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History in Objects: Marfalump

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The enthusiastic alien Star Wars fan from 1999’s Star Wars: The Phantom Menace promotional campaign lives on in the halls of Lucasfilm.

“History in Objects” is a continuing series exploring Lucasfilm’s legacy stretching from our founding in 1971 to today. Through objects both rare and commonplace, the company’s past, present, and future are brought to life.

Employees and guests of Lucasfilm’s San Francisco headquarters have often wondered at a small four-armed creature in a Star Wars t-shirt displayed just outside the company’s Consumer Products department. For those who may not remember the many promotional campaigns surrounding 1999’s Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, this odd little fellow might be something of a mystery; but for those who do remember the excitement surrounding the film’s release, Marfalump – a character created by PepsiCo and Industrial Light & Magic Commercial Productions – is a familiar old friend.

Marfalump appeared in at least three Pepsi commercials tied in to The Phantom Menace campaign, acting as an alien on Earth who is both a huge Star Wars fan (hence the t-shirt) and lover of Pepsi products. Voiced by Billy West, Marfalump’s hijinks became a familiar sight on TV during the summer of 1999, a memorable but ultimately short-lived stint for the affable character.

Fortunately, Marfalump can still be found within the halls of Lucasfilm for those who know where to find him. While the short figure displayed near Consumer Products was crafted by the late ILM sculptor Richard Miller and ultimately used as a gift for crew members, a lesser-known, much larger version of Marfalump lurks quietly in a corner near the company mailroom, a less traveled area of the campus. This larger, four-foot Marfalump, which is made of latex and poly foam with a wire armature inside, was sculpted by former ILMer Danny Wagner with assistance from Michael Murnane for use as a poseable stand-in on the commercial sets.

Wagner, who got his start at ILM as a molds and plastics technician on 1989’s Ghostbusters II, remembers his first job on the sequel production. “I was hired as a slime wrangler to mix up slime,” he recalls. “That was better than sweeping the floors! I was asked to stay on to work in the molds and casting department to make the togas for the Statue of Liberty.”

After that first production, Wagner went on to work as a model maker for several high-profile ILM productions, including Back to the Future: Part II (1989), Mission Impossible (1996), Mars Attacks! (1996), and Starship Troopers (1997), to name a few. As films like The Mummy (1999) and the Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition came to ILM, Wagner transitioned to creature sculpture, creating the tauntaun skull in the wampa cave as well as the Rappertunie frog puppet with sculptor Mark Siegel for the updated Max Rebo Band sequence in the Star Wars: Return of the Jedi Special Edition.

During The Phantom Menace, Wagner had been working in the model creature shop on characters such as Bib Fortuna and Aurra Sing when ILM’s Commercial Productions asked him to work on Marfalump for the Star Wars Pepsi commercials.

“Commercials was actually a big department for us,” says Wagner. “Back then it brought in a lot of work. And sometimes even puppeteering work, which was a lot of fun.”

Wagner recalls that the smaller sculpture of Marfalump was done first by Richard Miller, based on a collaborative design by PepsiCo and ILM. A larger, poseable version was needed for the commercials themselves as a stand-in for the digital version, which would be animated later.

“Usually a stand-in puppet is used for lighting and focus and getting things ready for a shot,” he says. For one of the commercial shoots that Wagner attended, his Marfalump puppet was used as a stand-in New York taxi driver flying a pair of unwitting passengers around the city. Wagner himself got a bit part in the ad, reprising his Episode I cameo as podracer Mawhonic, who this time appeared as a second taxi driver yelling, “You crazy alien!”

Following his work on the Marfalump puppet, Wagner returned to movie productions, which included the remaining two Star Wars prequels (in which he got to apply make-up for George Lucas’ blue-skinned cameo in Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith), the updated Star Tours — The Adventures Continue attraction, and scores of other mainstream productions.

As for Marfalump, Wagner still has a soft spot for the character he grew so fond of during The Phantom Menace campaign. But, in the end, it was just one in a string of successes over the course of his decades-long career. “At the end I just had to let my baby go,” he muses. “He was a fun little character.”

See a short 1999 documentary about Marfalump’s creation and appearances in The Phantom Menace promotional campaign below.

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