Baby Yoda captured hearts everywhere when it debuted on Disney Plus Star Wars live action series The Mandalorian. Count former MythBusters cast member Grant Imahara among the fans. He thinks the character's so cute he built his own life-like animatronic Baby Yoda to cheer up sick kids.
Imahara currently works as a consultant for Disney Research and a mechanical designer at Spectral Motion. He helped build Disney's animatronic Spider-Man that will be flying over the upcoming Marvel Campus in Disney's California Adventure.
"Pleased to present my newest creation: a fully animatronic Baby Yoda," Imahara posted on his Facebook on Friday. "It's been three months of hard work and countless revisions. I did all the mechanical design, programming, and 3D printed the molds. He's currently running a continuous sequence, but soon I'll be able to trigger specific moods and reactions, as well as incorporate sound."
To find out more about how this adorable moving animatronic Baby Yoda was created, I chatted with Imahara about what went into building it. Here is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
Q: How did the idea come about to build an animatronic Baby Yoda?
After the third episode of The Mandalorian, I knew I had to make my own Baby Yoda. I was an animatronics engineer in the ILM model shop before MythBusters, and worked on the Star Wars prequels as well as the Energizer Bunny, so I had the required skill set. And it could be a character I could bring to children's hospitals for charity work, which is something I've been committed to doing.
How did you go about building Baby Yoda?
It all started with a digital model... The eyes were the first mechanical system I designed. I wanted to try and fit everything in the head, but his head is very tiny and his eyes are huge, so it was quite a challenge. He has eye up/down and left/right as well as blinks. Next I moved on to the neck. This allows him to move forward/back and tilt side-to-side. Since they carry the weight of the head, these servos had to be larger and I placed them in the body.
I opted for a simple mouth flap so I could make sure that was capable of doing his signature "pouty mouth" movement. The mechanism that took the longest was the ears. They're huge levers and the silicone skin acts as a spring, resisting movement, so I upgraded these servos several times, adding more and more torque (and size) until everything moved smoothly. In the end, the struggle with ears was totally worth it. They help convey so much about the mood.
How did 3D printing help you make this Baby Yoda?
Instead of machining parts for days to test a design, it could be done in a matter of hours. Almost everything in my Baby Yoda's head is 3D printed. Additionally, I 3D-printed the molds to make the skin. Traditionally, you make a plaster outer mold and then go back and make a plaster core. Since I already had the digital model, I skipped those steps and printed the molds and core.
How did you get Baby Yoda to blink and move like the robot was alive?
Programming the animation is a pretty tedious process because it has to be done with keyframes, but you build up the sequences a little at a time, adding more quirks and little movements to help with the illusion. Once I got the animation sequence to a point where I could loop sleepy/grumpy/happy, I loaded that into the servo controller so that it would loop continuously. I applied the final skin and full costume.
Does Baby Yoda talk or make vocal sounds?
He does not currently talk, but the servo controller board has several available outputs that can be configured to trigger an external sound board. This is in the works as we speak. Eventually, I will be able to have the Baby do a basic keep-alive sequence (blinking eyes, looking around) but also be able to remotely trigger special sequences like happy, sad, grumpy or sleepy.
How was Baby Yoda's skin, hair and costume made?
I enlisted the help of my friend Lauren Markland (who works as a prop maker at Universal Studios) to cast the silicone skins, seam them, paint them, and hand-punch the hair. Silicone was chosen for its translucency, which really helps the character feel real.
The hair on his head is individually punched one at a time with a tiny needle, which took days to complete. Since I don't sew, I asked another friend Lindsay Hamilton (who is a movie costumer) to make the coat, which is often referred to as the "potato sack."
Why will this Baby Yoda will be such a welcome visitor at the children's hospitals you plan to visit?
Baby Yoda is universally cute, hands down. In the few public outings we've had, everyone melts. He's a happiness maker. Everything about him is designed to trigger the human nurturing instincts.
Which hospitals will you be visiting first?
The first hospital is in mid-April. Hopefully we can line up more. Usually you have to coordinate things months in advance to synchronize with treatment schedules and such. Luckily I was able to tag onto a visit that had already been arranged. I'd love to eventually set up a whole tour of Southern California hospitals.