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Exclusive: How a beloved Star Wars puppet was rebuilt for a Last Jedi cameo

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Dec 18, 2017, 12:00 PM EST

Much of Star Wars: The Last Jedi is focused on leaving the past behind. The spirit of forging new paths through the galaxy is embedded in the movie's name, and Kylo Ren, the latest Skywalker, is singularly determined to "let the past die." And yet, one of the film's most surprising and audience-pleasing moments is a callback to iconic Star Wars lore, as a visitor from the past reminds Luke Skywalker of the franchise's core themes.

**Spoiler warning: Details about The Last Jedi below**

In a key scene a bit more than halfway through Rian Johnson's movie, Yoda returns to guide Luke through a crucial moment. And not just a digital representation of Yoda, as was the case in the prequel trilogy, but once again in puppet form, just like in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

"As soon as Rian said Yoda's going to be in it, then I said it has to be a puppet and it has to be high class. I just considered it to be gift for the fans," Neal Scanlan, the film's Oscar-winning creature effects supervisor, told SYFY WIRE. "If we were going to do Yoda, I said to Rian, 'We've got to try and keep the sort of Force Ghost aspect as minimal as possible.'"

After George Lucas used computer graphics to render creatures in the prequel trilogy, the new Star Wars productions have returned the focus on the practical, emphasizing puppets, costumes, and animatronics wherever possible. In the case of Yoda, it was especially important that the character be physically present, for reasons beyond the aesthetic and nostalgic.

"The intimate moment with Mark [in The Last Jedi] was especially very reminiscent of The Empire Strikes Back," Scanlan said. "It was an incredibly important moment in the film and an incredibly important moment between Yoda and Luke. I kept saying, we have to do this the way that Frank [Oz] and [Stuart] Freeborn did it originally."


Freeborn was the original designer of the Yoda puppet, and though he passed away in 2013, his work was still deeply felt in the character's revival. The plan was to build a new Yoda puppet for the movie, based on the early '80s iteration of the Jedi Master. Scanlan, who began working on Star Wars movies after Lucasfilm was bought by Disney, idolized Freeborn and his work as a kid, and made sure it was an integral part of the build.

Just as he had done when creating a new Chewbacca costume for The Force Awakens, Scanlan asked ILM for everything in their archives related to the design and construction of the various Yoda puppets over the years. The idea was to create an "archaeological reworking" of the character, integrating nuances from past iterations to produce a historically accurate version that fans would immediately recognize on a deeper level.

ILM sent a giant crate filled with nearly 40 years of material, a time capsule that doubled as a treasure chest for Scanlan.

"As we opened the boxes, it was clearly evident that each model we took out was from a more recent model," he recalled. "Then we got to the very bottom, and there was this wooden box and I could tell instantly that that was an original Yoda mold that Stuart Freeborn made.

"As we undid it, there was the original head of Yoda," Scanlan added. "That and one hand were the only two things that we had to go on."

Yoda Head

Scanlan and his team supplemented those building blocks and schematics with second-hand research that included conversations with old ILM employees and puppeteers, as well as studying video they found on the internet. They also had the luxury of conferring with Oz himself. One of Scanlan's first big professional jobs was on the Oz-directed big screen adaptation of The Little Shop of Horrors, and they knew each other from the Henson Creature Workshop, where Scanlan was a founding member.

"He was one of my idols and to have worked with him then, he couldn't walk away from it," Scanlan said, laughing. "There was too much enthusiasm from our department. I think he would have never been able to live with himself."

As much as they wanted to recreate Oz's original Yoda puppet, the creature team didn't shy away from utilizing small advancements to assist in the performance.

"We wanted to make the technology a little more reliable and a little bit more user-friendly," he said, "but knowing that Frank was going to perform it, we just wanted him to feel that he was engaging with this puppet in a way that was completely and utterly intimate to him. That's what puppetry is all about: the ability to portray and convey the emotions of the puppeteer behind it, you know? No greater puppet than Yoda and Frank Oz."