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'The Clone Wars': The Force Is with CG Animation

Bill Desowitz chats with Director Dave Filoni about the creation of the new animated feature Star Wars: The Clone Wars.

The look of Clone Wars was influenced by anime and live-action elements from the Star Wars movies. The hardest part, according to director Dave Filoni, was getting the lighting right. All images © & ™ Lucasfilm Ltd.

The look of Clone Wars was influenced by anime and live-action elements from the Star Wars movies. The hardest part, according to director Dave Filoni, was getting the lighting right. All images © & ™ Lucasfilm Ltd.

George Lucas admits that when he made Revenge of the Sith, the final Star Wars feature, he lamented the fact that he had to jump over The Clone Wars since it had nothing to do with the Anakin Skywalker story. "We had to have a very narrow focus," he explained recently at a junket for Star Wars: The Clone Wars, the feature opening today through Warner Bros. "But it's a huge canvas -- it's like World War II."

And after testing the 2D animation waters a few years ago with the Clone Wars micro-series by Genndy Tartakovsky, Lucas began thinking about a more ambitious 30-minute show with all the advanced CG techniques "to fill in the blanks of the Star Wars universe" -- only more lightheartedly, like the first Star Wars movie.

And fill in the blanks they've done at Lucasfilm Animation with Star Wars: The Clone Wars, which leads into the upcoming fall series on Cartoon Network (rebroadcast on TNT). Taking place between the years of Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, Clone Wars tells the story of the struggle between the Republic (which the Jedi Knights protect) and the separatist movement formed by Count Dooku, which eventually leads to civil war. The newest addition to the Star Wars universe is Ahsoka Tano, a feisty teenage Togruta assigned by Yoda to serve as Skywalker's Padawan apprentice. In the feature, Anakin begins his mentorship of Ahsoka while trying to rescue the kidnapped infant son of Jabba the Hutt in the hope of wooing the crime lord into lending his political support.

"George put Jabba in it," concedes director Dave Filoni, who serves as supervising director of the series and previously directed the Avatar: The Last Airbender series. "It wasn't really the original plan, but when the master of the universe says it's going to be Jabba's son, you make it work.

"The movie has a lot of action and is a self-contained story [during this time of war]. We are trying to emphasize Anakin as a hero and good guy. We deal with his attachment issue (he loses his mother, he loses the droids), which brings him down and destroys the galaxy, by furthering the master/apprentice relationship. We give him a protégé to help him mature and take responsibility and not be so reckless. I took a lot of pages from Han Solo and Luke Skywalker. I described him to the crew and writers as a grease monkey like Han, but he's naïve like Luke. It also brings in more of the Princess Leia element: the brassy girl that likes to snark at the boys."

There are many graphic influences: the anime of Genndy and Avatar: The Last Airbender, as well as the live-action environments, sets and vehicles from the features. "The hardest part was getting the lighting sensibility from the features," Filoni continues. "Character edges are really designed to catch light and shadow, and are at their most effective when under high-contrast lighting. This is something that we've been pushing and pushing as we've gone forward in developing the art of the series. We are constantly improving the lighting under CG Supervisor Andrew Harris. If live action can push things this far, then animation has to as well."

In fact, it was because the initial work on the series looked so good to Lucas that he switched gears to fashion a feature-length theatrical kickoff to the series. "It has been hugely exciting and challenging because we set up a brand new studio in Marin at the same time as the brand new studio in Singapore," adds producer Catherine Winder (Aeon Flux), who is also the exec producer for the series. "And we also have the studio in Taipei [CGCG], which has produced some games and small preschool shows. So we had to work with them to reconfigure how they did their productions... [and] they produced the feature with us. 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 [one 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."

"The biggest thing I've learned after eight years in television is that communication is key," suggests Filoni. "But you have to treat the overseas studios as a real part of the project. There are really good artists over there and if you empower them by exploring the emotion of the scene, you'll get great work. I've been over there several times with people from different departments and experts from ILM, and the response has been phenomenal. At first they didn't understand the quality level we were trying to hit. We wanted it to look like a movie every week."

The animation for Clone Wars was created in Maya and topped off with a brushstroke look from Photoshop. The result is a CG milestone for TV.

The animation for Clone Wars was created in Maya and topped off with a brushstroke look from Photoshop. The result is a CG milestone for TV.

But that's Lucas for you: always raising the bar. "The big thing we're still working on is that George is a live-action director and I'm a traditional 2D animator," Filoni admits. "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 the company's proprietary Zviz interactive program], so he is treating our animated series like a live-action show... that has been the biggest learning curve for me."

The action-packed feature even offers a strategic twist: a vertical battle to rescue Jabba's son. "George one day decided in a story session to put it on a jungle planet, which is a lot harder," Filoni adds. "[Someone said], 'There go your tanks.' And I said, 'Who says so? We'll just make them walk up a cliff.' It was a happy accident of filmmaking that turned out to be one of the better [action] scenes. That was another learning curve: How to take something you've seen, like Walkers on snow, and make it different."

For Lucas, who studied animation at USC, the combination of anime-influenced character design with more realistic-looking environments, sets and vehicles (the animation is done in Maya and topped off with a brush-stroke look from Photoshop) is a CG milestone for TV. He said it's been a refreshing change of pace from live action. "Animation is an art: You either like photorealistic art, which looks exactly like a photograph, or you like something that actually tries to find the truth behind the realism. And, to me, animation is all about design, it's all about style."

Bill Desowitz is the editor of VFXWorld.

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Bill Desowitz, former editor of VFXWorld, is currently the Crafts Editor of IndieWire.