"Will someone get this big walking carpet out of my way?"
Princess Leia, Star Wars, A New Hope.
Chewbacca, a wookiee from Kashyyyk, is a central character in the Star Wars saga. Inspired by a dog, created by a master and brought to life by a gentle giant-- Chewbacca is one of the most loved characters from the films.
George Lucas’ inspiration for Chewbacca came from his pet dog, Indiana, who also went onto to be the name used for Indiana Jones. His nose is distinctly dog-like and combined with shaggy fur, he has a strange bipedal dog look about him.
"I thought that hairy beast would be the end of me."
C-3P0, Return of the Jedi.
Stuart Freeborn is the man behind the creation of the Chewie costume. He is a make-up artist but also designed creatures, his introduction to the more hirsute costuming was the Apes in Stanley Kubrick's 2001. He is credited for just make-up in A New Hope but it is well known he is the man behind Yoda and Chewie as well as most of the other creatures that inhabited the Star Wars universe. The techniques used for Chewie were very similar for the 2001 apes.
This information about the actual construction is a little hard to find but I have managed to pull up some sources, as well as using my own knowledge of costume construction.
The suit consisted of a leotard worn underneath to make it easier to get the outer suit on and I suspect to limit the amount of cleaning required of the actual suit. The suit itself was a knitted mohair base with hand knotted yak hair. The technique used is very similar to wig construction, just on a much grander scale. Padding was used across the actor’s shoulder and back to create the bulky silhouette and 10cm/4 inch lifts to create the leg length. The head piece/mask had a high domed skull, adding another 10cm to create the height of 244cm/8 feet that Chewbacca stands.
There is a lot less known about the mask construction. It was a fibreglass skull filled with rigid polyurethane covered with a foam skin, which was lubricated with talc to help it slide convincingly over the skull. The interior of the mask was cast to be a perfect fit for Peter Mayhew, the actor who played Chewbacca. It was attached at various points with toggles to Peter's face allowing facial expressions used by him to be translated into the mask. Freeborn had used similar technology in the Apes from 2001. The only part of Peter that is visible are his distinctive blue eyes, which had black rings painted around them to blend into the mask. Chewie’s teeth and tongue were all part of the mask, making it all the more realistic. The hair on Chewie’s face was inserted to the soft foam one hair at a time with a hypodermic needle, a time-consuming process that produces very realistic results. The costume weighed about 15 to 20 pounds and one can only imagine how hot and confining it was, especially on location in places like Tunisia and California. As part of the latest DVD commentary, Carrie Fisher said Peter was starting to really stink in the Carbonite Chamber in The Empire Strikes Back.
The number of costumes that were made is a subject of conjecture. Some people maintain there was only one suit, with a stunt suit being made for Return of the Jedi. Considering how much film time Chewbacca gets in episodes four, five and six, this seems to be ridiculous. The wear and tear on the costume would be too great. It is also documented that the costume had a tendency to shed, especially in hot weather, so logic says that there most likely would have been at least two costumes. This would have allowed for repair and maintenance while filming and allowed for mishaps. More than this, you would have to look at budget and time constraints, the construction of such a costume would have to be measured in hundreds of hours. It could be speculated that there may have been only one costume made for A New Hope but with an expanded budget, there were more made for subsequent movies.
A new Chewbacca costume was constructed for Revenge of the Sith using the original suit as a comparison- the surviving suit was not up to the rigors of filming. The creature-making team of Lou and Dave Elsey constructed this creature with the goal for Chewie to be completely recognisable in a crowd of Wookiees. They used similar techniques as Stuart Freeborn the ones had pioneered many years before, although they did not use yak hair rather it was “made of modern, more versatile and durable materials”, most likely to be a synthetic type of hair, not fur. The designers were most concerned that Peter Mayhew was comfortable in the new Chewbacca and both mention the enormous satisfaction they felt when Peter gave the thumbs up for the revamped Chewie.
"Laugh it up, fuzzball."
Han Solo, A New Hope
The voice of Chewbacca
was initially was just Peter Mayhew growling through the mask, giving cues to the other actors until Ben Burtt, a sound designer, raided his sound library to construct those sounds we know so well. Using a variety of animals including; walruses
, camels, bears and badgers
, Burtt blended them and moulded them to produce a distinctive sound. One of the more important voices was that of Tarik, a black bear
from the Happy Hollow Zoo in San Jose, California
. Tarik died in 1994 due to congestive heart failure.
"I'm terribly sorry about all this. After all, he's only a Wookiee."
C-3P0, Empire Strikes Back
Peter Mayhew is the man who made Chewbacca a believable creature. Born in Barnes in England, Peter stands an astounding 233cm/7 feet 4 inches tall. This height is the reason the hospital worker became the Minotaur in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. Once David Prowse decided he would prefer to be Darth Vader, Peter was approached to play Chewbacca.
Peter has made Chewie his own. Before the filming began of the first trilogy, Peter studied the walks and movements of bears, monkeys, gorillas and other animals at zoos to give Chewie his non-human movement nuances. One story is that he was ill during the filming of The Empire Strikes Back and another tall actor was called upon to play Chewie. These shots had to be discarded, as it became clear that Peter’s hard work was nigh on impossible to copy.
Photos of Peter do show disconcerting similarities to the lovable furball. Peter has played Chewie in all of his Star Wars appearances, as well as receiving a MTV Movies Lifetime Achievement award that was presented to the walking carpet.
Peter now does the Science Fiction Convention circuit, attending with "Men Behind the Masks", a group which also includes David Prowse, Kenny Baker, and Jeremy Bulloch.