Star Wars memoirs

from someone who was actually there!

Nick Maley’s


The main room was very long, rather narrow and was one floor up from ground level. It was filled with tables. Stuart was very big on tables. I mean........ we probably had more tables in this one workshop than the rest of the studio put together. They were laid out in a way that must have seemed like some bizarre maze to a visitor, all covered with materials, equipment, mechanisms, sculptures and half finished stuff. A real Aladdin's cave.

There were always several jobs in progress at any one time. So Stuart had created a work area for each job and we (the personnel that were working) would move from job to job, area to area, as the need arose.

"The main room had a door at each end. One door lead to the foam lab and on to the office, Stuart's room, the rest room and the stairs to the street. The other door just lead straight outside. When you first came into the room from the foam lab there was an section immediately on your right which was where the Wampa was being built. Adjacent was the lifecast and molding area. These areas were set aside from the rest of the room by a square of tables. If you went straight ahead you came to the area where the close-up Tauntaun head was being built.......... another work area. It was on a corner. From there you could either go straight on, through a corridor of tables to the second door which lead to the street, or you could make a right to the mechanical assembly area (where mechanical devices and connections were constructed). This was where Bob Keen worked. From there you could take a left to reach the area where I generally worked........ doing various things, including fitting the skins to the radio controlled Yodas. Some of these areas there were separated by makeshift walls of shelving units and boards covered with tools. The whole room was maybe 70 feet by 25. A labyrinth of tables and work stations.
Lets get on to the characters who worked here. I have mentioned Stuart, MFX HOD and Creature designer. The man who was responsible for giving us all the job. At this time he would be about 65 years old. He was, (and still is), a short, slightly rounded, balding individual but don't let his diminutive stature fool you. He had piercing bright eyes and was very authoritative. None of us wanted to incur his wrath, including me and I had worked for him on and off for almost seven years. Then there was Kay, Stuart's wife, (seen right with chewie), and Graham, his son. Graham was also Make-up Supervisor and, at the time this story relates to, he and Kay were rarely in the workshop because, once filming started, they both had responsibilities caring for creatures and actors on set. Then there was me, in Graham's absence the senior tech. in the workshop.

To assist us there were three first-timers (movie newbies). These first-timers all went on to have distinguished careers so readers should check out their biographies. There was Bob Keen who later did all the HELL RAISER movies. Then there was David Barklay who went on to work with the Muppets (particularly FRAGGLE ROCK) and was a key collaborator in the interaction of the cartoons and the live action in WHO KILLED ROGER RABBIT. Last to join the crew was Nick Dudman who became one of Stuart's key assistants on RETURN OF THE JEDI and later applied or created MFX for LEGEND, JUDGE DREAD, BATMAN, FIFTH ELEMENT, HARRY POTTER, and the STAR WARS PREQUILS.

Although these guys were newcomers that doesn't mean that they were completely inexperienced. All MFX designers are very particular about who they let loose in their workshops. We expected them to have a history of building related things. They come to the interview with a portfolio. These would be a bunch of kids who would come along and say "I'm a model maker."... or.... "I built this puppet"... or...."I built this Frankenstein mask"......... various things. They'd show us pictures of stuff they'd built and if we thought they were really, really good, then we would let them into the department and allowed them to make the tea! If they made good tea, then they might move on to help by holding things. Then fetching things and assembling stuff. Then we would determine their strongest attribute and start assigning them their own jobs. After probably one good long movie as a runner, they'd m David Barkley had built a chimpanzee suit. He'd done a very good job, considering the fact that he'd had no training at all. Of course, much of what he had done was very primitive but it more than adequately displayed his potential. David was eager to learn everything that he could and he carefully watching whatever the rest of us were doing. The only problem was that every time we had a problem, (we'd be sitting there brainstorming trying to solve it), David would pop up and say, "You know, when I built my chimpanzee suit, I did this, this and this..." It used to drive us crazy. Here we've got this guy who's just started in the business telling us the most basic things about how he built his chimpanzee suit when we are trying to do leading edge stuff. It became a joke after a while. David was a very nice guy, he was just trying to help and we all loved him. He just didn’t know when to keep quiet.

OK... That's the background. Here's the story.

One day Bob and I were working on the “backup” Yoda which was an emergency job. We had worked right through the night before and this was in the afternoon ( 32 hours straight). The job had been thrown at me out of the blue by Bruce Sharman, (Production Supervisor), and we only had a day and two nights left to meet our deadline. This was our opportunity to show everyone what we could do and Bob and I were eager to get it right. We wanted the eyes to work, we wanted the eye lids to work, we wanted everything, even though neither of us had done anything like this before. The whole experience was incredibly brain intensive and we were getting very, very tired.

Bob and I were huddled up trying to figure out how we were going to make Yoda's eyes look left, right, up and down, still leave room for a blink mechanism and fit the whole thing around Frank Oz's hand, yet inside Yoda's skull. (In hindsight it seems incredible that we puzzled over this so long. Given a few years we were into waldos, built our own computers and even directed our own sequences, but at this time it was all new to us.) David watched us for a while in contemplative silence, then wandered across to our table and said... "When I built my chimpanzee suit I used ping pong balls for eyes. I stuck pins in the sides of the ping pong balls and tied string on them so when you pulled the string to the left, the eyes looked to the left... and when you pulled the string to the right, the eyes looked to the right..." and he earnestly thought that this was an insight that we should know about. Well, Bobby and I looked at each other, and then we did what any mature, rational, adult would do in similar circumstances. We nailed him to the floor.

"The floor of the workshop was made of wood and it was winter. There was snow and stuff outside and we were all wearing fairly heavy clothes. Bobby was a big guy. He sat on David while I got some 4" nails and maniacally drove them through the cuffs of David's shirt sleeves. Then I drove two more through the legs of his Levi's. You know, it's amazing. You wouldn't think it would take too much to tear a shirt or a pair of jeans and get up off a floor, but once your arms and legs are spread out you have no leverage to work with. David twisted and wriggled and writhed on the floor while Bobby and I calmly went back to work. We were rather pleased with ourselves.

David was saying things like, "Okay guys... come on... you can let me up now." Naturally, we ignored him.

10 minutes went by. 20 minutes went by. Half an hour went by. Bob came over to me and said "Don't you think we should let him up? If Stu comes in he's going to wonder what the hell we're doing."

It was at this point that I made a terrible mistake. I said, "Ahh... don't worry about it... Stuart's in a meeting with George Lucas. That'll keep him busy for ages. There's no way he's going to come in here and find David nailed to the floor". So we got on with our work and after a while David gave up asking us to let him up off the floor. He just quietly lay there.

After about 50 minutes Bob and I were in the middle of a very delicate connection when the door to the foam lab opened and Stuart came through the door from the Foam Lab. Now remember this is Bob's first film and he has just been a party to nailing someone to the floor. You could see the sweat pop right off his face. He was convinced he would never be employed on any movie ever again. I thought "Oh God, I'm gonna pay for this." I knew I could get Bobby off. After all I was the one responsible. But Stuart had a dry sense of humor. I was sure he wouldn't fire me. I'd been with him too long.

Then George Lucas came in behind him!

I instantly developed the same look as Bobby and now I could feel the sweat popping right off my face. In behind George Lucas came Gary Kurtz, the other Producer of the movie. I knew I was never going to work again! My career was over. My professional life began to flash before my eyes! Behind him came five Mormons who, someone told me later, had some kind of investment in the movie.

Well, Bobby and I just went into a complete panic. We knew there was no way we could get this guy off the floor but they couldn't see him from where they were standing because of all the tables and I thought, "Maybe they'll just pass through the workshop and never notice him".

Bobby and I jumped into action and tried to look busy. We hammered. We nailed. We made a lot of noise. We hoped it was clear that we were doing a lot of important stuff and that we were very industrious, hard working, people.

Stuart, George, Gary and the others all stopped in the area where the Wampa was being built. I almost died when Stuart called across to me, "Nick, you're working on this, come and demonstrate the Wampa to Mr. Lucas... give him an update of what's happening." Graham Freeborn and I had constructed this thing together (Stuart modeled the head I think and Graham the body). My heart was racing as I got up and step...ped over David. It was a long step and I was trying not to make it look obvious while all these movie executives stood there watching and waiting for me to impart some pearls of wisdom. I had to move through the maze of tables to get to the very other end of the workshop. When I got there I was in a complete lather.

I found myself stumbling for words, "Er... well... yeah...", and then the words shot out of me like an rocket as though, by keeping them occupied, they might not notice the guy nailed to the floor. "Well. . . this is the Wampa and as you can see it's built from fiber glass, the basic underside is fiber glass and er... the head's fiberglass and er... the feet are fiberglass well . . . its fiberglass." I couldn't believe the garbage I was spouting" . . . and we got these goat skins and we cut 'em up and we stuck 'em all over the fiber glass . . . like this . . . and a man fits inside and his feet come down to here and he's on stilts and the toes are articulated here . . . see? . . . and his arms come down to the elbows, and he's got these mechanical arms that hook on here . . . and go up and down like this . . . and wave around like this . . .  and the fingers move like this . . . and his head goes on the top . . . blah . . blah . . . blah ! . . . and that's the way it is . . . .and he's got these gobbledy gook eyes and. . . and . . . and that's the Wampa!" And I got out of there as quickly as I could. I felt like a rat leaving a sinking ship. And I made the right turn. And I made the left turn. And I step...ped over David again. And I didn't look back to see if anyone noticed. Bobby and I hammered and we nailed and we sawed and we made a lot of noise in the hope that it was clear that we were very, very, industrious, hard working, people.

Well....... The visitors moved on to where the close-up Tauntaun was being constructed. They were within ten feet of David now, but they still couldn't see him nailed to the floor because of the Z in the walkway. Stuart called out to Bob "Come and show Mr. Lucas how this works."

"So Bob got up. He had this glazed look in his eyes as he nonchalantly step...ped over David. He did his best to look really casual while he demonstrated the Tauntaun's joystick controls. He wiggled the eyes and opened the mouth and pointed out how the tongue moved. He flopped the head around and wiggled the ears and anything else that he could think of. When he was finished he came back, quietly over David and the two of us tried to look really busy, hammering and soldering and sawing up things that really didn't need to be messed with.

The moment of truth had arrived. This was the juncture at which Stuart, George, Gary and all the movie bigwigs would either continue in the direction they'd been going and exit the workshop, (never knowing that anyone was ever nailed to the floor), or make the turn that would lead to our doom and destruction. Which was it going to be?

As if in slow motion, I watched Stuart turn the first corner and start down the Z that would bring him to David. I could see David's inquiring face looking up at me. He couldn't tell what was happening but I think my face gave it away. It seemed like it was taking forever for Stuart to make those few short steps. In a dream I heard him saying, "...and over here Nick is working on the “backup” Yoda". He turned the second corner and... there was David nailed to the floor!

Stu stopped dead. I'm sure my heart stopped too, but none of the people behind Stuart could see David who was smiling inanely at his mentor. What happened next was like something from Laurel and Hardy. George Lucas, who was right behind Stuart in this narrow walkway, was still moving forward and banged into Stuart's back, jolting him forward over the helpless figure on the floor. Stuart was forced to step over David. George stopped faced with a smiling guy crucified on the floor. and Gary Kurtz bumped into George and he was forced to step over David. Gary stops and the first Mormon bumped into him. This whole procession of people were bumping into each other and stepping over this helpless guy nailed to the floor who was lying there saying; “Good afternoo... good morning... hello... how are you?" like this was the most normal thing in the world! The Mormon ladies in their long skirts were trying to step over him in such a way that he wouldn't be able to look up their skirts. The situation was completely out of control.

As they came towards me everyone was looking back at David on the floor except for Stuart who was looking at me as if to say "What are you doing?" In a blind panic I jumped up and pushing Stuart aside I grabbed hold of George Lucas's arm and drew him over to where the radio controlled Yoda was. My mouth was in gear again as I tried to distract them from the issue at hand, (well on the floor actually!)

"Well Bob and I are working on the standby Yoda but I can't show you that yet. Over here though I've finished fitting the skin to the first radio controlled Yoda. I'll show you that." And I launched into a garbled demo. The guys from special effects had built this very nice mechanism that made most functions work. I switched everything on and babbled like an idiot.

"You see that? The eyes work! And look. The jaw works. What about this? the head turns. Graham and I did the artwork. Look at that. Green. And Graham punched the hair in. You see? Hair! . . ." and I was ranting on about this and that and about how it all worked and pretty well anything that came into my head and after a while no one looked back at the guy nailed to the floor anymore. They were all looking at me. This intense lunatic raving about what this thing could do. But I was running out of things to say. I couldn't believe it, but as I ran out of thoughts (and breath) I watched my self prod George Lucas in the chest and say..... "What do you think?"

Well what was he supposed to think? He looked around the desk for a suitable comment to make when his gaze fell upon the Nogard. He had never seen this creature before. In fact we never finished developing it. He said, "What's that?.

I REALLY had hoped that Nogard, that I had designed on spec to go somewhere on the swamps of Degobah would have it’s moment on the big screen. Now it was just another distraction to help me keep my job. I snatched it up and uttered enthusiastically, "It's Nogard! We call it Nogard because it's a cross between a Newt, a frOG and a lizARD... NOGARD It's got these webby feet and it's nice and floppy. Like this., see? We thought it would be good on Dagobah. It's really great. . . Best of all, “nogard” is "dragon" spelled backward"

He looked far from convinced. I was afraid I might loose his interest. In desperation I said, "What's really nice about it, is that you can spin it around like this. " And I got hold of its back legs and I swung it around a few times till it curled itself up into a spongy ball. Then it rapidly unwound itself and as it straightened out and I let it go. It performed two perfect backward somersaults as it sailed across the workshop and landed perfectly on its feet.

"Well ?" I said, "What do you think?"

George Lucas looked at me as if I was an idiot and after a moments pause said, "I don't think so."

In that moment Nogard's fate was sealed. It was a Herculean sacrifice that may not have saved the Galaxy, but certainly saved my career and Bob's. George was so bemused that he made his way out of the area followed by Stuart and the others 'till they reached the area where David was nailed to the floor. Unbelievable as it seems, George just stepped over him and kept going. So did Gary Kurtz. David nodded and smiled and said; "Bye bye....... have a nice day." One by one they all stepped over him and left the workshop. Not one of them ever said a word about the guy who was nailed to the floor".

I took Nogard home where, 30 years later, he became part of my collection of movie relics... a little the worse for wear. Though he never became a movie star, he became immortalized in one of my paintings instead. 

As my career flourished and I designed creature effects for other films, Bob became my workshop supervisor and worked with me for 5 years on movies like KRULL, THE KEEP, LIFEFORCE and HIGHLANDER.

David became one of the Yoda puppeteers. He operated Yoda’s eyes and later worked with Jim Henson for years.

If you were looking for something totally unique.... you found it.


PHOTO: 1978. Me, (Nick Maley), with the radio controlled version of Yoda that was used in Luke’s backpack on Degobah.