Thursday, 7 February 2013


Irvin Kershner applies make-up to Yoda. Or is that Stuart Freeborn? A classic behind the scenes image from THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.

STAR WARS AFICIONADO was very sad yesterday to hear of the passing of legendary make-up genius Stuart Freeborn. He was 98. One of the British film industry's most talented, and greatest, experts in his field, Freeborn, who lived a life of advancing and experimenting his techniques, was the definitive go-to guy in handling tricky to realise concepts for film, TV and commercials, be they dawn of civilisation apes in Stanley Kubrick's classic 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, turning the extravagant comedian Peter Sellers into numerous different characters in the classic apocalyptic black comedy DR STRANGELOVE, or transforming a young Alec Guinness into the crafty elderly king of street crime, Fagin, in Charles Dicken's OLIVER TWIST. But it would be the original STAR WARS saga for which his work would become the most well known and beloved by audiences. Approached in 1975 by George Lucas to handle the first films numerous alien creatures, at first the alien bounty hunter later to become known as Greedo, followed by the mighty furry wookiee Chewbacca, Freeborn, despite advancing time pressures and later ill health, created a vast menagerie of shapes and sizes extra terrestrials for the UK filming of the Mos Eisley Cantina sequences. After the success of STAR WARS, Freeborn's talents were then sought in making Christopher Reeve's Man of Steel become reality on Richard Donner's first SUPERMAN extravaganza, and it's back to back shot film sequel.

Peter Mayhew poses for a promotional image for STAR WARS.
Behind the scenes, Stuart and Kay Freeborn work with Peter Mayhew on the all-important Chewbacca mask.
Working out the wookiee's jaw capabilities.
On set for STAR WARS, applying the mask to Peter Mayhew.
At work on the Yoda sculpt in 1979.
A side angle of Freeborn at work.
Yoda gives his wisdom to an amazed Luke Skywalker in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.
Freeborn with his original version of the Wampa face, prior to 1979 location filming in Norway.
Following his caped superhero duties came a not unexpected return to the STAR WARS universe: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, and the challenge of truly bringing to life the wise old Jedi Master with the cheeky manner and the dedicated heart: Yoda. As the filmmakers were unable to find the right look to make it believable, Freeborn would inspirationally bring some of his own quirky facial features to the creature, along with Albert Einstein's slightly sad but highly intelligent eyes, and instantly made him an accessible, lovable figure whose shell would have built into it a special blend of state of the art animatronics utilised by it's equally vital performer, Frank Oz, the likes of which no one had really seen before. If Yoda hadn't been so well developed and engineered by Freeborn and his small, loyal team, a vital element of the had-to-succeed sequel could have been irreparably damaged. Additionally, beyond the little green frog Jedi, Freeborn and his team's other considerable duties on this bigger and better movie would be the towering, if not totally successful, form of the Wampa snow beast (played in filming by Des Webb and stuntman Terry Richards), and Luke and Han's beast of burden across the Hoth snowscape, the full-sized prop version of the Tauntaun, used mostly on location in Norway.

Freeborn oversees the 1981 construction of Jabba the Hutt at his London workshop.
As Jabba finally looks onscreen, tongue terrorising Princess Leia.
A huge hit with audiences, especially for the scenes involving the zen-like Yoda, EMPIRE would three years later lead to the series then finale, RETURN OF THE JEDI, and the ultimate realisation of a figure mentioned but not yet seen in the saga: the gross crime lord Jabba the Hutt. This would prove to be an even bigger challenge for Freeborn than Yoda: a working prop that required three to four operators and lots of attention to detail. The end results were fabulous and totally unique-the character's presence, and the enslaved Princess Leia at his/it's side, quickly making movie history and Jabba an icon of greed and slothishness. Smaller but making no less of a mark on the third STAR WARS film were the small warriors of Endor, the Ewoks, whom Stuart and his team also realised to final furry form from a prior vast range of ILM conceptual designs. 1983 saw the end of an incredible legacy for the make-up artist/supervisor and his team, and one which he would be rightly proud of.

Stuart makes some last-minute modifications to an Ewok, for a 1981 screen test in London for REVENGE OF THE JEDI.
Graham and Kay Freeborn at work on the screen test Ewoks.

Meeting him in 2008, in a special interview arranged via Ian Trussler, Stuart and his wife Kay (who passed away in 2012) were a lovely and very friendly couple. Despite his frailty, he was full of enthusiastic stories and eager to talk about his/their career and his unique creations on the STAR WARS saga-his Yoda bust, given to him by his protege turned successor, Nick Dudman, during the filming of EPISODE I, proudly displayed in their front room. Their talents and personalities will be much missed but fondly remembered and celebrated for years to come by cinema and STAR WARS fans worldwide. Their hard work and dedication must surely be recognised with some sort of visual tribute at both the upcoming BAFTA's and ACADEMY AWARDS ceremonies in creating such legendary and iconic work.

With thanks to Ian Trussler and Chris Baker for selected images.

Check out our STAR WARS AFICIONADO FACEBOOK PAGE picture gallery of the many wonderful STAR WARS aliens crafted by Stuart and Kay Freeborn: (4) THE MAGIC AND GENIUS OF STUART FREEBORN

Tributes: Make Up Artist Stuart Freeborn Interview - YouTube
Stuart Freeborn Documentary Part II - YouTube
Star Wars Archives
BBC News - Star Wars make-up artist Stuart Freeborn dies aged 98
From Star Wars to Jedi: The Making of a Saga - Part 2 of 7 - YouTube
A tribute to Stuart Freeborn from former assistant Nick Maley.
Star Wars Episode I: This Is A Creature Film Webisode - YouTube
Stuart Freeborn - IMDb

Don't forget, the special AFICIONADO 2008 edition devoted to the making of RETURN OF THE JEDI, with our exclusive interview with Stuart Freeborn, is also available here: STAR WARS AFICIONADO ISSUE 14 - THE MAKING OF "RETURN OF THE JEDI"

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