Warning! “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” spoilers!
When it comes to “Star Wars” cameos, there is do or do not. There is no try. And “The Last Jedi” certainly did.
In the film ― after Rey (Daisy Ridley) leaves Ahch-To to make contact with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) ― a frustrated Luke (Mark Hamill) decides it’s time to destroy the ancient Jedi texts and the tree they are kept in. In that moment, the audience is treated to the return of everyone’s favorite little Kermit the Frog/Miss Piggy hybrid, Yoda.
But it’s not that weird, acrobatic CG Yoda from the prequels. It’s puppet Yoda, with a Force-ghost glow.
Force-ghost Yoda returns to talk some sense into Luke, and it works. Luke seems to have a change of heart over Rey and the Jedi. And, just because he’s got style, Yoda uses a lightning bolt to destroy the ancient tree and (supposedly) the Jedi texts with it anyway. His explanation: There’s nothing in there that Rey doesn’t already possess.
On the Yoda scene, director Rian Johnson said, “That was something that very early in the process I realized would make sense, especially when Luke’s arc started to define itself.” He added: “I thought, well, who can actually kick Luke’s butt a little and speak truth to this guy? And the obvious answer was Yoda.”
The Force is with that cameo, but there’s also a secret for watchful viewers.
Remember that while he was destroying the tree, Yoda claimed there was nothing in there that Rey didn’t already have. Later in the movie, the Jedi texts briefly appear on the Millennium Falcon, a shot Johnson confirmed to HuffPost. Apparently, Yoda said all that because Rey had already taken the books.
“You’ve got sharp eyes,” Johnson said when we asked him about the books showing up later.
Thankfully, other behind-the-scenes “Star Wars” crew members shared their secrets about Rey’s discovery of the Jedi texts (and Yoda’s cameo):
That Yoda was close to the original.
“I remember saying to Rian, we have to make him as solid as we possibly can,” creature and droid FX creative supervisor Neal Scanlan told HuffPost. “The Force ghost aspect is obviously important, but as a fan, we have to give as much as we can. We can’t take that away from the moment.”
Scanlan said the choice was made to have Yoda appear as a puppet, and not a completely computer-generated character. In fact, Lucasfilm provided original Yoda molds. Even the original puppeteer, Frank Oz, was involved in the process early on.
“The goal was to create Yoda in absolute faithful likeness,” Scanlan said.
The creatures supervisor said he had a profound moment when he took home the Yoda head to apply the skin and finishing touches.
“This little face appeared, and I knew this is exactly what [original Yoda designer Stuart Freeborn] had gone through in his workshop,” Scanlan said. “It was a magical moment, a very special one for me.”
Because of that, there was very little CGI.
“Yoda came together pretty straightforward,” visual effects supervisor Ben Morris said.
It was a team effort to create the scene, Morris said, with Scanlan getting the Yoda molds, Oz coming in to bring the character to life, and SFX supervisor Chris Corbould putting together the burning tree.
“In terms of visual effects, we did some supporting work,” Morris said. “Obviously, you’ve got a glow, and we did clean up some of his facial expressions every now and then, but he really is a practical puppet.”
A subtle Jedi chant initially drew Rey to the tree.
Co-sound supervisor Matthew Wood told HuffPost the whispers that seemingly led Rey to the ancient tree were actually a Jedi chant.
“Rian was talking about some kind of chanting or whispering, and I actually worked with Story Group here at Lucasfilm, which is a great resource for us,” he said. “We were able to consult with them and come up with something from the past that had a Jedi chant in there, so it was just trying to represent what was coming out of those books ― like the essence of what’s coming out of those books.”
Wood said after they had actors record the chant, co-sound supervisor Ren Klyce designed it into “something that was really ethereal,” which was the sound used to bring Rey to the tree.
The burning tree was tricky.
As the SFX supervisor, Corbould knew the burning tree was going to be a massive undertaking.
“We needed to obviously ignite the tree on cue, so the construction department very kindly built a totally fireproof tree ― and what’s more, it was built on a slope,” he said. “Once they built the tree, we set about pumping the progas out and then developing an ignition system, so we could sequentially trigger it to hit in one place and things spread slowly out to each limb.”
Corbould told us it was a little nerve-wracking, even though the burning was conducted safely. When it was finally ignited, he said, “that was one of the hottest, one of the biggest bonfires you’ll ever see.”
No one wanted to miss the Luke and Yoda reunion.
“It was unbelievable when we shot that sequence,” Scanlan told us. “The tree was on fire, I turned around, and behind me there must’ve been a 60-strong audience of people out on a location who would not normally have bothered to stand in the cold weather. It was totally silent, and all we could hear was Yoda and Frank Oz and Mark Hamill.”
He added, “It was as iconic as I could hope it would be.”
“The Last Jedi” is in theaters now.