Lucas’ desk. Two were in the possession of filmmaker Peter Jackson after purchasing them in an auction. And the last two had to be sculpted from scratch. Archive photos were also pulled to check what the figures looked like back in the 70s. Frank shared that those working on them had named them things like Big, Hunk, Crouch, and Worm.
Once the pieces were all located, photographed/scanned, and cleaned up in ZBrush, they were 3D printed. This was when Frank made matrix molds of the rough 3D prints. The molds were made with clay, fiberglass, and silicone and were three to seven pieces depending on the character. They had to figure out how the armatures that are the base of the stop-motion adjustments fit into the molds. When that was all set, silicone was then injected into the molds. Another option for material would have been foam latex like the originals, but silicone won’t deteriorate the way the foam latex does so that’s silicone was a better choice. Once the new silicone figures came out of their molds, Frank gave them a paint job via air brush.
The chess sequence in The Force Awakens is fairly short, but the Tippett team had to re-animate it about 3 or 4 times. Phil Tippett wanted the sequence to begin where the scene from A New Hope had left off, but other than that there wasn’t initially much in the way of requirements. The first pass of the TFA version had more movement with the figures that are watching the main action celebrating the move. For example one figure was opening and clamping down his claws. The essence of the bit remained the same throughout though – Hunk, who got hit in A New Hope, is now the winner of the move in The Force Awakens.
The whole project took about four to five months. An attendee asked why the chess scene was done through stop-motion instead of CGI. Frank said that it was meant to be a specific throwback and there also was an attitude of “It worked that way before so why not do it again?” Throughout sharing the chess sequence’s story Frank displayed photos from the process. He also had two of the figures on hand for audience members to check out after the panel.
The rest of the panel was rather loose and casual. Unfortunately the make-up part of the panel name was never touched on – probably because Frank did not work on any make-up for the movie even though he has done make-up work for other movies in the past. Often when someone asked a question, Frank would answer it and then ask the question right back to the inquirer. This made for some amusing moments of people sharing things like which Star Wars movie or character was their favorite.
Thanks to audience questions Frank also shared that getting to work on Star Wars was a dream come true and that he got the job by knowing the right people from working with the likes of the Chiodo Brothers and Adam Savage.
He also told a story regarding Adam Savage’s Admiral Ackbar costume that Adam wore to a previous San Diego Comic Con. Adam had found a casting of Admiral Ackbar from an original movie mold. He asked Frank to make a mold of the casting so they could make new pieces. They offered the new mold to TFA’s Creature Supervisor, Neal Scanlan, but they were turned down. A new sculpt of Admiral Ackbar was being made to reflect the Mon Calamari’s aging. Frank said he’d like to make another Admiral Ackbar for a future Star Wars movie.
Some audience members were looking for direction as to where to start if they’d like to build props like Ippolito’s. His advice was mainly to figure out what tools you need as you go and that you should buy nicer tools if you need to use them more than once. Frank talked about how he didn’t go to school to do the work he does now and he didn’t really have any single mentor. Rather he met a lot of people along the way who have helped him become better.
Working with Phil Tippett was clearly an experience that left an impression on him. He says it felt like Tippett loves the process more than whatever exactly the project is for and it was really enjoyable to see his perspective. And since Star Wars was what got Frank Ippolito interested in this line of work, he feels he’s come full circle and “can die happy now.”
If you’d like to learn more, I’ve found Tested.com has two great behind the scenes video about the Holochess Sequence Frank was a part of working on. Check them out right here:
And Tippett Studio has a short reel of their own too:
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