Thinking of Yoda or Baby Yoda not as magical aliens, but as rubber puppets is, admittedly, not that hard if you're an adult Star Wars fan. But if you're a child, it's a little bit more difficult.
Frank Oz, the original puppeteer and voice behind Yoda, also created several Muppet characters along with Jim Henson. You don't think of Oz's Miss Piggy as a puppet, you think of her as a pig. And, it's the same with Yoda and Baby Yoda: We think of them as whatever it is they are supposed to be, not as a kooky fake thing.
But, it turns out, that creating that illusion requires a very specific philosophy. And in a new interview celebrating the 40th anniversary of The Empire Strikes Back, George Lucas touched on one fascinating connection between the original Yoda in 1980 and Baby Yoda on The Mandalorian.
Over on the official Star Wars website, George Lucas is talking about The Empire Strikes Back. For diehards, there's not necessarily a ton of new information in this interview, after all, people have been meticulously documenting the making of Star Wars movies since Star Wars began. But, in talking about the director or The Empire Strikes Back —Irvin Kershner — one detail about how Yoda was shot on set will raise your eyebrow if you've been following all the behind-the-scenes action on The Mandalorian.
"Kershner treated Yoda like an actor on set, sometimes talking to the prop instead of addressing Oz down below."
This is significant because nearly 40 years later, the exact same thing happened on the set of The Mandalorian. In the behind-the-scenes documentary series Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian, director Deborah Chow confirmed what was cropping up in several reports already; cinematic legend Werner Herzog spoke directly to Baby Yoda puppet on the set, and, like Kershner did on Empire, treated the puppet exactly like an actor.
Here's what Chow said:
"It was one of the weirdest and best things that happened with Werner... He was acting against the baby and he started directing the baby directly. I’m trying to direct Werner who’s now directing the puppet. He would tell us we need to commit to the magic."
These details are fascinating because it seems like, on some level, the same exact scenario occurred in isolation twice. Werner Herzog admitted to having little to no knowledge of Star Wars movies, so it's pretty damn unlikely that he was aware of Irvin Kershner's habit of taking to the original Yoda puppet on the set of Empire. It's also interesting that Deborah Chow thought it was weird that Herzog was talking to Baby Yoda since apparently, talking to Yoda puppets as though they are alive is a Star Wars tradition.
In the newer Lucas interview, the creator admits he was nervous about Yoda and didn't know if it would work.
"I didn’t really understand it until the first day of shooting," Lucas said, "and seeing the dailies and seeing it in action and under the right lighting conditions."
For four decades, this concept has been repeated in several different contexts, but this might be the time to let it sink in: Before Yoda, no one had taken a puppet, or a muppet, or anything similar this seriously in a movie before.
There's every reason to believe that if one ingredient to Yoda's creation had been different (including Stuart Freeborn's literal molding of the face) we'd all be living in a parallel universe where Yoda was more like Jar Jar Binks — a noble failure or giant insult, depending on your point of view.
But there is no controversy around Yoda, even though there could have been. Again, the guy who created freaking Miss Piggy was doing the voice. No offense to Miss Piggy, but on paper, that could have been a total disaster.
On some level, the same thing is true of Baby Yoda. If The Mandalorian had made Baby Yoda too cute, or, somehow, not cute enough, nothing would have clicked. It's hard to pinpoint the exact Yodaness of a Yoda, but it's very clear that the necessary ingredient to really make this all work is belief.
It's a beautiful notion, too. In Star Wars, Luke, and later Rey, have to believe in the power of the Force by imagining something that they can't see. Apparently, the same thing is true for the greatest Force wielder of all time. The reason why we believe in Yoda is other people did, too.
As it turns out, talking to a puppet-like it's a real person doesn't make you crazy. In Star Wars, it brings that puppet to life.