For her two appearances in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong'o took on the role of Maz Kanata via motion capture technology. Nyong'o provided the voice and also reference for the pure-CG character on a separate stage from the sets her character appeared in in the final cut. For that reason it would be easy to assume that the character's appearance in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker was achieved through similar means, but one would be wrong in making that assumption.
For her appearance in Episode IX, the alien character was brought to life on set using an actual animatronic puppet much like the Porgs and Babu Frik, and designed by Creature And Special Make-Up Effects Creative Supervisor Neal Scanlan. Scanlan, who has worked on all five of the Disney-era Star Wars movies, opened up to CinemaBlend about the process of bringing this version of Maz Kanata to life, calling it "the most advanced animatronic ever made" by the special effects team for these films.
"She's a highly mechanized animatronic," Scanlan said in the interview. "The major thing was that often when we do something in animatronics, we perform that character almost in a remote situation. So the character may be there in front of the camera, but the puppeteers are somewhere else. In this case, we used a data suit that was worn by a puppeteer and as that person would move, Maz would mimic it. There was a puppeteer who was responsible for the dialogue, and there was a puppeteer responsible for the eye line and the expressions. Those puppeteers could be right next to J.J. [Abrams], and they could see Maz and they could be in the scene."
But why go to this trouble after the character had already been created in a CG environment for the two preceding films? Scanlan went on to explain that they saw it as a challenge and something to strive for considering the larger legacy of animatronic characters in Star Wars as a whole.
"She represented more to us than just an animatronic. She represented bringing the animatronic very much more intimately into the scene. And obviously because it was involved with the Leia sequences, that was something that J.J. had pushed us to try and do as well. He wanted those that were involved in those sequences to be intimately involved, and that included the animatronics."
The Maz Kanata character was very special to Abrams when she was brought to life for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, as the bespectacled female pirate was inspired by his late high school teacher, Rose Gilbert.
"Yes, the character of Maz was originally based on the great Rose Gilbert," Abrams told The Palisadian Post back in 2015. "We really wanted the story to feel authentic, despite being a wild fantasy. I mentioned Rose in an early story meeting as a sort of timeless, wise figure that I'd actually known in my life."
You can see the all-puppet version of Maz Kanata in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, now playing in theaters.