There’s been so much mythology surrounding “The Mandalorian’s” Baby Yoda (The Child), thanks to co-star Werner Herzog’s outspoken support of the puppet, that it’s hard to determine what’s practical or CG about its performance. The truth is, the 50-year-old, 16-inch infant companion to bounty hunter Mando (Pedro Pascal) was always intended to be a hybrid character, though the original plan was to lean more heavily on animation whenever possible.
That is, until creator Jon Favreau and the rest of the team witnessed the full extent of the puppet’s charm and capabilities early on during the shooting of Season 1. “Initially, the puppet was going to be in a supporting role, and it was going to be a CG character,” said John Rosengrant, co-founder and special effects supervisor at Legacy Effects (which had previously worked on Favreau’s “Zathura,” “Iron Man,” “Iron Man 2,” and “Cowboys & Aliens”).
“We did a proof of concept three weeks before shooting, and even once we started shooting, I don’t know that we were convinced that the puppet was going to do as much as it did,” Rosengrant added. “But, on set, there was an aha moment of what it was capable of, and it came together in an organic way. But it is a hybrid performance, and they had to seamlessly blend the CG [from Industrial Light & Magic] with the puppet.”
“Jon really wants practical when he can, but when he can’t, he wants to be sure the audience is fooled and doesn’t know which technique they’re seeing,” added ILM’s VFX animator Hal Hickel. “Normally, we discover things on set where we’re fine doing a lot more CG shots than we thought in post. Here, it was the opposite and it was fun for everyone, especially for The Legacy folks. We really hit the magic working on set, and that became the ground truth for the character. We took our cues from the puppet. Our work was to ensure that anytime it couldn’t be a puppet, people still thought it was a puppet [walking, crawling, using The Force, eating or spitting out frogs].”
But make no mistake, there was a lot of artistry that went into the puppet: the hand-painted eyes, the translucent skin, the punched in hair, and his weathered and aged garment. The trickiest part was the translucent level with the right amount of red showing through the ears. It took four attempts to get that right.
The mechanics of Legacy’s rod-controlled puppet, meanwhile, was designed to bring out the wonder, happiness, curiosity, and fear befitting The Child’s innocence. Favreau wanted to avoid cuteness, and, for reference, pointed to the bittersweet “Paper Moon” as the kind of tough adult-child dynamic he wanted.
Rosengrant recalled his fondest moment when Baby Yoda can’t stop pushing buttons and playing with the control ball in Mando’s Razor Crest gun ship. “The way it was storyboarded, it was starting to get beyond the scope of what the puppet could do, and then Jon weighed in at midnight at home,” he said. “I remember him calling in and going, ‘No, no, free it up, and let’s do what The Child can do.’ It became a little bit of an improv… and it worked out beautifully.”
On set, Baby Yoda was controlled by three or four puppeteers (including Rosengrant), and it was a continual process of discovery for finding the nuance of expression with eye blinks, hand gestures, body language, positioning of the head and perky ears, and disappearing within his own little garment. “We learned what his smile was and what fear was within him,” Rosengrant said.
And everyone took to the puppet instantly, especially Herzog, who embraced the physicality of the character and criticized the crew for reverting to CG animation. “I can tell you from me being there, Werner really took a shine to it, and he liked reacting to it and having it there,” Rosengrant said. “And I know there was one scene where we were off camera and had turned him off and just shut him down. And Werner was expecting him to move and do his stuff. And he got very concerned and said, ‘I think it’s brain dead — I think it died.’ And everybody cracked up laughing. I jumped in said, ‘No, no, we just turned him off.’ And I turned him back on.”
Yet it was up to the animators to emulate the puppet in CG. Fortunately, Hickel worked on the CG version of Yoda in the “Star Wars” prequels, and was already familiar with the exploration. “We learned how Frank Oz controlled the puppet from inside with his hands, why the face moved the way it did, how the ears had a rubbery vibration, and that helped here as well,” he said. “We looked at the underlying mechanisms, and they’re pretty simple on the Baby because he hasn’t evolved yet. And it was a good lesson for our beginning animators in terms of less is more.”
The hardest performance moment for ILM was The Force reveal. “We didn’t want him to seem as purposeful as Yoda raising the X-Wing [in’The Empire Strikes Back’],” Hickel said. “But we wanted to recall that with his little outstretched hand and his eyes closed. It was intuitive.”
While the puppet served as a very successful prototype in Season 1, Legacy refined the mechanics in Season 2 to expand its functionality and make it even more user friendly. “We went inside and tuned him up, made sure all his servos were fresh and good,” Rosengrant said. “But it’s the same character — you wouldn’t know the difference.”
And in Season 2, they relied even more on the puppet because Favreau’s tendency is to rethink the performance for something it can do. “The success of the puppet is doing the heavy lifting of this character,” Hickel said. “Everything charming about it stemmed from what Legacy built, and our job was not to mess that up when [it has to be CG].”