This was absolutely the highlight of my Saturday at Star Wars Celebration VI: the big Season 5 panel for Star Wars: The Clone Wars, in which supervising director Dave Filoni and visual effects supervisor Joel Aron showed fans more than we could possibly comprehend from the next mind-blowing twenty-two episodes. Filoni began the panel by noting that the series would pass its 100-episode mark this season, and the applause that followed was our first indication that this was a crowd that was very happy with how the series has been progressing (and very interested in seeing more of it).
Filoni first showed the audience many pieces of concept art for the planet Onderon. Aron commented that Onderon feels to him like an old Roman city. The planet also has a jungle on its outskirts, a feature that Filoni said presented a challenge for their team. His team, he said, has spent a lot of time over the past four seasons improving how they depict jungles. They want the trees to sway as gunships fly overhead and they want the ground to look as damp and lush as it's supposed to be. Aron talked about some of the lighting tricks that his team uses to make the trees look like they're swaying.
Digital Stage host David Collins asked the pair if they were building more models per episode or if they were just getting better at making a select few models. Aron said that the model count keeps rising, and Filoni noted that both the rate and quality of model creation have increased tremendously. "Everybody wants this to be great," Filoni said. "We are not satisfied just making a show."
Filoni then showed the first Season 5 clip. It featured a rebel group of Onderon beginning their attack on the Separatist occupation force. These rebels were wearing helmets reminiscent of Roman centurions, flying pteradactyl-like beasts, and riding creatures that looked like reptilian horses. The focus of the clip seemed to be one particular woman named Stila, who led the rebels from a sniper position. Ahsoka Tano and Lux Bonteri (the latter of whom, Filoni revealed, was born on Onderon) assist the rebels in their fighting.
After the clip, David Collins, who had never seen it before, remarked on its "tribal influences," noting in particular an allusion to iconic Easter Island imagery. Filoni and Aron shared a laugh at Collins' stunned observations, having both seen the clip many times before.
"We introduce the concept of these ... pockets of rebels [in Season 5]," Filoni said of the clip. "The Jedi have realized ... that the clones, at the end of the day, to a lot of populations, have come to be a symbol of imperial tyranny as much as the droids have." To rectify this problem, Filoni explained, Anakin Skywalker came up with the idea of training rebels to fight their own insurgent battles on their home planets. Those people winning back their homeworlds would stand on stronger feet when they reclaimed that territory than would clone troopers, Filoni said.
Next, Filoni showed the audience various pieces of concept art depicting Anakin quarters at the Jedi Temple. Part of Season 5's focus on intimate character focus will involve going into the personal living quarters of the main characters, and Filoni had The Chosen One's room decorated appropriately. Concept art showed mechanical knick-knacks including battle droid heads, with Filoni explaining that he thought Anakin would try to download Separatist data from their brains in his spare time. According to Filoni, "We pillage the movies constantly for any time of information" that can fill out these kinds of domestic scenes. His team, he said, constantly pulls out costumes and props from the Lucasfilm Archives to check them for elements that they can incorporate into the series.
The second clip that was shown took place in Anakin's quarters. Obi-Wan entered the room and told Anakin that Yoda thought his (Anakin's) judgments regarding shifty Senator Rush Clovis were clouded. The man can't be trusted, Anakin replied defensively. He angrily reminded Obi-Wan that Clovis almost got Padme killed. Obi-Wan then began discussing Anakin's rather obvious feelings for Padme, telling him that it was natural to have such feelings (he even mentioned Satine) but that Anakin must remain only friends with Padme. It is essential that he make the right choice, he told his former apprentice. Anakin, with barely contained fury, replied that he understood his responsibilities. Obi-Wan countered that no matter what kind of interactions Padme and Clovis had, Anakin had to stay away. Anakin, somewhat self-consciously, replied that Padme and Clovis' relationship was simply business. "Then we should have no problems, should we?" Obi-Wan said back, before leaving the room as the clip ended.
When the applause had subsided, Filoni noted that to sustain this kind of very personal, very close-up scene, "we had to update the way [Anakin and Obi-Wan] could be animated." As an example, he pointed out "the subtle little crinkle in the eye letting you see how Anakin is reacting to what Obi-Wan is saying." Collins wanted to know if Ahsoka has been picking up on the changes that the audience has been seeing in Anakin, particularly as exemplified in the most recent clip. Aron replied that as she gets older, she becomes more perceptive, but also more independent and able to think critically. Filoni added that Ahsoka "would support him and back him up in all things," and that she gives him more leeway and trust -- and he has more patience with her -- than at the start of their relationship. Filoni also took that opportunity to praise Ahsok voice actress Ashley Eckstein for championing female fans and geek girls. He revealed that 34% of The Clone Wars' audience is women and girls.
Oh yeah, and before I move on from this clip, I should probably mention that Anakin had a podracing poster featuring Sebulba and Ben Quadinaros in his room. Yes, Ben Quadinaros finally made it into The Clone Wars, albeit indirectly. Kyle Newman can sleep peacefully now.
Droids will play an important role in a story arc that takes place next season. Filoni said that kids have always understood R2-D2. He believes that droids make great protagonists because they can be so expressive. The droid arc focuses on a team of astromechs and a pit droid led by a tiny alien general who infiltrate the Separatist fleet to get an encryption module. Filoni called this story arc "one of our best adventures of all time." Aron added that R2-D2's textures were updated for this season, and the animation team found a way to make his main light phase between red and blue like it does in the films.
A fourth clip was then shown, this one depicting the droids in their shuttle as it traveled through hyperspace. They were forced to drop back into realspace because of an ice comet storm impeding their path. One of the comets hit their ship and they lost power. The clip ended as the droids headed to the back of the ship to conduct repairs.
"This is way far out there," Filoni said of the droid footage. George Lucas just saw it a few weeks ago and it won't air anytime soon. Filoni said he enjoyed doing the R2/3PO adventure duology last season and that droid-centric episodes evoke a "grand sense of wonder."
More character models were next, including a mysterious general about whom Filoni was careful to say nothing and a yellow-tinged Republic Commando whose appearance generated huge applause (the character does not appear to be from an existing squad like Delta or Omega). Collins took the opportunity to ask Filoni how he and clone army voice actor Dee Bradley Baker kept the clones separate during recording sessions. Filoni replied that he and Baker made a triangle of personality types for reference. Rex constituted the central personality type, the man whom all clones aspired to be like, while the other personality types reflected excesses of certain traits. This triangle helps Baker find the right vocal nuances for each clone he voices.
The fourth clip that was screened was from the same story arc as the third. It showed the Republic droid infiltration squad approaching Separatist battle droids, being ordered to halt, and continuing to roll past as a Republic Commando popped up from cover and cleared a path by expertly blasting the CIS droids to rubble.
Filoni said that this material, being from the droid arc, was "far out," but then teased that the fifth season would have something "even better" than the Republic Commandos. He next showed the audience more concept art, including a Black Sun fortress (Filoni stressed that Xizor would not appear), a character model for a Falleen lieutenant, a still frame from an episode with the Falleen, and a model for a new species involved in spice smuggling on Kessel. He also revealed that the animation team had referenced Episode III for an animated depiction of Mustafar.
In the fifth clip, Pre Vizsla, Darth Maul, Bo Katan, and Savage Opress landed on Mustafar. Death Watch commandos filed out of a transport. A Falleen Black Sun agent approached the party and Maul requested an audience with the syndicate's leader. This was quickly followed by a sixth clip, in which Bo Katan rescued Obi-Wan from imprisonment on a Death Watch planet by kicking major butt.
At this point, Filoni brought a fan dressed in an excellent Bo Katan costume onstage to compliment her on her hard work. After she sat back down, Filoni told the audience that he wanted to bring out their show's biggest fan, who turned out to be...George Lucas himself!
Lucas told the audience that Darth Maul was one of his favorite characters and that he had had long discussions with the writers about how to bring him back. "It's been a lot of fun to have him" and Savage and the witches of Dathomir, Lucas said. The Maker chatted with and poked fun at Filoni and Aron for a few more minutes before the panel ended and fans stood up to digest what they had just seen.
It will certainly take me a while to process all of that phenomenal footage and concept art. I can't wait for Season 5 to premiere on Saturday, September 29th at 9:30am!