In Memoriam: Makeup Artist Extraordinaire Stuart Freeborn (1914-2013)

Jason Gorber, Featured Critic
The film world has lost one of the giants of movie makeup and creature design. Stuart Freeborn, whose credits go back to the 1930s, died earlier this week from a combination of ailments due to his age, according to The Guardian. He was 98. 

He worked for David Lean on 1948's Oliver Twist, setting up Alec Guinness with his prosthetic teeth, and later worked with Guinness and Lean on The Bridge on the River Kwai.

Freeborn was brought to my attention thanks to another series of films starring Guinness. As the principal artist behind the creature shop on the first Star Wars film, Freeborn was responsible for the team that created Chewbacca. The costume was designed based upon designs that had been created for Stanley Kubrick's earlier film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Freeborn helped pioneer the mechanism that allowed the actor to control the facial movement of the overlaid ape masks, resulting in what, at the time, had viewers convinced that Kubrick had used actual animals, which reportedly resulted in Freeborn's work being overlooked by the Academy!

Chewbacca's mouth gape and Yak hair construction was quite similar to the 2001 effects, but the myriad of creatures that made up the Cantina were the result of all sorts of groundbreaking advancements at the time in makeup and mask design. It was Freeborn's illness during the shooting of Star Wars that resulted in reshoots of parts of that sequence, where another giant of the industry, Rick Baker, was brought in to build upon Freeborn's work.

Perhaps the most iconic creature that Freeborn designed was Yoda. Drawing inspiration from Albert Einstein, as well as a more-than-passing resemblance to the designer himself, the creation of this latex, cloth and hair Muppet-like mechanism proved to be one of the most powerful characters in The Empire Strikes Back. While Frank Oz's physical manipulation and voice brought the creature fully to life, it was Freeborn who gave Yoda his look, bestowing upon it a mix of faery tale fancy and aged wisdom.

Helping supervise the creature work on Return of the Jedi, he designed the massive puppet used for Jabba The Hutt, as well as working on the menagerie that populated the Gangster's lair. Many of the iconic creatures from the original series of films were created, sculpted and executed by the hands of this legendary craftsman.

Freeborn would go on to work on the likes of the various Superman films, starring Christopher Reeves, and eventually retired in 1990. While some will give him credit on this day for his work helping transform Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove, I'd also like to remember him for his work on the farcical high concept comedy Top Secret, a film that shaped my childhood almost as much as the Lucasfilm productions.

Stuart Freeborn is survived by eight grandchildren and a number of great-grandchildren.
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  • mightyjoeyoung

    "The film world has lost one of the giants of movie makeup and creature design. Stuart Freeborn, whose credits go back to the 1930s, died earlier this week from a combination of ailments due to his age, according to The Guardian. He was 98."
    He did some impressive stuff......never heard about him before, thanks Mr Gorber and RIP Mr Freeborn.

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