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The New Yoda.

Repeat visitors will remember that in the conclusion of my analysis of the new Yoda mechanism (Nov 97) I predicted that the new version was almost certainly a glove puppet with many similarities to the version built in 1978. If that seems strange to you you should consider that the fewer changes that are made to established characters the better. Sources at the Henson organization confirmed this to be a fact and reveal that Frank Oz did operate the puppet again. I was personally very relieved as I felt that any other option would diminish the subtlety of Yoda's performance. Lucasfilm released the information two months later and I have to wonder if they hadn't been reading my pages.

Some sources claim that George Lucas isn't interested in Star Wars related internet activity but the network of sites being fed deliberate "leaks" refutes that. Photos are doctored to look like the work of amateurs.... supposed spys release images that later show up on the official site.... email is supposedly "sneaked out" by employees risking a dream job just to impress the rest of us (??? I don't think so) perfectly timed to start intriguing rumors and of course news groups are fed official denials of the false rumors!!! When you figure out what all this costs, you can see how much George isn't interested in Star Wars related internet activity.

Nick Dudman was a little sensitive about my comments on the new Yoda. I wonder how he feels about Rick Baker's recent criticisms. In fairness to Nick we all need to keep in mind that a head of department has to balance many considerations when he makes key decisions. Often those decisions are influenced by politics, schedules, budgets and facilities and the final result is always a compromise. Nick has the unenviable task of reviving the world's favorite alien and there are bound to be criticisms along the way.

The skins of the the new creatures were made of silicon unlike the original characters who's skins I made from foam latex (one of my duties was to run Stuart Freeborn's foam lab and produce the skins for all the creatures on ESB). I am sure silicon has many advantages (not least it's transluscence) but it's so different to foam latex that I have to wonder if it was wise to change the basic material that Yoda is made of. It's likely to change his pallor along with his character and facial movement.

Frank Oz operates the new Yoda's head with his right arm and Yoda's left arm is Frank's. Yoda's right arm is provided by Kathy Smee (it gets pretty cozy in there!) Since eyes are such a natural for radio control it's surprising that David Greenaway operated the eyes by cable again (David is a Star Wars veteran too). But the biggest surprise has to be the changes to the Yoda ear mechanism, operated by Don Austen, since they were so effective last time, and the conversion from cable to radio control.

The word is that we won't see Yoda moving around too much in Episode I however I'm sure that we will see a far more active Yoda in Episode 2 & 3 since the use of CG overcomes the many limitations of a puppet walking and running that we had to deal with in the 70's.

This page emerged in late September 97 as a discussion about the authenticity of a number of photos reported to be of a new Yoda built for Episode I. The quality of the work was very good but the pix were so terrible that it seemed unlikely that Lucasfilm would have approved them for release. Mikey and Diesel (upon who's sites I first found the photos) both generously consented to me showing them here.

Since I was closely involved with the making of several versions of Yoda for Episode V, I naturally have a fondness for Stuart Freeborn's sympathetic design (adapted from Ralph McQuarrie's drawings). I suggested that viewers should "take my comments and make of them what you will" and proceeded with a hyper critical eye. I made many comments about dramatic changes in Yoda's countenance which to my mind raised questions about the authenticity of the photos and apparently the guys who built the new Yoda were less than thrilled by what I said.

I'm told by an impeccable source (so impeccable that I can guarantee this to be 100% accurate) that the photos were not only authentic...... they were "official" In other words they were approved for release by LucasFilm. Clearly these photos are not of the quality we would expect from the Publicity Department so I have to conclude that the intention must have been to deliberately mislead us into thinking that they'd been sneaked out. I'm told that the reason pix of Yoda have been approved for release this early is simply that he is a known face and therefore there's "nothing to conceal". What nobody will be seeing are the new characters which, my source believes, will astound us.

We had already reported that the sculptor's name is Gary Pollard. (Send us a biography Gary so that we can tell our visitors more about you). He is one of Nick Dudman's principal sculptors, and worked with Nick on the characterizations of the Mangalores on 5TH ELEMENT, contributed to MORTAL KOMBAT 2 and was chief designer on Gerry Anderson's SPACE PRECINCT. The immence complexity of this project dictated that Nick had to hand out key jobs to key people amongst his 60-man crew. Nick considers Gary to be somewhat better at creating characterizations than he is, (quite a complement,Gary) and consequently he has made a point of working closely with him on character development. I ran a 70-man crew on LIFEFORCE so I totally understand the need to delegate on huge jobs like this. There is no doubting Gary's talent and, although I may have questioned changes made to the world's favorite alien, the sculpture is delightfully characterful with great lines and stylish execution. A bronze version was presented to Stuart Freeborn (who supervised Nick Dudman and myself as Designer of Make-up and Creature FX on the original Trilogy). Stuart visited the Leavesden workshop at Nick's invitation and I am sure our old mentor must have been thrilled with the gift. (see the video Real Player needed). Nick, Graham Freeborn, Bob Keen and I always felt that if you painted Stuart green and stuck pointy ears on him that we needn't have built Yoda at all........ See what we mean? --->

Apparently reports that Yoda will be a CGI image (which even circulated within the movie industry) were exaggerated. An animatronic version was created in Nick's "Mechie Shop" by Chris Barton. The body was constructed by Maria Boggi. A section on Nick's animatronic workshop (The Mechie Shop) appeared on the Official Star Wars site in late October and stated that..... "Animatronics creatures like Yoda will continue to hold an important place in filmmaking even as computer graphics become increasingly sophisticated."

Personally I'm greatly relieved. I was unenthusiastic at the prospect of a totally CGI Yoda which to my mind would reduce him to a glorified cartoon and I wondered what other implications such an action might have. I am pleased that LucasFilm recognizes the need to link the personality of important characters to live performers since it is the spontaneity of such artists that breathes life into these extraordinary arangements of inanimate materials. Many production companies see CGI as a cheap alternative to opticals, stop motion, animatronics and to some extent prosthetics but the strength of CGI, (it's versatility), is also its weakness. Part of what makes living creatures believable is their frailty and physical limitations... imposed by their inner structures. For years we struggled to put the human element back into robotic figures because our brains are very sophisticated processors and sense the difference between muscular generated movements, automated movements and graphic images. Since CGI's have no physical limitations nor any inner structures it is very easy for their actions to become less than 100% believable. Budgets and time frames often restrict a designer's ability to produce work to the standard that he would ultimately like to see. I personally feel that the best illusions are those (such as Stan Winston's work on TERMINATOR II and JURASSIC PARK) which combine CGI with animatronic figures, live performers and prosthetics. In including an animatronic Yoda clearly George Lucas agrees when the Official Star Wars site says "The mechies pour themselves and their personalities into their work, infusing personal, hand-held nuances to their projects. These subtleties and this physical, human touch help transform creatures into believable characters, making them - and the story - come alive for the audience."

I understand that my predictions on CGI are not shared by Nick Dudman who thinks I'm being pessimistic and that as the project progressed he took on more work, not less. Never-the-less I am told that the CG element from ILM is predicted to be their most spectacular work yet. Well that's no surprise is it? ILM are bound have quite a few previously unseen goodies up their sleeves for Episode I. In fact the major problem that faces them is that everyone is "expecting" to be amazed. Ultimately, (and I'm getting radical here) if they can ultimately produce 100% believable 100% CG characters (which I think they will eventually), then I believe they will be open to massive criticism. As we enter a century where most of our experiences will be virtual this kind of technology is many times more dangerous and open to moral abuse than actual cloning.... After all if the President of China showed his people tape of the Secretary of State murdering poor communist hostages...... what might the consequences be? And how would we know that the images of supposed atrocities on CNN were not products of the CIA. (Has the makings of a good script huh?)

Getting back to the point, of course the fans will happily accept whatever George Lucas presents to them and hey!.... with the greatest success in movie history behind him.... who am I to question his wisdom?

So, let me set the record straight about the issues which upset Nick's crew. Firstly I suggested that Gary might be in breach of contract by posing for these pix. Since they were "official" then clearly he was not and I regret making that suggestion. In justification I have to say that if LucasFilm deliberately release unofficial looking official photos, (We removed the fog from this image with Photoshop), clearly we shouldn't be blamed for inappropriate suppositions inspired by their subterfuge.

Secondly, I suggested that the head of the new Yoda maquette appeared oversized. In The photo on the left Gary's head appears smaller than that of the new Yoda. whereas the photo on the right clearly shows the old (standby) Yoda's head to be much smaller than Frank Oz's. Well, my impeccable informant tells me that appearances can be deceptive. Apparently, The head is an identical size to the old Yoda. Nick went to the Ranch and obtained the original moulds himself. I totally accept that to be the case and stress that my original comments were made in the light of determining the authenticity of the photos and trying to assess what techniques might be being used based upon the flimsy evidence available. I can understand that it must be aggrevating when you know all the answers to have the rest of us coming to inaccurate conclusions because we don't know the facts. But you can't overcome human curiosity and, unless your going to "tell all", you can't blame us for analyzing the half truths at our disposal.

While we're on the subject of questionable suppositions.... a recently released photo shows the skull of the new animatronic Yoda. If you're an animatronics freak like me then the analysis of that photo when digitally enhanced is very intriguing. I am currently assessing the implications of what I see there including obvious changes in the techniques used to operate ears, eyes, and eyebrows from the puppet which was used most of the time on Episode VI. An anomily regarding the lip mechanism suggests that a case could also be made (probably inaccurately) that the new animatronic Yoda might turn out to be a glove puppet after all. See Feb 98 update below for details.

Perhaps my worst sin in the eyes of the Episode I Creature Crew was probably to comment on changes in Yoda's head shape.









I compared the jaw line of the old (standby) Yoda with the new model..... commenting that the jaw seems to be pushed forward, the neck much longer, the ears are much larger, rather swept back with a heavy curl at the top, the eyes set deeper in the skull......

I suggested visitors look again at this familiar face, modelled almost exclusively by veteran MFX designer Stuart Freeborn . Notice the characteristic broad forehead, heavy lidded bulgy eyes, receading chin and kind demeanor.......

....and then compare it with the new Yoda's narrow forehead, prominent chin and aggressive brow. Quite a change huh? I qualified my observations by saying.... "My comments should be tempered with the realization that we are undoubtedly judging this work before it is finished."

Well little did I know how true that was because the photos that we are seeing are entirely conceptual. THIS IS NOT THE ACTUAL YODA THAT YOU WILL BE SEEING IN THE MOVIE. Nor is it a base for CGI. It is a maquette. An initial clay model upon which the actual work was later based. Nick maquettes EVERYTHING (something I commented that I never had time to do), quite a feat with over 150 separate creature based items to produce (70 travelling on location to Tunisia).

And the changes? I quote my impeccable source again.... "The reasons for changes within Yoda's structure are character-lead, and only the release of the film will explain them." The character change seems clear enough so I guess we could interpret that to mean that we're going to see a more aggressive side to the JEDI master.

I'm sure my question about why Yoda should look appreciably younger at 770 years of age will be answered at the same time.

I truly regret that anyone should have been upset by my comments. They were apparently construed as criticisms when in reality it would be hard to find anyone more appreciative of the talent and vitality of Creature FX illusionists... whether that be sculptors, mold makers, mechanical engineers, wig makers, fabricators , artworkers or performers. The impact of many of my MFX designs, particularly on LIFEFORCE and KRULL was totally dependant upon the devotion and ability of the spirited minds that gathered to assist me....... Nick Dudman included. My comments were intended as intriguing questions not as ultimate truths or criticisms. I had hoped that I had made that clear when I said "Please don't interpret my comments as being critical of Nick Dudman's approach. I have great confidence in his abilities.... and we are not seeing the whole picture."

Nick was an obvious choice for this job, (although there were several other worthy candidates in the U.K.). I am certain that the crew he assembled around him were not only concientious and talented but that their judgements and decisions were based upon a full understanding of the circumstances and a thorough grasp of modern animatronic techniques. The truth is though, (whether fortunately or unfortunately I can't say), that when you have the choicest jobs in the industry, especially on the most anticipated movie of the century... people will talk about you.... and they won't always say what you would like them to, (unless of course you've told them what you'd like them to say). I discovered from experience that unless you want to drive yourself crazy it's best to try not to be too sensitive about their inaccuracies..... It's a hell of a lot better than having no-one talking about you at all :-)

Other Thoughts.

As I sit here on the back of my yacht..... ( Woa! I just remembered I sold my yacht! I'm trespassing!) with a Pina Colada in my hand, watching the sun set on the Caribbean........

I am sure that Nick (Dudman that is) will have had quite a bit of guidance as to the general direction that George Lucas wanted the creatures for the Prequels to take. As each of the Trilogy movies progressed George's requirements became more and more specific. I suspect that tendency may well extend into the next century. I personally hope that Nick was allowed enough scope not to follow in the vein of RETURN OF THE JEDI which veered away from zoologically realistic characters, like Chewbacca and Yoda, in favor of the cartoon influenced, (often Muppet like), characters of Jabba's palace and stuffed toys (prototypes of which were manufactured before the RETURN even went into production) which determined the look of the Ewocks. I realise that those people involved in the production may not appreciate my interjections after all this time but..... in twenty five years, when they are themselves Star Wars veterans, they will discover that they have an opinion about the creatures of Episode VII and that they feel entitled to express it. After all...... if Charlton Heston can write a book with his comments on the bible I think I'm entitled to an opinion about Star Wars. I am certainly closer to the Trilogy's creatures than Chuck was to the 10 Commandments! (Woops! No offence Chuck! I'm in trouble again!)

Nick . (Maley that is)..


Nick Dudman is reportedly being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st Century by Rick McCallum, the prequels producer, and is in the process of setting up a website (and dealing with the intricacies of the ILM/ranch network)(not a Lucasfilm site). We can't wait to see it Nick. Let's start a web-ring for FX professionals!

Although shooting finished at Leavesden at the end of September, filming continues in Cumbria on a new sequence involving prosthetic make-ups.

We said we don't know who this guy is... well now we do! Moldmaker Jonathan Abbas-Klahr prepares a sculpt for moulding.

Click here for the Feb 98 update... New Yoda Animatronics


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