Movie fans tend to think there’s a sort of Cold War between practical and visual effects, seeing as the rise of the latter hurt the popularity of the form in massive Hollywood productions. But couldn’t the rise of motion-capture animation – which demands a performer throw their full body into the creation of a character that will be patched over them in post like a costume – be counted as an evolution of practical puppetry?
Screen Rant posed this question to the stars and subjects of the documentary, Muppet Guys Talking: Secrets Behind the Show the Whole World Watched, which made its World Premiere at SXSW last weekend. More specifically, we asked Muppeteer/director Frank Oz how he felt when Yoda, one of his most famous puppet performances, got a CGI makeover for the Star Wars prequels.
Dave Goelz, who might be best known as the performer behind (or often beneath) Gonzo The Great, doesn’t see motion-capture as a descendent of the forms of puppetry and costume work the Muppet team pioneered. But neither does he hold any disdain for CGI creations overtaking practical puppetry. In a joint interview with Muppet Guys Talking co-stars Oz, Fran Brill, and Bill Barretta, Goelz explained:
“They’re all just valid forms. There all just ways to get something onscreen that doesn’t exist in real life. And they have their pros and cons. CG can mean total freedom of the camera, total freedom of the subject, the lighting, everything can be manipulated anyway you want. And that’s a great strength. It’s hard to animate characters with realistic movement. You’ve probably noticed that. That’s why motion-capture came along. It helps to improve on what you can do as an animator to get realistic motion. But then on the other side of the coin, what we do is very crude and primitive. What the Muppets are very simple figures; they’re not sophisticated. They’re not complex, but they’re really there. It really happens. You can touch ’em. You can interview them. And you can talk to them. You can shake hands, and it’s really happening, whereas anything that’s done digitally with animation never happened. It’s not that one is better than the other. They’re equal. For a given project, you might choose one medium over another…I don’t see them as competitive. They’re just tools, different tools to do the same kind of thing.”
From there, we asked Oz what it was like to see his Yoda go from one form (practical puppet) to another (completely CGI creation) in Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones, where the grumbly green Jedi leapt into the fray with a dazzling lightsaber battle. Quick to defend director George Lucas’s controversial choice, Oz said:
“As a filmmaker, George needed to tell a particular story. And this story that he needed to tell was a big fight with Yoda. And he could not do that with a puppet. It was impossible. To he had the choice to either dump the story or stay with the story–which he felt strongly about–or change Yoda. So he did what any storyteller would do.”
Of course we asked if Oz would be reprising his role in the upcoming Star Wars movies. But he was resolute on staying mum, saying only: “I’ve been asked not to talk about any upcoming films.” But would he be open to returning to the role of Yoda? “I’ve been asked not to–where’s my lawyer?” He laughed.