Executive producers Athena Portillo, Justin Ridge and Brandon Auman share production insights from Lucasfilm Animation’s new, high-flying animated series.
Star Wars fans are sure to get their latest adrenaline fix with a brand-new animated series, Star Wars Resistance, an action-packed Lucasfilm Animation production that premieres October 7 on Disney Channel. The show, set prior to the events in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, follows the adventures of Kazuda Xiono (Christopher Sean), a young pilot recruited by the Resistance and tasked with a top-secret mission to spy on the growing threat of the First Order. Fan-favorite BB-8, the amusing spherical droid introduced in The Force Awakens, makes its fully animated debut, along with Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie). A host of colorful new characters includes Neeku Vozo (Josh Brener), Tam Ryvora (Suzie McGrath) and Hype Fazon (Donald Faison), along with the maintenance crew of Orka and Flix, voiced by Bobby Moynihan and Jim Rash.
Created by renowned veteran Dave Filoni of Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels fame, Star Wars Resistance is executive-produced by a trio of die-hard Star Wars fans: Athena Portillo (Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Star Wars Rebels); Justin Ridge (Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Star Wars Rebels), also the show’s supervising director; and Brandon Auman (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) who does double duty as the show’s head writer. Filoni and art director, Amy Beth Christenson (Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Star Wars Rebels) handle the show’s director duties as well.
Portillo got her first taste of the franchise when she was five years old – her parents, both sci-fi fans, took her and her sister to see Star Wars at a San Francisco theatre. For Auman, the first movie he ever remembers seeing was The Empire Strikes Back – he was mesmerized by the “magical midget alien teaching Luke about the Force.” Ridge remembers being both fascinated and blown away after experiencing the Endor forest speeder bike chase in Return of the Jedi. Together, they’re responsible for overseeing every aspect of the new series, pairing their creative skills with a love of Star Wars to produce the 22 new episodes of Star Wars Resistance Season 1.
Though they work as a tight team, Portillo, Ridge and Auman each focus on a different area of the production. Portillo’s focus is on the overall production schedule – making sure work is completed on-time and on-budget. “She’s our banker,” Ridge jokes. “She is the glue that holds the production together,” Auman quickly adds. “Sometimes in the writing room, we'd be talking about 75 ships flying across space. Athena would say, “We can afford nine.’” “We’d get four,” Ridge continues. “But, we’d get those four.”
Auman, as the show’s head writer, is responsible for story development. “As head writer, along with Justin, I develop story ideas. I assign them out to writers, though I wrote many of the episodes myself. I'll take notes on the animatics and adjust the scripts as needed. So, my focus is on assembling and trying to get stories off the ground so that the directors, Justin and the team can move forward and make an episode happen, make it a reality. I'm involved in an episode more at the early stages and then again later after the animatics are finished.”
Ridge touches most every part of the production. “I have a hand in almost every step, from working with Brandon on scripts to working with the story team on animatics, giving notes to the design team, reviewing lighting dailies, animation dailies, post-production, any and all steps of the process,” he explains.
The team runs through multiple script versions during the course of each episode’s development. “We create a number of script drafts, anywhere from five to seven, whatever it takes to get it down to where it’s producible,” Ridge says. “Scripts can be a little ambitious in the beginning, but we have to look at what can be made, because obviously, we have deadlines and a schedule to hit. So, we can’t really shoot the moon, do anything we want. It doesn't really work that way. It has to be producible because it's a TV show with a TV budget.”
Though any number of script versions are created, design work begins very early in the writing process. “The key thing about making producible episodes, the reason why we have multiple versions of the script is because when the first draft that comes out, we take the outline and do an asset break down to make sure it's something that we can actually make, that's within our production parameters,” Portillo notes. “What's been awesome about working with Brandon and Justin is that if I come to them and say, ‘We won’t have time to create all this,’ they come up with ideas on what assets to reuse or which assets we can cut. Or, if it's something that we consider very important to the story, I can hire a freelance designer to make sure we can get started on it early, and it's something that we can use in further episodes down the line.”
Initial design work on the series began in late 2015, with the first writer’s conference held in 2016. Though Season 1, which begins airing October 7, took well over two years to produce, the animation on each episode was done in roughly nine weeks, split between CGCG Studio in Taipei and Polygon Pictures in Tokyo, two studios that also worked on Star Wars: The Clone Wars. From start to finish, each episode took a year to complete.
Stylistically, the show departs in one key aspect from Clone Wars and other Lucasfilm Animation work. “Our goal was to give this show a gritty feel,” Ridge explains. “Dave [Filoni] and I talked about cel-shading early on with our art director, Amy Beth Christenson. We wanted to freeze frame any shot in the show and have it look like it could have been a hand-drawn cell. We're seeing cel-shading more and more and I happen to like it. The cameras give you the ability to do things you can't do in 2D but it's still got that drawn feel. We're trying to put a little Lucasfilm twist on it, so it has anime influence and inspiration but also some Western influence as well.”
“It's very popular in Japan nowadays, too,” Auman adds. “Anime has really moved towards cel-shaded CG animation. I've got friends in Japan that were so blown away by our show. They thought it looked great and were happy we went that way. That’s really exciting to hear.”
Christenson lead the show’s look development effort with a small team of designers. “Creating the look for the show was an eight-month development process for characters, sets, designs, all of that, trying to create something we felt was ready to pitch as an idea,” Portillo describes. “We had maybe five designers, right from the get go, including our art director, Amy Beth Christenson. They were each responsible for producing the main characters. Neeku, Tam, all of those guys were created around the same timeframe. It was a lot of fun to see the evolution of all the artwork.”
For Auman and his fellow executive producers, Star Wars Resistance, like every other Star Wars show, is designed to make a positive impact on its audience. “We're hoping to inspire people on many levels,” he says. “Our characters are positive, they're selfless and they're likable. Especially in this day and age, for kids, it's great to have these positive-minded role models. I wish I had more Kaz and Neeku type characters in my own life.”
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.