The official Star Wars newsletter, The Homing Beacon, issue 149 has an interview with Animation Director Rob Coleman where he discusses the preparations to create the performance of the digital Yoda. The official site also has an article about Lead Animator Virginie Michel d'Annoville's work for an Easter Egg in the Star Wars Episode III Revenge of the Sith DVD.
Here is what Rob Coleman says about the digital Yoda:
Now that Episode III is available on DVD, viewers can carefully examine the painstaking work of Animation Director Rob Coleman and his team that brought the many digital characters to life, including Jedi Master Yoda.
To get his animation team back in prime shape for their work ahead on Episode III, Coleman says that they replaced the footage of the Episode I Yoda puppet with their Episode III digital model as a test to see how far they could push his usual performance boundaries. This footage worked its way into the DVD, where it can be see as part of "The Chosen One" featurette on Disc 2.
"We did that between Episodes II and III as an exercise to get the team back into the character," Coleman explains. "On Episode II, I was stressing about living up to what Frank [Oz] had created. A lot of our focus was on the final battle sequence between Yoda and Count Dooku. We had never seen Yoda do that before. In the process, we were learning about acting as animators. It was really exciting for me to have the team back again between Episode II and III. We used Episode I as a testbed because we didn't know what was going to be in Episode III, so we got the team back up to speed. We really honed our acting skills and, using that as a springboard, we moved right on to Episode III."
While the use of computer-generated imagery (CGI) has evolved with each prequel, some have expressed concerns that the digital arts may overshadow the performance that legendary puppeteer and actor Frank Oz put into everyone's beloved little green friend. But Coleman says that the worry is unwarranted considering the research that went into making the CGI Yoda into a real, believable character based on Oz's work.
"The real example is that when we first did a test [for Episode II], it looked like a creepy little green man," Coleman says. "It didn't look like Yoda. We could do all kinds of extra things with the face that a puppet couldn't do. In learning about the character and trying to get to the essence as well as its spirit, I went back and studied what Frank Oz had done frame-by-frame. It became part of the character. We literally got down to the amount of wiggle through the ears. Whether it was because Frank was holding a 60-pound puppet above his head all day long and his hand started to shake, or if it was something that he was putting in consciously, it was simply part of the character."
"When we started to do the computer animation, we had to add in what I call performance 'dirt' -- shake, wiggle, and little jars in the performance that Frank did naturally as an extremely talented puppeteer," Coleman explains. "My group had to learn all of that. When we first showed it to Frank, we were showing him a pretty creepy-looking green man. It didn't look like this beloved character that we had come to love."
While just making the leap to a digital Yoda and his unprecedented acrobatics formed the obstacles in Episode II, Episode III was more of a refinement of the digital character, and the challenges came from more subtle performance and acting.
"I was really terrified before Episode II came out about the fight," Coleman confesses. "Once we got through that, I felt that we could really up the ante in terms of the performance and the interaction between Yoda and the live actors he was sharing the screen with. It put more pressure on the crew and me to really challenge ourselves. In the process, we were rewarded with some very nice close-ups. There's a really nice scene between Anakin and Yoda in Yoda's sanctuary, which I don't think would have been in Episode II had it been written at that time. I don't think George Lucas would have been comfortable enough to give us sustained close-ups and to give us a thinking time, which is really the acting time."
Continues Coleman, "Any time you look at real people onscreen, we learn more about them as a character when they are not talking compared to when they are -- the reactions, the facial expressions, the thinking, or the doubting. They are not listening to the person -- they are worried about something else. It's a joy as an animator to be given those shots with a character like Yoda."
The article with Lead Animator Virginie Michel d'Annoville who helped create an animation of Yoda hip hop dancing for an Easter Egg in the Star Wars Episode III Revenge of the Sith DVD is here: