Not only are there a fantastic nine NFTS alumni credited on the highly anticipated Star Wars: The Last Jedi, but our very own Model Making for Animation Diploma course leader, John Lee was Prop Maker on the film. We caught up with him to find out what it was like making props for one of the most talked about films of the year.
(NFTS alumni credits include: Production Sound Mixer, Stuart Wilson; Boom Operator, Tom Fennell; Compositing Supervisor, Dan Snape; Compositor, Adam Arnot; Location Coordinator, Caterina Boselli; Stand-By Art Director, Huw Arthur; Concept Designer, Kim Frederiksen; Concept Artist, Tim Browning and Junior Set Designer, Paul Savulescu.)
What was it like working as prop maker on Star Wars: The Last Jedi ?
John: “It was fantastic; we all had to keep pinching ourselves at the time! By the time we started on The Last Jedi, I had already done Rogue One, so I knew what I was letting myself into. I worked with a large team of prop makers at Pinewood Studios, under the supervision of Jamie Wilkinson (Prop Master) and Mark Rocca (Head of Department, Prop Making). At times, there were up to 60 of us working on everything from weapons, hand props, and set decoration, which is where my speciality lies. The scale on a production like this is epic! The main difference of course is that everything is full size rather than in miniature, so there are scale challenges, plus the sheer size and weight of the objects all has to be taken into consideration. The whole process takes months, so the very long hours tend to have an effect, so it’s all about trying to pace yourself.”
What kind of props were you making and did you face any particular challenges making them?
(Rian Johnson directs Daisy Ridley in a scene from Star Wars: The Last Jedi standing in front of one of the large scale props John made for the film.)
John: “I was concentrating on set decoration, so I worked closely with the Art Department. Most of the items and sets I worked on were full size and part of the sets rather than hand props which generally have much more engineered elements. I’m no engineer, and in any case, the department has specialists who did an amazing job in that area. The main challenges are always time based, as there is always a rush for everything. Each department on a film of this size follows the shooting schedule from main and second units, so depending on where they are shooting, or whether they are on location, that dictates our workflow.”
What kind of materials/ techniques did you use and are you teaching your students any of these on the NFTS Model Making Diploma?
(NFTS Model Making for Animation Diploma students at work)
John: “The interesting thing about model making and prop making is that you are using the same transferrable skills all the time, so the kind of techniques I’m teaching here will be transferable, so should the students go onto working on bigger film projects, they will have put into practice the basics. The main difference is scale. Often, it is not necessary to put the same level of detail into a prop on Star Wars, as it’s going to be a few feet from camera as part of a large cockpit or set, and in any case, the audience should be looking at the actors and not the props. On the stop frame model sets here at The NFTS, we have to show all the detail, because the set is a scale miniature, and the end result will be blown up onto the big screen, so the level of detail has to be in there and made to a very high standard. The kind of materials we are using are pretty much the same – Acrylics, MDF, etc.
Can you reveal any behind the scenes prop making secrets?
Ha…! Not really…..! We have to respect the NDA’s which we all sign when we sign up to a film such as The Last Jedi, however, I will say that you always have to think two steps ahead, and generally expect the unexpected, because the very nature of the film making process is that it is fluid throughout the build process, and directors change their mind! So it always good to be able to offer an alternative Plan B should this arise. The other thing is try to get some sleep as you’ll need it!
For more information about the NFTS Model Making for Animation Diploma, please visit www.nfts.co.uk/modelmaking