During the recent press event held at Skywalker Ranch for the upcoming DVD release of Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith, animation director Rob Coleman, producer Rick McCallum, and Frank Oz, the man who has been responsible for the voice of Yoda since The Empire Strikes Back, sat down to talk about the film, the roles they played in the production, and what to expect from DVD.
How was the transition for Yoda as a puppet to Yoda as CGI?
Frank Oz: The main thing was the time to do the work. When I did the others it was a lot of time. A lot of sweat. Now? I do just half a day and these work for a year. It’s bizarre. It’s really these guys who do it. For me it’s a delight. It’s also great because he could not do the things he’s doing on the screen now if he was a puppet. There’s no way. So it’s wonderful to see that growth.
Is it true you didn't have the abilty to accomplish a CGI Yoda in Episode I?
Rob Coleman: Absolutely. We were not ready to do Yoda in Episode I. We were freaked out enough just doing the other characters. I was very happy to get into characters like Watto because he was a character that had a great cameo performance, but he had finite screen time. Because there is no reference to him in any other previous movie, we were safe to do something new. It would have been an enormous leap for us to create Yoda. It was too much for us to handle.
What is lost by the use of CGI?
Frank Oz: What's lost is the physicality of the character. But, at the same times, the gain is so much because there is no way on God's Earth I could have done anything near to that terrific fight. There's a minimal loss compared to what you have gained.
When I talked to Rob, George and Rick and the guys the first time about making Yoda a CGI character, they really had a problem. They had a hard job and their job was to not live up to their capabilities. The first time they did Yoda that way, if they did all the things they could have done, the transition would have been too jarring. So what they did very artfully, So they mimiced me to such a degree that it held down their talents. And in the next one, they could bump it up a little higher. There was a real transition there. They had to really be aware to match it and yet give it a little bit more life.
Rob Coleman: The real example is that we did do a test. It looked like a creepy, little green man. It didn’t look like Yoda. We could do all kinds of things with the face that the puppet couldn’t do. And in learning about the character and trying to get to the essence and the spirit of the character, I went back and studied what he’d done on Empire. Frame by frame. And we literally got it down to the wiggle of the the ears. It was something, whether he was thinking about it or not, it became part of the character. Whether it was holding a 60 lb. puppet above your head all day long and your hand starts to shake. Or, whether it was something he was putting in consciously, it was part of the character.
Computers are really good at doing smoothe sleek things. And we had to add in what I call dirt. Performance dirt. Shakes, wiggles, little jars into the performance. That he did naturally as an extremely talented pupeteer. He’d bring all of that. My group had to learn all of that. So when we first showed it to Frank, it looked liked a creepy, little green man. Because it looked too slick and it looked too smoothe, and it didn’t look like this beloved character that we’d all come to love.
Are you going to go back and make Yoda completely CGI for the first prequel?
Rob Coleman: We've actually have gone ahead and done that. We did that between Episode II and III. It was really an exercise to get the team back into the character. On Episode II I was really stressing living up to what my friend here created. So a lot of our focus was on that final battle sequence between Yoda and Count Dookuu. We'd nver seen Yoda do that before. But in the process we were learning about acting as animators. So it was really exciting for me to have the team back again, between Two and Episode III. We used Episode I, as a test bed, because we really didn't know what was gonna be in Episode III, and got the team back up to speed and really honed in on our acting. And using that as springboard we went right into Episode III.
Don't you feel that by going back and digitizing Yoda in Episode I that you're losing 50% of Frank's performace? (Note: Frank Oz provided the puppeteering for Yoda in every film until he went completely CGI.)
Rob Coleman: We don’t lose 50% of his performance because not only we have his voice which stays across of course, but we also have what he did in that movie and that was our touchstone. And we used it absolutely, exactly. It wasn’t my desire to do what he did. It was focusing my animators on what he didn’t do, and just bring that over into the CG world. It was a fantastic exercise for us to get a little bit inside his head, but very specifically to how Yoda moves and interacts with the actors.
Frank Oz: When I did Empire it was 20 years ago? Really, I think that it would be odd to do it again because the world was not digital then. And now it is. And now the expectations from the audience is different. And too a degree I think if you don’t, it will stand out too much compared to everything else in George’s movie which is extraordinary.
Will you ever return to the original films to replace Yoda digitally?
Rob Coleman: No. Absolutely not.
Yoda teaches us so much. Is there anything you have learned from Yoda personally?
Frank Oz: As an adult and as a human being you learn everyday, but it was more a process of me learning who Yoda was than learning from Yoda. When I first did it in Empire Strikes Back, I did this 3 or 4 page biography of how he used to be, how he used to live, what he wore and all that stuff. Just to inform me. I didn’t learn from him, I had to learn about him. Whenever I was doing something, I had to know what was going on in the movie, because if I just came on and did my scene, not knowing, then he was not that knowing. He had to have some innate wisdom.
Rob Coleman: I survived Episode II, so it did get easier. I really was terrified before the movie came out, Episode II, about the fight. We’d convinced ourselves it was something pretty special, but I knew we were stepping on new ground with Yoda, and working with Rick, and George and Frank and my team, we’d gotten to a place where we were pretty excited about that fight, but there was stress involved. Once we got through that, looking back on the work between Episode II and Three, I thought we could really up the ante with the performance. The interaction between the character and the live actors he was sharing the screen with. It put more pressure on myself and the crew to really challenge ourselves, and in the process, we were rewarded with some very nice close-ups and some important scenes. There’s a great one between Annakin and Yoda in Yoda’s sanctuary, which I don’t it would have been in Episode II had it been written at the time. I don’t think George would have been comfortable enough to give us those sustained close ups.
After Episode I, we saw almost nothing of Jar Jar Binks in the next two movies. How much of that was fan-reaction and how much of that was planned?
Rick McCallum: Without being defensive, Rob didn't do Jar Jar. (Laughs)
I did. I did all of the animation on that. I was just too tired to continue on to Episode III. So he had nothing to do with that. (Laughs)
The film was designed for kids between 8 and 12. There's not question about that. In 1991, when George Lucas laid out the plans for Episode I, he said that this is the story of Anakin as a young man was what he wanted to tell. We knew that that was going to be a problem. As for Jar Jar, we never expected to get the kind of reaction that we got from anybody over 17 or 18. But, truthfully, for kids between 8 and 12 years old, after Yoda and R2, Jar Jar is one of the most favorite characters in all six films. We didn't have Jar Jar less in Episode II because of fan-reactions. He just didn't have the same place-we fulfilled this mission in Episode I. We probably had him more in Episode II just because of the reaction.
Frank Oz: As Jar Jar evolved we never expected this kind of reaction ... I remember flying over to London and reading the script and I read the script I said to George, “I love Jar Jar he’s gonna be a break out character I know he is.” I have never understood to this day..., I love Jar Jar and I don’t understand the nonsense. He was terrific. As an adult I love this guy I think he’s hysterical. He just cracked me up.
Dont't forget to also check out: Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith [WS] [2 Discs]