Mike Quinn played Nien Nunb in Return of The Jedi as a puppet, and now thanks to advances in technology, he is able to wear an animatronic mask and full costume in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. Perhaps he will return for Episode IX?
Mike, you started with Nien Nunb as a puppet, now you’re performing him live. Is there a benefit to either? Which is harder? Which do you prefer?
That’s interesting, they’re both very different. When he was a puppet the limitations were, he was kind of stuck in one place, you know because he didn’t exist from the waist down. I could watch what I was doing on a monitor, so I could see the performance that I was giving through the camera lens. But the negative is that it’s hard to get him to move around and interact with other characters when he’s just a half puppet. Also I had two other puppeteers helping me to do the eye blinks and the ear wiggles and cable controls, so it’s a much cruder puppet. It was like a glorified muppet with eye blinks essentially, with my hand in his mouth. So, fast forward thirty-two or three years and suddenly we have computers and micro servos, so now I can look through his eyes. I can see the world as Nien Nunb really would see things, and I can walk around on set and interact with the actors and enter and exit and be part of the regular guys now, which is really interesting.
Now I only need one guy to work the face, because he’s got a lot more articulation. And that goes through a computer interface so I work really closely with a face performer, (face puppeteer) and we rehearse with the head off and I have him watch what I’m doing with my face. What the emotions are, and what I’m wanting from the face, what expression I’m looking for. If I’m doing a specific turn, or slow blink, something like that. So, it’s a different approach, but the thought process is still the same with the character, that’s the interesting thing. You’re still the same guy, he’s a little more serious now that he’s older, there’s more at stake. Back then he was like I was. He was young, happy go lucky, optimistic ‘oh we can do this, no problem!’, but now he’s older, he really understands the gravity, I think, of the situation. So we’re seeing a much more serious Nien Nunb. But we’ll see what happens in the next movie. I hope we’ll see a little of that younger Nunb come out maybe at some point, which will be nice.
So you’re wanting to go on record as being involved in Episode 9?
Well I’m assuming so because he lives. He’s on the Falcon at the end of The Last Jedi, so he has to be, doesn’t he?
So you’re just waiting for the call and then you’ll go and put him on again?
Absolutely. Well the next thing he’s going to be in is one of the new rides for the Disney parks…they announced that recently so now I can talk about it. They made a big deal out of it, Nien Nunb coming back, you know they got the original voice guy back again from Return Of The Jedi, so that he can be an authentic Nien Nunb.
That was a great story tracking him down for The Force Awakens.
“Yeah, so they recorded him for the ride and so I’ll film my stuff in a few weeks. It’s going to be good! I’m excited!”
Wearing the animatronic mask, do you have difficulty expressing emotion, when you can’t express yourself through your face?
Noooo, no not at all. I take an actors approach when I’m inside the costume. So, I still have to feel what he’s feeling. I’m still creating, you know, the body posture, whether your muscles are tense or relaxed. Whatever I’m feeling, as though it was me, not the mask. I’m still going through those same thought processes, and I’m still feeling what I would feel as an actor to make it real, and communicating that through my body. The only difference really between me performing as an actor, and me performing inside a costume, is it’s a little cleaner. I have to be a little more exaggerated, because you don’t have all the subtleties of a human face that you would normally have, with an animatronic mask. So everything has to be that little bit clearer, and more specific. So it’s very obvious whether he’s excited, or sad, or concerned. With animatronics it’s a slightly different execution, but the acting is still the same. So I’m still acting away inside, because that’s what will come through. Through the body language of the posture, and even through the head too. I have radio communication with my face guy, so we can talk to each other to make sure we’re on the same page.
So for example, ‘when I tip my head back, open the eyes wide’
Mmm, or if I’m going to look up at something, and then I’m going to do this change, this beat change, I want you to do a blink on that. And then he’ll do a different facial expression, you know from thoughtful to sad. We’ve worked all of that out ahead of time, it’s not random at all, it’s all very specific, just as an actor would do, they plan everything out, think about the beats.
You’ve been directed by George Lucas, Richard Marquand, JJ Abrahms, and Rian Johnson, can you comment on the differences between them.
On Return of the Jedi, Richard Marquand was very quiet from my side of things, he would more direct through David Tomlin, the first A.D. (Assistant Director), so we would get more of our directions from him. Usually I was left to do whatever I wanted, with something like Nien Nunb in the Falcon cockpit, the movie was running a little bit behind so Richard Marquand was directing the Rancor pit on stage five. George Lucas directed the cockpit scenes with Billy Dee and myself, which wasn’t in the ‘making of’ book, but that’s what happened. I wrote my own dialogue in English in the script, so it would make sense because it was going to be replaced in post production, we didn’t know what with yet. It hadn’t been decided. So I got approval from George, and showed him all of the lines I’d written out…he walked over and said ‘Yeah sure fine’, and that was my direction.
Other than the camera operator telling me to watch my head doesn’t go out of frame I didn’t get any direction, so whatever I did in the movie…was what I did. JJ is a lot of fun on set, he keeps a very upbeat set, very happy and approachable which is good. He is a very gracious director, and he was just so excited to be with these characters again, the legacy characters they’re known as now, Ackbar and myself. He was very good. When you’re a puppeteer you don’t know what the camera angles are, I didn’t know what lenses I was on, am I going to be in close up, or on the edge of frame? So everything I did was very contained, very small. I didn’t want to play it too big, in case they were shooting past me onto Carrie lets say, I didn’t want to be a distraction.
No one told me to do anything different, so I figured I must be doing something right. So again I was pretty well allowed to do what I wanted which was very good, and the same goes for The Last Jedi with Rian Johnson. He was very approachable, very appreciative. In some ways they were both similar working on set, very involved in everybody and having fun. They were both ‘everybody’s’ director…an actors director, a crew director, a special effects director, they understood all aspects of film making. So I found them both very similar, both very likable and I put my trust in what either of them would tell me they want. As I should because they’re going to take care of us, they have the big picture. I guess they trust us and unless we do something that doesn’t really work, then they’ll tell us. More likely than not it would be about acting beats or misreading a moment, playing the moment wrong in that it’s too thrown away, or too slow. Or some technical thing like you went past your mark or were out of focus. We’ll see if it stays that way going forward.
That is as close as Mike got to confirming Nien would return, so don’t quote me just yet. What he did mention next was very interesting however.
Mike has been creating something unique, an online puppetry training academy, called Secrets of Puppetry.
The entry level is bronze which is a one time payment for access to two and a half hours of lessons I provide myself, which you will have lifetime access to online. I have a number of students already and I’m getting great feedback. It’s all the stuff that I wished I had when I was starting out that I’ve learned from Jim Henson and Frank Oz, from workshops where they taught me directly, as well as what I’ve learnt along the way. So I’m putting it all together and online for people who can’t attend the physical workshops and personal training, who don’t have those kind of opportunities. They can do it either for fun as a hobby, or semi professional or if they want to be really good professional film and television puppeteers they can work on these lessons and exercises and learn the techniques of puppetry.
This has never been offered before, it’s one of a kind. There are four levels to the course, entry is Bronze, then Silver and Gold, and finally Platinum. With Platinum they get one on one time with me online using Zoom, a modern alternative to Skype. There’s another element where they can send in videos of what they’ve done and I can annotate them and send them back, so there’s two levels of interaction. I’m really excited about that, and it will never ever be finished, it’s an ongoing thing, I’ll always be able to add to it.
If you would like to learn more about Mike’s career, Nien Nunb, or the secrets of puppetry, why not ask Mike yourself? Mike will be appearing at London Film & Comic Con 28th and 29th July.