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.
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.
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.
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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