In the making of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, writer/director J.J. Abrams introduced a new wholly-digital character to the sci-fi universe: Maz Kanata. A diminutive Force-sensitive alien who Han, Rey, Finn and BB-8 meet on the planet Takodana, the role was imagined with performance capture in mind, and Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o both played her on set and provided the voice.
That process, however, was not repeated for Maz Kanata’s role in Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker. You may not have noticed it during your first viewing of the film, but like many aliens in the history of the Star Wars franchise, the new version of Maz was actually brought to life as an animatronic puppet for the recent production, designed by Creature And Special Make-Up Effects Creative Supervisor Neal Scanlan.
Yesterday morning I had the pleasure of sitting down with the effects wizards (both special and visual) behind the making of Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker, and one fascinating revelation that came out of the conversation was that Maz Kanata went from being a performance capture character in The Force Awakens to a practical puppet in Episode IX. And, as Scanlan described, it wasn’t just any puppet:
In many ways she is the most advanced animatronic that I believe, certainly, that we've ever made. In so many ways she was the most advanced from the way that she was performed… She's a highly mechanized animatronic.
The CGI version of Maz Kanata was obviously a tremendously important reference for Neal Scanlan, and the work from both Lupita Nyong’o and the artists behind the digital model influenced both the way the character looked and moved. The filmmaker specifically highlighted the skin, noting that there was a layering process that provided the puppet with an “ambiance and real life quality” that even the most advanced computers in the world can’t entirely capture just yet.
What made the Maz Kanata puppet particular special, though, was the way in which it was operated behind the scenes – an effort requiring multiple puppeteers working in unison. By itself that sounds pretty standard, but what made it unique was both the technology used, and the proximity of the puppeteers to the set. Scanlan explained,
The major thing was that often when we do something in animatronics, we perform that character almost in a remote situation. So the character may be there in front of the camera, but the puppeteers are somewhere else. In this case, we used a data suit that was worn by a puppeteer and as that person would move, Maz would mimic it. There was a puppeteer who was responsible for the dialogue, and there was a puppeteer responsible for the eye line and the expressions. Those puppeteers could be right next to J.J. [Abrams], and they could see Maz and they could be in the scene.
While that settles the how, the question that remains is the why. There was no significant negative response to the way that Maz Kanata was brought to life in the making of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, so why take on the extra effort required to pursue such a massive undertaking?
This was a question that Neal Scanlan had an answer for, and it has to do with the alluded to legacy of animatronics in the Star Wars franchise, as well as the key scene partner Maz Kanata has in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Said Scanlan,
She represented more to us than just an animatronic. She represented bringing the animatronic very much more intimately into the scene. And obviously because it was involved with the Leia sequences, that was something that J.J. had pushed us to try and do as well. He wanted those that were involved in those sequences to be intimately involved, and that included the animatronics.
The folks working on the visual effects side of the production weren’t totally left out of the process of including Maz Kanata in Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker, as they did passes on her scenes to remove riggings and perfect small details, but otherwise what you see in the film is a practical effect.
Did you notice the difference? Do you plan on taking a closer look at Maz the next time you see Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker? Hit the comments section with your thoughts, and be on the lookout for more articles from my conversations with the effects teams behind Alita: Battle Angel, Captain Marvel, The Lion King, and Avengers: Endgame.