CREATING CLONES (#107, FEB 2009)
A veteran of the Star Wars prequels, respected animation director Rob Coleman was a natural choice when George Lucas needed an animation supervisor to work on his ambitious new TV show, Star Wars: The Clone Wars! Although he has since moved on from Lucasfilm animation, he still found time to look back on his groundbreaking work on the show. Words: Jonathan Wilkins
When did you first get involved in Star Wars: The Clone Wars?
I worked very closely with George Lucas on the prequel films and we had conversations about setting up an animation division while we were shooting Revenge of the Sith. That was around 2003.
I didn’t officially become involved until I completed all the animation on Revenge of the Sith. I started talking to Gail Currey, who I’d worked with at ILM [Industrial Light and Magic] and who was putting together Lucasfilm Animation at that point. She and George invited me to come aboard and help set it up. My first job in May 2005 was to fly over to Singapore to hold a presentation to help attract talent in order to build the studio there.
What are the day-to-day challenges of an animation consultant?
Dave Filoni, the series’ supervising director, and Catherine Winder, our launch producer, had both worked in animation before but had not worked in the Star Wars universe. George Lucas asked me to meet with them and immerse them in the world of Star Wars. The role of animation consultant came out of that early working relationship with Dave Filoni.
Dave is a very talented storyboard artist, and he’d come from doing the 2-D animated Avatar: The Last Airbender, but he’d not worked in computer graphics before, and he’d not worked with Star Wars characters. He is a huge Star Wars fan, as the world now knows, but we crafted the role of animation consultant so that I would be able to give input, and critique all animation coming in from our overseas studios. The day to day work was to review the animation and give feedback on the performances. I also worked with Dave to find the right balance of time spent on the animation. For me, that first year, 2005, was tough. We were trying to find the right movement for these characters. George talked about a stylized East-meets-West anime influence, but animated for a North American audience. As an animation consultant, I worked very closely with Dave to craft what that ultimately ended up being the look.
Was Thunderbirds ever an influence?
I’m a big fan of Thunderbirds and I’ve actually got some Gerry Anderson stuff here in my home studio, but it wasn’t really. I think once people started seeing the images they made an instant connection to Anderson’s Supermarionation style, but what Dave Filoni and the art directors were doing in the early days was trying to capture a stylized version of Ralph McQuarrie’s inspirational concept paintings for the original Star Wars trilogy. As we stylized the animation it became more like Supermarionation with more articulated faces, but it wasn’t something that we pinned up on the board [as an idea].
Was it easier to make a fully animated show as opposed to integrating CGI into live action footage?
It wasn’t easier, because we were building a studio from scratch in Singapore and teaching a very green, but very talented, group of people who had never worked at this level before.
I’d helped build the animation teams at ILM for years and it’s a long process. Once we had those established, actually doing the movies was easier because I had people who understood what it was to work at that level. Initially the TV series was harder because not only was I trying to immerse them in the world of Star Wars, I was training them on how to actually animate to the level I wanted.
It is easier animating something that exists only in an animated world, because you can control all the physics and how characters move, as opposed to a live-action and animation combination where you have to be true to the physics and the weight of the human characters. When we were working on Yoda fighting or walking, we were always thinking about gravity, and what does his cloth look like, and what does his skin look like? It had to be photo-realistic. On a stylized animation show like The Clone Wars, those problems just aren’t there.
How did you make sure the show felt like Star Wars?
George Lucas remains very involved and he was extremely involved in the early days, working with Dave Filoni, the writers, and the various episodic directors in describing to us what he was looking for. I was always coaching directors to go and look at the original Star Wars movie, so they had an idea of the kind of framing and cutting that George likes. What Dave and Henry Gilroy tried to do in the early days was to recapture that 1977 feel, so—and this is the fun part—there was a lot of homework going back and looking at the old movies and really studying them from a stylistic and directing-choice point of view. We looked at camera choices, cutting choices. George uses a certain kind of lens and there is a certain kind of cutting that he does. Once you become well-versed in that, you can make him very happy. I’d worked side by side with him for so many years that I had an advantage over the other episodic directors. I already knew how to communicate with George. I was very fluent in George Lucas, let’s put it that way!
So you knew what to expect?
Yes. But I was also trying to find a balance. This is Dave Filoni’s show. Being asked to be the animation consultant and directing some episodes helped to move the series along. I went over and taught classes in Singapore. I ended up doing the Downfall of a Droid and Duel of the Droids episodes, which were the very first two shows to come out of Singapore. They wanted me to help shepherd them along, which I was happy to do. They are probably the roughest shows that we did, because they were the first two out of the gate. I’ve directed three more since then and they are much stronger because the team had more experience and more familiarity with the characters and the cameras than they did in those two episodes.
Is there anything you would change about them?
There is so much I would change! The hardest thing to do as a director is to say, “That’s good enough.” If you don’t start approving work, and you don’t have a vision of what you want the show to look like, it will never be finished! I think where I was successful with George was that I was always able to step into the river and say, “That’s good enough.” The river keeps flowing past you, and you’ll see better work coming later on, but you have to stick with what you did before. There are certainly shots in those episodes that I would love to have back, but I don’t regret it because we had to deliver the show.
The show is animated in about a fifth of the time of a feature film, so we didn’t get the subtlety and fidelity in the faces and lip-synching in those earlier shows. Later episodes are far better, because I was able to spend time and really hone the team’s awareness of what was important in the face. In those earlier episodes it was all hands on deck!
How is an episode put together?
Dave Filoni is the supervising director. He works directly with George Lucas and the writers to create an overall plan for all of the episodes each season. He’s there at the beginning with the producer. It usually takes a couple of days to a week, and they plan out in very rough form what will happen.
They come up with episode synopses which are about a paragraph long for each episode, and describe what happens to the heroes, what the problems are, and what gets solved.
The writing team divides up the episodes between them and they start writing. Once the first drafts come in, Dave and George read them and make notes and decisions. Then they start choosing episodes that are actually going to be made. That’s when an episodic director gets involved. They’d call the director in and say, “Rob we’ve got an R2-D2 show coming up”—in my case it was a two parter—“and here’s an early draft”.
The director gives notes, as a fresh pair of eyes to the story. Then in maybe a few days or a week a shooting draft is ready. At that point, the episodic director works with the storyboard artists, doing storyboards on paper or computer, or in my case going straight to 3-D computer graphics to map out what the scenes are going to look like. You spend maybe six weeks mapping out the whole show, so you have a version of the show done in storyboards or in computer animatics that describes visually what the show’s going to look like.
There might be a still image of Anakin standing, and I would record people in the studio for temp dialogue and work with editor Jason Tucker to cut it all together, so it’s to length, but nothing’s animated at that stage, and nothing’s got color. It’s usually just black and white or gray. I’d present that to George, and then he would give me notes. I’d do a revision on that and present it for a final look. Then George would sign off on it.
As an episodic director you “package up the show.” This means you make shot-by-shot directing notes on what you want to see happening. You might say Anakin walks onto the bridge of the Twilight. Ahsoka’s sitting there with Artoo, and turns to him and says the line. You give director points, like “Anakin’s angry at this point because he’s just come from such-and-such a place and he’s irritated by this or that.” When the animators get it in Singapore they understand, because otherwise it could be animated completely out of context. Animators might get five shots in a row, but they may not know what’s come before so it’s very important as a director that you tell them. Normally an episodic director would then leave that process and go onto the next show, but I then critiqued not only the animation coming in for my show, but also for the other four episodic directors.
Were there any examples where it was completely off and they had to start again?
Yes, of course. That was the biggest challenge. It was something I had to get used to. I’d spent 12 years at ILM with my animation crew down the hallway. I could walk into their offices and talk to them at anytime. Now I was in a situation where my animators were on the far side of the Pacific Ocean and I had to wait hours to talk to them because of the time difference! Although they all spoke English beautifully, there were occasionally communication issues. To be fair to them, I was used to working with some of the most experienced animators in the world and had a shorthand with them. Now I was dealing with some very talented up-and-coming people, but they didn’t have the vocabulary that I was used to. I had to fly over there a few times, and then we got better and better. You’ll see as the season goes on, the animation really improves—but that was a learning process for me.
Your episodes feature Ron Perlman as Gha Nachkt—what was he like to work with?
I never got to meet him! Dave Filoni gets all the fun working with the actors. As the supervising director, he directs all the voice talent for all of the shows and it’s all done in Los Angeles. I’m holding the fort critiquing all the animation coming in from overseas, and he’s down in L.A. meeting Ron Perlman! Dave did get me an autograph though! Ron did a great job in the show. I didn’t meet many of the voice talent for Star Wars. I never got to meet Andy Secombe, who did the voice of Watto. I never met Brian Blessed who played Boss Nass, so it’s not totally out of the norm. I did get to spend so much time with Frank Oz, who played Yoda, that he’s become a friend of mine, so that’s an added bonus of being the animation director!
What are your favorite scenes from the show?
I really like the writing on those shows, and to be able to see Artoo becoming a tougher little guy was a lot of fun for me. I would say the scene - with him fighting with the other droid was a favorite. It was fun to figure out how to shoot that and what was going to happen there. The writers had outlined the entire fight, but as a director you get to pick all the angles, which was fun. The assassin droids coming to life in the hold of the ship was really fun to direct, and to invent how we saw the IG-88s jumping around. We’d only ever seen them standing still in The Empire Strikes Back, so to get them to jump and leap an. spin their heads around was a highlight for me.
How did you come up with that extreme style of complicated movements?
I was trying to go with the opposite of what the character looked like. If you have a toy or you saw it in the movies, he’s just standing there not doing anything. He just looks so rigid, and I thought from an animator’s point of view “Let’s take that rigidity and just throw it away!” Let’s really surprise the fans, so that when these thing leap up they’re actually much more flexible than their “Tin Man” appearance would allude to. What I was able to do is make it into a vertical fight. I didn’t want to just have a fight on the ground; we’ve seen that so many times. I had this set that had been already outlined in the script where it was described as this big warehouse with shelves upon shelves of droid parts. I went up to the Home Depot store and walked around the aisles. I was thinking, “Wouldn’t it be cool to look up and see those droids jumping and leaping from side to side?” So that’s how that started. I thought that was just a neat image.
There’s some very creative lighting schemes, such as the sequence where Anakin awakens in the medical bay.
That was harder in the early days when we were doing those droid episodes. Andrew Harris was the Lighting Supervisor for those. All of the color and ideas for the lighting comes through the art department, which Dave Filoni supervises. I can’t recall exactly who did the concept paintings for those early shows, but they did some beautiful work. I inherited such beautiful paintings from those guys that I did very few tweaks from a directorial point of view. I really loved what they were doing artistically. The paintings had come with that bleached-out art direction, and I relied heavily on Andrew to pull that off with the Singapore crew.
It’s quite surprising to see that sort of detail in an animated show.
You’ve touched on something that was very important to George, Dave, and myself. I keep using the word “shoot” when I talk about making the show because we kept talking about it that way. We thought about it as shooting it with real cameras. This is still an animated world that exists in our imaginations, but we used cinematic tricks that we would use if it were a live-action film. We see lens-flares and exposures as if you’re in a dark room and shooting up to a bright window so that everything goes into silhouette. George loves that kind of stuff. So we used the language of real film and applied it to the show
What kind of scenes do you prefer working on? Big action sequences, like space battles, or mailer, character-based scenes?
I don’t actually have a preference. I think every episode or movie has to have a balance. I tended to spend most of my brain power on the quieter character-based scenes, because it was imperative that the animated characters came up to the same level as the real actors. But it was certainly fun to work on the opening space battle in Revenge of the Sith.
These TV shows have a lot of action because of the audience we’re going for, but it’s a real blend. There’s a Mace Windu episode that I directed that’s coming up later in the season, and that was a real combination of action and character. I’m really proud of that episode. It turns out that they liked it enough to make it the season finale. We were really doing well by the time we got to that show. It’s a real blend of big action sequences and smaller character pieces.
I think a strong director is someone who is able to play to people’s strengths, because not everybody is good at both of those kinds of scenes. There were specific animators I would give action work to, and other animators I would give acting to, and there’s a smaller group who can handle both.
How many episodes did you direct?
I did three more episodes after the two we’ve talked about. Two of them will be seen in this first season and one of them has been moved to the second season. I’m proud of the droid ones, but there are better ones coming! They do have guest director spots that come up every once and a while, and I would certainly be keen to direct another one. It’s all to do with timing and schedule.
Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith (2005) (animation director)
Signs (2002) (animation supervisor)
Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones (2002) (animation director)
Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace (1999) (animation director)
Men in Black (1997) (animation supervisor)
Dragonheart (1996) (supervising character animator)
Star Trek Generations (1994) (computer effects artist)
The Mask (1994) (computer graphics animator)
Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future (animation coordinator) (22 episodes, 1987-1988)
Coleman Trebor one of the many Jedi slain by Count Dooku in Attack of the Clones, is named after Rob Coleman. The man has cameos in
Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith (2005) Opera house patron
Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace (1999) Podrace spectator in Jabba’s private box
You wanna tell your Stephen Redgrave story again, now that we're on the topic of rowing?
Sure! Story time! :D
So there is a world renowned rower called SIR Steve Redgrave. He's the best male rower in Olympic history, he won gold medals in FIVE consecutive Olympics and is often regarded as one of the best Olympians of all time. (If you want to see more, you can find it here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steve_Redgrave)
His son, Zak, was in the year above me in school when our rowing team was just getting started; I was about 14/15 at the time. One weekend we planned a family rowing event, parents could come down to watch their kids row and some even took part in rowing. SIR Steve Redgrave was one of the people who took part.
It was decided that we would have a competition between a boat captained by SIR Steve Redgrave, and another boat captained by an ex-professional Australian rower who was also the father of one of the members of our team (sorry, I forgot their name). Zak picks me to be part of his 4 man team which consists of him, his dad SIR Steve Redgrave, myself, and one other person.
We get in the boats and line up to race. Someone on shore counts down:
"On your marks, get set... GO!"
And BOOM we're off! The rate we were trying to row at was faster than anything little 14 year old me had ever experienced before! I was sitting behind SIR Steve Redgrave, perhaps the best rower in history racing against another very talented team, it was TERRIFYING!
We round the buoy at the end of the course and start coming back, still at the insane pace! I was struggling to keep up and that's when everything goes wrong. I got my oar stuck under the boat in what rowers refer to as "catching a crab" which acts like a massive break that slows down the entire boat. It can look something like this (except I had two oars rather than just the one in this picture):
Instead of taking the time to let me get my oar out, the team decided to keep on powering through as we were already half way back down the course and had a considerable lead over the other team. However, the drag from my oar under the boat was too much and we ended up losing speed and getting overtaken.
We lost the race...
Afterwards, the other team was celebrating the fact that they had just beaten THE SIR Steve Redgrave, the greatest rower of all time, in a rowing race. Mean while, SIR Steve Redgrave, the biggest person that almost all British rowers look up to, was looking at me like I had just murdered a puppy in front of him. I was too scared to even try talking to him after, I felt TERRIBLE!
So yeah, that's how I upset the greatest person in the sport I loved. I have no idea if he still remembers it, but it is honestly one of my favourite stories to tell as it's fun to look back on. SIR Steve Redgrave would go on to help support our rowing team a lot, even after his son quit the team to play Basketball or Rugby instead. I still have a lot of respect for him! :)