The creator of one of the most beloved of all Star Wars characters has died at the age of 98. But when Stuart Freeborn sculpted the original puppet that served as Yoda in 1979, among the many other characters he built for the saga, he already had a decades-long body of work that would have marked him as a pioneer of movie makeup and creature models. It's a career that serves as a reminder of the tactility and realism that comes from physical, non-CGI, special effects. That puppets and prosthetics can have a greater power to move and inspire and believe in than computer-powered, pixel-based wizardry.
Born in London in 1914, Freeborn cut his teeth working for producer-director Alexander Korda in the 1940s and was an uncredited contributor to the makeup work in the 1940 production of The Thief of Bagdad that's often held up as the most dazzling achievement in pre-CGI effects. He also supplied prosthetics for David Lean's uniquely atmospheric and sinister production of Oliver Twist. And when Stanley Kubrick needed a makeup artist to help distinguish between the three characters played by Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove, he knew whom to turn. In fact, Kubrick was so impressed with Freeborn's work on his anti-war satire that he commissioned him to design the ape-like costumes for the proto-humans that appear during "The Dawn of Man" prologue to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Not to mention that anyone who's seen The Omen will ever forget the beheading effect he created for that film.
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But it's Freeborn's work on the original Star Wars trilogy that will be, for millions of fans of George Lucas' saga the world over, the most cherished part of his legacy. He designed the yak-hair costume that transformed the 7'3" Peter Mayhew into walking carpet Chewbacca, and sculpted the models and prosthetics that would become the Mos Eisley Cantina's uniquely bizarre alien clientele. The walrus-tusked Aqualish who menaces Luke Skywalker? That's Freeborn's handiwork. Snout-nosed, bulbous-eyed Greedo, whom Han Solo shot under his cantina table? Freeborn again. On The Empire Strikes Back, he expanded the Star Wars menagerie with his models for Luke and Han's lizard-like mounts, the Tauntauns, and also Hoth's answer to the abominable snowman, the Wampa. He even one-upped the patrons of the Mos Eisley Cantina with his designs for Jabba the Hutt, a puppet that required multiple performers to maneuver, and the crime lord's gnarly underlings and toadies. Freeborn made interstellar scum and villainy feel like flesh and blood.
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Possibly one Star Wars creation stands above the rest: the puppet he created for which Frank Oz would give movement and voice. Yoda. And for this singular design, Freeborn looked to a source with which he was very familiar: himself. Take a look at Freeborn, and then look at Yoda. There's more than a ballpark resemblance, isn't there? Adding wrinkles, folds, and tangled strands of willowy hair, Freeborn created a Jedi Master who really looked 900 years old. And while Yoda himself may have described his physical shell as "crude matter," the original puppet will forever be the truest depiction of the character. True, he couldn't do flips and twirls like the acrobatic CGI Yoda of Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, but his power didn't come from dervish-like displays. It came from within. You didn't need to see Yoda wield a lightsaber, because his power was so great, he didn't even need to use a lightsaber. The limitations of movement that came from Freeborn's original puppet design only enhanced the Jedi Master's mystery, the idea that his internal life was more important than his external projection of power. He was a spiritual being made manifest, and never just an effect, which, in his CGI form, he arguably became.
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How ironic then Freeborn would die just two days after that rumor broke of a standalone Yoda movie possibly being in the works. Here's hoping that if that film ever happens, or Yoda has more cinematic life ahead of him in any Star Wars movie, that Disney and Lucasfilm recognize the peculiar power of Freeborn's artistry and the emotional resonance of a green, two-foot puppet.
Follow Christian Blauvelt on Twitter @Ctblauvelt
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The first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.