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Star Wars:
An Animated Galaxy Far, Far Away
by Noell Wolfgram Evans

'A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….'

When those words crawled across the silver screen in 1977, no one had any idea the power and excitement that they held as they opened up one hundred and twenty one minutes that would change entertainment forever. From its release, Star Wars has been one of cinema's most influential films (it was recently ranked as number fifteen on the American Film Institute's list of the 100 Greatest Movies). Its affect on the way that stories were told, in what appears on screen and the technical achievement of putting it there was just the start of the films' influence and popularity. Its reach went further though, affecting the fundamental way films were conceived, perceived and marketed. From toys to music to clothes to cereal, Star Wars was (and remains) everywhere. Even animation found it's self a part of the phenomenon.

When you talk about Star Wars and animation, the discussion can take two turns:

1) You can explore the incredible digital effects that helped to create the world of Star Wars and it's sequels and prequels

or

2) You can explore the world of Star Wars in the 2D realm. The knowledgeable fan is aware that for a period of time in the mid-Eighties, Star Wars moved from the silver to the TV screen where the adventures that occurred in that galaxy 'far, far away' continued in animated form.

George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, had always been a fan of animation. The first film he ever created, 'Look at Life', was a short animation that won numerous festival awards. He eventually turned his eye toward live action but his interest in animation never diminished. As he started the story and physical construction of Star Wars, he considered presenting it in animation (other contenders were doing the film with puppets and presenting the story with an all Japanese cast). He of course took the live action road and would continue to follow this path for the next two films in the series. In 1983, following the release of Return of the Jedi, Star Wars was as popular as ever and everyone wanted to be a part of it. One of these groups was the television company ABC who presented an interest to Lucas in continuing the Star Wars saga on their television station.

Lucas knew that he had more of the Star Wars story to tell and knew it could best be told as a feature film. He also knew it would be some time before he would take the adventure up again. With ABC he saw the potential to continue interest and excitement in the series while new films were in the creation stage. It was proposed to ABC then that Star Wars be turned into a cartoon, albeit with some caveats. First, the animators could not use any of the major characters from the series (Luke, Han, Darth Vader etc.). This was because Lucas had a series of sequels planned and didn't want anything to interrupt what they might contain for each character. The second was that any characters who would be used should not change the films' plotlines.

It was decided to use the most recognizable characters possible without breaking these cardinal rules. And so R2D2 and C3PO were cast in a series to be titled 'Star Wars: Droids' (Also known as 'Droids' and later as 'Droids: The Adventures of R2D2 and C3PO').

The deal with ABC, though, was for two shows. In an effort to capitalize on the success of the latest Star Wars installment: Return of the Jedi, the Ewoks were elevated from supporting roles to leads in their own series entitled Star Wars: Ewoks (this was also known as 'Ewoks'). The Ewoks had already appeared in two post Return of the Jedi made-for-TV movies, the popularity of which made placing them in a Saturday series an all-the-more viable idea.

With 'casts' for the two shows in place, production began at Nelvana Studios. Nelvana was a smaller studio who won the production of these shows thanks to their prior work with Lucasfilm. Based in Canada, Nelvana has been responsible for a number of animated shows including 'Intergalactic Thanksgiving' and 'The Cryptkeeper'. While Nelvana handled the actual production of the two series, they worked very closely with George Lucas and Lucasfilm, his production company. Lucas himself supervised the story construction for both series, creating the plots from a conceptual point as well as supervising the direction that they took. One of the men that he worked closely with was Paul Dini who was a writer for Ewoks. Dini would go on to further sharpen his skills by working on Filmation's Flash Gordon series before taking on Batman in the acclaimed 1990's animated series.

While Lucas worked with the stories, Lucasfilm was there at every other step. As these were entertainment vehicles that carried the name of Star Wars, there was a certain amount of pressure to get things as exact as possible. To begin with, the series needed to contain a distinct quality and to ensure this each was given a $300,000 per episode budget. This is a substantial sum for any time and at this time, it left each series in a tie as 'The most expensive animated television show to ever be produced'. Everyone involved knew that they couldn't just throw money at the concept to make it work, they had to use that money wisely. The producers hired Ben Burtt, an Academy Award winning soundman who, most importantly here, designed the original sounds of the Star Wars series. Burtt was hired to create the sound of both series' and was actually given the license to bring many of the effects from the movies over to these two shows. (As a side note, Burtt also contributed several scripts to 'Droids'.) Another key hire was Anthony Daniels. Daniels originated the part of C3PO in Star Wars and having him play the part in 'Droids' lent the series an immense amount of credibility and continuity.

Droids
'Droids' follows the adventures of a pre-Star Wars R2D2 and C3PO. The plots of the episodes were, for the most part, rather formulaic in that the droids would be attached to a new set of owners who were being menaced by an imposing force. Everyone would have to overcome adversity, band together and ensure that good won. Each half hour story was complete within its self but each story also built on the previous ones. This 'serialistic' format is unique in animation and something that shows the definite hand of George Lucas. The animation was bright and clean; many of the episodes were directed by animation journeymen Clive Smith and Ken Stephenson.

'Droids' opened popularly in the fall of 1985 on Saturday mornings. In 1986, it was given a prime-time special, 'The Great Heep', a rather well done story that benefited from an attention to detail. Interest in the adventure of these two mechanical friends soon fell off though. So much so that the series was combined with the Ewoks for the formation of 'The Ewoks/Droids Adventure Hour'. 'Droids' lasted a few more episodes in this format and then headed off the air.

Ewoks
'Ewoks' followed the exploits of Wicket, the tiny but mighty Ewok hero of Return of the Jedi, and his friends as they faced life and adventure on their planet of Endor. The Ewoks were not particularly an action/adventure band of creatures though and so more often than not, the series became rooted in daily situations and family dynamics. (Granted, it's not as if C3PO and R2D2 are the first names in action, but at least their characters lent themselves to action situations more readily). Raymond Jafelice, Dale Schott and again Ken Stephenson were all responsible for directing the stories onto the air. Some of these stories would be written be Joe Johnston, an ILM effects artist and future feature film director.

In 1986, 'Ewoks' proved to be a stronger and more popular program than 'Droids' and the following year they returned, alone, in 'The All New Ewoks'. The show was new in the fact that the character list was pared down and the stories were tightened up. Instead of one long twenty-minute show, such as what could be seen in the first season, each episode now contained two eleven-minute adventures. The shorter time led the show to tighter pacing and more concise stories but by this time the audience was lost. In May of 1987 the Ewoks, and Star Wars, disappeared from weekly television.

Neither 'Droids' nor 'Ewoks' was an extremely captivating Saturday morning show. While the production values may have been top-notch, the stories and the characters weren't strong enough to build, or warrant, long-time viewership. In the case of both shows it could be seen why the main characters were supplemental characters in the films.

An Early Effort
These series actually marked the second foray that Star Wars made into animation. 1978 was a year after the initial release of Star Wars and the saga was still everywhere you looked. The public couldn't get their fill of the space adventure. At the same time they began clamoring for more. It was a call George Lucas was happy to hear as he was already in the planning stages for the next installment of the film. The next film would take time to create and release though, so in the effort to satisfy his urges and the public's desire, Lucas turned to television.

The 1978 Holiday Special is, by all accounts, not the high water mark for Star Wars. The two hour special features a Wookie family speaking only 'Wookiese', Jefferson Starship, a singing Bea Arthur, Art Carney and the entire original film cast. It is a mish-mash to say the least. Sandwiched into the middle of the story was a twelve minute cartoon. This animation, produced like the later series' by Nelvana, was a highly detailed, partially stylized story within the special. It featured all of the key cast members from Star Wars and all of the actors were there to voice their roles. The action took place after Star Wars and partially within the confines of the special. Besides being the first appearance of Star Wars in animated form, the short holds an important place because it marks the first appearance of Boba Fett. This fan-favorite bounty hunter would go on to make his mark in The Empire Strikes Back as a stoic and sturdy presence. In this animated short, Fett has an expanded part which includes a serious amount of dialogue. His appearance helps set the stage for his intense hunt of Han Solo in the later theatrical films.

Whether the Star Wars saga moves into animated form again remains to be seen. If and when it does, one can only assume that it will be with the same care and attention as what was given to these previous endeavors. We can also be excited as who knows what old friends we'll follow and what new friends we'll meet.

--

Image credit: 80's Nostalgia

Noell Wolfgram Evans is a freelance writer who lives in Columbus, Ohio. He has written for the Internet, print and had several plays produced. He enjoys the study of animation and laughs over cartoons with his wife, daughter, and newborn son.

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