For a man who helped bring to life Star Wars' grotesque, iconic Jabba the Hutt monster with his sculpture skills, John Coppinger seems remarkably laid back. But there is no denying that a steely determination and quiet confidence in his abilities underpin his understated demeanour. Those qualities have served him well in a long career where expert modelling work for the likes of the Natural History Museum and BBC eventually led him into films.
Coppinger, now 63, had his first taste of the movie industry in 1980, working as head of animatronics on fantasy flick 'The Dark Crystal' at EMI Studios. However, the next two years will probably resonate more with sci-fi fans. This was when his image-making talents focused on monstrous Jabba the Hutt for 'The Return of the Jedi' from the Star Wars stable of blockbusters.
"I had to sculpt Jabba - or the Beast as we called it - in clay before it could be made into rubber. This was well before CGI (computer generated images)," recalled the former art teacher. "I wasn't the only one working on it. It was a huge operation with a small team of us doing different jobs. It was hard work, too. We were doing 120-hour working weeks to finish it, grabbing just three hours' sleep some nights. I was on it for about 10 weeks."
Later, at EMI Studios, he became a Jabba radio operator on set after designing the evil creature's bulbous eyes.
"I was told they had to be big and round, like those of a frog," said Coppinger at home in Bletchley where he lives with fellow designer Nicole Klein, 37. "I remember there were a lot of problems to overcome with Jabba but probably the biggest was stopping its moulds collapsing like a giant souffle. There was no way round it. The guy doing that part had to use these huge moulds."
He laughed as he remembered a small act committed in fun that has since sparked huge debate on the internet.
"One afternoon, I drew a tattoo on Jabba, a basic anchor design. But if you search Google today for anything about Jabba's tattoo you will get yards of theories about its significance. It took me about 10 minutes. It shows how Star Wars is self-generating in that way."
Legendary producer George Lucas, the man behind the whole Star Wars phenomenon, came to see the finished latex Jabba in the workshop.
"He's actually quite a shy man," said Coppinger."He just talked about the Beast's eyes and the different colours we were using. He was very interested in what we were doing. We got to know the actors quite well, too, because we were operating Jabba on set. Harrison Ford was usually okay. But I do recall he got very grumpy one day doing one particular scene. This involved him falling off a wall. He kept hitting his head but he had to keep re-doing the scene. He was a bit annoyed by the end."
Work on several other movies followed, including 'The Fifth Element' for which Coppinger sculpted the beautiful but bizarre Diva from a French design, before he found himself back in the Star Wars fold in 1997, this time working on 'The Phantom Menace'.
"I remember there were a lot of problems to overcome with Jabba but probably the biggest was stopping its moulds collapsing like a giant souffle."
"I also did a bit of acting in that," he revealed."Peter Mayhew, the actor playing the Wookiee senator Yarua, didn't really want to come over to the UK just for an afternoon's work so I did it."
Star Wars devotees might also like to know that he played Graxol Kelvyyn and Ki-Adi-Mundi in other scenes for the same film. Impromptu acting came in handy, too, when he worked on 'The Mummy' and 'The Mummy Returns', ostenstibly sculpting creepy crawlies for the films but also pretending to be the hideous Mummy character itself in a few background shots for the initial instalment.
It was while working on three Harry Potter movies at Leavesden Studios, Watford, that Coppinger ran into best-selling author J.K. Rowling.
"I met her doing the first Harry Potter and was expecting her to be stand-offish but she wasn't at all. It was the first time she had seen her own characters brought to life off the page. She was completely bowled over and couldn't stop looking at the rows of goblins and various other characters. She said it was incredible."
There are some drawbacks to film work, however, he said. "The hours and hours you have to stand around can get very tedious," he explained."You have to be on standby all the time. You can't just lie down somewhere. I sculpted the unicorn for Harry Potter and remember looking after the model, freezing cold and bored. But, of course, you also earn a lot of money and money can buy you that time back."
Through his Star Wars work, Coppinger started to attend the first of many international sci-fi conventions as a celebrated guest.
"I was doubtful about them initially but now I enjoy them," he said." I met Nicole at a Dark Side convention. I sign autographs. I've signed several hundred now. It's quite a privilege to be able to talk about your work. You also get to meet up with people you've worked with in the past. You end up like a bunch of old men down the pub telling war stories."
His skills have also brought him several more offbeat opportunities. Among these, he was asked to provide an accurate puppet of an albatross chick on a data gathering nest for a British Antarctic survey team, as well as a model of the human cortex to aid research into deafness. But one of the biggest highlights of his career - if not his life - was working on Richard Noble's record-breaking Thrust 2 supersonic car project, both in the UK then in the Nevada desert, also in 1997.
"It was an extraordinary experience. I had time and money from working on Star Wars and got involved in the project via its Supporters Club. I'd seen them making fibre glass moulds and offered to help. I ended up working with the car's bodywork specialist. The whole thing was a tremendous adventure."
Recent years have seen his overall workload decrease and given him more time to concentrate on another of his loves - erotic art. A member of the Guild of Erotic Artists and avid sketcher, he feels there were already underlying erotic elements in a lot of his sculpture work.
"I did a whole series of anatomical models for the Natural History Museum which had erotic aspects to them," he said.
Many of the creatures he had sculpted for films, like most animals, were quite sensual in their shapes, too. Writing is another pleasure and his novel 'Tertiary' is, typically, science fiction in content. Could it be turned into its own movie one day?
"That would be nice," he chuckled."I've sent a copy to director Peter Jackson but haven't heard anything back yet."
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