Nestled in one of the verdant valleys in Marin County, California, north of the San Francisco Bay Area, Skywalker Ranch sits off a winding mountain road. Blink and you’ll miss it. We did, as I drove a rented mini-van accompanied by two other journalists. I think we were distracted by the scenery and talk of neighboring Calforinia wine country, further northeast.
We finally found a spot several miles down to turn around and made our way back to the entrance. A friendly security guard checked us off and we followed the private road to the heart of George Lucas’s visions. The building reflects Northern California woodsy charm mixed with an obvious Japanese aesthetic as well. Crossing two large wooden outer doors, we entered a rock and shrub garden with a small statue of none other than Jedi Master Yoda. Later in the day, two clone troopers and R2D2 would be milling about for our photo entertainment. Inside, the halls are lined with paintings from Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and classic film posters as well. It’s a celebration of cinema and creativity.
Entering a spacious welcome area, several CGI whizzes were set up with their screens, hard drives, and computer tools to show us how the new Star Wars hit animated TV series, Clone Wars, is created. Though the lead-off film in theaters and subsequent program has been met by mixed reactions from the adult world of critics and longtime Star Wars fans, the target audience –- children –- love it. With Annakin Skywalker as a pre-dark-side-of-the-force-shift hero, his master Obi-Wan as an equal Jedi of action, plus new characters such as Annakin’s padawan (a disciple/student, if you didn’t know) Ahsoka, there are more stories to tell, taking place between the events of the Stars Wars films Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.
We spoke with Supervising Producer Dave Filoni (whose past credits include King of the Hill and Avatar) and Supervising Sound Editor Matthew Wood (who also serves as the voice of the cyborg baddie battle droid leader, General Grievous, as well as various other battle droids). Both offered a look in the detailed work that has gone into the Clone Wars series.
Darryl Morden: What we’re the challenges in created this new series?
Dave Filoni: You always think about the challenges in any project, especially in this case with a fan base that’s so knowledgeable already. It’s that rare situation where they want to tell you what the story is before you tell it to them, so it’s a unique situation. Because I am a fan, I understand that. Luckily, George has been involved with us to keep us on track as to what he wants Star Wars to be, and that’s been the biggest help.
DM: Obviously, there was the prior Clone Wars animated “micro-series” that found a following as well. Did you have to take that into consideration?
DF: Not at all. In fact, talking with George, he felt it’s a really fun telling of the Clone Wars, but story-wise, because the action is so exaggerated and over-the-top, a lot of the situations in it with Jedis are very hyper. Now that he has time to be involved with telling stories, George wanted to tell the Clone Wars from his point of view, the way he wanted it to play out. But I did take some nods from the previous series in the way the characters looked at first, the way Annakin had lines to the design of the face, and I wanted to show respect to the previous series because it was such a big hit with the fans. We set about trying to make a series that was animated but fit in as well as possible with what George did theatrically [in the live-action films].
DM: According to animators we spoke with today, a single character CGI creation can take two weeks; a spaceship like a Jedi transport can take four weeks. So a lot of work and a lot of time is involved on all ends, from story to pre-production to the actual production of an episode. How do you manage it all?
DF: I think that when you’re creatively in charge of a lot of it, you just know it. I always can memorize images and shots and what they need to be. And you also have an incredible staff of people helping out all the time, so if you say something or give a note, it never gets lost. And they follow up.There are a lot of people that work collaboratively. They’re all really talented, they all work really hard, and part of that is they all love Star Wars so much. So we can do this juggernaut-size of a project and want to be here. It’s not just another job.
DM: How many people total work on Clone Wars?
DF: Right now, we’ve got 116 here, right in this building, from production staff to support staff, to studio staff…and probably another hundred at least over in Singapore. About the same number, if not more, in Taiwan, all working on the show. So globally, I’d say, about 300 or more. Overseas is where the animation happens — the lighting, some modeling… Here, we do the story, we write it, we direct it, we have it laid out in the shot, we do the prelimnary designs and the look and development of everything. The lighting concepts for what it’s going to look like when it’s lit…all the up-front creative work is done here. We send it overseas where they get all the files — the Quicktime movie that’s really a rough cut — and they animate everything there and light and render the scenes. It’s actually normal for a TV animation production. What I think we’ve done that’s unique on Star Wars is we’ve tried to make the overseas studios feel like part of the process. We’re not just sending it to them so they can execute it -– we have a tremendous amount of communication. I go over there when I can; we have video conferences. The Singapore studio is a part of LucasFilms.
DM: So is there a typical time period that it takes to create each episode or does it vary?
DF: Like any animated series, it take several months, but each episode is unique in the way that we produce it. Some will be very dialogue-heavy, some will have massive amounts of action, and right now, I’m finishing Season One but also working on Season Two. So at any given point, we can have ten episodes in the pipeline, working on all of them at different stages — from script all the way to screen. For the process of storytelling, we have six to eight weeks of getting the script to getting it on screen for George and I to edit.
DM: How many episodes for season one?
DM: That’s a lot for animation these days.
DF: Animation is normally, now, I think, 13. It’s exciting. I’ve worked on projects where you don’t feel part of the process. Here, you know if you work hard at it, you can make it something really great, and George will support that effort very thoroughly. When he kept seeing what we were creating, the more excited he got and the more he wanted to push this whole thing.
DM: When the word first got out in the fan community that this was in the works and being developed, did you pay attention to any of the online stuff –- the blogs, the message boards and all that? Or did you stay away from that and try not to be influenced/effected by it at all?
DF: I generally stay away from it. Like I said, I am a fan, and I think the fans have some valid concerns. I would never say that’s not important to me, but you can’t go off of it either because you find really quickly you’re making that one person happy, but you’re making that other person sad. And Star Wars is something that’s very difficult now to satisfy all the fans; some are 45, some are six, and all want different things. At the end of the day, I just try to stay very true to the things I like, the things the people on the crew here like, and mostly, the things George likes, because he’s creator of this universe, Star Wars. So we gotta make sure he likes it.
DM: But do you take into account this is mostly a young audience?
DF: I don’t really concentrate on the audience we’re making this for as much as…to me, I have this thing: “does this feel like Star Wars?” And by “Star Wars,” I’m mainly thinking “The New Hope” — the first Star Wars which reached everybody. Obviously, kids loved it, but it really struck a chord with adults and kind of launched the whole popcorn pop-culture fan idea. It was such a universal thing we all liked.
Moving on to Matthew Wood and the all important sounds of Clone Wars…
DM: In a Star Wars universe especially, the sounds -– the light sabers clashing, blasters blasting, droid noises, wookie growls, and more -– are all so vital and essential. Compared to past things you’ve worked out, how much of a challenge is this?
Matthew Wood: The fact that Star Wars has such a huge legacy in visual and sounds –- we have those light sabers and the lasers and various creatures and such that have been established in the original films — we’re taking that legacy and adding upon it. So we’ve got planets and vehicles and things we might’ve seen briefly in the original prequels, and now we expand upon them and make them huge because a whole episode is dedicated towards them. I got my personal mentorship in this company through Ben Burtt, the man who created the original sounds in the ‘70s, and I’ve been with this company about 18 years so I worked on all the prequels and all the remastering of Episodes 4, 5, and 6, so I’m pretty familiar with the universe.
DM: Even though Clone Wars was launched on the big screen, with the advent of what’s happened with television all going to digital/HD next year, does that change the way one approaches doing sound for an animated TV series?
MW: Well, for instance, I worked on the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles TV show about 15 years ago and nobody really had surround sound in their house then. It was a big deal for us to even do that. But now, people have 5.1 theaters in their homes, they can play back as good, if not better than in movie theaters, and we want to fill up that sound stage. I definitely want to make it so when we put up our show against Episodes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 that it’s still going to sound as good. We’ve got a really good music score,and I’ve got a foley department to do the same kind of mixing that I do as, for instance, on Revenge of the Sith. We’ve got a foley studio to do all the different sound effects; we’ve got a huge library of sounds — hundreds of thousands of sounds — and we’ve got a sound designer who records new sounds, so we definitely are building this like it’s a feature film.
DM: Has digital tecnhology -– pro-tools and such –- changed the way you’ve worked in the past decade or more?
MW: I started here when I was 17 years old, right when digital technology for audio was starting to take hold. We actually had our own division developing software because there was nothing that was working in the way we wanted to do it, so I had this program I was working on called “sound droid,” and it was George’s attempt at non-linear sound editing for film. We ended up using some of that technology on Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. That was right about the time magnetic film was starting to get out of the picture and digital was starting to come in. So I got in at a really good time to learn that technology and supervise the crews that use it. I’ve definitely watched computers shape and change this industry, just like other industries.
DM: Talk about the process. Who does what for sound?
MW: We still divide the labor: One person does dialogue; another does foley, which is all the sound effects which are too specific to be found in our library, like footsteps and clothing movement and utensils and things like that; and then we have a sound effects person and a music editor. I think you have a lot more opportunities to create better sound design with the computers ‘cause you have everything data-based at your fingertips, and also the manipulation of the process.
DM: You’re also “on-screen talent,” so to speak, in Clone Wars.
MW: I also act in the series. I play the voice of General Grievous and the battle droids. A lot of that wouldn’t have been possible without, the computer technology. I have to manipulate my voice to sound a certain way.
DM: From the bad guy to those Marx Bros. comical droids…
MW: Yes, those guys. I’ve done a few bit parts here and there for Star Wars over the years, but Grievous was the big one I got cast for in Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith. I thought the character was dead since they killed him off, but now, since this takes place in the timeline when he was alive, they’ve brought him back for a few episodes, and it’s been fun to play him again. The battle droids were something I had done — Ben Burtt and I had recorded them for the prequels and so I just continue doing that on Clone Wars.
DM: How long does it take to complete your work on an episode?
MW: It takes three weeks to finish each show for sound. George likes to call sound 50% of the motion picture experience, and technically it is. But it’s an experience you just try to forget about. I think if it calls too much attention to itself, it’s not doing it’s job. You want to have it kind of seamlessly linked to the picture — it’s part of the story, you’re not thinking about the sound.
DM: How involved is George on your end?
MW: Two years ago, George was saying, “Just work on this and we’ll just do a few episodes to get people started, and then we can hand it off.” Now, 26 episodes later, he’s still involved. Him and Dave Filoni definitely run the ship, and it’s been great watching Dave work. I’ve worked with George since I started out here, and having Dave come on to Clone Wars has been great. It totally invigorated the Star Wars story. He’s so passionate about it -– he’s a fan like myself and absolutely grateful and humble to be working here, and he comes to the mix –- the final point when we’re finishing –- he can really fine-tune his craft. He’s really excited about the sound, and a lot of the characters I play don’t have any mouths, so we can change the voice and the dialogue up to the last minute. That’s why the battle droid humor can get kind of crazy. We can look and see, “Oh, let’s fit a joke in there,” or have them react funny. They’re so mass-produced, the CPUs inside them aren’t very efficient and they’re just kind of dumb. And against humans, they work out okay, but against Jedi, they’re not. A Jedi can take on hundreds of them, no problem. But the Clones are definitely afraid of them.