Bill Desowitz gets a clone's-eye-view of the creative process behind the hotly anticipated new Star Wars series.
And now the TV series...
Tonight, the highly anticipated Star Wars: The Clone Wars from Lucasfilm Animation premieres on Cartoon Network, with back-to-back episodes at 9:00 and 9:30 pm ET/PT.
In "Ambush," Jedi Master Yoda and three clone troopers face off against Count Dooku's dreaded assassin Asajj Ventress and her massive droid army to prove that the Jedi are strong enough to protect a strategic planet and forge a treaty for the Republic. Episode director David Bullock (Justice League: The New Frontier) and writer Steve Melching (The Batman) recall the impish fun of Yoda of The Empire Strikes Back.
Meanwhile, in "Rising Malevolence," the second episode, an attack by a destructive weapon aboard a mysterious warship leaves Jedi Master Plo Koon and his clone troopers struggling to survive until Anakin Skywalker and Ahsoka Tano can find them. They discover that the ship is piloted by Grievous himself. Series Supervising Director Dave Filoni helms the episode from a script by Melching. George Lucas is the series' creator and serves as exec producer, and Catherine Winder is producer.
"Rising Malevolence" features several prominent series debuts, most notably those of Jedi Master Plo Koon (first seen in Episodes I, II and III), General Grievous and his menacing warship, the Malevolence. Also appearing for the first time in the series are Anakin Skywalker and his padawan, Ahsoka.
According to Lucas, who refers to the series as a "marionette-painted reality," they did not make this in the normal way. "I took my padawan [Filoni] and told him that...you're entering the world of live-action features and...we're going to rely on editing rather than storyboarding, and there's a lot of techniques we used that completely shifted the paradigm."
Indeed, the primary technique Lucas refers to is the company's proprietary interactive previs tool called Zviz, which he proclaimed was going to revolutionize the industry during his keynote address at SIGGRAPH 2005.
"Art is a technological medium, and so a lot of it has to do with engineering, trying to figure out what you imagine," Lucas continues in his assessment of the Clone Wars experience. "It's also a medium dictated by the amount of resources that you have available to you. If you're a pharaoh, you can build pyramids, if you're a shaman, you really only have a few pieces of chalk and a wall in a cave. And you have to work within that. Probably the most daunting thing we were trying to do is really push the limits of a TV show that is really beyond anything you've ever seen on television. To take feature animation, which costs 20 or 30 times what TV animation costs, and do that for television, was a challenge. Given enough time and money you can create anything. Given a very, very restricted budget and very, very restricted resources, [was daunting]."
Producer Catherine Winder (Aeon Flux, the MTV series) explains that they simultaneously set up brand new studios in Marin and Singapore, in addition to working with CGCG in Taipei. "We had to work with them to reconfigure how they did their productions. So, of course, you've got multiple challenges in that you have two different pipelines [Lucasfilm Animation/Singapore and CGCG] shipping assets and two ways of doing things. As you can imagine, there are different time zones, different cultures, different languages, different deliveries and skill sets, and a crew in Marin and [in] Singapore that have never worked together before. And many of the people in Marin had never worked in CG where it was all under one roof. It's completely different when you're working with an offshore crew. So we did a lot of work in figuring out where the holes were.
"It was a little chaotic because we're literally putting down the tracks and trying to build a pipeline for the production process as we're trying to get the show produced. And then you have the fact that George refines and changes. This is not a typical TV show. We're nonlinear, we're improving, [we're] trying to make sure that communication is up to speed."
They have scripted more than 50 out of 100 stories, have completed more than 22 episodes and are in production on the first dozen or so of the second season. And it takes 12 weeks to complete an episode.
"George believes in producing the story in 3D in the computer, putting the script pages directly into previsualization," Winder continues. "He really believes that the only way we can get the camera moves, the cinematography and the real feel of Star Wars is to do the work this way. We have developed and alpha-tested this [Zviz] tool while trying to set up the studio.
"The difference here is we take the episode all the way through locked previsualization... This locked reel has very detailed annotations for the directors and reference material and we also do all the design in-house and produce many of our own assets. And the scope has just grown from the second half of the first season and into the second season. And we also work with our overseas studios in helping produce a lot of the assets. Every time George would see something he liked, he'd push the bar even higher. We spend a lot of time training and retraining the animators, sending over footage of the actors, footage of our directors acting things out, doing test footage and sending people over to teach."
Filoni, who previously helmed Avatar: The Last Airbender, admits that Clone Wars has been quite a departure. "I draw everything and board it. George has mastered a way of prevising everything by getting a rough version of his films as early as possible [using Zviz], so he is treating our animated series like a live-action show... That has been the biggest learning curve for me. We have little digital stages, which is completely foreign to me as a 2D artist, we have little digital actors, and now I get that set and basically walk around it virtually like a director would in the morning, scout it out and I direct the guys who are going to block it out. Then I add cameras running the whole time like coverage. Then when we get to editorial, we can cut it more like live action."
Filoni also likes the diverse content of the series. "What's nice about the shows is that we deal in areas we never saw in the movies. There will be an episode just about the Senate [where you get to see the inner workings]. We have one episode about General Grievous from his point of view. There's one episode where there isn't a single shot fired or an explosion. It's all about plot. We focus on the Jedi, not as superheroes, but as people. And the clones as ground-level soldiers. It's fun to put the audience in the trenches. We marry the graphic influence of Genndy [Tartakovsky] with anime from Airbender and the live-action environments, sets and vehicles from the features."
Speaking of which, Jon Farmer, a modeler who does hard surface work on sets, vehicles and some characters, says the new paradigm is working out nicely. "It's really impacted my workflow. It's great that we can get information to lay out quicker now so that we can build exactly what we need and build the pipeline much faster when you can get information to the artists that need it.
"Our library has more than 4,000 assets and the second season is even bigger. George and Dave want more and more environments and creatures. Where do we put the detail? We soften up the edges a little bit and all this other detail that you would see [inside] that would've been modeled by ILM. We've left that off so that the painter can use the paint strokes to indicate that detail. It's a matter of simplification. Lighting and rendering are done overseas. They do keyframes in Marin, which are sent over to match the look. They will often take a layout shot [in Maya] and paint over it in Photoshop to get the brush stroke look."
The former Pixar and ILM artist concludes with a sentiment shared by many of his colleagues: "Star Wars is my universe and I love it."
Bill Desowitz is the editor of VFXWorld.