Chewbacca is 70 today! (Okay, technically Chewbacca is dead having died in battle in the 1999 novel, Vector Prime, although that’s not canon, but you nerds can save that discussion for the comments.) I should say that actor Peter Mayhew is 70 today.
What’s even more cause for celebration is that Mayhew will be returning to wookiee form for Episode VII . The 7’3″ actor had knee surgery a year ago, so how much acting Mayhew will be doing in the suit is up in air, but personally, I’m glad that it will be him under that wookiee fur and not some imposter.
In anticipation for the return of Chewbacca, here is a brief rundown on the creation behind what is arguably Star Wars most beloved character.
— There’s actually a “Wookiee” reference before Star Wars. While Chewbacca’s name isn’t mentioned, the first reference of a Wookiee comes from Lucas’ 1971 film, THX-1138. Lucas had hired a few voice actors for post-production, one of which was a DJ named Terry McGovern. At one point McGovern improvised the line, “I think I just ran over something back there, I think I ran over a wookiee.” When Lucas asked him about it, McGovern said it was the nickname of a guy he knew.
— Chewbacca’s design stemmed from a George R.R. Martin story. The Chewie that Star Wars fans know and love is actually based on a John Schoenherr sketch for George R.R. Martin’s novelette And Seven Times Never Kill a Man that appeared in a 1975 issue of Analog Magazine. The story goes that Lucas showed artist Ralph McQuarrie the sketch, telling him that he believed it was from the 1930s, and wanted McQuarrie to use it as the basis for Chewbacca. McQuarrie added Chewbacca’s bandoleer and the wookiee was given more of a protruding jaw and taller forehead in development.
— Developing Chewbacca’s voice required a lot of animal research. Star Wars sound designer, Ben Burtt, knew that he wanted Chewbacca to speak an emotional language that didn’t sound like anything spoken by people, but would also reflect Chewie’s appearance. In order to achieve Chewbacca’s famous speak, Burtt recorded bears, walruses, and badgers in various states of health and pulled small snippets from those recordings, then edited them together.
— Actor Peter Mayhew also studied animal movements when developing Chewbacca’s character. For developing Chewie’s walk and body movements, Mayhew would visit the local zoo and study the way the bears, monkeys and gorillas moved about. As George Lucas put it, Peter Mayhew is Chewbacca:
“It’s very unique the way he has created the character and the way he walks and tilts his head. The way he looks and uses his eyes. You can’t put anybody else in the suit.”
— Building a wookiee is no easy task and boils down to a painstaking four-step process. When building a wookiee, Creature Shop Creative Supervisor, Dave Elsey starts with doing a full-body cast of the actor, then moving on to creating the muscle structure for that particular wookiee and then layering on the hair. Elsey and his team then incorporate the wookiee’s electronic lip movements into the mask to give Chewie the appropriate facial expressions to Mayhew’s behavior.