Holder of the Irving G. Thalberg Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, George Lucas has written, produced, and directed many of the most popular films of all time. Though he's best known as creator of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises, Lucas also directed the beloved American Graffiti and the resourceful science-fiction film THX-1138, starring Robert Duvall. Today, Lucas continues to make films as he presides over his Bay Area-based Lucasfilm, incorporating Industrial Light & Magic, Skywalker Sound, LucasArts, and most recently, Lucas Animation. Lucas hosted the press junket for Star Wars: The Clone Wars, a theatrically released animated feature launching a new animated series, at his Big Rock Ranch in San Rafael. At a press conference with Lucas, Clone Wars director Dave Filoni, and Clone Wars producer Catherine Winder, I was able to ask Lucas about the future of the franchise in animation and in a live-action series now in pre-production. (Following that Q&A is the remainder of the press conference.)
Groucho: The Star Wars saga has always been steeped in mythology and Jungian archetypes, and I wonder what sort of mythological territory will the Clone Wars series and the live-action series, eventually, travel into?
George Lucas: Well, the mythological arc of the saga doesn't really continue in these other things because that is a story. Y'know, it has a beginning, a middle, an end. It's the story of one man's struggle against evil and the redemption by his son and that sort of thing. So this is more like, I don't know, it's more episodic. It's more like Indiana Jones, actually. You have themes and things that still go through it, and there are issues like that, but it's not what it's based on. This is bigger and we get to go more places. The fun part about animation, especially, and The Clone Wars in particular, is that we're allowed to go and do stories about clones. We get to know them and find out what they do for recreation, and what Jabba the Hutt's family is all about, and do all kinds of things that don't have anything to do with the main character. The film itself, the series itself, the epic itself is basically about one man, so it's very, very narrow. And you pass through a lot of things and you look—"What's that over there?"—but you never get to look at it. So this allows us to go and look at all that stuff, which means we're not encumbered by this mythological uber-story of the psychological underpinnings of why somebody turns to be a bad person...
Q: Well, the Star Wars universe is full of action, intrigue, and drama, so I was wondering, what do people do for fun in Star Wars? I know we've seen a pod race, but do they watch movies and play video games and have internet?
GL: Well, they like pod races, they like gambling, they like card games. They go out and shoot at womp rats in the canyons with their local tractors.
Dave Filoni: They play that chess-style game—
GL: Yeah, chess.
DF: That Chewbacca and R2 played. That's a big one.
Q: I guess I'm wondering if the mythology goes so far as to have an entertainment industry?
GL: There is an entertainment industry, but you won't find that out until you get to the live-action show in a few years. I mean, there is an entertainment - they go to the opera...
Q: Why an animated movie now, and also can you talk a little bit about the stylized look of the characters themselves, and why you choose to go with the stylized characters as opposed to making them look realistic, photo-realistic?
GL: I will say photorealistic is what live action movies are. Animation is an art. It's like—this is an art philosophical discussion, you either like photorealistic art that looks exactly like a photograph, and you like to hang that in the Museum of Modern Art. Or you like something that actually tries to find the truth behind the realism. And to me, animation is an art. It's all about design; it's all about style. It's not about making it look photoreal. I've been making photoreal movies all my life. And they have a lot of animation in them, but they're still photoreal. And that's not what animation is. Animation is something else entirely. It's a completely different medium. So that's why we didn't do it photoreal. He can tell you more about the actual how we came to the style and all that sort of stuff. The other part of it: why now? Basically, I started out in animation, I studied animation when I was at college and produced sand worked on a lot of animated films and stuff in my career, and I've always been interested in it. And when we did Revenge of the Sith, I lamented the fact that I couldn't—I had to jump over the Clone Wars. And I jumped over the Clone Wars because it had nothing to do with Anakin Skywalker. He's just another player. It's not about his—as I say, we had a very narrow focus on talking about him personally. And so I couldn't do that. I said, "Gee, it's too bad because there's a great—it's like World War II. It's a huge canvas there to be mined." So we decided we would do a little five minute animation series for Cartoon Network using anime and manga and those kinds of ideas that I've always wanted to work in. And we hired a really great director, Genndy [Tartakovsky], to do it for us. But that sort of got me going and saying, "You know, we could do a regular TV show, a big one, a half-an-hour show and it could really be great, and we could use all the new techniques we developed in CGI animation and that sort of thing." And I said, "When I finish Star Wars, I'm going to go and start this, and I'm going to do it." So that's basically what happened. I got to fill in a blank and go around in a universe that is not restricted and therefore not quite as dark. We can have a lot more fun with it. We can enjoy it. It's a little bit more lighthearted. We ended up doing the TV series. When the first few shots came back and I looked at 'em on the big screen, I said, "This is fantastic. This is better than we ever imagined it would be, and this is so good it could be a feature." So I said, "Why don't we make a feature?" We have Ahsoka, one of our main new characters; and I said, "Why don't we just make a picture that introduces her, that actually introduces one of the main characters?" So we did that, but it's purely something I wanted to do in terms of exploring animation and doing something that I enjoy doing. I've sort of moved from features to television. Again, I'm in this position where if we're doing something, even as television, and it turns out to be good enough to be a feature, then we just switch it over. We don't sort of have a business plan while we're doing it. Things are pegged to do one thing or another. So a lot of the techniques and things that we used, 'cause we wanted to make the best television series that had ever been created, and it ended up being good enough to be a movie. But he can tell you about how we got to the marionette, painted reality.
Dave Filoni: Yeah, if you want to know. Really, it was a stylistic choice. Knowing with the time we had and the speed we were going to move at, I instantly knew that photorealism wasn't an area that we were going to go to. That, as George said, already had been covered massively in the live-action features. And I came from a 2D animated background, where we use design and shape and color to just make animated characters all the time. I wanted to apply that type of thinking to the computer animation, which largely, even on a lot of big features that are done in computer animation are all very—the goal is photorealism. That wasn't really interesting to me because I had come from just a 2D drawing background. So I talked to the crew and I talked to George about "Well, let's just forget that and let's go in this direction, force the style," and that happened to be what George really wanted to do. We talked about sculpting with light and shadow and that's where you get the angles on the characters' faces. I was aware, and really afraid of, the kind of lifeless CG that you can wind up with, that I read about often in the press when people see a movie. So I thought by having artists hand-paint a texture all over the characters, that that would somehow keep the spontaneity that an artist provides, a fallibility, a flawless feeling of a little bit of painterliness on everything, even right down to the eyeballs. So it kind of came together with this new technology and my thinking from an older style. And in the end, the computer just becomes another type of paintbrush or drawing pencil. Sometimes I draw in pencil, sometimes I draw in sharpie. No one complains about the difference there, so now we have a new tool. We use the computer. And you see more and more artists now using that technique, using that device to create all kinds of paintings and drawings. So I think you're going to see a big outburst of that in animation as well over the next few years.
Q: Just a quick question for all of you. Did you feel at all that with this film that you had to give yourself a bigger challenge than maybe previous works that you've done, whether it's the Star Wars genre and the live-action, was there any kind of challenge and pressure there? 'Cause you're bringing this to a new generation of moviegoers. So ould you talk a little bit about that, whether this was a more challenging project for you than the other ones that you've done?
GL: Well, it's challenging. Art is a technological medium. All art is, and so a lot of it has to do with engineering, and trying to figure out how to create what you imagine. It is also a medium that is dictated primarily by any amount of resources 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 of a cave, and you have to work within that. Probably the most daunting thing we were trying to do, because we wanted to really push the limits and make what just started out as a TV show that was really beyond anything you've ever seen on television, to take feature animation, which costs twenty, thirty times what TV animation costs and do that for television, something that actually looked like feature animation for television—that was a challenge. Given enough time and money, anybody can create anything. But given a very, very, very restricted budget and very, very restricted resources, it's a challenge. So we had to build studios. We had to build a studio from scratch, train people from scratch, artists. Develop new techniques. I say, we did not make this in the normal way you make an animated feature.
(Dave and Catherine laugh.)
GL: I took my Padawan here and I said, "We're not doing that anymore. Now you're entering the world of live action features and we're going to treat this like a live-action feature. We're going to rely on editing rather than storyboarding." And there's a lot of techniques we used that completely shifted the paradigm. It makes a different kind of animated film that relies more on cutting and editing than it does on storyboards and longer shots and that sort of thing. And that was a challenge and we still have a challenge. Everybody wants to go to what they know, and to change is really hard and to create something from scratch with new technology is really hard and to try to do something—y'know, we're trying to do the same thing in live action. I'm trying to do a live-action TV show. Well, the biggest problem is—I mean the biggest challenge, like here: this was a test for that. If we can do something that'll stand up to a feature and we did. I put it on screen and I said, "This is a feature." I said, "We did it. It's much better than we thought it would happen." And so now I'm trying to take Star Wars, which is a $50 million-an-hour adventure and do it for like $2 million an hour. That's a trick. That's a hard thing to do and have them look the same.
Catherine Winder: Well, it was definitely challenging. But the great thing is that the parameters, as George was saying, were limited, and I think that makes people be far more creative than if you have all the resources in the world and you don't have to think differently. And the great thing about working with George is he pushes us really hard to never settle and think differently. And I think the results come out far better than you'd expect.
Q: Some of the actors who appeared in the live-action Star Wars movies, such as Samuel L. Jackson, resprise their roles in The Clone Wars. Why weren't some of the other primary actors from the movies in this film? Was there any trepidation about doing this without having them participate?
CW: Well, when we started the project it was—as George said—initially a television series, and we needed to be able to work at a pace that was pretty rapid. And the way we write this is we rewrite, we change it, and we need to be able to access our actors pretty regularly. So it was hard to get all the actors that would be off on set, 'cause this pace is pretty intense.
Q: Even doing voiceover work? I thought that'd be one of the more easier things to do.
GL: Yeah, but you do it—
CW: No, not what we do.
GL: You do it all over, all the time.
CW: We do it all the time.
GL: You need people available every week, and you can't really afford multimillion dollar actors to do a television series. A television series, the license fee on your average television series is about $200,000. It's nothing. So those guys make more during their coffee break. And when we decided to do the feature, when I said, "Hey, this is great. Let's do a feature," then we went back to the actors and we said, "Okay." We told them we were doing the TV series just so they knew, as a courtesy, but then we said, "Look, we're doing a feature. Would you like to do the voice in the feature?" And some of them said yes, some of 'em were off doing features because this all was done, again, fairly rapidly. It wasn't like we said, "Okay, next June we're going to do this." It's like, "Could you come in in a month, in four weeks, and do this? Can we have two days?" Some of them were all over the world, and some of them said, "Yeah, that'd be great, I'll come in and do it," and some of them couldn't. What happens in new animation, it used to be in animation, you just had actors play the parts. The secret is a lot of people, especially in television animation, they didn't hire really great actors. Even in features they didn't. So the idea of hiring a really good actor, a Tom Hanks, to play the thing, was a really revolutionary idea. That was mostly Jeff Katzenberg who said, "You know, we need really top actors." Well, there are a lot of top actors that aren't movie stars. Partly they did it because they were great actors. Partly they did it because they wanted to use 'em for publicity, so they could sit up here and talk to you. And to be very honest with you, much as I love you guys, I don't really think I need to hire an actor, a big movie star to go and publicize my movie. If the movie works, and you like it and you love it, that's fine. But I don't need Angelina Jolie here to have you guys come and say, "I'm only going to this press conference because Angelina's going to be there, and I want to get her autograph." That's what it comes down to in the end and that's what they do. They simply use them. They have two days in the studio or three days in the studio, and then they have like two weeks doing press. So they're mainly paid for the press stuff. They're not really paid for doing the movie. I'm sure I'm going to hear from Jeff about that.
DF: And they get me instead of Angelina Jolie now, so I don't know if that's a selling point, but, y'know, okay.
Q: Can you folks talk about the inspiration behind Ahsoka and Ventress? 'Cause that was really great to see them both in there.
GL: Ahsoka was primarily—I wanted to develop a character that would help Anakin settle down. He was, at the end of Episode II, is kind of a wild child. He and Obi Wan don't get along. So the idea was to see how they become friends, how they become partners, how they become a team. And then one of the ways to do that—because when you become a parent, you become a teacher. You have to sort of become more responsible. It sort of forces you into this adulthood thing. So what I wanted to do was take Anakin and force him into this kind of, y'know, "Now I have to teach somebody and now I have to be slightly more responsible and I have to…" So it was that juxtaposition. I happen to have a couple daughters, so I have a lot of experience with that particular situation, and I just said, "Rather than making it another guy, why don't we make her a girl because that's fun?" I have a lot of girls and they're just as hard to deal with in their teenage years as boys are. So that's really how that—Ventress, he's the expert on that.
DF: Ventress was a character that was actually developed for early concept art of Attack of the Clones. There was the idea that maybe the Sith apprentice, the new one after Darth Maul, would be a girl. That got abandoned eventually in favor of Count Dooku, Christopher Lee's character, but the concept art existed. And the comic books and novels on the Clone Wars that were done before had utilized that character, that concept art, and created this new character, Asajj Ventress. So when it came time to develop the idea of the Clone Wars as a series, we thought, 'Well, that's a big fan-favorite character. Let's draw her out.' And it just so happened that we were introducing Ahsoka at the same time, so here you had these two new girls coming into this story at the same time which, you know, there's actually kind of an advantage to it because you have one that’s the apprentice of Anakin Skywalker trying to be trained in the traditional ways of a Jedi and you have one that's the hidden apprentice of Count Dooku who's the evil opposite end. So that actually works really nicely for the stories that we're trying to tell...
Q: When are you going to make those indie movies you keep talking about?
GL: I just haven't had time. Opportunities present themselves. I wanted to do an animated Clone Wars TV series, and I said, "Oh, I want to do that." So I've got about maybe fifty projects sitting here, and I have to sort of say, "Well, which one works now?" It makes sense for me to do these TV things. I love television. It's a lot more fun than doing these giant movie things, so I'm doing some television.
Q: Can you mention your TV projects?
GL: Well, this is one of them. That's why you're here. I mean, you're really here for the feature, but of course that goes over into the TV show.
Q: What are the prospects for an Indiana Jones 4?
GL: Well, that's one of those things. That sits on the shelf there as one of fifty projects that I have to deal with. If I can come up with a story—it's very hard to come up with stories for that thing. It's really impossible because it has to be real. It has to be something that actually happens. It has to be something people know about, and it has to be supernatural. It's a really difficult research project, which they're researching now. Last time it took us fourteen years.