Nick Kellington Interview – The Creature Performer That Brought Us Bistan, the Rogue One ‘Space Monkey’.

I was recently fortunate enough to be able to interview the one and only Nick Kellington.  Nick is an actor who has worked on several big name productions such as Teletubbies, In The Night Garden, The Muppets and has now entered into the world of Star Wars. Over the last two years, he has played Bistan in Rogue One:  A Star Wars Story and also Snook Uccorfay in Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi and I wanted to ask him about his experiences in both.

The responses come from content Nick provided to me, but there is also content that have come from previous interviews with http://www.starwarsinterviews.com

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Bistan joined the Rebel Alliance approximately six months prior to the Battle of Scarif. He aided a team of Alliance Special Forces who had infiltrated his homeworld of Iakar to steal medical supplies, by fending off their Imperial pursuers with accurately-thrown spears and rocks. Bistan proved to be such a skilled marksman under fire that he was invited by the SpecForce commandos to join the rebellion.

Bistan and many others were later sent to Scarif as reinforcements after Admiral Raddus had departed to join the unsanctioned operation begun by Rogue One. Bistan served as the gunner of a Blue Squadron U-Wing piloted by Laren Joma, and opened fire on an All Terrain Armored Cargo Transport immediately upon arrival, using the ship’s door-mounted “Roba” M-45 Repeating Ion Blaster. His salvos eventually weakened and pierced one of the walker’s legs, causing the entire walker to collapse. Later during the battle, however, one of the U-Wing’s engines was struck by a laser, causing the ship to crash into the ground and explode, killing Bistan and the rest of the crew.

How did you get the role of Bistan?

At the time Episode VII was being made, I was puppeteering on a kids TV show called Strange Hill High and was about to go straight into filming the new series of Teletubbies. I’d heard rumours of a top-secret project that no one would talk about. In fact, the less information you could get about it, the more you felt it had to be the new Star Wars film. I’d put feelers out but security was really tight around the project and I simply couldn’t get seen for what turned out to be The Force Awakens.

The following year I had a break in my schedule between filming series of Teletubbies so I asked around if anyone needed a performer for anything. Reports in online entertainment news sites suggested that filming on Rogue One was to start soon so I figured all the roles would have been allocated to performers and I’d missed out on getting into Star Wars once again.

But out of the blue, I got a phone call asking me to come to Pinewood for a meeting about an un-named project.Not many people are expected to go for job interviews with no idea of the job they’re going for. But in acting, if you get an invitation to Pinewood you just go. Pinewood is a remarkable place, it’s been at the centre of the UK movie industry for decades and it’s always exciting to be there.

When I arrived, even right up to the front door of the workshop, no one mentioned what the project was. I couldn’t believe it when, inside, there were amazing clay maquettes, costumes on stands, animatronic heads being worked on and most tellingly, R2 Units everywhere! My brain just melted! I was so happy.

It turned out that a friend, Vanessa Bastyan, who had fabricated some of the costumes for me on the TV shows I’d worked on was now running the creature workshop at Pinewood. Vanessa knew my work and she’d got me in there to meet the boss, Special Creature Effects Supervisor, Neal Scanlan.

How long did it take to get into costume and what did the costume include in terms of electronics?

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It would usually take about 40 minutes to get into costume. A bit longer first thing in the morning as I had prosthetic eye bags glued to me and painted, which would last the whole day.

Bistan was made by some brilliantly talented people who I must to give credit to. He is an Ivan Manzella design. Sculpted by Colin Jackman. Gus Hoegan created the animatronics. Elisabet Berggren fabricated the muscle body suit. Heather McMullan was the hair artist. Henrik Svensson did the paint job. Gary Page made the space suit, which was designed by Dave Crossman and Glyn Dillon.

Bistan’s an awesome creation and when you wear the whole thing you just can’t help but move in a way that isn’t you, it’s so cool. Well, actually it’s really hot! Also if you wear it for too long you get masses of pain in your back, shoulders and neck but, for me, it’s worth it for Star Wars.

Once the animatronics is turned on all you can hear are the electric servos buzzing so you’re pretty much deaf. I have an earpiece through which I can hear my puppeteer who is operating Bistan’s face and Paul Kasey the movement director. I had two puppeteers for my scenes in Rogue One, Phill Woodfine who is a really experienced operator and Matt Denton who is also one of BB-8’s inventors.

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You could argue that the puppeteers who operate the creatures’ faces from outside the costumes add just as much to the character as the person wearing the suit. Performing these designs of creature is a real team effort and when you work together lots you become a tight ensemble. That makes the performance feel organic and real.

As Bistan I wore extra large chimpanzee contact lenses that are hard and uncomfortable. When I’m wearing them under light they make everything look orange and fuzzy. On a dark set, all you can see are silhouettes and no detail. The sets on Rogue One were very dark.

The muscle suit worn underneath Bistan’s spacesuit is a bit like a cross between a bulletproof vest and an American footballer’s shoulder pads. It gives him the correct body shape and moves as his muscles would under his skin.

Bistan’s head is extremely close fitting too because as well as using animatronics to move the forehead, muzzle and jaw, the creature’s face is blended directly into my face with prosthetic applications and paint around my eyes. Mechanically it was a lot to fit into such a small space but it moves so beautifully and has a great range of expressions. It’s impossible to tell where the animatronics finish and I begin.

In Bistan’s case, having a human’s eyes with the animatronic face gives the character a real soul. We filmed a “Creature Shop” featurette for the Disney Channel in the workshop and I was being operated by Patrick Comerford, who also puppeteers the Admiral Raddus face. It was interesting seeing how even up close, without any filming lights or cinema magic, the presenters were still really freaked by how realistic Bistan looked, and our performance of course.

Can you shed some light on the filming of your scenes?

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Filming the Battle of Scarif was awesome. For Bistan we filmed it in two parts.

Firstly, in the sequence where the U-Wing glides down and drops off the Marines onto the beach, Matt Denton and I were actually in the U-Wing as they flew it over the battlefield from a crane. They’d built the beach with loads of sand and palm trees on an airfield just north of London.

We were filming with a 2nd Unit camera crew out of the gunner’s door. I don’t think you can see Bistan as the U-Wing glides down as he was on the far side of the ship but it was great fun flying over the action with explosions blowing up marines and stormtroopers all over the place as they ran across the beach. It was quite a spectacle from above.

Funnily, I already knew one of the marines on the U-Wing, Andy Wareham, from years back. We’d worked on In the Night Garden together when we were just starting out. So you had both Igglepiggle and Tombliboo Unn flying into the Battle of Scarif on the same ship! Andy’s a stuntman now for loads of big Hollywood films. Actually, I’m sure Andy said that another marine on the ship was the suit performer for one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles back in the 90’s so there’s another mash-up for you.

The second part of the U-Wing sequence was shot on a sound stage at Pinewood. Phill Woodfine was operating me that day from just off camera.

I turned up early for rehearsals and there was a large container mounted high up on hydraulics with massive grey flats all around it. The whole construction was as tall as the soundstage and it looked quite impressive. Then they turned the flats on and wow, it looked incredible!

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The flats were actually huge panels of LEDs projecting aerial landscapes of what would turn out to be Scarif and the container was a U-Wing flight simulator. It was like an amazing theme park ride and felt so real once you were on board and it was moving.

Phill and I climbed on with a small camera crew and filmed the gunning scene with Gareth Edwards directing and even operating the camera at some points. We were locked in there with explosions and sparks flying everywhere. It was pretty intense.

It’s awesome to have been involved in filming the Battle of Scarif. There aren’t that many characters in the Star Wars cinematic universe that have been shown taking down an AT-AT and now Bistan has joined those ranks. It’s kind of a badge of honour.  Ok technically, I know these were AT-ACTs but you know what I mean.

What are some of your favourite memories from the set, and your experiences with Gareth Edwards?

My first day on a Star Wars set was at Yavin 4. Turning up, I wasn’t sure whether it would be mostly green screen or not. I was amazed to find that they’d built the entire Rebel Base on Yavin 4 in a giant aircraft hanger big enough to fly airships into. I think it’s one of the biggest buildings in the UK and at one point they’d built an entire block of Gotham City in there to film the Batman movies. Weirdly enough I also found out later that my dad had taken his RAF basic training there when he was doing his National Service as a young man.

Anyway, the new Yavin 4 was amazing, like walking into a childhood dream. They had re-imagined everything perfectly. The set design, all the SAs in retro costumes, even the analogue displays on computer monitors and little flashing lights, all perfect.

Best of all, there was a huge X-Wing right in the middle of the hanger. It was beautiful. I probably shouldn’t have but I walked straight up to the X-Wing and placed both hands on it, enjoying the moment saying to myself, “It’s real! It’s real!” If I had been in my normal clothes someone might have stopped me but as I was dressed as Bistan it was more like, “Ok . . . erm. Just let the monkey do what he wants.”

On another day back at Pinewood, we were filming the War Room scene where Jyn Erso is attempting to persuade the rebels to go to Scarif, I was there with Matt Denton operating me.

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We were all waiting for something technical to be sorted with cameras and they allowed me to remove Bistan’s head so I could have a breather. I still had my contact lenses in and as I’ve mentioned, I can mostly only see silhouettes.

I heard a voice from the person stood right next to me, “Hey Nick.” I turned and leaned in to see whom it was to find I was stood right next to Gareth Edwards. He was clothed in an army jacket. Everyone on the Yavin 4 set, cast and crew, seemed to be dressed in either a flight suit or an army jacket. This meant that to me everyone’s silhouettes looked fairly similar so I simply didn’t know he was there until he spoke.

“Oh! Hi Gareth.” I replied. I asked him how it was all going. He asked me what it was like in the costume and told me he liked the character. Everything was cool.

In fact, for me, everything was amazing! You see, probably every time I’d spoken to Gareth previously I was usually in the Bistan head and/or there was lots of work to do. Generally, Gareth would need to shout instructions or speak to me via my operator’s microphone because I can’t hear anyone. Equally, I would need to shout back from inside Bistan’s head for my voice not to be muffled. It wasn’t a dynamic conducive to small talk.

So, unusually, there we were, just chatting. Like normal guys . . . except I’m literally a performing monkey and Gareth Edwards is the director of a Star Wars movie! Then Gareth said, “You know, we should get you a cameo.” “Wow. Thanks. That’d be awesome.” I replied.

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Out of nowhere, a behind-the-scenes camera crew sees us talking and starts interviewing Gareth about Space Monkey and the moment is lost. Suddenly we’re ready to film again and so I have to put the head back on and obviously, Gareth becomes really busy and I don’t meet him again that day.

Shortly after, production would be moving on to film the Jedha sequences out on the back lot. This would have been the ideal chance for my cameo but Bistan wasn’t on Jedha so I wasn’t called in for those days and it never happened. Gutted!

I’m sure Gareth had a million things to think about and, understandably, I was not high on the list. For the rest of my time at Pinewood, I was always up to my neck in Space Monkey either in a crowd or filming my single shots on the U-Wing. I guess my cameo just wasn’t meant to be. With playing Bistan already, maybe I was being a bit greedy.

How does working on Star Wars compare to all your other projects in the past?

Every project is different. Each with its own challenges. All of them are fun and rewarding in their own way and all hard work at times. Working on Star Wars is extra special to me as it meant so much to me growing up. It’s a privilege and an honour.

Who are some of your favourite Star Wars Characters?#

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Fav Star Wars characters? Tricky one as there are so many great ones to choose from. Chewbacca is always close to the top of the list. He melts my heart. Greedo’s up there too along with Moroff from RogueOne. But that’s just today, it changes.

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Greedo is just cool. Always was, always will be. Moroff is a stunning combination of strength and beauty plus Ian Whyte who plays him is a gentleman and a total BEAST of a creature performer (that’s a compliment!).

How does it feel knowing there are action figures of Bistan?

With the kid’s TV characters I’ve played I’ve had quite a few toys released of me already so maybe you’d think I’d be used to it by now?

Nope! I am totally stoked about there being Bistan Star Wars toys! It’s amazing!I have a small collection of LEGO Minifigures anyway so it feels brilliant to be able to add a LEGO Bistan to the display.

I got him the day he was released with the LEGO U-Wing Fighter set and built it pretty much as soon as I got home. It looks great. I’m also loving the Bistan Pop! Vinyl Bobble-Head, that’s very cool.

Do you enjoy attending conventions?

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I’ve only attended a couple of conventions but I’ve had a really fun time so far. Would definitely be up for more.

Moving on to Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, Nick played Snook Uccorfay. Uccorfay was a rich and villainous, mole-like alien who worked as a Raconteur. Snook lived life to the fullest in order to build a catalogue of outlandish tales. He was strongly drawn to wealthy females, whom he dazzled with his exceptional dancing skills. He was a member of a bipedal species with five stubby fingers on each hand a long, round snout ending in a flat circular muzzle containing his mouth and nostrils. 

Can you give some insight into your character Snook Uccorfay from The Last Jedi and the Canto Bight filming experience?

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I’ve since found out from Pablo Hidalgo that Snook’s character came from talks between him and Neal Scanlan. For me, filming on Canto Bight was glamorous, hot, sweaty fun and the ladies love Snook! (or so he thinks). Oh and apparently Pablo Hidalgo came up with the name Snook Uccorfay by playing with the words “snood sucker face” which makes sense when you consider Snook’s head.

There were indeed a lot of aliens on Canto Bight. The CFX team had been asked to create even more characters than what had appeared in Maz Kanata’s castle in The Force Awakens, which they did with incredible results.

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In theory, shooting the Canto Bight sequences was the most glamorous filming experience I’d ever had. The decadent casino set could have come straight out of a Bond movie (in fact it was built on the 007 Stage at Pinewood) and we were surrounded by hundreds of immaculately dressed SA’s many of which, both male and female, looked like absolutely stunning fashion models.

However, the reality of performing inside a creature suit on Canto Bight was more like going to a high-class party and accidentally getting locked in a cupboard. You’d get flashes of colour through the keyhole and it sounded like everyone outside was having fun. Meanwhile, you were trapped in the dark and it was slowly getting hotter and hotter.

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I did enjoy the experience though. This was, in part, because of working with Snook’s main facial puppeteer Patrick Comerford. He would be operating Snooks facial expressions from a vantage point off camera next to a monitor. I could hear Patrick’s voice through my earpiece and although I couldn’t speak back because there was no microphone in my creature suit, through a combination of hand signals from me and yes/no questions from him we were able to have a very basic dialogue across a busy set.


 

A huge thank you to Nick Kellington for sparing some time to do this interview, some of the answers have been provided from a previous interview with www.starwarsinterviews.com the link to the interview is https://www.starwarsinterviews.com/star-wars-anthology/rogue-one/nick-kellington-bistan/

Hopefully, we will get to see some more Star Wars  Aliens & Creatures being played by Nick in the future and as always, may the force be with you!

 

 

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