By the time “Return of the Jedi” was released in 1983, George Lucas had already shepherded through a massively successful franchise that was part of the popular vernacular. That achievement was thanks in large part to the groundbreaking visual and practical effects seen throughout the films.
In “Jedi,” the ante was raised again. Lucas and company had to unveil one of the galaxy’s most notorious gangsters, Jabba the Hut. It would take four puppeteers inside the large Jabba to bring him to life in the movie. But that was far from the only challenge in the opening sequence of “Jedi,” set in Jabba’s palace.
There were dozens of puppets and costumed actors making up the audience in the palace, but which would be Jabba’s main source of entertainment?
Lucas and his team chose Sy Snootles, a lanky female singer with wicked pipes and pouty lips. Her appearance in the movie comes while singing with the Max Rebo Band during the dance by Oola in front of Jabba. Sy’s performance is interrupted when Oola begins to argue with Jabba, and he opens his hidden floor, sending Oola down to be a snack for the Rancor.
Sy’s appearance is brief, but once more proves the masterful talents of Lucas’ animatronic department.
In the behind-the-scenes documentary for “Jedi,” we see the months of work that went into Sy’s less-than-a-minute of screen time.
And then there was creating the song Sy would sing in the scene.
“There were lyrics written for the original release by one of our engineers,” said sound designer Ben Burtt in the Blu-ray commentary of “Jedi.” “She did the original voice [of Sy]. I helped convert into Huttese [the language Jabba speaks].”
The final version was top-notch for practical effects at that time, though it seems pretty pedestrian by today’s standards.
Watch the sequence here:
Lucas was never satisfied.
When he released a special edition of the original “Star Wars” trilogy in the late 1990s with added and enhanced scenes, the Sy sequence was completely revamped with a new song and Sy remade from computer graphics.
“The singer was originally a marionette that could barely move and couldn’t do what some of the other characters who were more static were able to come off pretty well,” said Lucas in the “Jedi” commentary. “As you’re able to push the technology forward, you’re able to get the creatures to suddenly walk or raise their arms or have expressions on their faces and all of that took years and years and a lot of experimentation and technical advances to be able to make an alien look real.”
In the special-edition version, along with the song being much longer, and the band including backup singers and a creature doing some kind of rap, Sy is flamboyant and less stiff.
Take a look:
But if you grew up when “Jedi” was first released, or before the special editions, it’s hard to forget the stiff marionette version of Sy. Perhaps it has to do with being entertained by puppets masterfully created by Jim Henson and his team (who were involved in the “Star Wars” films), but there’s just a different life a puppeteer can bring to a character that computer graphics can’t.
This was clearly a comment Lucas had gotten a lot after releasing the special edition, because he addressed it in the commentary:
“I’m so amused by people who somehow think when you use cyber technology or digital technology in movies it’s fake. But when you look at a scene here in Jabba’s palace now there are some digital characters in here, but they are no more or less fake than all the other characters that are in here. Is a digital character more fake than a big fat rubber character? [Laughs.] I mean there’s nothing real here at all. It’s hard to say a rubber character has more integrity than a digital character. What I try to do is make the characters become believable so that they are realistic enough to have a suspension of disbelief in accepting them as characters instead of tricks, which is what they all are.”
All that is true. But what about the sense of respect for the crew that created the original work? I mean, George, someone had to do this to bring Sy to life:
Maybe it wasn’t possible to enhance Sy’s original performance with just a few CGI tweaks (what was done with Jabba for the special edition) so Lucas just decided redo her in computer graphics. But the end result has basically erased the efforts by the people responsible for Sy 1.0.
In no way are computer graphics going anywhere, but it seems J.J. Abrams — the director of the next “Star Wars” movie, “The Force Awakens” — also misses the puppets and practical effects from the original trilogy. He’s said numerous times that there will be a return to that in his film (mixed with some CGI).
Just another reason to be excited for the latest episode from a galaxy far, far, away.
“Star Wars” Rewind is an ongoing series of posts that looks back on the saga leading up to “Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens” (in theatres December 18).
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