Meet the woman who is entrusted with preserving the icons of the Star Wars universe.
Madlyn Moskowitz is an archivist at the Walt Disney Company in Burbank, California. Her job is to catalog, preserve, and oversee the storage of props, costumes, and artwork from the Star Wars film franchise. Her work has her doing everything from shampooing Chewbacca’s suit to making exhibit preparations for costumes worn by some of the franchise’s most famous characters—Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia. Before starting her job at Disney last September, Moskowitz was a film archivist at Lucasfilm for several years, and before that she worked for the Jim Henson Company in New York. Moskowitz recently spoke with Air & Space Quarterly senior editor Diane Tedeschi.
What does your job entail?
I am the go-to person for the Star Wars physical asset collection we brought over from Lucasfilm. There are about 5,000 artifacts. We have costumes, props, creatures, and droids from the five Star Wars feature films that have been produced under the Disney banner beginning in 2015 [Star Wars: The Force Awakens; Rogue One: A Star Wars Story; The Last Jedi; Solo: A Star Wars Story; Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker].
What was your experience with Star Wars before you started working at Lucasfilm as an intern in 2011?
When my parents were on their honeymoon—this is 1979, and the honeymoon was camping in the upper peninsula of Michigan—they stopped at a shop, and they came across a ceramic R2-D2 cookie jar that was stamped [20th Century-Fox] on the underside. It was one of the earliest licensed Star Wars products, and it was our family cookie jar my entire life. So it was really fun to be able to come home and say, “Hey, mom and dad, guess what? I’m going to take care of the real R2-D2 now.”
Where are the artifacts from the first three Star Wars films—Star Wars, 1977; The Empire Strikes Back, 1980; and Return of the Jedi, 1983—stored?
Lucasfilm was sold to the Walt Disney Company in 2012. I was a Lucasfilm employee at the time, and even though the company was acquired by Disney, the physical artifacts from the filmmaking career of George Lucas still belong to the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles. I worked at the Lucas Museum for several years. It has a great collection, and it’s where I got invaluable experience in actually caring for and learning how to store Star Wars artifacts. It’s also the place where I learned how to physically install the artifacts in exhibit spaces.
Does Disney’s Star Wars collection include any sketches, paintings, or set backdrops?
A lot of that stuff, as you might imagine, is now digital. That’s not to say there isn’t some hand-drawn artwork. We do have some creature-concept sketches. We also have some construction set pieces—pieces of something where keeping the entire set might be prohibitive but keeping a sample or a panel that represents texture and color is doable. That is something we would absolutely want to collect, partly for historic value but also to document how it was built and what it looked like. Samples of film sets also have great value in translating the world of Star Wars films into other mediums—video games, for example.
For the films that were made since Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm, is everything saved? Or do you have to be selective?
This is such a big question. There are so many physical objects that are generated in the creation of any Star Wars project. And part of the reason for that is because the entire universe is created. These are not films set in the present day, where you can go to a store and buy a lamp that can then be put on a table and placed on-set. Everything is either built or modified so that it can become part of a completely different galaxy far, far away. In thinking about what we want to keep, we look at what is unique for each film. Are there any new technological developments? For instance, is there a droid that expresses a new way of moving or some new energy we want to make sure people never forget? We also consider the storyline—which objects are most significant in advancing the narrative? Which characters are most important?
Are the items insured?
Yes, each of Disney’s studio archives has an insurance policy for their objects.
You probably knew this question was coming: Do you have a favorite artifact?
I do get this question a lot. My favorite thing is Yoda.
Is Yoda part of the collection at the Lucas Museum?
Actually, that’s a great story. The Yoda puppets made for the original trilogy were heavily researched in order to recreate Yoda in a more complete form for episode eight and then episode nine. For The Last Jedi, a member of the creature department at Pinewood Studios in England came over to spend a week in California researching everything we had of Yoda. At that point, I was still working for the Lucas Museum [in Los Angeles], but my office was at Skywalker Ranch in Marin County, north of San Francisco. I was the resident 3D artifact person—that meant Yoda fell under my jurisdiction. I spent a week just supporting the needs of this sculptor from Pinewood so that he could accurately construct Yoda when he got back to England. Part of the collection at Disney now includes several Yoda puppets that were built specifically for The Last Jedi.
So Yoda is a puppet. I’m assuming there’s a head piece and a body piece and then his clothes?
Basically, yes. There is room for a puppeteer, for their hand to go up through the neck and control the face to a degree. And then, yes, his clothes are sewn, just like for any other Star Wars character. He has a full wardrobe. We even have Yoda’s cane: There are several versions of it depending on the needs of the action in a given scene.
Is it true that the Chewbacca suit is made of yak fur?
The original trilogy Chewbacca suits were made from yak hair. The undersuit that the hair is attached to was a knit wool. For the prequels, though, it was much harder to come by real yak hair, so the prequel Wookie suits are made from synthetic hair. When it came time to build Chewbacca for The Force Awakens and the other new films in which he appears, they were again able to source yak hair. Synthetic Wookie hair will melt under high heat, so the advantage of using yak hair for the Wookie costumes is that it can be shampooed, rinsed with water, dried, and curled with a styling iron.
What can you tell me about R2-D2?
R2 is a very popular droid! There’s a whole community of people so devoted to R2 that they’ve made a hobby of building their very own R2-D2s. For the original film trilogy, there were remote-controlled versions of R2 that were used for certain scenes, and then a costume version of R2 that actor Kenny Baker would sit inside of and perform in. There are also versions of R2 that have been built to appear in the newer films.
Does the Transportation Security Administration allow airline passengers to carry Star Wars weapons through security checkpoints?
There’s a TSA allowance specifically for lightsaber replicas, which are one of the most popular items sold at Disney’s theme parks. So, yes, you can carry a lightsaber onto an airplane.
Does your job require you to attend science-fiction conventions?
I have attended a good deal of comic-con-type events. My first experience working an event was at the San Diego Comic-Con, where Lucasfilm has a standing booth every year. At that point, I’d been living and breathing Star Wars for about five years, and it was soon obvious that Star Wars was one of the bigger draws. I had arrived early, and I was setting up a display for Rogue One. People were so excited to come by and see what we had. We had a drape in place to give privacy while I prepared the costumes for display, and a number of fans tried to peek through before I could finish setting up. I talked to a lot of people, and so many of them spoke with great authority about all things Star Wars. I was impressed by their knowledge base. Working the booth was overwhelming at times, but ultimately it was a blast. It was also the day I learned just how important Star Wars is to so many people.