Creature Effects (A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back)
Interview: September 2010
How did you get started in the movie business?
I was a kid who’s father was an actor. I grew up in theatre and thought I’d be an actor too so I learned stage make-up from the age of 7. I was teaching make-up at drama school at age 18 and realized I was too short and ugly to get frequent work as a performer. I applied to get a union ticket as a make-up artist in movies and I guess they thought I was a wiz kid because they gave me one after 2 years of trying. That gave me the right to work in movies. But then I needed to interface with the guys who could give me a job. That took another 4 years. I have a lot of info online at my website about this. I’ve been writing online for 15 years now and there’s an extensive page about me getting started in the business with photos and details.
How did you get to work on both Star Wars: A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back?
Before Star Wars, nobody would have pegged George Lucas to make a sci-fi movie full of aliens. So even if you were into that stuff, you wouldn’t approach George about it. But I knew Stuart Freeborn would get all the best make-up effects movies as he had built the apes for 2001: A Space Odyssey. So I targeted and harassed him until he gave me a day’s work. He liked what I did enough for me to join his team and when he got Star Wars I carried his bag and got it too. Of course it wasn’t quite as simple as I make it sound. There were several important elements along the way. After A New Hope I worked with Stu on Spectre for Gene Roddenberry and Superman: the Movie and Superman II. So by the time we got to Empire Strikes Back I was an established part of the team and it was only natural that I would be included on Empire. When Graham was busy on set, I would supervise the trainees in the workshop. Bob Keen, Dave Barclay and Nick Dudman were all trainees on that movie. I worked mainly with Bob and Dave as Nick spent a lot of time helping Stu. Stu spent most of his time in his room working on the prototype Yoda, or attending production meetings, or coming by to see how we were doing with other projects.
For A New Hope you worked on the famous Cantina scene. What was your exact task and which characters/aliens did you create for that scene?
There were six of us working on creatures when we did the main unit shoot for that scene. I was still a junior member of Stu’s team so I generally helped with ALL the creatures that we built. I made eyes for most characters. I made molds, foam skins and fabricated component parts. I stuck warts on Greedo and made his Mohawk tassel, I artworked many creatures, made hands and built a severed arm for Ponda Baba. I also did the prosthetics on the skinny “ugly” at the bar with the bubble pipe (Editor’s note: Dannik Jerriko). Many of the creatures there were modelled/designed by Stu’s son Graham Freeborn. I was one of several artists finishing what he started.
You have worked with the legendary Stuart Freeborn for 7 years. How did your collaboration start?
I met Stu at union meetings and tried to strike up conversation so he would know who I was. Eventually he gave me two days on Young Winston and I devoted every moment of it to doing the most outstanding work possible… even though I was just working on the crowd. The director noticed and used my characters extensively. Stu noticed too and my two days grew to sixteen weeks. That put me on the map with him and started the road that lead to Star Wars.
Which valuable things did you learn from Stuart Freeborn? And how was it working with him?
Stu was like a headmaster. He kept you on your toes at all times. But I learned from him to look for lateral solutions to problems, to constantly strive to produce something new as well as a LOT of techniques specific to the jobs we were doing. I learnt from Stu’s son Graham too who was his main assistant and a good hearted guy who helped me a lot in those early days.
You are probably best known for creating Yoda along with Stuart Freeborn. How did this creative process went, and which things were your idea regarding the creation of Yoda?
I don’t lay claim to any ideas creating Yoda. Stuart decided how Yoda looked and changed him from the skinny young figure Ralph McQuarrie had designed into the gnome like creature you know today. I was involved in making Yoda WORK… making molds and skins and skulls, figuring out a walking version, assembling a radio controlled version with Ron Hone who built that mechanism and finally assembling the second animatronic puppet… assisted by Bob Keen. Fans don’t realize there were four different versions of Yoda built for that movie alone, all based on Stu’s design but different aspects of different puppets were done by different people. Consequently credits get very confusing. My ideas were all on the INSIDE of Yoda… the way the last head fitted to the costume, The way the neck fixture expanded as it stretched over the skull, the way the last mechanism was simplified so there was less to go wrong. These things are not perceptible to the viewer just as a car’s breaking system isn’t perceptible when you look at an automobile. But it’s still integral to the final product. Stu headed the project and made all the key decisions. But Stu and I were not the only people working on Yoda. There was a team of us working different aspects of four versions. I am in the process of completing a new website on the subject. Your readers may be the first to visit it at thoseYodaGuys.com.
What do you recall from your time on the Dagobah set? How did the shooting of the Yoda scenes go?
I remember it was filthy. They built the entire thing on a sound stage. Mud and leaves, a lake and stream. They gave us wellington boots for the mud and Yoda got dirtier and dirtier. You can tell what order they filmed the sequences in by how dirty Yoda is in each shot. Once Yoda was on set, Wendy Midner and Dave Barclay looked after him and worked closely with Frank. So I wasn’t on set that often.
How was your relation with Empire producers George Lucas and Gary Kurtz?
Most times they interacted directly with Stu. But the dealings I had with them were on good terms. I hear reports that George is difficult. Not the man I worked with. He was polite, very reasonable in what he wanted. Gave you what was needed to get by. At the end of A New Hope George and Gary presented key personnel with a signed and dedicated book of stills. Mine said “to Nick Maley, thanks for your contribution to Star Wars, George Lucas and Gary Kurtz”. I worked on 53 projects and that was the only time a director and producer considered a group of key contributors enough to do something that. They were good guys and I still cherish that book.
What do you think of the ‘prequel Yoda’; the new Yoda puppet from Episode I and the digital Yoda from Episode II and III?
Basically I believe that if it isn’t broke you shouldn’t fix it. But the puppet for The Phantom Menace was so bad that I had the agree that the digital was better. Fans say he had to be digital in Episode II because he had to fight. I guess they’ve forgotten the animatronic fight sequences in Terminator II which, with brilliant digital enhancement, were far more impressive than the cartoons of Episode II a decade later.
What do you think of the fact that CGI is taking over from the ‘old effects’ like puppets? It seems to me that an old craft is slowly disappearing.
You can’t stop “progress”. The industry is driven on new technologies. People want something new that they haven’t seen before and so there is an assumption that “new” must be better than “old”. People will say I’m a dinosaur when I disagree. But when CGI gets to be old hat I think film makers may go back to the combination of physical and digital effects which, whilst less extreme, are far more believable than the gravity-less CGI which allows forms to change proportion from frame to frame like Bugs Bunny and Roger Rabbit.
To me much more to the point is where is CG technology leading? It is 16 years since Forrest Gump met President Nixon. That means you can’t believe anything that’s been on CNN for one and a half decades! Do you think that maybe the folks who feed us information have a political agenda? It’s ironic that George Lucas should fuel a technology that might be used to mislead the masses just as Palpatine mislead the senate.
What do you regard as the highlight of your career so far?
Which career? I worked on 53 movie and video projects. Lifeforce has my best work, Krull was the most fun, Highlander was the least fun, but people always remember me for Star Wars. I exhibited my artwork in 18 countries, exhibiting in galleries and museums. A three year world tour with UNESCO stands out in that regard. I was Commodore of the Jolly Harbour Yacht Club for five years and sailed competitively for 15 years representing the island nation of Antigua in Antigua Sailing Week and winning three International Team Trophies was the highlight there. But if you want to know what I consider my greatest achievement… it would have to be persuading my actress wife Gloria to hang out with me through this adventure we call “life”.
What are you currently up to? Do you have new projects?
I just signed contracts to collaborate on a proposed Broadway rock musical involving prosthetics and animatronics that I can’t say too much more about at this time. But I’m also working on creating a movie museum in St Maarten to keep me in pina coladas when I’m 95. (See aboutPlanetParadise.com). I recently turned 61. I need to focus enough to complete that before I reach 70. I just published my first book, combining my paintings with poems I’ve written over the past 45 years. I’m working on another book called Follow Your Star: a journey from Star Wars to Planet Paradise. Eventually, in another decade or so, I hope to produce a new range of Star Wars paintings honouring characters and technicians I had the pleasure of working alongside. That will be a limited edition unlike any Star Wars artwork produced to date. Hopefully these projects will be enough to keep me busy for another 40 years or more.