‘All this is not to do with animatronics. It’s to do with characters’

How one animatronics designer and puppeteer has made his way into the world of Star Wars, Dark Crystal and more.

A new excerpt from issue #7 of befores & afters magazine.

Javier Coronilla was studying mechanical engineering at a university in Spain, and heading towards a likely career in the nearby ship-building industry, when a particular assignment changed his career-path.

“One day,” Coronilla says, “we got some homework relating to large ship doors that open so cars can drive out. I looked into animatronics hydraulics and I wrote about what I had seen used for the T-Rex on Jurassic Park.”

“Well, my teacher said my answer was the best homework that one person had done for 20 years, but then he said real engineers don’t do dinosaurs and that he had to suspend me. I had two or three of these sorts of things happen and I decided university just wasn’t for me.”

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An evil bug—The Ascendancy—in The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance. Coronilla was a senior animatronic model designer on the series, working under John Nolan, who headed up the Henson U.K. Creature Shop. (© 2019 Netflix)

It was a key moment for Coronilla, who several years later would actually work on the animatronics in such films as Rogue One, A Monster Calls and The Last Jedi. But back then it was still a long road into the film industry.

“After leaving university, I started with a little production company with some friends here in the south of Spain. I was 19 years old. After this, I was like, ‘Okay. I want to do animatronics.’ I went to Madrid. I started in a special effects company. I was always speaking out saying, ‘I want to do animatronics. I want to do animatronics.’ My boss said, ‘To do animatronics in Spain is totally impossible. Totally impossible. Don’t try it. We don’t have a business. We don’t have a special effects business for this kind of thing. You have to work for Hollywood.’”

Coronilla looked to London, where animatronics and puppetry have a rich history. “I went to Millennium Effects with Neill Gorton, basically cleaning molds, because I needed an opportunity. After this, I put some LED lights into a robot. Then I put a servo into a robot. And just kept showing I could do more and more things.”

Varmik, a character seen in Maz Kanata’s castle during The Force Awakens. It was created by Neal Scanlan’s creature department. (© & TM Lucasfilm, Ltd. All Rights Reserved.)

London was providing an opportunity. However, it was an expensive city to live in. So Coronilla did something he says was a ‘bit crazy’. “I would be taking these jobs in London, yet I still lived in Spain. They would call me and say, ‘Javier, can you work on Thursday?’ And I’d have to say, ‘Oh, I have something on Thursday here in London, can it be Friday?’ And that way I’d have time to fly back over to London from Spain and start on the Friday. I’d sleep on a sofa in London or at a b&b. I did that a lot. Then one day, Star Wars arrived.”

The ‘Star Wars’ Coronilla mentions was Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, for which he was hired to be part of the creatures department led by Neal Scanlan. Here, Coronilla worked principally on animatronic designs for creatures in Maz Kanata’s castle. A character in the same species as Mon Calamari general Admiral Ackbar was a highlight, especially for the animatronic eyes and finger extensions.

Issue #7 of befores & afters is now available.

Read the full article in issue #7 of befores & afters magazine.

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