Film: The creature creator

Back in the 1970s the make-up artist Stuart Freeborne met an ambitious director who wanted him to design some aliens for his new film. Here he talks about his contribution to Star Wars
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The Independent Culture
I had been working at Pinewood Studios on a film where I needed to do some lab work - that is, other than make-up. I was in a room developing new mechanical techniques and this young guy walked in and started looking round. I thought, "Bit of a cheek, walking about and picking things up". I kept my eye on him and then he came up to me and said: "Are you Stuart Freeborne?"

"Yes, that's right."

"Ah, you're the man I'm looking for. My name's George Lucas. I've written a script called Star Wars and in it I've got a sequence in a cantina where people from lots of different planets come down for a drink - like you do in England when you go to a pub in the evening and have a good old booze-up. Obviously, coming from different planets, they'll all be quite different. In most futuristic pictures, everything is clean and perfect, but I don't think it's going to be like that, so I would like these creatures to be really ugly and nasty, with yellow gunge coming from their eyes and nostrils.

"I've heard you've done quite a lot of work like this. Have you got any other creatures that you've made, do you have them at home?"

"Yes I do."

"Well, do you think you could bring them in tomorrow so that I could see them?"

"Okay, fine."

In-between films, I had been doing commercials. For a Birdseye commercial I had made two little green men from Mars but with pea heads; just two eyes, like flies' eyes, and two little holes for nostrils, no ears and a tiny little "V" for a mouth. But other than that, they had absolutely smooth green heads like a pea. Next day, George was looking at the things I'd done and he burst out : "Oh, I like that."

I explained what it was, that it was a pea and I couldn't use that because it was someone else's design. He said: "Oh what a shame. Maybe if you could do something to it so that it would never be recognised."

So I put little sort of nobbles all over it and also a mohawk right over the top and he said: "That's great, I love that." And that creature became one of his favourite things.

He liked all the other stuff I had done and said: "Now, could design me all the other creatures I want?"

I told him that I thought I could, but "I'd like to read the script first before I say whether I'd like to do it, because I've had offers of other films. But it does sound interesting."

Halfway through the script I thought: "My God, I don't understand this. I don't want to do it. I can't get the story of it, but I suppose I better finish reading it."

Three-quarters of the way through, I thought: "I don't know, but somehow now I can get it, I think it's great."

And when I finished it off my fellings were: " Yeah, I can't wait to do it." I phoned him next morning and told him: "George, I'd love to do it."

CHEWBACCA

"We'd been shooting for some weeks when one morning George came in and told me: "Stuart, er, I've written in another character. I want him to be eight foot tall, so that he looks very powerful and threatening, but he's also got to look endearing to children. They've got to love him. Somehow like a teddy bear, but a big teddy bear that could be quite strong and dangerous if necessary."

"Have you any ideas what he should look like?" I asked.

"Well I was looking at my dog Chewbacca last night," he replied. "I think maybe if you should put a bit of dog in him."

"Right, I'll have it modelled for you tomorrow morning in clay."

I never do drawings because when everybody comes to look at it, they say, "Oh no, you'd be better off if you did this or you did that." You can't keep drawing it again and again, so I always model in clay so it's much easier to alter it. A bit of clay and it's done. So I made it, the whole head slightly doglike but with a few things of my own in there.

George was pleased: "Yeah, yeah, I like it, but I was looking at my cat last night and I think it should maybe be a bit catlike." He just couldn't make up his mind.

So I said: "I know exactly what you mean." And the next morning I produced what was finally Chewbacca; slightly doglike, slightly catlike. The way I did the fur could suggest both. The nose I made sort of dark, blackish and shiny like a dog. But his lips were catlike.

George thought it was wonderful: "That's it, exactly what I want."

But then, of course, having done the make-up I needed somebody tall to wear it. I went through the books of people who were really out of the ordinary, who put themselves in for film work. The tallest one I could find was six-foot nine. This was a big problem.

I'd done all my other work for the day, so I went to the canteen and was sitting there thinking hard when a continuity lady I'd worked with some years before and hadn't seen for a while said: "Hello Stuart, you look worried." She sat down and I told her my problem.

She then told me: "I was in Croydon Hospital not so long ago and there was a porter there who was very tall."

"Well, how tall?"

"I don't know, but he was the tallest man I've ever seen."

I phoned Croydon hospital: "I believe you have a very tall porter working for you?"

They said: "Yes."

"Do you happen to know how tall he is?"

"Oh yes, he's seven-foot four."

"Well, I represent a film company and we're looking for somebody about that height. Would he be available for a week or two?"

"We'll let you know." An hour later they phoned me back and they said, "We've discussed it with Peter Mayhew and he says he would love to do it."

YODA

One day George made the observation: "Remember, the important thing when when you're modelling Yoda is that he is 500-years-old and highly intelligent." When I started working the clay I thought, "How do I shape this clay so that when people look at it they think, this is a very intelligent looking face?"

So I looked in the mirror and stared at my face and I thought: "Well, I can see some funny little bits, like my little nose and cheeks. I could use those, but what can I do about the high intelligence?!"

I got a pile of photographs to work with and among them was one of Albert Einstein. Everybody knows what he looks like. So I put in Einstein's wrinkles all across the face, exactly like Einstein, and built up the lip with wrinkles in it that could be like a moustache - just enough to suggest Einstein in the audience's mind and subconscious. They wouldn't recognise exactly who it was, perhaps, but it seems to have worked! Then I added the bumps of my cheeky cheeks and my little nose. So Yoda is a quarter me and three-quarters Einstein.

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