The original Yoda in ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ (Image: Mary Evans/Lucasfilm/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection)
Nearly 40 years ago, special effects artist Nick Maley helped create one of the most beloved characters in movie history. Now he’s ready to bring Yoda back. Maley was one of the senior techs in the creature workshop for The Empire Strikes Back, where his Yoda duties ranged from building animatronic eyes to punching individual hairs onto the puppet’s head. “I wasn’t the head of department,” says Maley, who worked under makeup artist and creature designer Stuart Freeborn, “but I think I was the only person who worked on all four versions of Yoda for Empire Strikes Back.” In other words, Maley is one of the few people on Earth who remembers exactly how the original Yoda puppets (four in total) were built. Those puppets, which weren’t intended to last beyond production, have deteriorated over the years. Now, through a crowdfunding campaign called Saving Yoda, Maley hopes to preserve his Yoda-building knowledge for the future of the Star Wars universe.
Nick Maley works on the original Yoda head and body in 1978 (Image: Nick Maley)
Through his campaign, which just launched on Indiegogo, Maley — along with a group of volunteers and original Star Wars creature collaborators — intends to build three new Yoda puppets, constructed just like the Empire Strikes Back versions, along with an exhibit that shows how Yoda was made (featuring original puppet parts and interviews with Yoda’s creators). His purpose in doing this is severalfold. First of all, Maley wants to preserve the knowledge of how Yoda was made for future creature designers, both amateur and professional. “One thing I see a lot [on the internet] is fans who are trying to make their own Yodas, and always work from the outside in,” Maley tells Yahoo Movies. “By that I mean they look at what was onscreen, and they sculpt something that looks similar, and then they try to figure out how to make it work. Well you know, if you sculpt a car and you don’t leave enough room for the people to get inside, you’re screwed. And Yoda had to be designed from the inside out. “
Maley poses with his new Yoda head sculpt, which is meant to look slightly younger than the original, but can be aged easily with makeup. (Photo: Nick Maley)
Second, Maley wants to make an authentic Yoda puppet available to Lucasfilm, should they decide to use the character in any of the upcoming Star Wars anthology films (which so far includes two stand-alone movies, both of which will take place prior to the events of the original trilogy). The idea occurred to Maley after he learned that R2-D2 in The Force Awakens was built not by the pros at ILM, but by the fans at the R2-D2 Builders Club. “That made so much sense,” Maley says. Though director J.J. Abrams has taken pains to incorporate both practical and CGI effects in The Force Awakens, Maley worries that in future films, Yoda will become a fully-animated cartoon like he was in the prequels Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith — or worse, a badly-designed puppet like the one that appeared in The Phantom Menace (which a dissatisfied George Lucas replaced with CG for the Blu-Ray release).
“I had actually lobbied them to keep Yoda as a puppet, because I knew they’d be tempted to make him digital,” Maley says. “So I was surprised when that Yoda [in The Phantom Menace] turned out to look so bizarrely different [than the original]. They’d made him from the wrong materials. The way that light penetrated the material was one of the problems, so the color was off, but the sculpt was off as well.”
A screencap of the much-maligned Yoda puppet from ‘Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace’
Lucasfilm isn’t sponsoring Maley’s Saving Yoda project, and there’s no guarantee that they would use his animatronic version in a future film. But he’s making the puppet available to the studio for free and sculpting the face with enough versatility that it can be artworked to appear younger or older. His hope is that future directors would consider using his Yoda with CG enhancement, rather than going the fully-animated route. In the meantime, Maley intends to display it at Star Wars events and his Caribbean museum, the Yoda Guy Movie Exhibit, which will fulfill the campaign’s third purpose: To raise money for charity through the nonprofit behind the museum, the Follow Your Star Foundation.
Original Yoda puppet parts, as they look today (Image: SavingYoda.com)
The Yoda of Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi was designed and sculpted by the late Stuart Freeborn, who headed up the makeup department and creature workshop on all three original Star Wars films. Maley molded the body parts for the main puppet, then was enlisted to build a “walking” version for the scenes in the swamps; a radio-controlled version for Luke’s backpack; and a simplified “stand-by” puppet head to shoot in close-up when the original model malfunctioned (which happened “maybe twice a day” during filming, says Maley). Among his Yoda collaborators was Wendy Froud (then Wendy Midener), a puppet maker with the Henson company who fabricated the primary Yoda’s body. “The body could have been Miss Piggy really, in the way that it was made,” says Maley, who hopes to consult with Froud for the Saving Yoda project. (Contrary to popular belief, Jim Henson and his Muppet Workshop weren’t directly involved in Yoda’s creation – though Henson did pay a visit to the Empire set during Yoda’s construction, and the character was voiced and co-puppeteered by his chief collaborator Frank Oz.) Unfortunately, the original puppets were not preserved for posterity; made of fragile materials like foam latex, they were never meant to be usable after the films wrapped, let alone 30-plus years later.
Nick Maley’s head sculpt (top) and Yoda as seen in ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ (Images: Nick Maley, Lucasfilm/Everett)
In order to build and demonstrate the new Yoda, Maley has recruited two of the original puppeteers (not including primary puppeteer Oz), along with professional effects artists in England, Germany, and the Caribbean who are volunteering their time and talents. Maley is working on the sculpt, and progress is already being made on Yoda’s head, eyes, and animatronics. “We haven’t found the skin yet. But we are progressing as funds will allow,” he explains. With help from donors, Maley aims to finish the project in the next six months, which would give Lucasfilm plenty of time to consider their Yoda options for future films. “Everybody loved Yoda when he was doing his somersaults [in the prequels],” says Maley. “But the Yoda that everybody really loves is the one that they met in the forest.”
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