How does Star Wars do it? Even if “I knew that special-sauce recipe,” says Chris Terrio, the Oscar-winning co-writer of Rise of Skywalker, “I certainly wouldn’t publish it.
“Whatever they’re doing with Baby Yoda,” he says, referencing the character actually named the Child from the new streaming series The Mandalorian, “I want to know more.”
You’re surrounded by, and in the shadow of, all the designs that pre-exist you.
Director J.J. Abrams
Rise of Skywalker introduces a wealth of new creatures, including the tiny repair puppet Babu Frik and the vulnerable small droid D-O, which presented a heady challenge. “You’re not just standing on the shoulders of those who have designed before,” Abrams says. “You’re also surrounded by, and in the shadow of, all the designs that pre-exist you.”
To rise to that high creative bar, Abrams bore in mind that some of the qualities that make for an engaging creature are identical to the traits of an interesting human character within Star Wars, which, he says, is centred on “behaviour and, depending on the role intended, a level of sympathy, which usually has to do with the eyes”.
“The trick is just to mock it up and keep going,” he says, “and in my case, working with amazing designers and artists who are part of that conversation.”
For some of the franchise’s beloved creatures, naturally, the talent of the actor beneath the hardware and plastic is crucial, especially with characters that become true scene-stealers.
Muppets creator Jim Henson, brought aboard to work on Yoda, chose his right-hand man Frank Oz (Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear) to become the character, for instance, because Oz was “admired for his ability to create characters nearly at will”, writes Brian Jay Jones in his biography George Lucas: A Life. Oz, as much dramatic actor as physical puppeteer, spent long months before the Empire shoot working out how to bring Yoda to mesmerising life.
Oz and Yoda became so seamless that Empire director Irvin Kershner often “found himself giving direction straight to Yoda rather than addressing his comments to Oz”, writes Jones. “Even Lucas could get caught up in the moment, sitting cross-legged in Yoda’s home, completely wrapped up in conversation with the puppet, even with Oz in plain sight.”
Yoda represents the franchise’s pinnacle of geniuses coming together, Jones says by phone from New Mexico.
“In the creation of Yoda, Lucas and Henson were each relying on the creative expertise of the other,” Jones says of the teaming of Henson’s Creature Shop and Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic. “Lucas needed Henson’s group of talented puppeteers and performers who could figure out how to build, create and perform a believable character, and Henson wanted to get his hands on the technology that Lucas and ILM had developed for building that character.
“It was a kind of ‘tech transfer’ between the two men and their two companies, in pursuit of something bigger than just one of them, and that something that was Yoda.”
The fussy English butler
Beyond Oz, another actor who especially defined his creature is Anthony Daniels, who has voiced C-3PO for 42 years, including in Rise of Skywalker. Lucas initially envisioned the service droid as a slick car salesman type, Jones said, but it was the Wiltshire-born Daniels who hit upon the “fussy English butler” sound for Threepio.
Many of the most memorable Star Wars creatures share a human element, even when viewers might not realise it. In the case of the droid R2-D2, for example, Lucas and Oscar-winning sound designer Ben Burtt wanted an “organic sound” within all the whirring, according to Jones, so they recorded themselves “cooing, whistling and beeping and ran it through a synthesizer”.
Kirk Thatcher, a Muppets director and writer who was a creature technician on Return of the Jedi, offers a related theory: Since Star Wars is so story-driven, the filmmakers don’t present creatures simply to flash their artistry.
Characters in this universe have a point of view.
Muppets director Kirk Thatcher
“Characters in this universe have a point of view,” Thatcher says, “even if it’s just a menacing alien.” And that point of view is conveyed through whatever registers as a “face”, he says, as well as the visual “attitude” of the head and even the character’s size. Thatcher says Star Wars made sure to vary the sizes, and that too many earlier sci-fi creatures were of similar scale to humans. (On the original Star Trek series, Thatcher says, so many of the aliens were curiously close to six feet tall.)
Star Wars designers know how to lean into those size differences for powerful effect, whether the creature is as massive as the snow-walking AT-ATs or the slobbering Jabba the Hutt, or as diminutive as the cowled Jawas on the sands of Tatooine.
When you go small in Star Wars, though, you risk provoking fans who accuse the franchise of pandering towards the adorable whether it’s through Lucas’ cherished teddy-bear Ewoks of Endor introduced in the original trilogy, the Keane-eyed porgs of The Last Jedi or even the wee rolling droid BB-8 that Disney chief Robert Iger had a hand in adding to the galaxy.
Cute, but not too cute
“You go too cute, and you disengage some people,” Neal Scanlan, a Muppet alumnus who now works on the Star Wars films, told USA Today in 2017. “Don’t go cute enough, you’re going to exclude younger viewers.”
When you weigh all those factors – the size, the human element, the character design and point of view, the unique communication sounds –perhaps no Star Wars film creature is greater than one: Chewbacca.
Thatcher says: “To me, that is the perfect design. I just kind of marvel at the simplicity: he’s not a dog, he’s not a werewolf, he’s not a gorilla. There are so many animals we can attribute his physiognomy to, it’s actually really difficult (to create), but it’s the perfect amalgam of creatures that we like.”
And beyond the movies, Thatcher says there is full-circle appeal of Baby Yoda.
“He’s green and cute and humans are so programmed to love that baby kind of layout with those cheeks on a big face,” Thatcher says. “We just can’t stop going, ‘Goo-goo-gaga’.”
The Washington Post