How a Puffin Problem Led to the Creation of a Star Wars Icon

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, a franchise emerged that not only redefined the world of science fiction but left an indelible mark on popular culture itself. Star Wars, created by the visionary George Lucas, continues to captivate audiences across generations, transporting them to an enchanting universe filled with epic battles, mystical forces, and unforgettable characters. Its production led to the development of countless creative technologies (Adobe, PIXAR, etc) and a renaissance in filmmaking. Yet, beneath its fantastical allure lies a fascinating truth. Much of what we have come to love as being core to the Star Wars universe was inspired by the strange life found right here on earth, as well as creative solutions to overcome significant production challenges. Take, for example, the much beloved Porg, the adorable avian alien introduced in Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi.

The Porg was never meant to be, and yet it exists.

Enter the Irish island of Skellig Michael. It’s a striking place—otherwordly even—a perfect setting for a Jedi in hiding. In the real world, the rocky island and its surrounding islets of the southwestern coast of Ireland are uninhabited. Aside from its obvious natural beauty, it’s perhaps most well-known for its well-preserved early Christian monastery. The site, reached by steep steps, includes stone beehive-shaped huts (a feature preserved in The Last Jedi. That and thousands of puffins which breed on Skellig Michael during the warmer months.

The Puffin Problem

When director Rian Johnson arrived on Skellig Michael to film The Last Jedi, he encountered a plethora of puffins. This, of course, posed a bit of a production challenge. A good Star Wars setting has a way of convincing the audience they are not in Kansas anymore, but a far away place. Both familiar and alien, but certainly not something filmed in their backyard. Luke Skywalker could not be found a hermit amongst something as recognizably Earthling as a puffin. Yet, removing the puffins digitally was impractical, though not impossible, due to their sheer numbers. Johnson needed a creative solution.

Puffins, Seals, and Pugs – The Birth of the Porgs

Enter Jake Lunt Davies, the creature concept designer tasked with inventing a new animal inspired by puffins. Like most creatures in Star Wars, designing them is a mix of creativity and classical zoology, drawing on inspiration from the real world. Often, designers look to the adaptations shaped by evolution right here on Earth in order to create a creature whose presence in that particular setting in not just conceivable, but convincing. It’s a blurring of the lines between biology and imagination. Drawing inspiration from puffins (coloration, shape, and their avian nature) seals (another native to the islands), and even pug dogs (big, emotive eyes and droopy cheeks) Jake Lunt Davies set out to create an entirely unique creature. He’s create a set of drawings, show the, to Rian, take the feedback, and return to the drawing board. Sketches, sculptures, 3D modeling, graphical rendering, trial and error, and eventually, the Porg found its way into existence.

The creature, created merely to solve a practical problem, quickly captured the imaginations of audiences worldwide with their big eyes, squat bodies, and drooping mouths. They became a central part of The Last Jedi, and as central to Star Wars cute-culture as the Ewoks of Return of the Jedi nearly 40 years prior.

Praise for Puffins

While the Porgs took the spotlight, it’s essential to appreciate the fascinating real-life creatures that inspired them. Puffins are a charismatic and captivating seabirds of the northern hemisphere. With their vibrant, clown-ish beaks and striking black and white plumage, they embody a unique blend of elegance and humor. Puffins are known for their exceptional diving and swimming skills, gracefully navigating even the most tumultuous ocean waves and rocky shores, and swiftly diving underwater to catch fish in their specialized beaks. These fascinating creatures are equally impressive on land, where they form large colonies on steep coastal cliffs, creating bustling communities filled with lively chatter and endearing courtship rituals.

A changing climate, warming seas, and overfishing have led to troubling puffin population declines throughout their entire range. While they are not technically endangered yet, they do still face risk of extinction. But if there’s one thing Star Wars exemplifies, its that human ingenuity and creativity can solve any problem we face.

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The Wild Life was created in January of 2017 by, me, Devon Bowker (He/They) after finishing my degree in wildlife biology. It’s been amazing to see how things have changed over the past 5 years, both personally and here. I have tons of ideas and projects in the works and cannot wait to share them with you. Whether you’re a long-time follower or new to The Wild Life, thank you for being here.

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