Building Your Empire One Book at a Time
I started doing portraits thinking it might help me be a better make-up artist. But in the UK there was no real outlet for that to earn a living. It was an added skill that I practiced until I was polished at it. But I never thought I'd make a living that way. When movie work came my way I'd grab it. My heart was in both creative processes.
Can you describe how you met Stuart Freeborn and how he brought you on-board for Star Wars?
After I got my union ticket I would go to meetings just to get to know people. I would ask the few I knew who the others were and I targeted Stuart as he had done the apes for 2001: A Space Oddyssey. There were several notable make-up artists I knew would get all the best jobs so I would go to the studio to "accidentally" bump into them in the canteen and I would always say something at union meetings so that the others knew who I was. I hoped that eventually when their friends weren't available they would give me a day's work and EVERY DAY I honed my skills so that I would be ready to meet that challenge when the time came. That opportunity happened in 1971 when Stu offered me 2 days on Young Winston. I guess I did okay because he called me back and I worked on that for about 16 weeks and went with him to Morocco on that movie.
During that time Stu's son Graham became a good friend. Unfortunately a few other guys in our crew were not so fond of me. It is freelance work and competition was rife. One member of the crew said very negative things about me to Stu and after that film ended I didn't work with him again for quite a while. When I did, it was regular make-up not prosthetics and creature effects. But I worked with Graham on effects commercials and gained experience mold making and prosthetics. When Star Wars came along I guess I was lucky that some of the other guys were working. Anyway, Graham persuaded Stu to give me a spot on the creature crew for the Mos Eisley Cantina and I joined in a junior capacity. Stu kept a tight control on his crew. He had the air of a school headmaster. I always felt like I was in the middle of an exam. So it was on A New Hope where I made eyes for many creatures, foamed skins, assembled and painted creatures. On that show I was constantly nervous that Stu would decide I wasn't up to the job and let me go.
When and how did you pick up the nickname YodaGuy?
When I was first in the Caribbean I had an art gallery in a hotel. I didn't talk about my involvement is Star Wars. It didn't seem relevant in that environment. After a couple of years I had proved that I could make a modest living that way and expanded to a second gallery in the duty free area by the cruise ship dock. On the ships they have lectures telling passengers about the highlights to be found in each island. Our gallery name was Island Arts but we weren't included in the lectures as I guess an art gallery wasn't considered notable. One day one of the lecturers was in my gallery. He was a movie buff and realized me from Krull and other articles from Fangoria. We were talking and Star Wars came up. He was very eager to include me in the onboard lecture but wanted something to show the cruise line I was a movie maker too. I gave him a copy of a photo of me working on the radio controlled version of Yoda in Luke's backpack and that was enough for ROYAL CARRIBEAN to include me in their shopping talk. They would show that photo to passengers that attended the talk. But often they forgot the name of the gallery. They would wander around the shopping center asking other shop owners "where's that Yoda Guy?" and the other stores had no idea what they were talking about. It happened so often that after a few months we added "that YodaGuy" outside the gallery so they could find us.
Can you describe your role in Star Wars?
It was a time of transition and I did a LOT of different things. Initially I was the least important person there but when we retuned for The Empire Strikes Back, once we started filming and Graham and Kay were on set, I was the most experienced guy left in the workshop. That lead to me being asked to do a lot of things that otherwise might not have happened. So across the gambit I pass stuff to Stu as he assembled Chewie, I stuck warts on Greedo, I did prosthetics for the Cantina and final assembly on many of those creatures, Graham and I assembled the Wampa and The Uganaughts, I worked on the Tauntaun close-up head, I designed the Minock, I foamed all the smaller skins for all creatures and prosthetics,
How did you contribute to the creation of Yoda in the Empire Strikes Back?
Stu and I made the molds for Yoda. Basicly I prepared the model for molding and we both threw the plaster. I foamed the skins, hands and feet, resized those to make the walking version with Deep Roy inside, did assembly on 2 other versions and built animatronics for the last puppet for The Empire Strikes Back. Your viewers should read The Making of Yoda Part I for a proper overview
What are the top five misconceptions about Yoda that you hear?
1. There were 4 versions of Yoda built for The Empire Strikes Back not one.
2. There were SIX people who operated Yoda over The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, not just Frank Oz. Frank took the lead and gave Yoda his sensitivity but the others operated eyes, eye lids, ears, feet and right hand.
3. Yoda was NOT built by Jim Henson. Jim was not directly involved and Frank came in for fittings and to operate. Wendy Midner was a muppeteer who join our crew as a liason, fabricated Yoda's body in a way similar to Miss Piggy and ensured that what we built would be acceptable to Frank. But intrinsicly we were an independent group separate from the Henson organization.
4. What you read on StarWars.com about the building of Yoda (and everything else) is written by people who were not there. The information comes from an archivist who was not there. He got the info from the Publicity Department and mostly they weren't there either. They would interview some of us for an hour and if they didn't ask the right questions, they didn't get the right answers. The folks who make the trivia games weren't there either. What fans know is based on a snippet of truth and embellished by fans until it becomes urban myth.
5. Frank Oz did more than provide the voice of Yoda for The Phantom Menace. He was the lead operator to.
Your website features several in depth features about the making of Yoda as well as other aspects of the Star Wars films. How did you remember all of these details? Did you keep a journal while you were working on the film?
I worked 12 hours a day. There was no time for journals. But I was 28 at the time and started writing about it only 10 years later. My brain cells were still fairly in tact. When you break your brains trying to figure out how to do something, or struggle through the politics of a situation, or are constantly asked about it by fans, you tend to remember it. Sometimes dates get lost and events get swapped around. But the basic info remains sound.
What was the most challenging and rewarding part about working on the Star Wars films?
For me, making the mechanics for the 4th version.
Most people want to talk to you about your involvement with Yoda, but can you describe one of your favorite moments working on a non-Yoda aspect of the Star Wars movies?
There you might have me. There were several crazy moments relating to the movies that involved some of the crew members, an insane moment when we made a 10 foot marionette of the Wampa and then made X rated while we waited for George to arrive (he wasn't impressed). There was the insanity of taking a guy on stilts (designed to walk on salt) to Norway to walk on ice. But none had the sense of achievement that came with Yoda.
How did working on Star Wars compare with other movies you've worked on like Superman or The Shining?
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back was the movie where production personnel took enough note of me to offer me my own movies. It was a turning point for me. Superman and The Shining my contribution was smaller and my opportunity to show what I could do was far less. After The Empire Strikes Back, everything changed and people had the confidence to offer me the top spot in the Make-up effects department.
How has your approach to make-up and prosthetics evolved over the years? Has it gotten easier?
No not really. In my day prosthetics and animatronics were cutting edge. We had to keep ahead of the competition and so we needed to evolve with new techniques and concepts. Today everyone focuses so much on CGI that prosthetics and animatronics take second place and the guys doing it need to do more to justify their position. Consequently they too have to keep ahead of the competition and evolve with new techniques and concepts. Making movies is never easy if you want to be cutting edge.
You currently live in the Netherlands Antilles in the Caribbean. How did you decide to move there and open a movie memorabilia museum?
I did some movies that damaged my enthusiasm and I didn't want to be one of those guys complaining how things aren't like they used to be. When you've worked on 53 projects, 54 doesn't make a difference. Sitting on the beach writing memoirs seems much more attractive.
What's next for you?
Another pina colada.
A big thanks to Nick "Yoda" Maley for taking the time to share his story with SWBookZone.com. For more information about Nick and the making of Yoda, visit his website ThatYodaGuy.com.
Back to Star Wars Interviews