Star Wars memoirs

from someone who was actually there!

Nick Maley’s


When I joined the business, in Europe, (and I suspect in the USA too), there were hard lines drawn by the unions that defined what tasks were assigned to each department. Under those agreements, the Props Dept. produced decaying skeletons, falling dummies, creatures with limited animation, and they usually operated puppets too. The Make-up Department created creatures based on people. The Special Effects Dept. made creatures that involved mechanisms. Stop motion models (animation) were either made by Special Effects or the animators themselves. When Stuart Freeborn and his team made the apes for 2001 A SPACE ODESSY he crossed the lines of demarkation by building suits on people that also included mechanical movement. I believe, in 1968, these were the first true animatronic suits, although Charlie Gamora had dabbled with that idea in the 30’s.   By today’s standards the 2001 ape suits had limited movement.  But at in 1968 they were totally amazing, cutting edge stuff. Producers are always eager to jump on something new, and instantly saw the possibility of escaping the Godzilla type men in suits recognizing the subtlety of movement that was so much more realistic than the cumbersome mechanical creatures so often produced by Special Effects Departments of the day.  Basicaly it was time for the next step in the evolution process.

The Make-up Department’s involvement in the building of animatronic figures was related directly to prosthetics, or perhaps more accurately, to the then secret process of producing foam latex. Those of us who worked with foam regularly had long recognized its potential for puppets, etc. Because we had a thorough understanding of the idiosyncrasies of the material, our approach to creating mechanical creatures differed radically from that of Special Effects Department.

The Special Effects Department has always attracted engineers. With a few notable exceptions, engineers design creatures from an engineering stand point. They create things to withstand the maximum stresses that could be applied to them, using strong materials to build robust mechanisms based upon the same tried and tested mechanical principals that create cars and trains and cranes and robots, i.e., ball joints, swivels, hinges, pistons, etc. However, nature's creations don't use the same mechanical principals as cars and trains and cranes and robots. They don't move in a mechanical fashion. Their joints are less precise, their connections less rigid. Living creatures are not designed to withstand maximum stresses. Their existence is usually a delicate balance of strength and weight developed to suit specific circumstances. It was comparatively easy for us to accept the concept of building mechanisms that were balanced solely to the strength and limitations of the skins we used, (rather than building a sturdy mechanism and then looking for something to cover it with), since we were so used to dealing with the constant delicate balance of foam latex itself.

With the exception of the ill fated preying mantis creature on ANH, I believe that  EMPIRE was the first project where the make-up crew were responsible for creating puppets. We only got away with it because we wouldn’t tell the Props and Special Effects guys how to make foam latex. Even then we were not, within the confines of the union agreements, allowed to operate the the puppets we were making. In a way it was strange. We were makeup artists doing stuff that didn't involve makeup and that didn't have people inside. We were really getting into an area that was new for us.

Because we were not engineers we didn’t feel restricted to engineering techniques. Both the initial YODA mechanism, built by Stuart with the assistance of Nick Dudman and the mechanism I built for the backup YODA, with the help of Bob Keen,  were designed to be radically different and more delicate than those which SFX would have constructed. Our approach was more closely linked to skeletons. We used spongy connections similar to ligaments and delicate lightweight linkages just strong enough to move the delicate materials we covered them with. We had to avoided regular lubricants because they attacked the foam so we used lateral alternatives like talcum powder, which acted like tiny ball bearings.

I remember the first time I heard the term “animatronics” used. It was a day when Bruce Sharman, the Line Producer on EMPIRE, came into the workshop. He talked to a bunch of us about the idea of creating a new union department called "Animatronics". It would be for specialists from assorted backgrounds who built our kind of creatures...... a mixture of animation, make-up effects and electronics. He was hoping to create a new department that would break the union boundaries that restricted us. But we weren’t very keen on the idea because we enjoyed being Make-up artists too. We didn't want to change Departments or be told that if we did animatronics we couldn't do prosthetics anymore. Nor did we want a new department that would exclude us from making animatronic creatures, when we had helped develop them.

Bruce went on as a Producer for Jim Henson. He was involved with DARK CRYSTAL and THE GREAT MUPPET CAPER. Animatronics became a unionized department that was used extensively to bring new people in to movies, mostly to work with him and Jim.

The political incorrectness of what we were doing in those early days resulted in confusing and incomplete screen credits that have since given rise to the propagation of a lot of misinformation. They couldn’t say we were building puppets so I am credited as one of the make-up artists although I did almost no make-up on EMPIRE. Wendy, who joined us from the Muppets, fabricated the Yoda’s sheet foam body and was one of the puppeteers. At the Muppets her title was Muppet Fabricator so that got adapted to “Yoda Fabricator” and her part in operating Yoda is unrecorded. David who was a trainee in our department ended up operating Yoda’s eyes. But trainees at that time didn’t get credits so he isn’t even credited as working on the movie! Since websites like are written by people who were not there, from an archive of info that mostly came from the credits and press releases, even they do not know the names of the 6 people who operated Yoda for the classic trilogy. This kind of confusion continued for almost a decade until it was accepted that making puppets and animatronics was acceptable for make-up artists.

As a matter of interest, the term “animatronics” was an adaptation of the phrase "Audio Animatronics" which originated with the Disney World mechanical figures. The term is now widely used in movies to cover anything from cable operated mechs, radio control and computerized mechanisms.

In the late 70’s and 80’s animatronic skills were developing along similar, but different, lines on both sides of the Atlantic.  In the USA, Rick Baker and Stan Winston had established themselves as leaders in the field. Later two of Rick’s former crew members, Rob Botin and Chris Walas followed. Much of what they made was cable operated fully mechanical items using different heads to produce different facial expressions. In England we were building more puppets that included animatronic mechs. These and the suits we built were single items that produced multiple expressions. Stuart continued with the work started with 2001 A SPACE ODESSY where suits he built had no cables and were operated by the movements of the actors inside. 

There's no doubt that, within Europe, the Henson Organization were hugely influential. Their workshop was in Hampstead on the outskirts of London and Jim’s mechanical designer, Lee, (who I am having trouble finding other reference to), was extremely innovative. His work inspired many of us to create mechanisms that derived their movements from unexpected parts of the operator’s body such as the back and shoulder blades..

Although we had a close association with The Muppets whilst building YODA, I never worked directly with Jim,  But the methods we used to create YODA influenced the Henson Organization  and later the methods they used to create creatures for DARK CRYSTAL  influenced us. In fact, Bruce Sharman asked me to join the team for DARK CRYSTAL, and later LABYRINTH, but for some reason he though that I should take a cut in salary for the privilege of working with The Muppets. I didn't see it that way. A few year later when I was directing the inserts of the death of one of the bat creature vampires for LIFEFORCE. Jim Henson  visited the set and asked me to join his team on RETURN TO OZ. I was very flattered that he had taken the trouble to ask me personally but I explained that I felt working for another designer, (Lyle Conway headed that team) would be a backward step for me. I think he was really taken aback, and in hindsight I think it was probably a wrong decision on my part. Jim’s death was a terrible tragedy. Although I didn't know him well, his influence touched us all and his legacy lives on.