Welcome to a look Inside the Holocron. A collection of articles from the archives of *starwars.com no longer directly available.
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The Composite Identity of a Jedi Master
Even a Jedi Master has to practice his lines. Today we are in one of Leavesden’s flight sheds, the old hangars now taken over for additional stage space. Frank Oz is on the scene, a distinctive and distinguished figure in white. The accomplished director of films such as In and Out, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, What About Bob? and Little Shop of Horrors, Oz has briefly stepped back to the world of Star Wars to offer his inimitable performance as the Jedi sage Yoda.
Assisting Oz in his performance are three other master puppeteers: Kathy Smee, Don Austen, and David Greenaway. Modern technology could probably allow a single person to perform the entire character, but this traditional group performance allows special attention to be devoted to each individual aspect of the character.
Greenaway compares their rehearsals to the practice of an ensemble preparing, like a quartet. “When it works,” Greenaway says, “it’s like good jazz – improvisation gives it life. We learn to work together, and trust each other, learn each other’s rhythms.” He smiles. “There’s a great amount of feeling the Force.” In performance, David Greenaway becomes the windows to the soul of a Jedi Master: he is the eyes of Yoda. Complex and reflective, Greenaway brings great subtlety to his work, and must be in perfect sync with Oz for the performance to work. “Ideally with the eyes I have to be a split second ahead of Frank, or exactly with him,” Greenaway says. Having been the eyes of Yoda for Return of the Jedi, he was specifically called in by Oz for the same role in Episode I.
Soft-spoken Kathy Smee is Yoda’s right arm, working right alongside Frank Oz, while the other two performers work nearby via radio controls. Of the puppeteers’ performances, she notes that “You can’t be trying to do your own thing. Frank performs the character. He is the character. We just try to give him freedom, to work with his performance, to flow with it. Because no matter what we rehearse, Frank will always do something a little more, a little different for the real take.”
Don Austen laughs about the pitfalls of impressing the audience when one doesn’t mean to. “You make a big wrong move with Yoda’s ears in the middle of Frank’s performance, and on a 60-foot-high movie screen it’s going to throw people back in their chairs like an IMAX film!” Turning serious, but still smiling, Austen considers the tightrope they walk. “You want to do more than simple basic puppeteering with these things–more than just ‘ears up, he’s happy! And ears down, he’s morose.’ You want to lend some dimension with the work, but not overdo it.”
Of the supporting performers for Yoda, George Lucas comments on the set, “What goes on back there is extremely important.” The group turns intense and focused as they become Yoda together, working through run after run, getting the timing of a single blink down to perfection within the performance. It seems no surprise that Oz has chosen these people as his ensemble.
“I look for sensitivity, awareness,” says Oz of his co-performers, “for a sensibility that will work for the character. And, also the ability to work well with the monitors.” During performance and rehearsal, the Yoda performers all watch TV monitors to see how their work looks in action. What’s it like seeing and being Yoda again? “It’s nice seeing old friends again,” Oz says of his co-performers, “and Yoda is like an old friend too. But it’s still a challenge.” It’s a challenge that Oz and his ensemble are clearly ready to meet. “David’s right, it is like music,” Oz reflects. “When everything works, we get to a place where things just happen.” And there the Jedi master comes alive once more.