Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Star Wars: The Clone Wars - discussion w/ Bob Clark on the feature film (& more)

Friday, April 20, 2018

Star Wars: The Clone Wars - discussion w/ Bob Clark on the feature film (& more)


Welcome to my viewing diary for the animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008 - 14). In this prelude (the diary will begin in earnest sometime in the future), Bob Clark and I discuss the preliminary material, particularly the film (which I reviewed yesterday). I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

The impetus for covering The Clone Wars came largely from Bob Clark (creator of the webcomic Neo Westchester), a passionate fan of both the Star Wars prequels and this series. He joined me for a chat a few years ago, which I'm happy to finally produce now. We go in-depth into various aspects of the film The Clone Wars, branching off at points into discussions of various American animation styles (even allowing for these detours, I had to cut out long segues into auteurism in fan culture and the tone of the Disney renaissance - hopefully I can find a place for them eventually). Whereas I'm coming to the series as a total newbie, Bob is a long-time fan, and whereas I'm not particularly well-versed in animation techniques, Bob has far more grounding in that area. The resultant conversation will probably be of interest to both new viewers of The Clone Wars and those far more immersed in its culture, as well as those simply curious about the topic.

me: Let's talk The Clone Wars (movie). I enjoyed it. I guess I can see why people really didn't like it, it's really an expectations game.

Bob: I was surprised how much I liked it when I saw it the first time. And I was surprised how much I liked it this time, after years of seeing it, quite frankly, blown out of the water and upstaged by every succeeding episode.
This movie/these episodes-- you can see it's an effort to do Star Wars, not quite on the cheap, but with vastly different scales than what we expect from big mainstream CGI movies. This is not Pixar or Dreamworks. And yet it works really well, even at this level.

me: If you're going into that thinking "the 7th (at the time) Star Wars film" well yeah, this isn't anything close to what you would expect from that. Add to that residual prejudice against any animation that isn't Pixar/Ghibli especially in a franchise that was live-action until then (but definitely made feints toward animation w/ the increasing use of CGI in the films) and it could definitely seem like the whimpering end of a saga. Really I guess it's whether you're looking at it as an end or a beginning.

Bob: And it was also the first Star Wars movie to come out after Lucas was done with the Prequel trilogy, so it bore the brunt of a whole lot of (not quite pent up) aggression that had built up among fanboys and critics.

me: Kicking off a series, it effectively re-presents/contextualizes several characters, establishes a template for week-to-week adventures within a more overarching story, introduces one great new character, sets up an enjoyable tone and style, and sets the bar high with a lot of cool designs, worlds, and setpieces.
It's a perfectly solid pilot.

Bob: I really think it can't be understated, it's doing that on a type of animation that wasn't really ground tested for weekly production, and by a crew to whom this was more or less completely new.

me: They probably didn't do themselves any favors, at least right out of the gate, by choosing this form of animation (both the CGI and the purposefully puppet-looking design).
The action was rather distractingly video game-ish for me at first too. The way the "camera" keeps the protagonist perfectly centered, rotates around, etc. It was uncannily like watching a game to the point where I felt a phantom controller in my hand. But the later sequences felt a bit more "cinematic" to me.

Bob: Compare-- when Tartakovsky did his Clone Wars, he had been a seasoned 2D hand drawn animation director for at least ten years. And I don't know what he did in productions before that lower on the ladder. Between Dexter's Lab and Samurai Jack, he was as much of a pro as you could get in the States for animation.
Before TCW, Filoni had only been a director on one production-- the first season of Avatar, the Last Airbender. Before that he had storyboard and art crew positions on King of the Hill and something else, but that's pretty much it. Lucas was betting on a relative newbie.
And, betting that he could deliver on something he'd never done before-- CGI animation.

me: Why Filoni?

Bob: I'm not sure. You'd have to look into that yourself.
I'm betting that his natural enthusiasm helped him get the job. And maybe the work he did on the first season of Avatar helped.  I might suggest that, given how writer-creator driven Avatar was, maybe Lucas and his people wanted somebody who was open to collaboration, the natural "TV Director" who'd know where he fit on the totem.

me: I know Tartakovsky was interested & disappointed when they moved to a new team.

Bob: Tartakovsky has been a writer and director on pretty much everything he's done (except the recent Hotel Transylvania movies).
Lucas obviously had a vision in his head for this as something longterm, and that vision wasn't the same as what he'd get from Tartakovsky. And, like I said, he probably needed less of an auteur in the way.
I have this vague idea that Peter Chung might've once been in the running for this. Catherine Winder was a producer on Aeon Flux, and later this.
(Though, at the same time, she was also a producer on Dexter's Lab.)

me: It's interesting because it definitely plays into the whole "yes-men" meme surrounding Lucas. Yet it does seem like in the long run Filoni was able to bring something that a lot of people - including many prequel-haters - appreciated.

Bob: Well, Filoni, when you see him in interviews, is very clearly a fan of the whole saga. Not just one trilogy or the other. He seems to really love both equally.
Like, when you get into the series proper, you'll see that he's really into a lot of classic Star Wars isms from the OT. But I mean... he's done Plo Kloon cosplay. He's obsessed with that guy. That's the type of fan he is.

me: In terms of his own creative input, it seems like he was able to bring something to the table that really complemented Lucas' vision without simply being a conduit for it. At least from what I'm hearing (and based, a little bit, on evidence from this pilot).

Bob: Yeah. I really believe that he's the best collaborator who's ever worked with Lucas.

me: What are the things that worked for you about this film?
a) Seeing it before you'd seen any of the series and b) Even now.

Bob: Well, like you said, it does a great job of setting up the bookended narrative of the series-- Anakin and his padawan, Ashoka. I really love how that gives him a new character arc that fits discreetly into the one in the saga.
And, as impressive as the Tartakovsky series was on a technical level, this series really captures the big-screen spectacle feel of Star Wars much better. And the use of widescreen is amazing.
I can't remember where I read this, but I think that Filoni and his crew were the ones who pushed making the show in a native aspect ratio of 2.35. But I may be wrong.
I also really love just how... fucking WEIRD this show can get, as evidenced by this pilot even.

me: I could've done without Capote the Hutt.

Bob: I love the story behind Ziro.
Apparently the character turned out that way because, in the middle of a meeting while going over footage, Lucas looked at him and said "Hey, how about if he sounded like Truman Capote?"
I would have loved to be in the room when that happened. Because as much as people like to imagine that people are always standing around Lucas horrified by everything he says and not wanting to stand up to him, I have to imagine that what happened was more like-- everybody in the room laughing their asses off, then asking if he's serious, then laughing more and saying "Yeah, let's go for it, why the fuck not."
Anyway. The Ziro thing to me is the near equivalent of say... Anno deciding that there's going to be a penguin in Evangelion.

me: Ahsoka was as promising a character as I've been led to believe.
I was really surprised though by one aspect...she's a kid! Like as in a child, near as I can tell.
I thought she was a young woman or at least mid-late teens.

Bob: Yeah, Ashoka is like a laser guided missile straight into the tween girl market.

me: Oh yeah, but really perfect addition to the story as I suspected (even more so now that I see how young she is - because Anakin's mentorship takes on a more parental aspect; for a character whose most famous line is "I am your father" that's a great, slyly referential angle to take and one with tons of potential for drama - also given his own sad parental background.)

Bob: I see her more as a little sister to him. The brotherly connection he has is just enough for him to be annoyed with her at times, but for the bonding between them to be more sincere, and something that fits really well into his type of personality as one that's constantly longing for more of a family to surround him.

me: Definitely, the sibling aspect stands out. But like, as if it were a situation where the parents are dead and one sibling is entirely responsible for the younger one. Forcing them to grow up fast.
Anakin was an interesting change-up from both the prequels (well AOTC & ROTS anyway) and even the Tartakovsky series. Feels continuous with them but more easily likable, which seems appropriate for an ongoing series.
Especially one in which he's something of an authority/responsibility figure.

Bob: I have to admit-- I don't like his voice here, which has a bit of a jock element to it at times. But yeah, this is definitely Anakin in his element as a war hero. This is really where he belongs, in one sense, where all his gifts pay off the best.

me: The banter was very Saturday morning cartoon-y. Which, for all the complaints about it in the reviews, actually feels like it establishes a stronger link to the original trilogy than the prequels.

Bob: Yeah. At times I think that the banter on the show is a little forced to "Recapture the Original Trilogy Feel", but to be quite honest, I like the bantering here a lot more than in the OT.

me: In fact, in a lot of ways as a pilot this feels like it sets the show up as a really great blend of the strengths of both trilogies.

Bob: It helps that here, we're often seeing another side to the Jedi, rather than them just being stuffed shirts. The war forces them to be more spontaneous and grounded. It also helps that, as the show goes, on, there will be some characters who don't really banter as much. They really get the "voices" of people we only even had as background characters really well.

me: I will say, and I enjoyed both the Tartakovsky and this in their different ways, it definitely feels more "Lucas-like" than that series did. Tartakovsky's visual sense felt more classical, lots of repeated figures and focus on one element at a time. TCW feels much more kitchen-sink, stuffing every frame with as much visual information as possible. That was my sense anyway. How would you describe from an animation-aesthetic point of view?

Bob: Well, it definitely knows how to hew to Lucas' compositional style. Lots of speed-line heavy uses of perspective, lots of profiles and uses of color that emphasize the two dimensionalness of things, the graphics plane.
One thing that's different, and that you picked up on, was the way the camera moves. I think that's because of the digital nature of the show-- the more you keep the image still in CGI, the more artificial it feels, unless you have the resources of a Pixar or something to add lots of little differences in the image throughout even on a static shot.
So yeah, it looks a little gamey at times, but it helps make the image feel more "natural" for its own technical requirements That's also I think why Filoni throws in things like dutch angles here and there, too. But notice, even when the camera moves, you're usually centering the shot or keeping some kind of composition that makes the image very stable. It's almost a Kubrickian type of animation. It's not willy-nilly movement.

me: We'll have plenty of opportunity to discuss this in the future, but without getting too specific, do you see the aesthetic solidifying & developing over time on the show? Especially since this was everyone's first at-bat?

Bob: For the most part, solidifying. Especially when they start experimenting and pushing things as far as they can.
There's an episode here and there where they get stuck, but even then, they're getting stuck on something with a pretty sound foundation

me: Would you like to highlight any particular examples, scenes or even shots from the film, that you feel are very strong; where Lucas' and/or Filoni's visions really shine?

Bob: That first shot of Palpatine during the intro, the camera zooming away from him down the corridor as destroyers are taking off and all the troops-- really cool image, and condenses a lot of the images necessary to get the series in a great way.
The opening battle that Anakin and Obi Wan (and eventually Ashoka) are in juggles a lot of great stuff, too. I love the design of the planet, Christophsis. It's familiar, but just new enough to feel both welcome and interesting.
The build up to the assault on the monestary is really cool-- the shots of Anakin and his troops in the ARC ship with the green and red lights has a great atmosphere to it. And the battle itself is pretty innovative. Scaling a cliff with tanks and fighting off legions of droids. Very cool.
The fact that the plot of the movie underlines how important "trade routes" are for the war is a nice, gentle "fuck you" to the fanboys.

me: Yeah, I was gonna say they avoided political conversations for the most part but then I thought about and was like, "Well, not really."
But they do it in a more basic Clone Wars 101 type way.

Bob: And man, they really double down on that in the series proper.
The politics, I mean.

me: This DEFINITELY feels like it is aimed at kids much more than the movies or Tartakovsky series. Another reason critics were unimpressed, I guess.
I recently told someone I was going to watch the show and they mentioned that in the first season it feels more generally kinda "kid-friendly" (or targeted) but gets more complex/darker later.
Do you feel in some ways the series is more avant-garde than the films?

Bob: I think it pushes what's there in the films to a limit the films themselves can't necessarily get to within a two hour timespan. At the very least a lot of the show has a narrative and aesthetic ambition that really shows the best aspects of television-as-cinema.
There are moments, especially towards the end, that basically are as close as an American show has gotten to doing something as what-the-fuck as Evangelion.
Really helps you see how conservative even the best American shows are, on an aesthetic level. Everybody loves to praise the Dini and Timm Batman show, but my god, it feels really stale to me at times. Even when it was first on, it felt that way.

me: Well I think - and this goes for Tartakovsky too - there may be a preference in American animation (maybe this is a more graphic design thing, too?) to be disciplined & focused & stylized. Maybe as a reaction to Disney dominating the whole grandeur side of the spectrum (and, on the stylization-naturalism spectrum, the naturalism side).
Think of it as "the Looney Tunes form of dissent."
Granted, Looney Tunes could get pretty crazy - but always within cleanly-defined limits it seems (maybe a bit more so after Tex Avery left).
Chuck Jones always gives the impression of a tightrope walker. Doing amazing balletic feats while always carefully maintaining a foothold on that thin line. And a lot of American animators seem to follow in his footsteps.
This is more or less conjecture - it's not something I've studied, so I may be way off. But it seems to fit with patterns I've noticed in American animation, perhaps as compared to other national schools (not just Japanese, but Canadian comes to mind). It's like there's Disney and everything else, and what's not Disney has to prove it isn't trying to be.
If that makes sense.
Personally, I like that streamlined, stylized style of animation a lot. But it's also good to see something rather nuttier.

Bob: That's a really good reading on it. Also worth remembering is how Hanna Barbera straddled between them, and how much that factors into Tartakovsky's much-beloved wheelhouse.

me: Yeah, I guess one could make a case for them following in Looney Tunes' footsteps only even more so. Heck, even Disney kinda leaned toward a more minimalist, stylized approach in the 60s (Sleeping Beauty is, in a way, kind of a masterful fusion of Disney's epic sweep & that very late 50s design aesthetic of heightened angles etc - I think you can see a lot of Sleeping Beauty in the Tartakovsky Clone Wars, for example).
But yeah, this film definitely did not seem to fit comfortably within any of those traditions.

Bob: Lucas' stated inspirations were anime and Thunderbirds. That's really going out of your way to challenge yourself with a mix of sensibilities.
I think you'll really like the Malevolence Arc. As much as people say the show gets better, those three episodes are pretty much as perfect as you can get at delivering something that in one part deals with minimal elements, the next expands to something more ambitious, and finally becomes as frenzied and crazy as the films themselves. It's kind of amazing.
And-- it juggles the OT and PT tones almost perfectly.
It really captures the methodical feel and procedure of "Star Wars" way better than TFA does.

me: It's interesting to watch the series after TFA.
Because I feel like a lot of what people were hungering for, and celebrating, in TFA, that they felt the prequels lacked, is right there in TCW.

Bob: Oh my god, it really is.

me: But along w/ a lot of unmistakably Lucas elements.

Bob: As the show goes on, you'll see why I desperately wish that Filoni had done TFA.

me: I feel like Palpatine was played really subtly here.
Like I know he fools people who don't know what's coming in the prequels, but here it was legitimately like "OK, here's just this normal politician guy. Nothing to see here." Except maybe with some of the Padme stuff, I'm not sure.

Bob: Oh, yeah. Really well. They do a good job of reminding me why I'm so fond, frankly, of the facade of Palpatine. The mask he wears of the kindly old man who just wants to help, no really, all you have to do is back this teensy little bill that I'm pushing in the senate.

me: I felt like Padme was a bit shoehorned in.

Bob: Well yeah. But you kinda have to.
She fits much more naturally into the Malevolence Arc.
Any thoughts on Rex?

me: Oh yeah - I loved how they humanized the clones in general. And obviously he's a key part of that.
It was a really canny move that honestly hadn't even occurred to me before (except I knew that Rex was going to be a character, and kinda wondered how they'd pull that off).
But like yeah, of course. They're all the same genetic material but they can have different hairdos, even different ages...why not?

Bob: Yeah. They really do a good job of changing the clones from the movies, who are all automatons, to... something else, here.
Oh, and the mix of Imperial stuff in the Republic, with the Jedi-- I can't tell you how much I wish that was in the Prequel films. Clone officers, things like that.
It's so weird yet at the same time logical to see how kids who grew up with this show basically idolized the idea of Stormtroopers fighting side by side with Jedi.
They actually do a great job of making it seem natural, and getting you to kind of heroicize all the stuff that in the OT was negative and fascistic.

Next: "Ambush" • Previous: The Clone Wars feature film

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