No Strings Creative Director Kathy Mullen worked with Frank Oz to bring Yoda to life in The Empire Strikes Back when he debuted on the series in puppet form. As Star Wars fans get ready for the release of the The Force Awakens, she recalls the pioneering techniques and twists of fate that helped establish Yoda as one of the world’s best-loved sci-fi characters
“It was 1979 and we were making The Muppet Show at the old ATV Centre opposite Elstree just outside of London. Literally over the road, they were shooting The Empire Strikes Back. They decided they wanted this character Yoda to be a puppet, so who are you going to go to? You’re going to go to Jim Henson, and that’s what they did.
Jim was in the middle of his huge, huge, huge work producing for The Muppets and working on The Dark Crystal at the same time, and he thought wow, what a great opportunity to see if we can make a puppet look like a real character for the big screen.
We knew it would involve very different puppeteering techniques from The Muppets. Nothing had been done like this before, and it was what we were going to be doing for The Dark Crystal. So we were there to learn.
Who did he want to do that? Well, his star puppeteer Frank Oz. I was already slated to be the girl on The Dark Crystal, so we would both work together to learn how puppets should move on the big screen: how to make them look real and not puppety.
First, he sent our colleague Wendy Froud over the road to work with Stuart Freeborn, the live action special effects artist on Star Wars who created the design for Yoda. Wendy’s job was to make him into a working puppet. She was building Jen and Kira for The Dark Crystal at the time.
So Frank and Wendy went back and forth across the street; it was all very convenient. What does the interior feel like, how are we going to do the hands, all these key things were decided during that process.
We were slated to shoot all Yoda’s scenes in a very short period of time, I can’t remember, maybe two or three weeks. In fact it took a lot longer, because guess what happened?
The ATV stage hands went on strike. We were doing Yoda during our Muppet Show hiatus – the break between series – which was only a few weeks. We did one scene, the interior of Yoda’s house and we went to look at the dailies, [the raw, unedited footage] and it was terrible. Yoda was all over the place. Frank was Oh my God, we have to take all the movements way, way down. We had to reshoot that day. He made the performance much, much smaller. It turned out to be very hard, needless to say.
As well as the right hand, I was handling the ears, the smile, everything Frank wasn’t doing with his two hands. If they were busy with something, I took over with the other stuff. There were little pull down mechanisms inside the body that made these things move.
The eyes were operated by direct cable control. There was a big wad of bicycle-like cable down Yoda’s neck, down his body and out the other end to a big black box with two joy sticks. Wendy Froud did all the eye movement according to Frank’s meticulous direction.
Sometimes we put rod hands on to him, or if a live hand was needed we stuck our hand into a hand glove. Sometimes I did them both. That’s what a right hander does. You assist in any capacity you can assist in. And there was a lot of stuff that went on with Yoda.
Yoda was not an easy puppet, he was big and heavy. Frank was used to Miss Piggy and lots of other big puppets, but Yoda was something else besides, and of course complicated all the more by the reality we were trying to create. A lot of the time we were under the floor with a monitor and Frank’s arm was locked in there until someone came in and took the puppet off his arm and it was extremely painful!
There was a lot of pressure but then suddenly, because of the strike in our studios, we had all this time we could devote to Yoda and they just went on shooting. It went on way, way longer than anyone expected, but as I say we were doing things that had never been done before. We learnt a hell of a lot.
When we were finished my husband Michael [Frith] came over we went on a lovely car trip through the south of England because ATV were still out.
We knew The Empire Strikes Back was going to be gigantic because of the first Star Wars film. I loved it, I thought it was just fantastic, but when the next Star Wars film came around I was back in NYC and a local British puppeteer was hired to be Frank’s assistant.
Back then of course there was no CGI to back you up – we had to make everything from scratch, the puppets, the models, and of course how to bring it all to life for the big screen. It’s a lot faster these days. I get asked by puppet fans how I see the future of puppetry in the media, and I’m afraid if it’s live puppets you want all the time, you probably missed the boat. It’s just cheaper, quicker and easier to do animation at the low end, and you have so much more freedom with CGI. Certainly, those people who were brought up on puppets have a lot of affection for them. For me, I think the ideal is to combine the formats and use puppets when you want that intimacy and touchy feely thing, then CGI for all the other stuff. They can match it perfectly, so why not?
I obviously have a lot of affection for Yoda. Frank has always done the voice, even for the animated versions. Yoda is the Eastern martial arts master guru – that was where the character came from. Everybody wants the Wise Man to come and tell us what to do or help us learn. And there are wise men and wise women out there, and there are some very good ones – Yoda among them.”
It’s come to our attention that many Star Wars, Dark Crystal and Muppet fans are interested in collecting autographs. Kathy Mullen and Michael Frith are happy to be part of a signing session in New York City for a minimum donation of $1,000 to No Strings. Please contact us here if you’re interested.