Star Wars: The Force Awakens' chief of creature and droid effects tells PEOPLE "it took us a long time to find Maz [Kanata] creatively."

By Chris Tauber
Updated December 18, 2015 11:50 AM
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David James/2015 lucasfilm LTD.

The filmmakers on Star Wars: The Force Awakens resisted the temptation to use CGI characters like a Jedi resists the dark side. (Jar Jar Binks, anyone?)

Yet director J.J. Abrams had to give in for little orange pirate Maz Kanata.

“Maz actually went through many stages of whether she could be a puppet, whether she could be a person in a suit, whether she could be digital, or a combination of all of those,” Neal Scanlan, the film’s chief of creature and droid effects, reveals to PEOPLE. “It took us a long time to find Maz creatively.”

See exclusive photos, get a first look at new characters and learn more secrets from the cast and crew of Star Wars: The Force Awakens in PEOPLE’s Star Wars collector’s edition, on newsstands now. And for more exclusive Star Wars news, come back to PEOPLE.com every day until it hits theaters Dec. 18

As Abrams’ vision for The Force Awakens took shape, Maz’s role expanded.

Ultimately, the character did become a motion-capture creation played by CGI newbie Lupita Nyong’o, Oscar winner for 2013’s 12 Years a Slave.

“Things that Maz had to do in the movie became more involved,” Scanlan says. “We tried to create a fantastic digital character that looked as much like a practical character as we could. Maz is a very important character. CGI gave J.J. the freedom to be able to explore all of the creative avenues.”

Nyong’o’s favorite characters from the original trilogy were, of course, non-CGI.

“I remember being really taken with R2-D2 and the fact that this robot could express so much emotion,” she told PEOPLE.

And the Kenyan-raised Nyong’o especially loved Nien Nunb, Lando Calrissian’s co-pilot who helped destroy the second Death Star in Return of the Jedi.

“[He] spoke in Kikuyu, which is a language in Kenyan!” she said.

But the Maz experience for Nyong’o led to her being the voice of another CGI character, the wolf Raksha in Disney’s The Jungle Book, out next May. After that, she’s ready to pull back from the CGI path.

“I am really dying to be in a comedy,” she said. “And I’d love to be in, like, a love story, you know? How about some of that?”