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The Jedi Way

22 Jul, 2010 By: John Latchem

Continuing a franchise such as ‘Star Wars’ may carry huge expectations, but the creators of Cartoon Network’s “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” are more than willing to take up the challenge. With two seasons complete and a third on the way, the cast and crew are continuously pushing themselves to make the show bigger and better.

“We just got a better handle on the scale of the whole thing,” says supervising director Dave Filoni. “It’s now much more like the ‘Star Wars’ movies in terms of the visuals, the effects and the storytelling. If you compare the quality of the animation from the 2008 movie, you’ll see that the quality of season two is far superior. We just want to push that trend.”

Adds Tom Kane, who serves as the narrator and the voice of Jedi Master Yoda: “It’s getting better and better. Season one was good by the end. Season two started fantastic and by the end was just really a top notch show in every way.”

One reason for the upgrade is the addition of Joel Aron as CG supervisor.

As a visual effects artist for ILM, Aron worked on such films as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Jurassic Park, the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies and Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith. Toward the end of the first season of “The Clone Wars,” Aron worked with the animators as a consultant to offer advice on improving the techniques they were using to create the computer animation.

“I loved ‘Star Wars’ and I loved the complex simplicity of the show,” Aron says. “It suited my style quite a bit.”

For the second season, Aron transferred to the production team full time, working on such aspects of the series from design to the final look of the effects and the lighting schemes.

“My first goal was to step up the look of environments,” Aron says. “A key element of ‘Star Wars’ is that it is filled with places to go to, but in the first season the planets had no character unto themselves.”

Aron cites the first episode of the season, “Holocron Heist,” which returns to a fungal jungle planet seen in Episode III called Felucia.

“I really wanted it to feel hot and sticky, so I added pollen to the air,” Aron says. “You add depth that way — things like atmospheric smoke and steam and haze to really complicate the sets.”

The key, Filoni and Aron say, is to stay true to the spirit of the movies while telling stories that enhance them.

“When George created the prequels he created this expansive canvas,” Filoni says. “But you don’t really see the Clone Wars in the movies, just the first and last battle. But we can take the time to spend four or five episodes about one battle.”

“He created episodes he wanted to see and concepts he couldn’t get into in the movies,” Filoni says.

Aron says he likes that the series can re-visit planets seen only briefly in the films.

“It’s fun to create new planets because we can take it to the limit,” Aron says. “But the challenge is always there not to make it too photo-real. I prefer taking something people already know and bending it a bit, practicing the art of the abstract. I think our show is how ‘Star Wars’ looks in your head.”

With the second season billed on television as the “Rise of the Bounty Hunters,” many stories centered on villainous mercenaries such as Cad Bane.

“The bounty hunters were such colorful characters in The Empire Strikes Back,” Filoni says. “That one scene stands out so much. They’re a cool group and we always want to see more of them.”

The second-season finale even features the return of a young Boba Fett.

“That was one of my favorite parts of the season and definitely one of the most rewarding,” Filoni says. “It’s safe to say Boba will be back eventually.”

In fact, Fett was paired with Aurra Sing in something of a tie-in to a series of young adult novels about the characters, though Filoni says that was more of a coincidence.

“It’s not directly tied in with the books,” Filoni says. “When we create the storylines, we work with George. The ideas come from him. So it may have been that at some point George mentioned that Aurra and Boba had teamed up. Which is good, since we’re always looking at ways to cross over with the expanded universe.”

Lucas’ creative touch even extends to the choice of using a newsreel-type montage to set up each episode, as opposed to the yellow text used to begin the films.

“It’s really George doing the opening of ‘The Lone Ranger’ — ‘Return with us now to the thrilling days of yesteryear!,’” Kane says. “Which is appropriate, since that’s what ‘Star Wars’ is. We’re making a Western serial in space.”

Kane says he likes those little touches that differentiate the show from the movies yet still stay true to the spirit of the franchise.

“It’s new and different and the viewers are not expecting it,” Kane says. “It’s funny. There were some people who criticized the film for not having the title crawl who admit that the newsreel works really well on television.”

Aron says pushing past initial fan reactions to the show has been an important step in staying true to the vision of the series.

“We’ve been criticized quite often about the look of the show seeming unfinished and rough,” Aron says. “But that’s what we intended.”

“As an artist, I think we did a lot to get the quality level of the animation up so it’s more believable,” Filoni says. “The character models move and flow better and look a lot less wooden.”

Making a show in high-definition means the creative team has to be that much better.

“I’ve been a little more picky on a lot of the shots and in approving the final lighting,” Aron says. “It’s things you might not think of in standard-def, like artifacts of the render. Just tiny details you can see in high-def. And I’m really critical of the eyes of the characters. I really want the eyes to read.”

Aron says the next challenge for the creative team is to continue to build on their momentum.

“Season two represented an incredible growth curve for us,” Aron says. “Every episode kept upping the stakes. The end of the season I think just came to a perfect chord, and we want to carry that energy forward into the next season.”

As for what fans can expect in season three, which is slated to begin airing this October, Filoni says the show has plenty of storylines and characters to continue to explore.

“If you’ve seen seasons one and two of ‘The Clone Wars,’ it’s a big benefit going into season three,” Filoni says. “There will be a lot of big storylines fleshed out in much greater detail. It should be quite rewarding for fans who have stayed with us.”

While Filoni and his cast and crew were confident in what they were producing, they were nonetheless a bit surprised by the level of popularity the show has achieved.

“I was not expecting how popular it is among really younger viewers — 5, 6, 7 years old — some of whom have never seen the original Star Wars,” Kane says. “So it’s really this generation’s Star Wars. And then their parents would rent them the original movies, so it revitalized the franchise. It’s a much bigger success than I thought it would be.”

“I guess I’m a little surprised, having grown up with the first generation of ‘Star Wars’ fans,” Filoni says. “But I can relate to them. The kids today know Rex, Cody and Ahsoka like I know Han, Luke and Leia.”

When it comes to home video, Filoni, Kane and Aron agree that Blu-ray is the way to go.

“In terms of the visuals, the Blu-ray offers a crispness to the presentation that is very strong,” Filoni says. “It’s like a new experience.”

The four-disc Star Wars: The Clone Wars — The Complete Season Two will be available Oct. 26 on DVD ($44.98) and Blu-ray ($59.99) from Warner Home Video. The DVD and Blu-ray versions of season two include behind-the-scenes featurettes on each disc and a 64-page production journal.

“You get a book of concept sketches, a production journal,” Filoni says. “I always like putting in something tangible with the discs so fans can see that hand-drawn designs still influence what ends up on screen.”

Exclusive to the Blu-ray edition is “The Jedi Temple Archives,” a database offering special effects footage, concept art, 3D character and object turnarounds and early animation.

“Especially on Blu-ray, you’ve never scene it look this good,” Kane says. “The high-def of the Cartoon Network looks good, but it’s not Blu-ray quality. It’s beautiful as artwork. The animation is breathtaking. It’s just a pleasure to look at.”

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