The late Stuart Freeborn was a giant in the make-up artist realm, considered by many to the one of the originators of make-up design as we know it today. His long, incredible career touched some of the biggest films in history, including Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (he created the incredible “Dawn of Man” sequence, which gave poetic beauty to the transformation of apes into homo sapiens), as well as Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, turning Peter Sellers into multiple characters for yet another iconic Kubrick film. Freeborn was already a legend in the industry when he was tapped to work on a moonshot of a project—George Lucas’s Star Wars trilogy. Freeborn was the man who created, among other characters, the defining aliens of the trilogy: Chewbacca, Yoda and Jabba the Hutt. And yes, he also helped create the Ewoks. (He based Yoda’s face on his own, with a little bit of Albert Einstein thrown in).
For Chewbacca, one of the great cinematic sidekicks of all time (but perhaps don’t tell him that, unless you’re cool with having an arm ripped off), Freeborn handcrafted the mask, with an incredible amount of technical detail required to make Chewie’s face such an expressive, ultimately lovable creation. Starting with a fiberglass skull, that’s life-cast to the actor’s face, there are toggles in the lips that are connected by cables to the jaw, so when the jaw is open, the lips move, with extra attention to one side to give Chewie his trademark snarl. This mechanic design was completely innovative at time, where Freeborn was able to make something brilliantly simple to design that resulted in something that looked incredibly complex—or, more to the point, life-like.
In this very cool new video, Adam Savage of Tested headed to Tom Spina Designs to see how Spina and his team created a screen-accurate replica of Cheabacca’s mask, walking you through the step-by-step process that Freeborn created all those years ago. While we live in the age of mind-blowing digital effects, this video once again reminds us that practical effects are still crucial to creating believable worlds, and some of our favorite characters, props and effects of all time are still built the old fashioned way—by hand.
Featured image: Star Wars: The Last Jedi..L to R: Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and Director Rian Johnson. Photo: David James. ©2017 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.