Stuart Freeborn (1914-2013)

Yoda_SWSBI remember well watching The Empire Strikes Back in the Odeon Cinema in town (long since a Bingo hall, alas) back in the summer of 1980. The thing I remember most clearly about it is during the sequence on Dagobah, when Yoda appeared. I remember being utterly amazed by him.  You see,  I’m not sure what I’d been expecting- everyone interested in TESB well knew the advance publicity concerning a Jedi master and that it was a diminutive character created using a puppet. Most of us had seen pictures of him, or the film’s poster. I’m not sure what I was thinking it would look like, exactly- something like a muppet, such as those we saw on tv I suppose. The possibilities of puppetry hadn’t really been explored up to then – Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal was still some way off- so, you know, I can’t say I was really expecting much. So anyway, the clearest thing I remember from when I first saw TESB was just that- seeing Yoda moving, talking… I was amazed. I was really taken a back by it. By the performance, the mannerisms, the pure sense of character in just the design itself. You take one look at Yoda in a still – I’m talking about the original puppet now, not the cg character the prequels unleashed upon us- and you get an instant impression of the character. It’s in those Albert Einstein eyes maybe, that sense of calm intelligence that oozes from the puppet even when its motionless. I guess that’s the real magic of the Star Wars movies; maybe its because I was pretty much a kid/teenager when I first saw them, but whenever I see C-3P0 I never imagine Anthony Daniels inside the suit, it is C-3P0, and whenever I see Chewbacca, it is Chewbacca, not Peter Mayhew in a fur suit. And whenever I see Yoda in TESB, its not just a puppet, it is Yoda. There’s a heart and soul in all those real-world creations lost to cg; an amalgamation maybe of all the talents behind them; the designers, the craftsmen, the actors, the voice-artists. Puppet it may be, but Yoda in TESB is a far different creation than the cg Yoda of the prequels, no matter how dextrous and mobile the latter may be. There is a soul to Stuart Freeborn’s puppet creation.

So I was very sad last week to learn of the passing of Stuart Freeborn, the make-up artist who will, rightly or wrongly,  chiefly be remembered for designing and building Yoda. Based upon pre-production sketches by Ralph McQuarrie and other Lucasfilm artists, of blue-skinned goblin-like creatures, the distinctive ‘look’ of Yoda was chiefly Freeborn’s own creation- partly a self-portrait (Freeborn had a sculpture of himself that he had been working on and used that to save time), with the Einstein eyes to give it a sense of intelligence. Its a remarkable creation.

Freeborn had created Chewbacca and other creatures for the first Star Wars movie, but had a long and distinguished career as a make-up artist long before George Lucas’ galaxy far, far away came calling. He worked for directors such as David Lean, creating such a grotesque Fagin for Lean’s Oliver Twist that it caused trouble with censors in the US. He did Peter Sellers transformations into President, RAF officer and  maniac Dr Strangelove for Stanley Kubrick, and would later create the man-apes for Kubrick’s Dawn Of Man sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Affectionate movie lore has it that Freeborn failed to win that year’s Oscar because Academy voters didn’t realise the apes were not real. I really don’t know if that’s true but its such a wonderful story it should be.