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The New Yoda Mechanism..
This image from the Official Star Wars site appeared in late October 97 on a page about Nick Dudman's animatronic workshop (The Mechie Shop). Although there was no caption describing precisely what we are looking at, my impeccable source confirms that this is indeed the mechanism for the new Yoda in the hands of the guy who built it.... Chris Barton.
One look at the skull of the radio controlled Yoda from EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and the immediate similarities are testiment to the truth of this information.
Keep in mind that what follows is a enlargement of an image that was downloaded at resolution 72 and therefore quality is impaired. Color is exaggerated in order to see better the materials and cable routing. None of the comments that I am about to make are based upon inside information. They are supposition based upon my understanding of traditional methods and materials used over the past 30 years in the British film industry. I am sure I won't be 100% right but I will be making a knowledgeable guess.
This is pretty technical stuff so the information will be most useful to those of you with a rudimentary understanding of basic animatronics. Much of what I have to say relates to differences between this mechanism and the originals so you will get an insight into both. I will be referring to several different Yoda puppets built for ESB (EMPIRE STRIKES BACK). To understand what I am relating to you will have to read The making of Yoda Parts I, II, & III. I will be releasing part I in March 98.
So lets get on with it.
First thing I can say is that the color of the skull (1 above) indicates that it was constructed using similar materials to the skulls of the original Yoda puppets.... regular fiber-glass (which may, or may not, be part filled with rigid polyurethane). Cold cure dental acrylic (possibly two part epoxy too) appears to have been used as a filler where the tubes that route the cables to and from the mechanism needed to be grouted in. You can clearly see where parts of the mechanism have been inserted (6 & 7)... highlighted by pink traces of acrylic. This is like a time warp for me. Although the details vary, this skull is very similar to that of the "standby Yoda" (which I built with help from Bob Keen) that was used extensively on ESB. Even after all these years the materials are identical. In addition, the way the mechanism is built directly into the skull is principally the same too... unlike the "1st Yoda" (built by Stuart Freeborn with help from Nick Dudman) which allowed an elaborate brass mechanism to be removed in it's entirety for servicing and adjustments.
Both of the original versions had a hole where you now see the eyebrow mechanism above (2). This was so that Frank Oz could operate the eyebrows by hand. (In fact, a major problem with the original puppets was in making an eyelid mech in such a way that Frank's hand could pass freely between the mouth and eyebrows... effectively clear through the mechanism. (This was 20 years ago and we weren't entirely sure what we were doing in those days.) In the version above the eyebrow toggle (2) appears to be proud of the main skull in order to allow it to rotate freely. There is no immediate sign of cabling and it looks as though the toggle could be located directly onto servo heads just below the surface of the skull.
Upper and lower eyelids above (3) are solid brass semi-spherical shells and are quite different to the "standby Yoda" which used wires fitted to a detachable mechanism. The advantage of the brass shells is that they are stronger but you have to be careful that strength doesn't amount to excessive weight. I would expect that the lids were attached only at the leading edge. The eyelids on the original puppet stretched as the eyes closed for a realistic movement. Gluing the lids to the entire shell provides less opportunity for tearing but causes a strange movement in the eye sockets. We will have to wait for the movie to be sure what they did. It is customary to gear the lower lid so that it moves with the upper lid at a ratio of 3 to 1 (one third of the movement of the upper lid.)
The ear mechanism is totally different to previous versions. On ESB the ear mechanism used a simple but very effective technique that originated at The Muppets. It comprised of a single stiff cable the center of which was fixed in the tip of the ear and the two ends routed back to a simple hand control. By pushing or pulling one or both ends of the cable assorted positions were achieved. The mechanism above is much more complicated with three cables (you can see the ends of the routing tubes emerging from the head indicated by the figure 5). The center cable will lift, and probably lower, the ear whilst the other two pull it forward and back. Figure 4 clearly shows an additional lever and it is hard to determine what this might do. It is not simply a locating device for the ear since it is fabricated from a different material and the recess of the ear would do that anyway. It seems odd that it should waggle the ear since the cables (5) should be able to do that. It is just possible that it might drive some sort of self contained mechanism within the ear itself.
The most exciting thing revealed by this photo is actually what isn't there! See note 2 of the Anomalies below.
1. The apparent insertion of a tube across the cheek and nose (7) seems very odd since it doesn't appear to lead to any mechanism. It is possible, (but not necessarily likely), that this is leading to the ear mechanism lever mentioned earlier (4) in a long gentle loop to minimize friction. Of course this could also be scarring from some obscure surgery performed for undefinable reasons.
2. The jaw and lip mechanism is missing entirely. There is a dimple (8) at the bottom of the nose that could be an exit for a lip cable but such a location is not ideal and would have to be combined with another lip cable exiting from the cheeks. even then the result would be limited. A novice might be forgiven for thinking that the lack of a lip mech is simply indicative of the skull being unfinished.... but the line of the cut away section appears to be very... very, revealing.
For a mechanical jaw to work believably it needs to pivot where the jaw joins the skull at the cheek bone area in front of the ear. If a jaw was to be fitted to the skull above then an area would be removed arching down from the cheekbone in a gentle curve to line up with the mouth. But instead the cut away area starts below the ear, meandering to well below the line of the mouth before jumping up to a little below the nose. This is identical to the original puppets which had no lower jaw or lip mech at all. The lowness of the area at the sides provides support for the skin in the absence of a jaw whilst the large space below the nose allows for a hand to access the lips. This is the best evidence to date that.... as I reported in November.... contrary to all reports at that time.... this appears to be the skull of a glove puppet. It would look like my sincere wish that Frank Oz might continue to bring Yoda to life in the New Trilogy may well come to fruition.
Efforts to get my source to tell me whether the skin which covered this skull was made of silicone, (as indicated in official STAR WARS reports) or foamed latex like the original puppets has yielded no response to date. However the use of a silicone skin is likely to produce a very different look to the original puppets so for continuity reasons Foam latex should not be ruled out.
Nick . .
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