Inside 'Star Wars: The Clone Wars'

Ahsoka Tano, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, Anakin Skywalker. See more Star Wars Pictures.
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The sci-fi phenomenon that began more than 30 years ago with a movie about a galaxy long ago and far, far away has expanded exponentially ever since with sequels, prequels, books, games and animated spinoffs. Although the animated "Star Wars: The Clone Wars" movie, released this summer, has to date grossed a less than stellar $34 million, it was an offshoot of creator George Lucas' mission to create a TV series, and it served its purpose as a promotional tool for the weekly "Clone Wars" episodes that premiere on Cartoon Network Oct. 3, 2008.

Focused on the conflict briefly referred to in the original "Star Wars," the galactic civil war takes place in the period between "Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones" and "Episode III: Revenge of the Sith." The Clone Wars pit the Grand Army of the Republic led by the Jedi Knights against the Separatists and their Droid Army, led by Count Dooku, a Jedi turned Sith Lord aligned with the evil Darth Sidious. Many of the characters from the "Star Wars" universe are involved, including Yoda, Obi-Wan Kenobi and young Anakin Skywalker, before he was tempted to the Dark Side and became Darth Vader.

"I was lamenting the fact that in 'Episode II,' I started the Clone Wars, and in 'Episode III,' I ended the Clone Wars, and I never actually got to do anything on the Clone Wars," says Lucas. "It's like skipping over World War II."

To remedy that omission, he tapped Dave Filoni, an animator (Nickelodeon's "Avatar: the Last Airbender" series) and passionate "Star Wars" fan, to bring "The Clone Wars" to TV.

Ensconced at Big Rock Ranch, near Lucas' Skywalker Ranch headquarters in Marin County, Cali., Filoni and his team of artists and computer animators are making 22 episodes in season one and have nearly two more seasons written.

"We're way ahead. We've been doing this ever since I finished 'Revenge of the Sith,'" says Lucas, who hopes to do at least 100 installments.

He and Filoni collaborate on everything from story to design to execution in translating the "Star Wars" universe for television. It's a daunting creative, technical and logistic task, as we'll explain in the following sections.

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Building the Universe

Yoda
Yoda
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How do you scale down an IMAX-size spectacle for television and still have it make an impact, especially on a small screen budget? That's just one of the problems Dave Filoni has to solve.

"'Star Wars' is very famous for the scale of it, and how convincing it looks. So when you're doing a weekly television series, you have to figure out how to do things on that level," he notes. "Sometimes it forces you to be creative and come up with solutions that are better than if you can shoot everything you want," he continues, preferring to consider budgetary constraints a creative incentive rather than a limitation. "The team here is challenged to come up with these giant battles. We haven't shied away from anything."

While he did some of the initial character design, subsequently, Filoni has spent most of his time supervising other artists and animators, who number around 70 in-house and another 80 or so at facilities in Singapore and Taipei.

"Everything is written here, and the story and design and editing are all done here. The animation and lighting are done overseas, and sometimes some modeling as well," he outlines.

Captain Rex and the Clone Army
© Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Rights Reserved

­"I meet with George to talk about the episodes and he hands out a lot of the storylines and main ideas for the stories. I'll draw while he's talking and show him the sketch," Filoni continues. "That way we communicate right off the bat about what something might look like."

At any given time, the director notes, episodes are in various stages of completion, "from designing to working on a final cut, or adding sound and color-correction. I have four episodic directors to help me, who each have an episode they're managing."

Rather than use computer animation to duplicate the live-action films' characters or continue in the very stylized vein of the 2004-2005 "Clone Wars" micro-series, "We kind of shot for the middle," says Filoni, who endeavored to blend a 2-D esthetic with 3-D technology.

"The 3-D model makers and riggers who worked on the prequels dealt with the height of realism to create convincing digital characters. I knew that we weren't going to be able to do that for the series. And we wanted it to be different than a live-action feature, to get away from photo-realism. It was a choice to simplify something in the character models, the same way we would do things in a 2-D show."

So how did Filoni stay true to the "Star Wars" legacy in this newest installment? Read on to find out.

Clone Style

Anakin Skywalker
Anakin Skywalker
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Taking some inspiration from the earlier cartoon series, Filoni approached the characters as a 2-D animator would, "but stylized the face a little more. If you look at Anakin, he has certain edges and lines in his face. I would draw an edge or a line that might be unnaturally straight or curved, and that would play into the lighting of it. I tried to sculpt in 3-D the way I would draw or sculpt an image in 2-D, with shadow and light. I wanted it to look like a painting -- you see a textured, hand-painted style on every character. I have texture artists who literally paint every single character right down to their eyeball, because I wanted that human touch on everything."

Advances in computer animation have allowed Filoni to accomplish much more than he would have been able to in traditional 2-D. "For eight years I worked just with a pencil. I never touched a computer. But working with George, we try to look at computers as an incredibly advanced pencil. The technical side helps the creative, artistic side," he says.

Battles filled with huge numbers of soldiers can be rendered faster than ever before, but they still have to be created, along with every other prop and character in an enormous universe. "'Star Wars' is so complex in that you're building a whole galaxy. We go to many different planets," Filoni reminds. "So every rock, tree, blade of grass, native vehicle -- every asset -- needs design. We had to create a whole bunch of assets for each episode, and the budget goes up for each element you have. Once you build it, you have it, but we can't go to a different planet and have the same chair there," he laughs. "On a schedule where we need those things right away, it's difficult to get it all built."

Since "The Clone Wars" is chronologically sandwiched between "Clone Wars" and "Revenge of the Sith," it has been a mandate for the creators to stay consistent with the mythology. "That's probably one of the trickiest things," admits Filoni. "We always have to keep in mind what the characters are thinking and feeling at the beginning of this and at the end. You have a lot of room to play with when you're in the middle, but you have to remember what people say in the third movie. With characters like Obi-Wan or Anakin or Padme, I have to pay very careful attention that it will hook up. And then there's the expanded universe of "Star Wars" novels and video games. I try to be aware of it all and work it in, because fans really appreciate it."

Droid Army
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Filoni hopes to attract existing fans and create new ones, especially among the younger generation, but admits doing the latter may be easier. "One thing we have that's different from any movie that came before is we're an animated series. But there's an instant reaction to the word animation that it's for kids. How you get around that is with the stories you tell. We'll have our snow battles and we'll also have our lighter 'Return of the Jedi' moments. Some episodes lean older, some younger. But in the end it has a broad appeal," he believes.

The recent "Clone Wars" movie (out on DVD Nov. 11 ) served as a stand-alone prequel to introduce the characters at this point in time. In contrast, "The series has its small arcs and shows you the war from across a broad spectrum of episodes. It's not just Anakin Skywalker's story," Filoni underlines. "We can go left or right of that plot and deal with characters we have never seen. There's a lot of material. It's a three-year period in the history of the 'Star Wars' Universe, and there are so many stories to tell. The longer it goes, the more chance we get to tell fascinating stories in that galaxy."

Character Study

Asajj Ventress
Asajj Ventress
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"The Clone Wars" shows a different side of some of the film franchise's most iconic characters. "In a series, you can do a whole episode about a character and learn more about what they were like, which makes what happens to them a lot more poignant," explains Filoni. "We know Yoda is powerful, but how does that power develop? How does he use it? We get to go into more detail that you just couldn't do in the live action films, because they're mainly focused on Anakin."

While few of the actors from the live action movies agreed to reprise their roles in voice over for "The Clone Wars," Anthony Daniels, the original C-3PO, is the exception. "One of the special moments for me was hearing Anthony on the telephone, discussing C-3PO with me and his experiences. That really helps us round out the characters," says the director, who enjoyed similar input from Rob Coleman, the animation supervisor who worked on Yoda on the prequels.

Of the new characters not seen in the live action series, there's the alluring but venomous Asajj Ventress, a disciple of Count Dooku. "She is, of course, a villain, and fits into the structure of the Sith," Filoni elaborates. "Darth Sidious -- Senator Palpatine -- is the main bad guy, and his apprentice is Count Dooku. Dooku is training Ventress in the Dark Side. She's getting more powerful. I wanted to make her intelligent, deceptive and also kind of sexual. She's kind of a forbidden fruit -- Jedi are not supposed to get involved with the more lustful aspects of life. She adds another dynamic to the series."

Ahsoka Tano and the Clone Army
© Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Rights Reserved

On the other side of the good/evil coin is newcomer Ahsoka Tano, Anakin's teenage pad­awan, or apprentice. "She's Anakin's student and helps us see him as more of a hero," says Filoni. "Once he gets over his initial reaction, he takes pride in her. He's unpredictable and the Jedi know that, but he has compassion and that is used against him and it later brings him to the Dark Side."

Ahsoka was created, says Lucas, "Because I needed to mature Anakiin. The best way to get somebody to become responsible and mature is to have them become a parent or a teacher. You have to think about what you're doing and set an example. You look at your behavior and the way you do things much differently. The idea was to use her to make Anakin become more mature. We've made her a more extreme version of what Anakin was- - a little out there, independent, vital and full of life, but even more so. He gets a little dose of his own medicine."

"She's been a really fun character to develop," adds Filoni, who likes Ahsoka but admits that his character tastes tend to run a bit more obscure -- his favorite is Plo Koon, "a bizarre Jedi Master. It's been fun to develop him and show his personality beyond the fact that he's bizarre looking and carries a light saber."

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Fan Fare

Anakin Skywalker and Ahsoka Tano prepare for battle.
Anakin Skywalker and Ahsoka Tano prepare for battle.
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Just three years ago, Filoni dressed up as Plo Koon to see an opening night showing of "Revenge of the Sith," so it's not surprising that the 34-year-old fan is still pinching himself that he has this job. "It's a very creative atmosphere," he says of Big Rock Ranch, where the lakeside setting is "meant to inspire us artistically and definitely does. A lot of the people I work with grew up with 'Star Wars,' so we have a great time. It's hard, intense work, but George is very engaged in what we're doing. What more could you ask for? I have the guy who created the 'Star Wars' universe excited and interested in what we're doing. We couldn't be happier about that."

Asked why he thinks "Star Wars" remains a fan favorite today, three decades later, Lucas says diversification is the key. "We were always able to deal with different aspects of the story in various forms and I think that keeps it alive. It is a lot of fun and it's a universe that has been created to inspire young people to exercise their imagination and inspire them to be creative, and I think that always works."

"The original 'Star Wars' had broad appeal to everybody, and it holds up so well," adds Filoni. "I think there's a timelessness to it, even though Luke looks like a kid from the '70s with that haircut. Luke is a farmer boy and Han is a cowboy. Jedi Knights are like the samurai of Japan or the knights of Europe. Those archetypes work the globe over. It's a world phenomenon that speaks to everyone. There will always be a character you can relate to."

Lucas is dreaming up more of them all the time. In addition to producing a World War II action flick about African-American fighter pilots called "Red Tails," he's developing a live action "Star Wars" TV series "that has nothing to do with the Skywalkers, but does take place in that universe." Right now it's in the early stages of pre-production. Stay tuned.

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  • George Lucas interviewed August 4, 2008
  • Dave Filoni interviewed September 11, 2008