The Rancor Attack
With Return Of The Jedi, George Lucas wanted to pull out all the stops to finish his saga and give the fans even more of what they loved before. Whilst it could be argued that regurgitating the Death Star attack, albeit with added elements, was repetitive, Jabba’s palace, with even more bizarre creatures than the Mos Eisley cantina, was a fun breather, a throwback to the classic exotic adventures of Ray Harryhausen, like those of Sinbad.
Luke’s battle with the Rancor, Jabba’s giant malevolent dungeon pet, was a wonderful last gasp showcase for stop motion animation, reminiscent of Harryhausen’s giant bronze statue Talos, come to life to battle Jason And The Argonauts. The Rancor was originally conceived as a man in a suit, and Phil Tippett, the puppet creator on the saga, was keen to don the suit himself before the concept was abandoned and they went with a miniature wire framed puppet. Here are some rare photographs of the abandoned suit concept:
Dennis Muren, the miniatures director, shot the stop motion puppet in his cave lair, a model set 30 inches high, the Rancor itself about 18 inches tall. Tippett’s hand animated the head and mouth, while rods moved the rest of the body, operated by several puppetters below. The beast was shot in slow motion, to give the illusion of heavy, menacing movement when viewed normally.
Denis Muren told StarWars.com:
“We tried that originally with a guy in a suit. George thought that might work, and Phil and I were thinking, “This will never work.” But as we got into it, we made a suit that a couple of guys could work with. It was one creature but really being controlled by two people inside of it. It was as big as a person actually is, so it was not a rod-puppet or anything. And it started looking pretty neat, but George pretty quickly said, “No, this is not going to make it.” And we were pretty exhausted, especially me, and I’m sure Phil was, too, from doing go-motion. We didn’t want to go into it for that, and I was always pushing for something different to get rid of the chatter for stop-motion. I think Phil came up with the idea of doing it with a rod-puppet. And that was kind of good. We could hide the rods in the darkness and set the shots up to look like the creature was big.
To get the performance out of it, we did all sorts of… Right away you’ve got Phil or someone’s arm up in this creature. Right away it looks like it’s a muppet or a hand puppet. Even when you’re a kid and you stick a sock puppet on your hand, you know what that looks like. It’s embedded in your mind, and this looked like that. We saw that, and we did everything we could in every shot to have it not look like that. Shooting high speed, shooting slow speed, or shooting things backwards, because bodily, your muscles work differently. The film has got a lot of those shots in it, and most of it we tried to do without doing any matting, because I was not a big fan of matting in those shots. So we did them actually in the camera, except for a couple of shots in there. And we could control the light and the haze and everything on it. And that was kinda good. It was not really a big sequence. It was a tiny little set with five people jammed into it.”
Mark Hamill filmed his Rancor scenes on stage 9 at Elstree against a blue screen for the creature to be added. For close-ups when it picks him up, a large scale hand was built. In a deleted sequence, Luke Force leaps up to the overhead grating where Jabba and his jeering cronies are looking on at the sport below. Luke would then drop onto the Rancor’s eye, before hitting the gate control, and sending it thudding into its skull.
No doubt George Lucas will find a way to work this sequence back into the scene some day, so that the original trilogy will retro-fit with the Jedi acrobatics of the prequels. He probably has techno-wizards working on it in the Skywalker Ranch Lucas cave right now, scanning Mark Hamill’s 1983 face, promising them more funds any day now: “The Blu-rays are selling like hot cakes boys, bwaaahh ha ha!”