I was lucky. Both my parents are puppeteers and I grew up from an early age building and performing all sorts of hand puppets marionettes and rod puppets. From about the age of six I performed marionettes as an opening act in my parents’ puppet show. When I was seven years old, my birthday present for that year was a seven year olds’ Punch and Judy puppet theatre and a full set of Punch and Judy puppets! I was forever destined to be a puppeteer.
If I’m correct it was while you were working for the legendary Stuart Freeborn you got the job of puppeteering Yoda with Frank Oz. How you would describe Stuart Freeborn, who sadly passed away earlier this year.
Stuart was amazing. Mark Hamill introduced me to Stuart when I visited Elstree Studios to see some of the filming of The Empire Strikes Back and a week later Stuart offered me a position on the Yoda built crew. As a 19-year-old Star Wars fan it really was my dream come true and Stuart was so supportive and encouraging of my fledgling talents. Many evenings we kept chatting away late into the night, after everyone else had left. At the time I felt I had a lot of ideas - maybe 10% of them were worth exploring and Stuart was happy to encourage me to continually brainstorm for the occasional nugget. He single-handedly taught me the dedication and professionalism needed to work in the movie industry and had amazing attention to detail. A phenomenal mentor who was much loved and respected. He's sorely missed.
During the last week of shooting the Yoda scenes Frank Oz wasn’t available and he made you the chief puppeteer. Did this feel as a huge task? And how do you look back at puppeteering such an iconic puppet as Yoda?
I had been ‘standing in’ for Frank - that is holding up the puppet for lighting and for camera set-ups so I had first-hand experience of what it took to puppeteer Yoda although the only on-camera performance I had done until that point was when Frank had brought Miss Piggy in as a joke for the crew and I started the shot (before Miss Piggy appeared) by being chief puppeteer for Yoda. So I had a gradual integration and understanding of the character and the physical requirements needed to perform what was actually quite a heavy puppet. Frank would always take all the puppeteers through a rehearsal process of understanding his motivation, acting beats and then applying that to the skill set of puppetry performance. So I was fully in tune with the direction that Frank and Kershner had steered Yoda towards when I was passed the baton.
During your time on the Dagobah set there was just one actor: Mark Hamill. All the Dagobah scenes feature his character Luke and Yoda. How was Mark to work with?
Mark was wonderful. It was because of him I got to work on the film in the first place. He had commissioned me to build an 18 inch marionette of Darth Vader and it was when I delivered that completed marionette to Elstree Studios - he introduced me to Stuart Freeborn. Mark was a puppet fan and certainly loved the Muppets and his integration and patience with the often time consuming process of movie puppeteering was a key element in the success of those scenes.
When I took over from Frank, some of the first shots were vistavision master shots with Yoda raising the X-Wing from the swamp. With Frank, the crew would carefully cut out a hole in the floor so he could reach his arm up and puppeteer Yoda in relative comfort. For me however, they told me to lie on the floor, hold Yoda up and proceeded to cover me top to bottom with bags of leaves so I would not be visible in shot. Any sense of grandeur instantly evaporated.
Three years after The Empire Strikes Back you were back on the Star Wars set again, this time as Jabba. You were stuck inside Jabba the Hutt’s head along with your colleague Toby Philpott. How did you approach the task of bringing such a large puppet to life?
Toby and I had worked on The Dark Crystal before Return of the Jedi and I knew Toby's father (known as Pantopuck the Puppetman) so we had a common love and experience for puppetry. A lot of the rehearsal approach Frank had used for Yoda, he then developed further for The Dark Crystal, and Toby and I took that further still in the performance of Jabba. As we could not see out from inside of Jabba's chest, our only connection with the real world was via small black-and-white TV monitors and a microphone from inside Jabba with earphones to listen to the sounds from the set. In many ways we felt very cut off from the rest of the crew, so when possible we would come out from under Jabba and speak to Richard Marquand directly in person.
What is your favorite memory regarding working on two Star Wars movies?
I think my favorite memory is when I got to work with Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Billy Dee Williams on the set of Jabba's palace. Especially as I spoke Jabba’s lines in my British accent and was now officially a chief puppeteer on one of the biggest movies in history.
You have worked with the legendary Jim Henson on various projects like Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal and The Storyteller. What is according to you the one thing that defined him and has made him the pioneer regarding puppeteering? Also, which important things did you learn from him?
Many people have said the same. Jim was a visionary. I consider myself very privileged to have spent so many years working with and for Jim Henson. He was a true gentleman and as far as I know never lost his temper - always trying to encourage the best out of everyone and manage the huge group of sometimes volatile creative personalities. Much like The Muppet Show. Jim (or Kermit) was the ringmaster for a band of crazy artists, who truly believed in his vision - respected him immensely and would go to the end of the earth for him. Being officially classified as a Muppeteer and performing Sprocket for European versions of Fraggle Rock, were some of my highpoints as a puppeteer in the 80s. Jim left us way too soon...
I think the good news for practical effects and puppeteer driven character lovers is that Kathleen Kennedy is a staunch supporter of the old technologies and is currently exploring avenues to use animatronics in the next trilogy.
Of all the characters you have puppeteered, which one is your favorite? And why?
That's a very hard question to answer. I love all the characters I have performed. Jabba and Yoda must come very high on that list.
What are you currently doing? Do you have new projects?
I am currently working on my own feature film - based on one of my parents’ original puppet plays they wrote the mid-1960s. I have designed all the characters (many based on my father's original puppet designs) and have recorded temp voices as a guide track for creating a rough cut pre-viz from my final draft script. My next phase is to raise production funds.
Good luck with that, and thanks for the interview!