[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one of four video essays arguing for the creation of a new Academy Awards category Outstanding Collaborative Performance. This category would honor teams of artists who create a vivid and memorable movie character whose existence is built upon performance but heavily assisted by CGI, immersive makeup, puppetry or other behind-the-scenes filmmaking craft. To read Matt Zoller Seitz’s piece explaining why the film industry needs this category, and to view a video essay about the career of motion capture performance wizard Andy Serkis, click here. Important notice: Press Play is aware that our videos can not be played on Apple mobile devices. We are, therefore, making this and every video in this series available on Vimeo for these Press Play readers. If you own an Apple mobile device, click here.]
Muppets creator Jim Henson once said, “When Frank Oz does Grover, I think he is a better actor than Lawrence Olivier.” That’s not really an exaggeration. Puppeteering is not just a clever way to entertain children. It’s an ancient art, common to cultures all over the world.
And it’s another kind of performance — sort of a merger of acting, gesture and dance. It combines vocal performance with hand movements that approximate the movements of a human, an animal, or a non-human character.
If you doubt it, go back and watch Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back, the Star Wars film that introduced Frank Oz’s first great non-Muppet character, the 800-year old, swamp-dwelling Jedi master Yoda.
At the time, there was some buzz about Frank Oz receiving a special award from the Academy for performing Yoda, but it didn’t happen. Who knows why, but I suspect it was because when judging this sort of achievement, nobody, even sci-fi and fantasy buffs, is entirely sure where performance ends and optical effects or makeup or puppet fabrication begin.
Oz and the Empire crew that backed him up would have been ideal candidates for a best collaborative performance Oscar if one had existed back in 1981, the year that the movie won a special Oscar for its visual effects. The performance is primarily the work of one person, Frank Oz.
But he is assisted by a small army of artists and technicians, including the craftspeople in Jim Henson’s creature shop who built the different versions of Yoda, and the special visual effects and production design elements around Yoda, created by Lucas’ company Industrial Light and Magic. These all help to create the illusion that Yoda is living, breathing, organic creation, part of a natural world.
You never see Frank Oz when you’re watching Yoda. When he performs the character, he’s hidden behind props or underneath a platform. But this is nevertheless a performance, one that’s as imaginative, serious and engaging as any that are given by the movie’s human characters. Maybe more so. In the training scene with Luke, Yoda is mainly played by a dummy, affixed to the shoulders of actor Mark Hamill and the stuntman who plays Luke during his more acrobatic moments. The sequence relies entirely on our suspension of disbelief, carried over from earlier scenes that were more obviously dominated by Frank Oz the puppeteer.
This purely analog approach to the character continued in the next Star Wars film, Return of the Jedi. In the first of the Star Wars prequels, 1997’s The Phantom Menace, Yoda was again played by a puppet, albeit a different looking one with a lot less texture and personality.
The Phantom Menace Yoda was revised by George Lucas many years after the film’s release, to make him visually consistent with the Yoda we saw in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith — a totally computer-animated character. The Clones and Sith versions of Yoda were voiced by Frank Oz, but involved no traditional puppeteering. They were still a collaborative effort, though.
Any of these incarnations of Yoda would have qualified for a nomination in a collaborative performance Oscar category. They all illustrate the idea behind such an award: that when group of people work together to bring a single, memorable character to life onscreen, the sum total of their efforts results in something greater than they might have achieved on their own.
Matt Zoller Seitz is founder of Press Play and TV critic for New York Magazine. Matthias Stork is a Press Play contributor and film scholar-critic from Germany who continues to pursue an academic career at UCLA where he studies film and television. He has an MA in Education with emphasis on American and French literature and film from Goethe University, Frankfurt. He has attended The Cannes film festival twice (2010/2011) as a representitive of Goethe University’s film school and you can read his blog here.