Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015)
One of the more pivotal moments of the movie, and of the score, occurs when a certain old warrior whose fighting days are long behind him is forced to do battle again. “We quote Yoda’s theme when he picks up the lightsaber,” Williams says. “It’s fantastic after all these years, to finally see him show his heroism in a physical way.”
Fantastic but daunting.
That was animation director Coleman’s first reaction when he read the script and saw that Yoda faces down his former Padawan learner Count Dooku. “I thought, wait a second,” Coleman says. “This guy is 800 years old. We have only seen him hobbling around with a cane. And all of a sudden George has him jumping off everything and wheeling his lightsaber around. I said, ‘I’m really worried about this,’ and George said, ‘No, no, fans want to see this. They want to see him fight. I’ve always wanted to see it.’ ”
“I did lots ofbluescreen stuffin the pissing rain,” Ewan McGregor laughs.
“ I wonder ifGeorge has got it in for me somehow”
And so it began. Coleman and his team had to create a completely computer-gen-erated Yoda that would be as effective as (and a lot more limber than) Frank Oz’s famous puppet. “This, to me, is the most important character in the whole pantheon of Star Wars. The most important character in the galaxy,” Coleman says. “I’m not going to mess this up.”
Before Yoda could leap, he’d have to walk. So Coleman and animation supervisor Hal Hickel, lead animator Linda Bel, and animator Kevin Martel watched the Jedi elder limp around his little hut on Dagobah. They pored over every frame of him in the previous movies, and worked with Coleman, concept design supervisor Chiang, and digital modeling supervisor Geoff Campbell to build a digital model as a reference point.
The new and improved Yoda was perfect. Too perfect. “We animated him without the rubber jiggle in the face, and it didn’t look like him,” Coleman says. “You missed it, so we put it in. We also realized, from the way [that Oz had his fingers in the puppet] a thumb down in the bottom lip, three fingers on the top lip, and one finger up on the brow that Yoda couldn’t formulate vowel sounds. We were overarticulating. So we dialed back, and it started to fall together.”
Though fans may have reviled such characters as Jar jar Binks and Watto, the lessons that Coleman’s team learned on Episode I about 3-D digital animation helped in the creation of Yoda. That’s why Lucas’s response to the far Jar criticism was surprisingly upbeat, Coleman recalls. “(He told me], ‘They were acting as if he were really there. They didn’t like his dialogue, they didn’t like the way he sounded. But they never said Jar Jar didn’t look real.’ ” The team went even further with Yoda, down to facial reactions and eyebrow movements.
“I just love it when there are scenes between Yoda and Sam Jackson sitting in
a room,” Coleman says, “just talking to each other. That’s when we can really delve into the acting, and you’re going from a great actor to a beautifully animated character and back again.”
Although there was no puppet or voice for Jackson to act against, it didn’t bother him. “I would just go in there and walk and talk with him in my mind,” the actor says. “I enjoy [blue screen], because it gives me a chance to work with my favorite actor: me. Someone who’s gonna know all of his lines and give me the right cues.”
Lucas saw the early tests and said the fight moves weren’t fast enough for a Jedi Master of Yoda’s stature. “From what I could tell, George was asking for the Tasmanian Devil,” Coleman says. “I came up with all kinds of solutions: He can hover, he can fly, he can create multiple versions of himself. And George was saying no, no, no.” Coleman and lead animator Tim Harrington studied martial arts movies and reworked their stuff. Still, “every time we showed it to George, he said, ‘Amp it up! He’s got to be bouncing around!’ ” Coleman says. “He kept saying, ‘He’s a frog, this wicked-ass frog that’s going to kick it.’ He literally made the joke that Yoda is the love child of Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy.”
In his office at ILM, Coleman sits in front ofhis Silicon Graphics workstation. Yoda is frozen on the console, a mean sneer on his face. “You want to see him fight?” Coleman asks. He presses enter. Nothing you’ve ever seen the little guy do can prepare you for this. Yoda parts his robe, pulls his lightsaber into his hand via the Force, and leaps at Christopher Lee. Whirling like a dervish, he blocks and parries blows, all at incredible speed. It could very well be the best fight of any Star Wars movie.
Not that Coleman needs a journalist’s approval. Over lunch, he opens a letter from Oz, who, after recording Yoda’s
voice, was blown away by what he saw. Coleman reads a few portions aloud. “[Yoda’s] an old person, and walking is a struggle for him at times, and you made that happen. His walk is very important to his character…. And even though he has a struggle to walk, I buy the energy of the fight. To me, it’s like the seemingly superhuman, or Super-Yoda, effort one makes when he is in extreme danger. After that danger has passed, we become as we were…. And I’ll be damned if you
didn’t get those ears’ small bounces It’s
kind of creepy when you even get my mistakes right. I am really happy with what you did, and now I don’t have to be underneath the stage, perspiring for hours. All I have to do is the voice, and you guys do all the work. I like that.”
Coleman smiles. He’s quiet, but you can tell that receiving such praise from one of his idols is huge, as important a moment to him as his Oscar nomination for The Phantom Menace. “On the first movie,” he says, “George was the fan I had to make happy. And on this movie it was Frank Oz. If I can make George happy and Frank happy with Yoda, the fans are going to be happy.”
Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015) Gallery