A year before Star Wars: Episode VII,we get the animated series Star Wars Rebels as a bridge between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope (premiering in October on Disney Channel as a one-hour special before commencing on Disney XD). I spoke with exec producers Dave Filoni (The Clone Wars) and Simon Kinberg (The X-Men and the upcoming Fantastic Four) at Comic-Con.
Like Clone Wars, the initial Disney/Lucasfilm collaboration was made at Lucasfilm Singapore, but emulates the style of famed concept artist Ralph McQuarrie from the original trilogy (utilizing a special tool for Adobe Photoshop). The look is also inspired by the work of Hayao Miyazaki.
In addition to Filoni, the Rebels production team includes several crew members returning from The Clone Wars: Athena Yvette Portillo as line producer, Kilian Plunkett as art director, Joel Aron as CG effects supervisor, Keith Kellogg as animation supervisor, and Steward Lee and brother Steve as directors.
The animated series is set “in a time where the Empire is securing its grip on the galaxy and hunting down the last of the Jedi Knights as a fledgling rebellion against the Empire is taking shape.”
Freddie Prinze Jr., Taylor Gray, Steve Blum, Tiya Sircar, Vanessa Marshall, Jason Isaacs, David Oyelowo and Billy Dee Williams are the voice stars.
"For me, Rebels is a great opportunity to create something for a new generation of Star Wars fans that also appeals to our generation," says Kinberg, who wrote the first two episodes and is consulting on the standalone features. "It leads narratively right into A New Hope. You witness the oppression spreading and the formation of the Rebel Alliance."
Five rebels (led by outcast Jedi Kanan voiced by Prinze) and a mech droid called Chopper mount an underground resistance against the Empire with a young teenager (Ezra, voiced by Gray) with a special gift for the Force.
"The spine of Rebels may sound familiar from the original movies," continues Kinberg. "The notion of a young kid who’s not on his path yet and swept up in an adventure on a ship, going around the galaxy, fighting people he didn’t even know existed, and recognizing powers within himself he didn’t know existed. But it was almost a coincidence: we didn’t strategically sit there and say, ‘How do we retell A New Hope and who is our new Luke?’ It’s just you gravitate toward the storytelling strategies of A New Hope and Empire because they’re so good. And because George [Lucas] based them on Joseph Campbell’s myth making tenets."
"It’s a place where you have a high artistic culture and then the war devastates everything and destroys a lot of lives and now you have a militant future," Filoni adds. "What goes beyond that is what everybody’s waiting to find out next year [with Episode VII].
"The trick there for me is it’s for kids. They’re used to the Clones as good guys, so how do I take these guys as friends and turn them into the bad guy stormtroopers? It’s a tremendous challenge today because kids have everything available at their fingertips and they see creatures beyond realistic. We talk about it at work as a saturation of awesome. We’ve hit this point where everything is incredible when we get it. What I think is really good about that is that’s only visual. What matters is how you’re telling these stories and how much you invest in the characters."
By sticking with these archetypes, Filoni believes he can avoid dumbing it down while maintaining continuity with the original trilogy. Kanan, for instance, is very conflicted. His training as a Jedi was cut short. We now know what a Jedi is from the prequels. But Kanan doesn’t. When he pulls out his lightsaber for the first time, he’s now targeted for death by the Empire. He’s a lone wolf labelled as a traitor. But his heroism apparently leads to the resurrection of the Jedi.
As for animation, Lucasfilm developed a different facial rigging system that could be stylistically animated more like anime facial shapes. "We actually looked quite a bit at Tangled," Filoni concedes. "I love that movie so much. It was such a wonderful experience and a lot of that was how they took the 2D and translated it into CG. And we knew going in that we wanted it to look like Ralph’s stuff and we know better how to get that."
But Rebels is ultimately a little story, according to Kinberg. And that’s what he tries to apply to everything he writes. "If you take away all of the action and hardware, could you tell it as a drama? Are these people compelling enough to watch on their own in a conversation?"