The Man Who Would Be Yoda!

Revenge of the Sith Animation Supervisor Jamy Wheless

Frank Oz may be the voice of the little green guy from the planet Dagobah, but a good deal of Yoda’s performance in Star Wars: Episode III–Revenge of the Sith can be attributed to animation supervisor Jamy Wheless. An ILM team member since 1996, Wheless joined the company’s feature production crew to work on the DVD for StarWars: Episode 1–The Phantom Menace, and soon found himself responsible for bringing one of the franchise’s most beloved icons to the screen.

Animation Magazine Online: As a young art student, did you ever dream that one day you would be working on a Star Wars film?

Jamy Wheless: When Star Wars came out, I was drawing R2D2 and C3P0 for my junior high newspaper. Back then, I thought mostly about the artists who were doing the matte paintings, and I thought, "Man, that would be cool if I could just get in there and do something like that. I would do anything!" But I really dreamed of one day being an animator. Disney movies and stuff like that was the big thing at that time.

How did you set about reaching that goal?

My mom always encouraged me because I used to draw all the time. I drew all kinds ofcomic books and just kept drawing. I wasn’t sure where it would lead me, but I spent my hours doing that. I went into college [(Auburn University)] as an art major in illustration and was then an illustrator for about six years in Atlanta, Georgia. I got into 2D animation from there with my drawing skill. I kind of fell into the animation world. I didn’t have any formal training but learned it from mentors and guys who taught me. I didn’t go to CalArts or anything. It comes down to passion and drive. I remember getting out of college and not having a job when I moved to Atlanta. I ended up working in a warehouse loading boxes for the first three months. A lot of people would hire me for design agencies and I kept saying, "I didn’t want to be a designer. I want to do illustration." So I used to work nights and draw during the day to improve my portfolio so I could start getting work with advertising agencies, which is what eventually happened over the course of three or four months. It got me out of the night shift loading shoe boxes.

And that eventually led to your 1995 SIGGRAPH short film, Avery?

Yes. In 1993 when Jurassic Park came out, I was doing 2D animation for a company called Walk Through the Bible in Atlanta. They got some 3D software and asked me if I wanted to make a jump into that. Jurassic Park was such a huge influence to me that I said, "That is what I want to do the rest of my life. That is it! I don’t have to draw it anymore–I can actually use a computer, get the perspectives correct right away and just focus on performance and stuff like that. What Avery actually was is a combination–a 2D girl and a 3D mannequin. She comes to life on an animation stand and hands him a rose. It’s real simple. Looking at it now, it’s kind of hard-edged, but it married 2D and 3D, and I thought I’d do both. As I progressed, I realized that the 3D world gave me results quicker and I kind of got infatuated with it.

And the short helped you get a foot in the door at ILM?

I interviewed at SIGGRAPH in ’96 and had a demo collage of all the stuff I’d done in the past three years. At the time, the market was really hot. They were looking for young, new talent and I got a lot of different offers, and came to ILM. I worked in the commercial division for about four years and transitioned into features in 2000.

So that Star Wars influence on your childhood really came full circle.

It all does, doesn’t it? Even working on The Hulk, one of the things that was just cracking me up is here I was doing a CG Hulk, and as a kid I drew him all the time. In fact, I drew poses–we dug up some old poses and brought them to work. We were talking about having him crashing onto the ground, and I actually drew that when I was 10. If I’d been able to look ahead 20 years and see this, I would be freaked out.

Finally, in 2004, you get to work on a Star Wars movie. How do you get the gig of working on Yoda, one of the franchise’s most prominent figures?

I’m not sure! During Episode II, I came in and worked with [ILM animation director] Rob Coleman for the first time. It’s amazing how timing and a series of events work in your favor. At the time Episode I was going on, around 1999, I was working on a Pepsi commercial with a creature called Marfalump. He was a real geeky alien who just loved Star Wars and played with Pepsi cans. Ahmed Best, who played Jar-Jar Binks actually acted it out for us. I was animation supervisor on that and it was a blast to work on. We ended up winning the Clio for Most Outstanding Character Performance. Rob didn’t know who I was or what I did around here because it’s so big, but he read about it in Animation Magazine. So when I went in to meet him about coming on board for Episode II, he joked, "So you’re the guy who did this performance that was better than all the performances in Episode I," or something like that.

I started doing bit parts, characters in the background and kept working them until [Coleman] gave me bigger parts like Dexter. I remember him saying "I’m going to give you a shot that I think you’re really going to like. This is going to be the first speaking digital Yoda shot ever done and I’m going to let you take a stab at it." It was a profile shot of Yoda talking and I was terrified because it’s this iconic character, but I was dying to get my chance to do it. It turned out fine and he kept giving me more and more, and I became a lead on Episode II. Then I was animation supervisor on Hulk, and learned a lot about acting from [director] Ang Lee. I was dying to be a lead on Yoda for Episode III because I felt like I already knew the character and wanted more opportunities to work with him. So Rob asked me help out and we developed a facial system that helped us stay consistent between shots. We studied Frank Oz and what he brought to the table and tried to emulate that and it just took off from there. I did some General Grievous stuff, but Yoda’s definitely been my favorite character.

Will you miss him?

I already do. I’m already thinking of some kind of outtake I can do with him, just to keep me going. There were about 12 other guys working with me and everybody pushed each other along. It’s a good memory.

The animated outtakes you and CG supervisor John Helms showed at the 2005 VES Festival were hilarious. Will those be included on the Episode III DVD?

(During the shot where Anakin Skywalker is burning, a marshmallow on a stick enters the frame. In another gag, General Grievous’ circular, all-terrain vehicle falls apart to reveal a gerbil running in a wheel.)

Actually, I just heard from the PR department that they might be. They heard about what we showed and I think they got their hands on it. It’s really a matter of if George wants to put them on there. But I bet some of them will show up.

At the VES Festival, you also showed some video clips of you acting out scenes involving Yoda. What were some of the main goals for developing the character and his performance?

The main goal was stay on target with what Frank Oz had done and not veer from what he established. Frank managed to give him a soul with just limited movements. He gave him all these nice little shakes and head turns. One of the things he did a lot of is–Yoda is a character of wisdom who reflects before he speaks. If you watch him, he’ll take a deep breath, look down and think in before delivering out. Those are the private beats of a character that we as an audience love to see and I think a lot of characters these days don’t have enough private beats in them. I wish we had more opportunity to give Grievous those beats. He didn’t come off as being that deep.

What do you suggest animators do to further their acting skills?

When I started doing character work in 2000, I set a goal that I wanted to learn more about acting. I watched films and studied actors, trying to understand what they’re doing. Even watching [Bravo’s] Inside the Actor’s Studio is very revealing. But the biggest thing that happened to me in the last four years was meeting a screenwriter named Natalie Cooper, who was teaching a screenwriting course here and at Pixar. I took her class to learn more about writing stories, and one thing she really taught me is that the story is character. She would ask, "Does the story come from the plot or the character?" The choices that the character makes becomes the story. All characters have a desire of some sort, just like human beings, and if you can apply that human condition, that thing that resonates, then you’ve hit a homerun.

What are your other aspirations in the industry? Do you want to direct?

Oh yeah. Don’t we all? I just like to be a part of a team that delivers or develops great content, story and characters that really have a positive influence on our culture, and not just the cotton candy stuff. Star Wars does that. We all spend our ten bucks to go sit in the dark and look at these characters on screen, and you want to be able to relate to them and see something in your own life that maybe you haven’t looked at before, something that would be inspiring rather than tearing you down.

Speaking of inspiring, one of the reasons we do this feature is to give industry hopefuls a look at how individuals succeed. What advice would you give someone who wants to do what you do?

Don’t give up because it’s always difficult. If you have a passion for something, then that means that deep down there’s something driving you for a reason. Just keep going and surround yourself with people who are like-minded in that area. Now that we have the Internet, there are so many sources to get information from and learn from. One of my goals, even before I came out here, was to be mentored by animators who could take me to the next level. That’s how I ended up here. I didn’t set out to work at ILM and be an animation director. That’s what kind of happens. You also have to get clear on what your desire is, and if you can really articulate that, just keep pushing. There are a lot of opportunities out there with different schools, although when I was doing my illustration work, the reason I got work was not because I graduated from college. That helped me establish my disciplines, but it was really working late at night, improving my skill. Like any good athlete, if you want to get somewhere, you have to take time to really improve that skill.

Jamy Wheless is now hard at work on Disney’s and Walden Media’s The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and he’s promised to talk to us about his work on that project when he returns from the magical land conceived by C.S. Lewis.