Editorial: A Deep Dive into the Past, Present, and Future of Lucasfilm Animation
Lucasfilm Animation has come a long way. Since its inception in 2003, the growing studio has produced three animated Star Wars series and a feature film (that second one doesn’t, doesn’t count). On each project, that earned experience mostly pushed the quality of animation and storytelling to the next level. And yet it wasn’t clear until the final arc of The Clone Wars just how powerful Lucasfilm Animation has become.
But considering the humble beginnings of animation at the company, this was no easy feat. Lucasfilm didn’t always have an animation division, and it was a rocky road even just to get there. The studio’s recent work can only truly be appreciated when taking a look back at Lucasfilm’s entire history with animation.
A Long Time Ago…
Once upon a time, there was no such thing as Lucasfilm Animation. Back in 1978, George Lucas and his team were hot off the success of a little film called Star Wars. They had begun work on the now much-maligned Star Wars Holiday Special and were interested in featuring an animated segment on the show. But to do this, Lucasfilm needed to contract another company to do the heavy lifting.
They hired the small Toronto-based animation studio Nelvana Ltd. to produce the short cartoon for the program. According to animator John Celestri, Nelvana completed the sequence in just three or four months. That’s not long at all in the animation business, but the new company was eager to impress.
It’s kind of a weird-but-fun pastel fever dream with a nothing burger of a story, but it’s worth watching even just for the novelty of it all. The sound design and score are all pulled from A New Hope, which is a plus, and all the characters are voiced by their live-action counterparts.
The short also famously featured the first appearance of the new bounty hunter character, Boba Fett. He’s got a commanding presence and steely voice that’s instantly intriguing. And the fact that he was even included is a great tie-in for The Empire Strikes Back (even though C-3PO oddly refers to him as Darth Vader’s right-hand man).
But overall, the short isn’t very impressive. The story isn’t particularly exciting, and the art style is actually distracting. The characters we know and love all have strangely designed faces, and none of them stay on-model from shot to shot. While some things are meticulously rendered, others are strangely cartoonish. A lot of these issues are likely due to the rushed nature of the production.
And yet somehow, they got it done on time and impressed the higher-ups. While reception to the Holiday Special was lukewarm in general, Lucasfilm was satisfied with the animation. They hired Nelvana again to produce both the animated series Ewoks and Droids for ABC. It was 1985, and the Canadian company had reached a wider level of recognition with their feature films Rock & Rue and The Care Bears Movie.
Like the Holiday Special short, neither of these new Star Wars shows were very cinematic. Their goofy plotlines had little to do with the larger stakes of the galaxy, and tonally speaking, it’s obvious the target audience skewed younger. Overall, they’re much more in line with Saturday morning cartoons of the time than with the original trilogy. This is somewhat puzzling, as George was always inspired by short-form storytelling that connected to a larger storyline, like the Flash Gordon serials. Needless to say, the shows didn’t take off in the way Lucasfilm had hoped. Droids was never renewed for a second season, and Ewoks was canceled after the end of season two.
Although they were never hired again by Lucasfilm, Nelvana went on to be quite successful in the animation world. But for Star Wars fans, the dark times had begun. Lucasfilm’s animation presence disappeared for close to twenty years.
A New Hope
Once in full swing with production on the prequel trilogy, Lucasfilm finally came back around to the prospect of animation. Genndy Tartakovsky, known at the time for creating Dexter’s Laboratory and Samurai Jack, was hired to produce a micro-series. It was meant to bridge the gap between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, and the final product was unlike anything Star Wars fans had ever seen before.
With a striking design and succinct storytelling style, Star Wars: Clone Wars made its mark on the galaxy. Tartakovsky gave the show vivacious energy, and never lost the pulp that was inherent in the franchise. Episodes did a lot with a little, often free of dialogue and with limited runtimes. Frenetic action sequences and heartbreaking drama made for an endlessly fun viewing experience.
But what’s particularly remarkable was how it set the stage for the next film in the franchise, which premiered two months after the show wrapped up in 2005. To this day it stands as one of the best pieces of tie-in media ever created, generating hype for Revenge of the Sith while also being a strong series in its own right.
Clone Wars was critically acclaimed and won multiple Emmy’s in its three-year run. It was no question that Tartakovsky and Cartoon Network Studios had done an incredible job with the series. But by the time it was over, Lucasfilm had already set the wheels in motion for complete autonomy in the animation medium.
Let the Past Die
Lucasfilm Animation was founded without ceremony in 2003. Commissioning out animation became a thing of the past by 2005 when work began on a continuation (of sorts) to Tartakovsky’s show. Dave Filoni, then known for Avatar: The Last Airbender, was hired as a supervising director to work closely with George Lucas on the production.
In a head-scratching move, Lucas and the team decided to release the first arc as a theatrical film in 2008. This stopped the initial success of the show dead in its tracks. Most hardcore Star Wars fans immediately compared the movie to the rest of the films in the franchise and were let down. Confusing new characters like the never-before-seen padawan Ahsoka Tano and the clone Captain Rex were clumsily introduced with no clues as to why they weren’t in previous films. A strange and childish storyline about Jabba the Hutt’s son “Stinky” made it hard for die-hards to connect.
The animation itself was somewhat lifeless, and not nearly as stylized as the previous show set in the era. While the visuals were great for a week-to-week television show, they just couldn’t yet make the same impact up on the big screen. Unfortunately, the film didn’t live up to expectations brought on by the mantle of a theatrical Star Wars film.
But this was a unique problem to have. The reason the fanbase could even compare the show to the movies was because of the untapped potential of the animation style. Fully realized 3D worlds could sweep audiences to a galaxy far, far away, and Lucas and Filoni made it their mission to win back its audience. As technology improved over the years, so did the animation of the show. There are moments in the series that are absolutely stunning, and that’s thanks to the hard work of the expanding team at Lucasfilm Animation.
Another progression for the series was its writing. One of the benefits of being a several season series is the room it gives for character development. Not only could Anakin slowly become the tortured soul we see in Revenge of the Sith, but young Ahsoka Tano had time to grow into her own. Captain Rex became a unique and developed clone, something the movies never had time for. The writing team also took more chances as the show went on, like reviving Darth Maul, killing off notable characters, and leaning into the complexities and tragedy of war. The vast majority of these risks paid off. While it was never perfect, the series mostly left its “childish” label on the cutting room floor.
Five seasons later, The Clone Wars was more popular than ever before on Cartoon Network. George had achieved serialized storytelling like he had always wanted, and for fans, things were only looking up. But moves were being made behind the scenes that would change the company forever.
Spark of Rebellion
George Lucas sold the entirety of Lucasfilm to the Walt Disney Company in 2012, shaking up every division of the production studio. Before this move, The Clone Wars was the company’s biggest focus, so it was disappointing to crew members and fans alike that the show was canceled. It was also unclear if we would ever get an ending to the show that so many people were clamoring for. Thankfully, newly installed President of Lucasfilm Kathleen Kennedy had the foresight to keep on Lucas’ new apprentice in storytelling.
In 2014, Dave Filoni and the animation team created Star Wars Rebels, a new CG series set between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope that aired on Disney XD. The story interestingly starts with an all-new cast of characters, giving it room to be its own thing. The narrative is much more focused than The Clone Wars ever was, although there’s plenty of inherent silliness to be found in the show.
Rebels didn’t quite have the budget that Lucas was willing to throw at its predecessor, and it shows. To get over this issue, the team at Lucasfilm Animation appropriately leaned into a simpler, Disney-ish aesthetic. Character designs and CG worlds are cruder and texture-less, but that didn’t stop the show from growing its younger audience and roping old fans back in.
By the end of season one, it became clear that Filoni was intent on connecting the new show with The Clone Wars, and with the saga at large. Character reveals put jaws on floors, and as the series progressed, the story began to interweave with the films, including 2016’s Rogue One. Thankfully, Rebels wasn’t canceled. The team was able to finish the story on their own terms, and it was refreshing to see a Star Wars show with a solid conclusion.
Not long after Rebels ended, Star Wars Resistance was announced. Filoni created the series, but he opted to take a backseat on this one as he was gearing up for his live-action debut with The Mandalorian. Instead, the team at Lucasfilm Animation would be handling the day to day in this tale set during the lead-up to The Force Awakens.
Unfortunately, the series was never quite as impactful as the previous two shows. Story-wise, it teased interconnectedness with the films but never quite delivered. A painfully incompetent lead character made episodes grueling to get through, although younger audiences could find a lot to laugh at in the comedy.
The animation style emulated a cel-shaded look similar to some modern anime shows. Dogfights that were prominent on the show look fantastic in this style. Character animation, however, suffered due to a lack of shadows and textures. It’s clear the animation team was going for a certain visual aesthetic, but never really achieved what a show like The Dragon Prince has.
The show ended after only its second season, concluding between the events of The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker. It seemed that Lucasfilm Animation never put their all into the series, and perhaps that’s true. At the time Resistance was airing on Disney XD, the animation team was also working on a revival that would give long-time fans a conclusion they’d long been waiting for.
Focus Determines Reality
(Minor spoilers for Season 7 of Star Wars: The Clone Wars below.)
Years after The Clone Wars was canceled, Lucasfilm Animation was allowed to finish the story once and for all on Disney+. Hype for the finale hit colossal levels, and it seemed like only a miracle could reach the high expectations of fans. Fortunately, the force was with us all. When viewing the final season, it’s easy to speculate that The Clone Wars was the studio’s main focus during the past couple of years. While not every episode in the new batch was perfect, ‘The Siege of Mandalore’ arc will go down as one of the best Star Wars stories ever to be put to the screen, period.
First of all, there seems to have been a conscious effort to make this final arc feel more cinematic, and boy does it deliver. Right at the start of the first episode (‘Old Friends Not Forgotten’), the grainy 70s-style Lucasfilm bumper fades on. That’s quickly followed by the classic Star Wars theme blasting through the speakers, notably a first for the series. The yellow Clone Wars logo is now blood red, and a Mandalorian-esque graphic dissolves in with the episode title.
And whereas each episode usually starts with a campy recap of previous episodes, the following installments in this arc drop us right back in the mood and setting of where we left off. These simple format changes go a long way to make ‘Siege of Mandalore’ feel as cinematic as any of the movies, and that’s just at face value.
The story itself bleeds into the timeline of Revenge of the Sith, the climactic end to George Lucas’ prequel trilogy. For anyone who has seen the film, this automatically raises the stakes to eleven. The tragic events from the movie serve as reference points for the audience; clocks ticking towards impending doom. And for our lead characters Ahsoka Tano and Captain Rex, it feels like some of the most urgent moments of their lives.
That’s particularly surprising for a show that struggled in its first few seasons with a “monster of the week” problem. Repetitive storylines meant things never really changed for our characters. Fortunately, this improved throughout the series. The team at Lucasfilm took bigger narrative risks, which in some cases led to permanent changes in the characters’ lives.
Another obstacle for this arc was that thanks to Star Wars Rebels, we know what becomes of these heroes down the line. A lesser series would succumb to the symptoms of prequel-itis, given we know that the characters survive. Thankfully, the show hones in on that dramatic irony and ratchets up the tension to balance out all that previous knowledge.
And yet perhaps the most striking aspect of this last arc and the season at large is its stunning animation. The textures and character animation have completely reached the quality of modern animated feature films. The mood of each scene is expertly crafted by the lighting styles, which have vastly improved since 2008 when the series began.
The most exciting scene of the arc, however, is a climactic lightsaber battle between Ahsoka Tano and Maul. It’s a thrilling fight scene with noticeable fluidity and realistic movements, thanks in large part to a new technique the team executed. Motion capture, the process of recording the movements of actors, was used to create the fight, and it’s an approach Lucasfilm Animation had never tried in the show before. Ray Park, the stunt actor behind Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace, came back to provide this physicality for the showdown with Ahsoka. He was joined by Lauren Mary Kim, known for stunt work in countless blockbuster films. The process is infinitely fascinating, and was put on display in this featurette:
‘The Siege of Mandalore’ is a treat for fans of The Clone Wars, but it can without question be enjoyed by any fan of Star Wars. The quality of animation and storytelling on display is the best work Lucasfilm Animation has ever done. Not only that, but it was extremely successful for Disney+. On the week of May the 4th, Clone Wars was the most-streamed digital-original TV show in the United States. It shows that the studio is stronger than ever, and hints at a Star Wars future filled with animated content.
There’s Been an Awakening
It’s a time of great unknown for Star Wars fans. The Skywalker Saga completely wrapped up last year with The Rise of Skywalker, and it’s been left quite vague what the next steps are for Lucasfilm. There are several feature films in development, and a new era is being introduced by the publishing department. But where does that leave Lucasfilm Animation? In what direction should they go? My answer is: everywhere.
This could be Lucasfilm Animation’s moment. If the upcoming films are to sweep in a new period in the Star Wars timeline, animation should absolutely be covering it as well. If the novels introduce a region of the galaxy unknown to fans before, animation should explore it in depth. Anything Lucasfilm is doing with Star Wars, it should be done in cartoon form as well. This would give creators for all other mediums the inspiration to make better films, books, and comics. It could also lead to more interconnectivity in the Star Wars universe.
The live-action films have already taken cues from animated works several times. Some characters and concepts have even leveled up from the shows into live-action, like Saw Gerrera in Rogue One, and potentially Ahsoka Tano in The Mandalorian. To continue this standard, they need to ramp up production on a volume of animated content never seen before.
Aside from the Clone Wars film, the animated world of Star Wars has really only been explored in the form of television series. But ‘The Siege of Mandalore’ arc proves that they’re ready for the big leagues. Contrary to popular belief, audiences of all ages are ready for serious theatrical stories told in this medium. The success of films like Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse and How to Train Your Dragon is a testament to the love people have for good stories, regardless of the vehicle. Just because a film is animated doesn’t mean it’s not to be taken seriously, or that it needs to specifically be made for children.
And even if Lucasfilm isn’t ready to bring animation back to the big screen, they should look to the prolonged success of DC’s animated films. Since 2007, DC has released 38 animated movies direct-to-video, with no intention of slowing down. Consistently dropping content on Disney+ would be a great way to keep up interest for Star Wars in the downtime between live-action films, and would also keep people subscribed to the new streaming service.
It also should be mentioned that not everything needs to be CG. Traditionally animated series like Clone Wars and Galaxy of Adventures, the fantastic web series created the animation studio Titmouse, have been almost unanimously praised by fans and critics alike. Stop-motion animated movies like Kubo and the Two Strings show action can be beautifully executed in other formats than CG as well. At this point, it only makes sense to branch out and try new styles. Staying in the same wheelhouse will stifle creativity for the animation staff, and eventually will turn off fans. If anything has been made clear in the Disney era, it’s that people want something new. Thus, Lucasfilm needs to step outside the box and take more risks going forward.
No matter what the studio does, the animation department will be crucial to its success. They’ve proven they know how to tell stories that dazzle us, surprise us, and connect with us on a spiritual level. Their most recent work shows that they can make content on par with the films, and sticking with that recent momentum is their best path forward. If Lucasfilm can give the animation team the opportunities and support they need and deserve, then the force will be with us… always.
David is a video editor, stop-motion animator, freelance writer, and movie addict. He currently lives in Michigan with his wife and two dogs and can be found obsessing over director commentary tracks and collecting movie memorabilia. In addition to writing for Movie News Net and Star Wars News Net, he also hosts podcasts like The Movie News Network and The No Guff Podcast.