The breakout character of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker was unquestionably droidsmith Babu Frik. This diminutive marvel of character design was brought to life through the magic of practical effects and the voice work of actress Shirley Henderson. But Shirley Henderson didn’t just provide Babu Frik’s delightful speech, she also controlled the actual puppet. Speaking about why the actress learned puppeteering for the role, the film’s sound editor Matthew Wood said:
So she could improv and actually move the character's mouth. She was puppeteering while she was doing the improv for the character. She came up with that language and performed it that way. We preserved all of her production sounds, and that was entirely shot on set, live, with her own movement.
That is pretty fascinating and illustrates the large degree to which Shirley Henderson was responsible for creating this character that became such a hit with audiences. As this year’s Oscar nominee for Best Achievement in Sound Editing (shared with David Acord) Matthew Wood told THR, Shirley Henderson learned to puppeteer and control the Babu Frik puppet so that she could improvise on set during filming.
The actress actually came up with Babu Frik’s endearing and at times unintelligible speech pattern and she wanted to be able to improv and control the Anzellan’s mouth all at once. If someone else was puppeteering Babu Frik, that process wouldn’t have been as seamless and Shirley Henderson might not have had the same amount of freedom to improvise and craft the character and deliver the performance that was in her head.
So Shirley Henderson not only came up with Babu Frik’s speech pattern, she was improvising her voice performance while adjusting and improvising Babu Frik’s movements all at the same time. And puppeteering is not her primary trade. That’s pretty impressive stuff in its own right and for the result to be as widely loved as it was just makes it all the more remarkable.
What’s pretty cool too is that Shirley Henderson’s Babu Frik performance was all captured live on set. Her improvised movement and the dialogue she did while filming was all what was used in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Based on that, she didn’t go back later to do ADR for Babu Frik. The magic all happened on set in Babu Frik’s workshop on Kijimi.
In addition to being great testament to Shirley Henderson’s performance, this also goes to show the success of practical effects. There is a lot to quibble with in regards to how this Sequel Trilogy has handled story, but the inclination to use practical effects whenever possible has been a success.
Movies can’t and shouldn’t always use puppets. But when possible they can really work in ways that pure CG characters cannot and the Star Wars Sequel Trilogy and something like Netflix’s brilliant Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance are proof of that.