Can You Feel The Force? After a 16-year hiatus, the Star Wars saga finally returns this summer with Episode One: The Phantom Menace.
By David Bassom
selected from
Xposé Special #07

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When George Lucas announced his intention to take a break from the Star Wars franchise in 1983, most cinemagoers assumed that the saga would be back in production well before the end of the decade. But as the years went by, the franchise's future looked increasingly insecure. While Lucas always maintained his intention to make a series of prequels set before the original Star Wars trilogy, he also insisted that the films wouldn't begin shooting until special effects technology had reached a point where they could fulfil his creative vision at an affordable price.

It wasn't until the start of the Nineties that technology began to meet Lucas' requirements, thanks to the rapid rise of Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI). As the executive producer of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles and Radioland Murders, Lucas discovered the potential of CGI 'virtual' sets, which provided an extremely cost-effective alternative to constructing full-size soundstages. ILM's subsequent work on Jurassic Park and Casper demonstrated its ability to create photo-realistic CG characters, and offered filmmakers a unique opportunity to create new and exciting forms of life. Suitably impressed by these technological breakthroughs, Lucas concluded that the time had come for his return to the Star Wars saga.

Lucas first mentioned his plans to revive the franchise in 1993 and officially outlined his intentions for the saga on May 31, 1995. In conversation with Variety, the legendary film-maker confirmed that the prequels would chart the rise of Anakin Skywalker and his subsequent transformation into the evil Darth Vader. The first film, dubbed Episode One, was touted as a 1998 release, and would cost between $50 and $70 million to produce.

Most surprisingly of all, though, Lucas revealed that he would not only write, produce and finance the first prequel, but also planned to direct it. Intrigued by the possibilities of CGI, Lucas had chosen Episode One as his first directorial effort since the original Star Wars, back in 1977.

As the world waited with bated breath for Lucas's return to the helm, the man himself focused his attention on Episode One's script. Over the course of three years, Lucas crafted a sweeping, action-packed fairy tale strongly reminiscent of the original film. Set decades before A New Hope, Episode One sees the revered Jedi Knight Qui-Gon Jinn and his young apprentice, Obi-Wan Kenobi, rushing to the aid of Naboo's young ruler, Queen Amidala, following the conquest of her homeworld by the evil Trade Federation. With the powerful Sith Lord Darth Maul hot on their trail, the three fugitives enlist the support of a nine-year-old boy, Anakin Skywalker, and the Gungan outcast, Jar Jar Binks, to defeat their technologically superior adversaries.

While Lucas' script took shape, Episode One's key crewmembers developed the film's preliminary design work. Under the watchful eye of producer Rick McCallum (The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles), Visual Concept Designer Doug Chiang created such exotic locales as the galactic capital Coruscant, the Jedi Temple, the Royal Palace of Naboo and the Mos Espa slave quarters. Together with ILM, Chiang also designed a series of new vessels, including the Naboo Royal Guard's Z-1 fightercraft, the Nimou-dian Death Pods, and Queen Amidala's escape craft, The Marie Celeste.

Right from the very start, it was clear that Episode One represented ILM's biggest challenge since the original Star Wars. Not only did the film demand photo-realistic space battles and virtual sets rendered by CGI (as opposed to traditional miniatures), but it also required the creation of several beliveable CG-animated characters, including Jar Jar Binks, the evil shape-shifting Battle Droids, and the Tatooine trader Wattoo. In all, ILM would have to produce over 1,500 effect shots for Episode One, including some of the most ambitious sequences ever filmed. As with A New Hope, ILM's work would ultimately make or break Episode One...

David Bassom

Continued in Xposé Special #07

Image © 20th-Century Fox