Interview with Lynette Eklund (Ackbar puppeteer)
I don’t mind admitting… even though I have only visited the Orlando version, I am completely obsessed with the Tokyo incarnation of Star Tours. From its magnificent ‘hangar’ design to its expanded pre-pre-show and its unique post-show, there’s always something extra to uncover. And even once guests have left the Star Tours building, there’s still more to see, with an Audio-Animatronic cousin of Orlando’s Sonny Eclipse waiting at the other end of the Astrozone skywalk, and a Tomorrowland restaurant called the Pan Galactic Pizza Parlor just one doorway past that.
One of my favorite details in the Tokyo version blew me away the first time I spotted it on a grainy home video. Over here we’re used to thecrewmen of Star Tours being pretty stiff… but suddenly I spotted a video monitor with what looked like Admiral Ackbar himself moving and talking and blinking his eyes!
Were these cleverly recycled outtakes from Return of the Jedi? Newly shot footage of the original costume/puppet from the Lucasfilm Archives? Or, considering it was Disney, was it possibly some sort of hand-drawn animation? I had to know more.
But uncovering solid info in an unfamiliar language isn’t always easy. From various sources, I was able to piece together just the barest facts…
The Ackbar video clip is seen on a monitor in Sector 2 Droidnostics, in a curve halfway between where G2-9T repairs the R5 and G2-4T’s control station. Ackbar relays orders to an astromech named R2-D7, virtually identical to the R4-M9 droid seen at Anaheim and Orlando.
R2-D7 is in charge of replacement parts and has his interface arm plugged into a computer labelled Track Control MB-5539.
Another droid, a yellow loadlifter named I.D.A. moves vertically between R2-D7 and Ackbar’s monitor. A Tokyo poster translated by my friend Martin Thurn says, “His full name is Inventory Droid Assistant. He is a pain for the Mon Calamari and R2-D7 because if the work gets too hard, he plays hooky.”
Then one day, Brian Curran uncovered a photo online of an Ackbar puppet, complete with a Star Tours logo on its chest, on the portfolio site of puppet-builder Lynette Eklund. I jumped at the chance to interview someone (in English!) about this detail which had so long intrigued me!
EndorExpress: Today we’re talking with the multi-talented Lynette Eklund about her involvement with the Tokyo version of Star Tours.
Lynette Eklund: Thanks for inviting me.
EndorExpress: Lynette, tell us a little bit about your background.
Lynette Eklund: I moved to Hollywood after getting a degree in fashion design – even though I’ve never been much of a fashionplate myself. My first job – well, actually my second – was making toy prototypes. From there I started building monsters of every size, and I’ve been doing that ever since.
EndorExpress: Your website ( http://lynetteeklund.com/ ) lists the creation of ‘Peanut’ for a ventriloquist act… would that be Jeff Dunham’s popular purple Woozle character?
Lynette Eklund: Yup.
EndorExpress: There’s a behind-the-scenes on one of Jeff’s DVD’s of him building a superhero character himself… Is he still using the same Peanut today that you originated for him?
Lynette Eklund: As far as I know he is. I haven’t spoken with him recently.
EndorExpress: You also worked on the Teddy Ruxpin line in the mid-1980’s, is that right?
Lynette Eklund: Yes. I’m very proud of that. Teddy was the first Animatronic toy on the market. He stayed in the top ten for three years in a row. I worked on Teddy, Grubby, Teddy’s wardrobe, and several other characters produced by Alchemy II for Worlds of Wonder. I helped develop the prototypes and the patterns that went to the Orient, as well as the umpteen salesman samples that were carried to the toy shows.
EndorExpress: What led to your involvement with Imagineering on the Tokyo Disneyland Park?
Lynette Eklund: My best friend, Terri Hardin, was working as a sculptor for WDI at the time, designing rides for Tokyo Disneyland. When someone there asked her if she could recommend anyone to build puppets for the Pan Galactic Pizza Parlor, she referred them to me.
EndorExpress: Which Imagineers did you get to work with?
Lynette Eklund: Honestly, I don’t know how many of them were Imagineers and how many of them were simply free-lancers like myself. I didn’t work in-house.
EndorExpress: Was this work being done on-site in Tokyo, or were things prepped here and shipped there? (I’ve spoken to Ron Dickson, who fabricated the pizza machine, and to this day he’s never visited Japan.)
Lynette Eklund: Believe it or not, all of the hand puppets for Pan Galactic were built in my one-bedroom apartment.
EndorExpress: None of us here at EndorExpress.net have been fortunate enough to visit the Tokyo version of Tomorrowland… yet. Did you get to go to Japan?
Lynette Eklund: No. After the puppets were built, Terri and I, and one assistant puppeteer, took the puppets into the WDI studio in Burbank, where we shot most of the footage with their crew and that was the end. The only location we went to was Disneyland, where we shot in the queues and other glamorous places – like the dumpster. The crowd was so light that day, that we had to collect people together and ask them to wait to go on Star Tours, just to make a line! I’d love to see what the video footage looks like.
EndorExpress: From my research into the Pan Galactic Pizza Port restaurant, which faces Star Tours, I know there’s an Audio-Animatronic named Tony Solaroni, and his giant pizza-making machine (the P-Z 5000) has a wall of video monitors. Where exactly do the thirteen different puppets that you made come into the show?
Lynette Eklund: They are calling Tony on a video phone and talking to him. His boss, Mr. Fusano chews him out. His wife nags him. Aliens order pizzas… and then the Delivery Guy calls refusing to deliver the pizza, because the alien always eats the delivery man. If you look closely at the puppets, Mrs. Solaroni’s earrings are shower curtain hooks.
Lynette Eklund: (continued) One of the aliens has a nose made out of an old 1960’s hair dryer hose and his eyes are made from L’eggs pantyhose eggs. These puppets were a blast to make because the designs I was given were very loose and the producers allowed me an amazing amount of freedom.
EndorExpress: After they saw the PGPP puppets, they also asked you to make a puppet for Star Tours?
Lynette Eklund: The day I unveiled the puppets from beneath their garbage bags, the producer was so thrilled that she ran and got the people in charge of Star Tours and brought them in to see her puppets. On the spot, they asked me to build Admiral Ackbar.
EndorExpress: Was the Ackbar puppet part of the opening-day version of the Tokyo Star Tours, or was he added later?
Lynette Eklund: I believe he’s been there since the beginning.
EndorExpress: What year was the puppet made?
Lynette Eklund: Dang! I slept since then. Let’s see… it would have been in… ummm… 1988? Maybe ’89.
EndorExpress: An obscure Tokyo Star Tours poster (which we had translated from Japanese) just calls the character a Mon Calamari, which is the punnish name of Ackbar’s race. Was he ever definitively specified to be Admiral Ackbar, from Return of the Jedi?
Lynette Eklund: Everyone called him Admiral Ackbar and I was never given any reference, so I was going by Admiral Ackbar in Return of the Jedi. But was it supposed to be actually him? I really couldn’t say.
EndorExpress: You got to perform Ackbar as well, right?
Lynette Eklund: Right. He was done the same way as Pan Galactic. I built him in my apartment and brought him in for the recording.
EndorExpress: How long was his spiel/loop?
Lynette Eklund: About two days. (Okay. Bad joke.) I think it was about 20 minutes’ worth of dialogue, but it took us the better part of two days to film.
EndorExpress: I’ve seen him on various YouTube clips (the best of which has unfortunately since been removed by the user). He’s speaking Japanese, though, so I’ve got no idea what he’s saying.
Lynette Eklund: Neither did I!
EndorExpress: Was your script in English, and then they dubbed it?
Lynette Eklund: The dialogue was pre-recorded in Japanese and we had a script in English. Terri had studied Japanese for a year, so we went line by line and broke down the recording, so we could find the spots in the voice where we needed to hit specific expressions, and then we went for it.
EndorExpress: Do you have any recollection of what the English dialogue was? (I’d turn a backflip if you still had the script.)
Lynette Eklund: I just remember that most of the time, he was ticked off. I would lie to you if I thought you’d actually do the backflip. Sorry. No script.
EndorExpress: Thanks for the photo you provided of the puppet. He looks exactly like the ILM puppets from Return of the Jedi, you really nailed the sculpt.
Lynette Eklund: Thank you.
EndorExpress: Did he have hands, too?
Lynette Eklund: Since he is a hand puppet, he’s only built to the armpit and then was mounted to a wooden table. He never had any hands because, since he was so small, they would’ve been Muppet hands with rods (which would’ve looked odd next to him) or disproportionately large.
EndorExpress: I get it. If his head is only as big as your hand, then a flipper which was also built for your hand would look as big as his head?
Lynette Eklund: Yes.
EndorExpress: The Star Tours logo on his chest is a great touch, but I notice it was removed (along with the vertical pinstriping) for the actual shoot. Can you go into more detail about the cable mechanism for the eye blink?
Lynette Eklund: I contracted Randy Simper, mechanic, super genius, to do the eye blink. It was a simple cable control hooked to a bicycle brake that I foam-sculpted around. With Randy’s credits, it wasn’t exactly rocket science for him. (For those who don’t get it – that was a joke. Before Randy got into SFX, he worked for NASA!)
EndorExpress: Did Disney keep the puppets or do you still own them?
Lynette Eklund: The Pan Galactic puppets were adopted by the Imagineers. They gave me two of them to keep, under strict advice to never sell them.
EndorExpress: How have they held up over the years?
Lynette Eklund: The Pizza Delivery Guy died of old age (know to sheet-foam puppets as deterioration). Dwazzle is safe and sound, and still keeps me company.
EndorExpress: What are some of your other career highlights?
Lynette Eklund: I’m proud of a lot of things I’ve worked on. In keeping with the spirit of your interview, I’m proud of: Tiger, the giant cat at Universal Studios’ “Fievel Goes West” show; the melting Beast and disappearing mermaid tail tricks for the live shows at Disney World; and working with a guru from David Copperfield’s crew. And then, obviously the major films. I’m honored to work with some of the biggest talents of our time in the effects houses, as well as on set.
EndorExpress: As a Jurassic Park fan, I was pleased to see that you had worked with Stan Winston Studios to make the velociraptors for The Lost World. The late Stan Winston dabbled in the Star Wars universe as well, having constructed Chewie’s family for the Star Wars Holiday Special when he was just starting out. You also worked on Michael Jackson’s Ghost video. What’s it like to work with some of the legends like that?
Lynette Eklund: Some of them were huge when I met them and others were geniuses waiting to be recognized for their talents – and now they have. It’s really cool to work with dream-catchers and not just wishers. It’s inspiring!
EndorExpress: What’s on the horizon for you?
Lynette Eklund: Continuing to grow my haunted corn maze in Indiana, and finishing the contracts in my shop. And there are SOooo many other thing I can’t talk about just yet — Things I would LOVE to blabber on about!… Let me just say… Nope. I’d better not… I love my life! *Teehee*
EndorExpress: A big thanks to Lynette for helping us shed some light on the most mysterious Star Tours incarnation. For more information on her career and achievements, be sure to check out http://lynetteeklund.com/
Photo credit: Some of these photos are courtesy of Lynette, others are video captures done by Alex, and the rest have been collected from the web over many years, though we may not always have kept accurate records of where we got them.