'Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back' 40th Anniversary: George Lucas wasn’t sure tricky Yoda prop would work
Crafted by the legendary Frank Oz, it was quite a gamble to use this crazy old frog to communicate the vast, complex mythos, but despite challenges, Lucas and director Irvin Kershner pulled it off
40 years after its release, 'Star Wars: Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back' is still regarded as one of the greatest movies ever made and for its time, it was a cutting-edge piece of science fiction storytelling. And a huge part of that success rests on the small, frog-like shoulders of the wrinkled old alien Jedi Master Yoda.
Beyond the plot and characters, the technology that went into the movie was beyond anything that had been used in Hollywood before. The Yoda puppet itself was a technological marvel, though it had its own problems.
The Yoda prop wasn't just a normal puppet, it combined a complex mix of technology and articulation and quite understandably, it broke down more than once on set. In fact, it probably spent more time in creator Stuart Freeborn’s shop for repairs than it did filming.
Yoda's performance was crafted by the legendary Frank Oz and his team. It was quite a gamble, using this crazy old frog to communicate the vast and complex mythos of the franchise, but despite the challenges, George Lucas and director Irvin Kershner somehow managed to pull it off.
Kershner reportedly treated Yoda like an actor on set. In fact, he would sometimes give suggestions directly to the prop instead of talking to Oz who was controlling it from a trench below the camera's eye-level.
"I didn’t really understand it until the first day of shooting, and seeing the dailies and seeing it in action and under the right lighting conditions," Lucas admitted in a recent interview on StarWars.com. "A lot of those things, like Yoda, got finished like an hour before we shot it. Everything was always on the run. So I finally got to see the whole thing finished, put together, lit properly, and that’s when I knew it was going to work,” Lucas said. “Before that I had to rely on Frank Oz. Frank had performed great in rehearsals and Stuart Freeborn was working very diligently on trying to get the puppet to work, but it didn’t convince me until I saw the actual movie.”
Well, it was a lot of work and there were definitely times it must have seemed impossible but as Yoda tells Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) in the movie, "Do or do not. There is not try." And boy, did they do it!
'Star Wars: Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back' was released on May 21, 1980.