When The Walt Disney Company purchased Lucasfilm in 2012, much speculation abounded as to the new direction that Disney would take with Lucas’ key properties, most obviously the Star Wars franchise. In the 1980s, after the original film trilogy ran its course, Lucas produced family-friendly Ewok films for television before his 1997 special editions of the first trilogy ushered in renewed interest in the series, leading to the prequel trilogy of 1999-2005. Again, Star Wars lay dormant, never out of the public purview but without original content, until a new animated TV series – Star Wars: The Clone Wars – debuted in October 2008, running six seasons and producing 121 original episodes before its cessation in March 2014.
Surely, with a live-action Episode VII film, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, set for December 2015, Disney had developed definitive plans for the Star Wars dominion, but just as likely as a new feature film was yet another animated series. Enter Star Wars Rebels which first aired in October 2014 and will result in 16 season-one episodes. Beginning life as Star Wars Rebels: Spark of Rebellion, a 44-minute Disney Channel telefilm, the remaining episodes will air on the Disney XD cable channel.
Leading the charge of Star Wars Rebels is executive producer-supervising director Dave Filoni who oversees operations at the Lucasfilm facility on the Presidio in San Francisco. On an early afternoon in fall 2014, Filoni described his typical day midseason on Star Wars Rebels. “First thing in the morning, I went straight into editorial on a story reel, getting some temp voice work done,” he said, noting that 11 episodes of season one are already completed, “making some notes on what we are going to have to rewrite, dialogue-wise. We start with a script, and it evolves through the story process. Things change as we go and push the dynamic of the story. Sometimes it’s fairly different at the end.”
Though five episodes of season one are still in various stages of completion, Filoni is already consulting on every aspect of season two. “Season one heavy story work is done,” he explained. “In CG, it’s coming back all rendered, with the textures and depth. We might re-record a line or add a clarification. We might need to trim it a little tighter or expand it a bit.”
Without question, Filoni’s responsibilities on this type of animated show regularly involve every imaginable stage of pre-production, production and postproduction. “We have an interesting phase going on right now at so many different levels, moving through… music spotting with composer Kevin Kiner and restructuring outlines with writer Henry Gilroy,” he explained. “A day on Star Wars animation is like that. You are working all the way from the germ of the idea up front to the end of the project. It makes you hold a bunch of information in your head – character arcs. You can change and evolve as you see things grow. You have the room to make things ebb and flow.”
Differentiating seasons one and two on Star Wars Rebels, Filoni revealed that, “They have a really nice arc to them to the finale.”
“We are expanding it for season two. We have tremendous support from Disney on it. Now several episodes into season one, everybody has a better idea of what the show is going to be. We wanted to transition off Clone Wars and get this up and running as soon as possible, especially considering the upcoming juggernaut Episode VII. It’s all a matter of timing.”
Filoni served as both director and supervising director on Clone Wars. He explained that the previous series was highly episodic, while in Rebels, the evolution of the characters unfolds over the full 16-episode breadth of shows.”
In developing an original style for Rebels, Filoni consulted with animation supervisor Keith Kellogg and animation director Jesse Yeh, regarding what they did like about Clone Wars. “I felt on Rebels, we could go more traditional with animation,” Filoni detailed. “[On Clone Wars], we never pushed in the extremes of the animation poses. On Rebels, people’s expressions are much more exaggerated, which sells and connects in a much broader way. One of the reference points was Tangled – the way they rig the characters captured everything I love about 2D animation from Walt Disney and Hayao Miyazaki’s work. He has a brilliant way of exaggerating character motion and is tremendously dramatic. The human characters are so amazingly tactile and believable. It influenced what we were doing.”
Though only a small handful of Rebels shows have aired to date, Filoni has already received positive feedback, a needed boost to the creative team, especially considering Star Wars’ famously intense fan base. “People are responding to Rebels,” he said. “The character designs are what people are familiar with in an animated character. [Conceptual illustrator] Ralph McQuarrie’s costume design and legs and proportions went into Rebels. I think Rebels is for everybody. Some people who watched Clone Wars reacted like it was for kids. I don’t ever think of targeting. My target is Star Wars, what I liked about it as a kid and now as an adult. [The original Star Wars, Episode IV] New Hope is almost documentary in its execution of that reality.”
Of course, no Star Wars entry can be discussed without noting the project’s music and sound design. “There’s actually less music per episode of Rebels than in Clone Wars,” Filoni conveyed. “In A New Hope, there are long periods where the environment and sound design takes over. I wanted to have spaces in Rebels where the ships hum with no music whatsoever. Supervising sound editor on Rebels Matt Wood was sound designer Ben Burtt’s understudy on the Star Wars prequels at Skywalker Sound and on all of the Clone Wars episodes. I give them very specific things that I want, but when you are working with them, you don’t have to micromanage. I go in and have a session where we play back the episode and get across the beats that I want – letting the music carry it where it should. Sometimes, we create cycles of music to get the emotional moments. That’s the most fun part of this whole process.”
In point, Star Wars Rebels production team is principally divided between a crew at Lucasfilm’s Presidio complex and an additional crew in Singapore, all working in unison on the show. “The overseas crew is substantially larger than ours just in animation team alone,” Filoni explained. “Stateside, there are about 40 people working on the show. We expanded our story team for season two. We’ve grown to accommodate more episodes. Jesse Yeh serves as animation supervisor overseas. I’ve worked with him on the run of Clone Wars and Rebels. We’re all telling the same story. Your main responsibility becomes constantly staying on the same page, staying consistent with those messages. You end up empowering people to do the best they can with their abilities.”
Going into 2015, Filoni will mark 10 years working on Star Wars, often spending the better part of a year’s time on each episode. “Clone Wars was longer – eight month range,” he said of the time required to put an episode to bed. “We took everything we learned on Clone Wars for Rebels.”
With such a massive team and constant flow of different Rebels episodes in various phases of production, Filoni frequently consults with series creator and executive producer Simon Kinberg regarding the direction of an episode. ”There’s a massive amount of collaboration that goes on,” Filoni remarked. “What I learned from George Lucas is to guide people to their best creative self. I will draw the line at what works and doesn’t work.”
As to whether there will ever be a television show about the Old Republic, Filoni remained opened to that possibility and more going into the future. “I don’t think that that’s out of bounds,” he answered. “Animation is a great medium for some of these ancient tales. It plays in a way where it’s never that implicit. It’s a magical medium. There have been many discussions about possible Star Wars stories. Like everything we do, we would have to look at what’s been told before in that era.”
Filoni feels fortunate to be in his select position making Star Wars come to life in contemporary animated media. “Since 2005, I’ve been creating Star Wars content week after week,” he said. “I’m thankful that we still get to do it. At the end of the day, you are creating Star Wars!”