Star Wars memoirs

from someone who was actually there!

Nick Maley’s


The production office were pushing to see a back-up head built but Stuart was exhausted... often working through the night to fix the original puppet. Since I had already completed two minor versions of Yoda, Bruce Sharman wanted me to assemble a "Stand-by" Yoda puppet head. He asked me to produce what I could in 3 days.

He wasn't asking for full movement..... he just wanted a little insurance against delays in shooting. The goal was AT MINIMUM to build a Yoda that could be shot from behind, over Yoda's shoulder onto Luke, with ear movement. But he said that any other movement in the puppet would be a bonus. Stuart wanted extra time to sort out the teething problems with the prototype puppet so he agreed. Bob Keen and I started on the Stand-by Yoda immediately. It was 4.00 pm when we were assigned this task and we didn't go home until it was finished 3 nights & two days later.

Our approach was radically different to Stuart's. Stu was seeking perfection. He machined special linkages and designed a uniquely original mechanism. We on the other hand took all the discarded mechanisms, spare skins and skulls and amalgamated them into the best hybrid puppet that could be built in the time....... out of whatever was lying around... and some cables that I bought from the local bicycle shop

Stuart had made sure that the workshop was well equipped. I adopted Bob Keen to help me just as Stuart had adopted Nick Dudman. We made a good team. As I fitted and hollowed out the skull he checked that the mechanism we were adapting was operational. As he fitted the basic mech to the skull, I eased the interior of the skin to allow greater flexibility. I labored long over finding the best routing for the cables and occasionally one of us took a quick nap on the floor under the work bench.

There was no time to go home. We worked 60 hours straight through to the beginning of shooting and then hung around a full day in case any problems arose. In many ways we were establishing a pattern that we would repeat on many other movies as Bob proceeded to assist me as my #2 for the following 5 years. We complemented each other well. Where as I was more artistic than he was (and, at that time, had a better understanding of the materials we were using), Bob's model making background made him better at assembling and connecting the mechanism that I had designed from the various scraps we had located.

We adapted one of Stuart's earliest eye mechanisms, abandoning the complicated linkages that were causing Stuart's headaches and reverted to direct cable runs utilizing long gentle curves that spiraled inside the head to minimize friction. Reverting to direct cables meant there was more room inside and that made it easier to facilitate the movement of Frank Oz's hand as it passed up from the mouth to operate the eyebrows. A series of rubber cups were located in key areas around the mouth and eyebrows for Frank's fingers to easily locate precise points and in the final analysis it was his great performance that convinced the audience that Yoda lived.

We were trying to devise cutting edge stuff with very little sleep. The adrenalin kept us going. We got pretty spaced out.... and it was after our second night without sleep that the wacky incident I related in Yoda, the Nogard's sacrifice, and the guy we nailed to the floor! took place. It was nerve wracking. Anyway, as we went into the third night Graham Freeborn stayed late to complete the hair punching and we artworked the skin long before it was fitted to the mechanism. I knew that if we waited until the mechanism was complete and the skull was finished that we wouldn't complete in time to shoot the next day. I was determined not to go beyond the deadline I had agreed.

When you think of epic movies like STAR WARS you think that everything must be built and tested weeks before filming. That is often not the case, especially if what you are building is something you've never done before. Later I would  build my career on breaking new ground in ridiculously short time frames on almost every movie.

Bob soldered up the last linkages and then he slept on the floor for a few hours while I fitted the skin. When I was finally finished we had less than 4 hours left to dress the hair and touch up the artwork but despite that, it took me a full half hour to work up the courage to test the mechanism. Bruce had only asked that the ears work, but we had gone for a full working puppet... eyes left,right, up and down plus upper and lower eyelids, ears.... and with the full mobility that Frank had asked for. We were not sure that it would still work with the skin attached. I felt like so much was riding on it and I didn't want to discover that it didn't function properly. I woke Bob and we made a cup of tea..... then took a deep breath and tried out the mechanism. It was stiffer than we would have liked but we were totally elated to see that that we got full movement from it.

It was a magical moment. A natural high. Of course in later years we did so much more complicated stuff that now it seems incredible that we could have had such brain ache over things we take for granted. At the time it was stuff we had never done before.

The Stand-by Yoda we built was used extensively... on Degobah, outside Yoda’s hut. Getting it on the set meant that Stuart could recall the proyotype and had the time to make the revisions that he needed. Many fans tell me that there was so much expression in Yoda's eyes, that they thought that there was someone inside it. It’s flattering when folks say that what we built was incredible for that era.  But I honestly believe that the "humanity" in Yoda came from the sensitive performance of Frank and the other puppeteers.

One of Yoda's most distinctive features were his ears. But I can't take the credit for that. I had watched Wendy Midner fit a brilliantly simple mechanism to the ears of the first Yoda head and I emulated that design. It didn't work quite as well but hey..... we built the whole thing in three days.... (I suspect she probably made adjustments when she had the Stand-by Yoda on set).

I carried the finished puppet down to the HUGE Dagobah set that housed Yoda and his hut. I was tired. I was elated, I was eager to show Frank and Wendy what we had built. The handover was rather quiet. We took it into Frank’s caravan. They said “thanks” and turned away with it... to see what it could do. I ambled away sleepily through that vast set. it was surreal. The trees out of plaster. But even standing in the middle of the set it was hard not to think you were in a swamp. They had a stream that ran through the set into the pond where the X-Wing had crashed and I waded through the mud and cross the stream via a few wooden planks.
That mud left it’s mark on Yoda... literally.  The crew would wade around in Wellington boots and poor Frank Oz spent half his time lying in it. The dirt took only a couple of days to migrate to Yoda's face. Frank and the other operators did their best to keep the puppet clean but there was only so much that they could do. I'm sure you know that they don't shoot movies in sequence. If you look at the film really carefully you can tell which shots were first and which were filmed last just by how grubby Yoda's face is.  It's really obvious to a discerning eye.

I was very lucky that Yoda became a real movie icon, a creature that stands out from the rest. I got excited the first time I saw what we had built at rushes. But the real buzz was when I sat in the audience of a public screening and listened to the audience react to the assembly of inanimate materials that we had helped to bring to life.

NEXT: The redesigned Yoda puppet built for A PHANTOM MENACE

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