THE WASHINGTON POST – Baby Yoda, the breakout Disney Plus creature of the moment, would never have snuggled into the zeitgeist if the rotors and motors and animatronic tics of his wizened green forebear hadn’t clicked into place exactly 40 years ago.
In 1979, Yoda was more than another rubber puppet coming into gradual being on the set of The Empire Strikes Back. The Jedi Master’s small mechanised frame embodied the hope and fate of the entire enterprise. The character was a “real leap”, Star Wars creator George Lucas said in a 2004 documentary, because “if that puppet had not worked, the whole film would have been down the tubes”.
Casting the right actors is one thing, but in a space opera like Star Wars, getting a creature to resonate onscreen can be a far more complex undertaking, requiring the brilliance of so many veteran hands. And after more than a dozen feature films and TV projects, there is still no surefire formula for building the ideal Star Wars critter. Just ask (ahem) the minds behind Jar Jar Binks.
As The Rise of Skywalker opened recently, bringing the epic family saga to a seeming conclusion, the JJ Abrams-directed movie will remind viewers that since 1977, no mass franchise has given us more iconic new film creatures than Star Wars – a steady march of unique and irresistible creations.
How does Star Wars do it? Even if “I knew that special-sauce recipe,” said Chris Terrio, the Oscar-winning co-writer of Rise of Skywalker, “I certainly wouldn’t publish it.
“Whatever they’re doing with Baby Yoda,” he continued, referencing the character actually named the Child from the new streaming series The Mandalorian, “I want to know more.”
Rise of Skywalker introduces a wealth of new creatures – including the tiny repair puppet Babu Frik and the vulnerable small droid D-O – which presented a heady challenge. “You’re not just standing on the shoulders of those who have designed before,” Abrams said by phone from the Los Angeles area. “You’re also surrounded by, and in the shadow of, all the designs that pre-exist you.”
To rise to that high creative bar, Abrams bore in mind that some of the qualities that make for an engaging creature are identical to the traits of an interesting human character within Star Wars – which, he said, is centred on “behaviour and, depending on the role intended, a level of sympathy, which usually has to do with the eyes.”
“The trick is just to mock it up and keep going,” he says, “and in my case, working with amazing designers and artists who are part of that conversation.”
For some of the franchise’s beloved creatures, naturally, the talent of the actor beneath the hardware and plastic is crucial – especially with characters that become true scene-stealers.
Muppets creator Jim Henson, brought aboard to work on Yoda, chose his right-hand man Frank Oz (Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear) to become the character, for instance, because Oz was “admired for his ability to create characters nearly at will,” writes Brian Jay Jones in his biography George Lucas: A Life. Oz, as much dramatic actor as physical puppeteer, spent long months before the Empire shoot working out how to bring Yoda to mesmerising life.
Oz and Yoda became so seamless that Empire director Irvin Kershner often “found himself giving direction straight to Yoda rather than addressing his comments to Oz,” writes Jones, adding: “Even Lucas could get caught up in the moment, sitting cross-legged in Yoda’s home, completely wrapped up in conversation with the puppet, even with Oz in plain sight.”
Yoda represents the franchise’s pinnacle of geniuses coming together, Jones said by phone from New Mexico.
“In the creation of Yoda, Lucas and Henson were each relying on the creative expertise of the other,” Jones said of the teaming of Henson’s Creature Shop and Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic. “Lucas needed Henson’s group of talented puppeteers and performers who could figure out to build, create and perform a believable character – and Henson wanted to get his hands on the technology that Lucas and ILM had developed for building that character.
“It was a kind of ‘tech transfer’ between the two men and their two companies, in pursuit of something bigger than just one of them – and that something that was Yoda.”
Beyond Oz, another actor who especially defined his creature is Anthony Daniels, who has voiced C-3PO across 42 years, including in Rise of Skywalker. Lucas initially envisioned the service droid as a slick car salesman type, Jones said, but it was the Wiltshire-born Daniels who hit upon the “fussy English butler” sound for Threepio.
Many of the most memorable Star Wars creatures share a human element, even when viewers might not realise it. In the case of the droid R2-D2, for example, Lucas and Oscar-winning sound designer Ben Burtt wanted an “organic sound” within all the whirring, according to Jones, so they recorded themselves “cooing, whistling and beeping and ran it through a synthesiser.”