The Rise of Skywalker tried to use practical effects whenever possible. Maz Kanata ended up being an animatronic this time around as opposed to CGI. This was important for J.J. Abrams, along with the cast and crew, which posed an interesting challenge for Creature And Special Make-Up Effects Creative Supervisor Neal Scanlan. They had to go through and make sure it was a seamless change from the CGI.
J.J. Abrams had a lot of challenges while making The Rise of Skywalker, but one of the biggest was bringing Carrie Fisher into the movie with unused footage from The Force Awakens. Leia Organa is in the movie and Maz Kanata shares some scenes with her, which was yet another challenge for the crew. In order to make it more organic and intimate, Abrams called for an animatronic Maz. Neal Scanlan explains.
"She represented more to us than just an animatronic. She represented bringing the animatronic very much more intimately into the scene. And obviously because it was involved with the Leia sequences, that was something that J.J. had pushed us to try and do as well. He wanted those that were involved in those sequences to be intimately involved, and that included the animatronics."
As for making a physical Maz Kanata for The Rise of Skywalker, that took some time and effort. The character was introduced in The Force Awakens and is entirely CGI, which made for a pretty big challenge for Neal Scanlan and his crew. "In many ways she is the most advanced animatronic that I believe, certainly, that we've ever made," says Scanlan. He went on to note, "In so many ways she was the most advanced from the way that she was performed... She's a highly mechanized animatronic."
Making the Maz Kanata animatronic was only one piece of the puzzle. After getting her to look as realistic as possible, Neal Scanlan and his team had to get the performance nailed, which took more than one person, just like getting Jabba the Hutt to move and talk in Return of the Jedi. Scanlan had this to say about the performance aspect of Maz in The Rise of Skywalker.
"The major thing was that often when we do something in animatronics, we perform that character almost in a remote situation. So the character may be there in front of the camera, but the puppeteers are somewhere else. In this case, we used a data suit that was worn by a puppeteer and as that person would move, Maz would mimic it. There was a puppeteer who was responsible for the dialogue, and there was a puppeteer responsible for the eye line and the expressions. Those puppeteers could be right next to J.J. [Abrams], and they could see Maz and they could be in the scene."
The Rise of Skywalker is currently in theaters and well on its way to crossing the $1 billion mark. As of this writing, it sits at just over $927 million. While the critics and fans are divided over the final installment in the Skywalker Saga, the special effects and the performances have been widely praised, which is why it's making so much money at the box office. The original interview with Neal Scanlan was conducted by CinemaBlend.