yoda, kermit, and miss piggy -- 2/8/16
Today's selection -- from Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones. By 1978, Jim Henson's The Muppet Show was the most widely-viewed television program in the world, and Henson was hard at work on both his second Muppet movie and a new, more ambitious project called The Dark Crystal. Most of his work on the television show and the films had been done in his London studio, and directly across the street was where George Lucas had done much of the work on his Star Wars films. So it was only natural that Lucas would reach out and ask Henson, well-known as the puppeteer of Kermit the Frog, to be the puppeteer for a new character named Yoda created for the second film, The Empire Strikes Back. Henson's hectic schedule caused him to demur, and instead he volunteered his key associate Frank Oz, who had achieved acclaim as puppeteer for such notable Muppets characters as Miss Piggy and Fozzie the Bear:
"[A scheduling delay of The Dark Crystal] meant Henson could keep [Brian] Froud and the team of artists and builders at work in the New York shop, where they could continue to refine the more realistic, and increasingly complex, puppets Froud was designing [for The Dark Crystal]. 'The idea of doing very naturalistic creatures that looked like living things was exciting to me,' said Jim. 'I could see that it would take an awful lot of technical know-how to make it work, but we had the beginning of a team of people who could tackle that.' In fact, several members of The Crystal's design team -- including one of its lead builders, a talented sculptor and doll maker named Wendy Midener -- were especially knowledgeable in the technical know-how, having worked in tandem with director George Lucas on a lifelike puppet Lucas wanted for his second Star Wars film, The Empire Strikes Back.
|Frank Oz, Jim Henson, Irvin Kirshner, Kathryn Mullen, Gary Kurtz|
"It is not surprising that Jim and Lucas would eventually cross paths. Not only were they artistically cut from the same cloth, but for the better part of a year, they were practically neighbors. 'In England, while we were making [Star Wars], we worked across the street from [Elstree], which is where Jim Henson's group was [taping The Muppet Show], and I got to know him,' said Lucas. 'We were very much alike: independent, out of the spotlight, obsessed with our own films. And I really admired the Muppets ... so I asked him if he thought we could get together and create a very realistic-looking puppet.' Lucas already had his own team of special effects wizards in place-including master makeup artist Stuart Freeborn, who had designed several large walkaround creatures like Chewbacca -- but if a puppet was needed, Lucas wanted to be certain he had the best puppet designers and performers working side by side with his own team at Lucasfilm. Jim, too, was anxious to learn more about the dynamic special effects technology Lucas and his team were known for developing, hoping perhaps to apply some of Lucasfilm's expertise to The Crystal. 'It became a mutual thing,' said Empire Strikes Back producer Gary Kurtz, 'because they needed some advice on their film and we needed their expertise in the puppet area' -- and by November 1978, Jim noted in his journal that he and the Muppet team were 'Working with STAR WARS on YODA.'
"Initially, Lucas had wanted Jim to perform the character. 'I thought he was the best puppeteer,' said Lucas -- but with his already cramped schedule, Jim was concerned he would be unable to give the project the time and attention it needed, and instead recommended Frank Oz for the job. 'Jim called me into his trailer ... and showed me a sketch of Yoda -- and it felt right,' said Oz. 'Sometimes you have to work at something before you have that feeling, but this felt really good.' Additionally, said Oz, 'it was acting, not just performing' -- a skill at which Oz excelled.
"Using concept drawings provided by Lucas, Wendy Midener had drawn and sculpted Yoda to make the character work in three dimensions -- then watched in mild frustration as Freeborn and the Lucasfilm technicians built what was essentially a clunky and heavy doll, with thick cables trailing out of it to control the various eye, ear, and face mechanisms. 'They were building a special effect,' said Muppet performer Kathy Mullen, who assisted Oz with Yoda. 'But Wendy really did work hard on that to make it work and I'm sure Frank [Oz] was over there a bunch of times to try to get it right. I mean everybody worked to try to get it right.'
"Freeborn and his team continued to tinker with Yoda, but when Oz showed up at the soundstage at Elstree for the first day of filming in August 1979, the puppet, said Oz bluntly, was still 'really f**kin' heavy.' Rather than carving and constructing Yoda from foam and lightweight materials, Freeborn had built Yoda out of heavy nonpliable rubber, putting extra weight on Oz's wrist and severely reducing the puppet's flexibility. A thick bundle of cables trailed from Yoda's neck to a black control box under the stage, where Midener could operate the controls for Yoda's eyes -- but the short length and additional weight of the cables only made the puppet that much heavier and more difficult to manipulate. Meanwhile, Mullen had to brace herself under Oz's right arm to perform the character's right hand and, at times, operate the mechanisms that wiggled Yoda's ears or pulled his mouth back into a slight smile. The stage had been elevated, though just barely -- and there was very little room for the three performers to move about as they watched their performance on monitors glowing in the darkness. 'It was very hard,' groaned Mullen.
"And yet the experience was a success, not only for the wondrously memorable character that Oz and the Muppet team created for the film, but also because -- as Jim hoped -- it had served as a creative reconnaissance mission for The Crystal's designers and builders."