In July, at the San Diego Comic-Con, I was able to sit down with Joel Aron, the CG Supervisor for the animated Star Wars show, The Clone Wars. After a long career in feature films for Industrial Light and Magic, Joel made the jump to Lucas Animation to work on The Clone Wars.
Talking to him, he exudes passion for his work, for storytelling, for lighting, for great films, and, above-all, great photography. He’s never seen without a camera around his neck and snaps pictures of everything and portraits of everyone he can get his hands on. (His photography facebook page is a great place to check out his photography work.)
On the show, it’s his job to make sure all of the visuals come together, from design to lighting, all the way down the line. It’s a big job and he seems to fit perfectly into it.
We spoke for a long time and here’s the pertinent portions of our conversation:
Big Shiny Robot!: I always feel at disadvantaged with these interviews – because i haven’t seen what you guys are showing. The look of the show is crazy. Every season – you get in and I say “Wow, this was in improvemenr over the movie, wow this is an improvement over season 1.. season 4 looks even better than season 3, and i thought season 3 looked incredible, just from that clip i saw, with the wind on Ahsoka’s parka – stuff like that – it looked incredible. Can we talk a little bit about evolving look of the show & characters?
Joel Aron: Where we left off (episodes 3.16-3.18 [the Chewbacca episodes]) – we have those two episodes and we knew those episodes have to push even harder. we had to push even really hard with the Nightsisters arc, with Savage Opress right into the Wookiee episodes. after that, we realized that we benchmark the sets – the environments. how the sets become characters. It starts all the way back in design. When we were doing the Padawan Lost episode and learning what we could do, at that point, the designs for season four were well underway. We learned that we could do that now – we found ways to get the studios – primarily the studio does most of the work: CGCG in Taiwan, and Singapore does a few episodes as well). CGCG is moving at such a fast click so it’s really hard to get them to do things that are advancements, so we always have to go in such baby steps. It starts with that design.
So you saw the clip with Death Watch with Ahsoka’s parka blowing in the wind? That’s something we learned to do way back at the end of season 1 but it just looked like an inner tube floating around so we knew that when we were designing that episode, it was about the same time we were finishing 3.16 and 3.18, so we knew we could go in and sculpt. Darren Marshall, one of our sculptors, amazing designer – figured out how that could be designed based on how we knew we could animate it and how we could get the studio to do it in a short period of time. Because the biggest hurdle of all of our characters is that we can add whatever we want to it but the fact of the matter is that the schedule is always going to be the same. So it’s like a gamble – how difficult can we make these characters, or how intricate or how dynamic can we make these characters, but know that it has to fit inside that ten week schedule.
It’s ridiculous it’s the biggest challenge.
BSR!: But as you go forward, it seems you have been able to build one thing and it stays in your toolbox, as it were, so you can build onto that as the show goes on. By the time you hit six or seven seasons, it will look like live action…
JA: You know it’s funny, to joke around a lot – we slowly starting to catch up with what I think – having come from a long list of feature films – I really think we’re catching up to that. I think we’ve finally brought the show up to looking like a feature film. A lot of it is environment – not so much the characters, it’s the environment.
BSR: There were shots in season 2, the Geonosian arc, that I wouldn’t be able to tell from the movie if you showed it to me side by side.
JA: Wait until you see what Dave is going to show you in a few hours. (laughs) You’re going to see something in a few hours that is pretty well done, with the exception of the temp score on it from Empire. It’s almost two-and-a-half minutes of action where you are going think you are watching a Star Wars feature film. You’ll know what I’m talking about when you see it.
BSR!: Is it from one episode or is it a conglomeration?
JA: It’s a conglomeration. It’s a story that is being told over several parts. The arc was split up between two studios – this is a really big challenge, with Singapore doing a portion of the arc, and CGCG did another portion, at different times, and they slightly overlapped. So we had to get the two studios to synch up with the look, the action, the characters. Everything had to be synched up. That episode alone was our benchmark for how far we can get into live action, It’s the same thing in the same story arc that you’ll see a space battle. So one’s a ground battle, and one’s a space battle. We feel that with the look of those two, we can do feature-film quality action and now we’re trying to trickle that back down into just even the simple dialogue like you and I talking to make it seem like it’s the feature film. Just as engrossing as it was..
BSR!: There’s certainly an archetype – I think one of the films that is an action film in a lot of ways but has the most interesting-looking conversations is The Professional…or Leon.
JA: Absolutely. It’s one of my all time favorite movies.
BSR!: Just the conversations in it are riveting – just the way they are put together. If you were able to capture that in the dialogue as well as you’ve done with the action. The thing is, for us on the outside looking in, all the stuff looks great. We don’t know what you are up to to show us something more, and you’re setting us up for disappointment eventually because you guys are going to get it perfect, and we’re not going to get…
JA: The answers?
BSR!: I don’t know about that, but… I’m just along for the ride.
JA: Me too. But that’s a good question. Working on season three, we had all these episodes where we tried to sound important – who are we? We’re just sitting here pumping – at Celebration V – pumping up and we knew going in that there were going to be a lot of setted episodes after Christmas, that that was our change. Everything changed at that point. So going back to talk about character, dialogue or involvement into conversation in the set.
To Christian, the lead writer, and Dave’s credit, it all starts with that script. The scripts for season four and the remaining ones of season three that actually aired in season four.
BSR!: About that middle lull in season three that a lot of people seemed to not respond as well to, — the politics episodes. It felt like some of those episodes were from season two, in some ways.
JA: We had to air them at some point. And that’s all Dave and Cary’s decision. Like Jesse [Hildreth, a lighter in Singapore] is for me, I’m Dave’s Merlin – he unleashes me on it, and I make it look beautiful. But the scripts have been so powerful. That clip with Death Watch, we just showed George that whole episode yesterday, even before we screened it for George, we all turned and looked at each other and went “F**, that’s crazy” for 22 minutes.
“That is just insane.” That is the real challenge – you can create all this dialogue, talky-talk stuff, and try to make it intense but to actually have it suck in the audience and keep you focused for 22 minutes and not have it feel like you left anything out or that you need to want more. You’re going to watch these battle episodes we’re talking about, and even the talking episodes, the droid episodes, and you’re going to be sucked in. At the end of that thirty minutes, you’re going to be wanting more. That’s the gist of season four.
BSR!: Looking from the outside looking in, I don’t know how you can do that any better than you already do. So I’m almost worried – I get anxiety in between each episode?
JA: You know what this is? Going back to my very first reaction when I saw my very first episode for the very first time, I heard the narrator and I immediately thought that George wants us to be like a popcorn matinee on a Saturday, and that’s almost what it is. In the beginning, it started to grip everybody and unfortunately it started to dropping you around time and you’re trying to keep up. But now I think we’re getting into these better stories that we have to tell and we’re going to end it with the audience, at the end of each episode, thinking, instead of just wanting. If you leave an episode with too much wanting – like the way Deadwood season three ended, knowing that there wasn’t going to be a season four. They built it so much, leaving the audience wowed, but when you’d find there’s no season four, it was like “Uh?” There’s none of that on our show. The only reason is that we always know where the end point is, and we have to get to that endpoint. It’s just the stories that we tell.
As much as we pumped up season three, I think season four is really fantastic. A lot of writers are new. All the stories are connected. The cinematography is like the feature films. If you saw the Star Wars Insider where I broke down my five greatest influences from movies, and I’m really trying to pull more. Dave has thrown me the keys for the visuals. I’m a Moto GP fan, so it’s like he’s the guy putting the bike together and telling you this is what I got to run with, and I run with it on the track with the team.
This season is going to be torture [for us]. Last season we knew all about Chewbacca but we just had to sit on it for nine months.
BSR!: It’s probably not worth asking but… the payoff for the Darth Maul set up?
BSR!: See, it’s not worth asking.
JA: It’s like Ahsoka and her fate. You can keep the hook in the water as long as you want.
BSR!: It’s frustrating…
JA: Especially if you’re a hardcore fan. But he [Dave Filoni] is one of the biggest fans you’ll ever meet. As much as George has been involved with these episodes, it’s really been Dave – all throughout the rest of season three and season four. Our reviews with George, like yesterday, were “Perfect. It’s great. Loved it.” maybe change one line there. But it’s all Dave now, and he’s the biggest fan. Because of that, I think we’re not being asked to do these episodes of kids who need to find the person who tainted their tea.
BSR!: I think that episode could have worked. I watched that episode four times, going “Aww, man, if I had been in the writing room, I could have fixed this episode.”
JA: Even in the editorial room, it was a shark pool.
BSR!: It was so thrown together – it was like The Third Man with no Harry Lime. That’s all it needed, a Harry Lime.
JA: I love that movie. So the fan expectation, where Dave’s driving now – that’s where season four is: All the episodes we’re doing now, Dave will come into my office and start talking, “I’ve been thinking about this one thing and we need to put a lot of focus on these two episodes. This is what we need to think about for this episode.” I’ll completely have to submerse myself in the thought for where he wants to go for a certain episode – to hit it on the level that he wants to present it. Hence, the Death Watch clip that you saw. When you see the whole episode, which I think airs later in the year..
BSR!: That’s always the fun of going to these things. You catch tidbits of stuff you’ll see eight months from now.
JA: But I think what we’re really trying to tell everyone is that we’re not going to the Senate anymore. Let’s say Dee [Bradley Baker] had a lot of work to do this season.
BSR!: Oh, that’s good news.
JA: The last set of episodes that are pivotal. Even later in the season, the work that we have to do – there’s one artist named Woon Chi, who works along with Jesse, and those two guys, along with Ben Radcliffe, who is my right-hand man in Singapore. I feel that with that team, Jesse, Woon Chi, Kathy Chi – all these people that are just like us – they just want to do it, really want to work on it. That’s what season 4 is. Everyone realizing, “This is it. This isn’t a cartoon kids show.” We’re doing stuff in these upcoming episodes that we’ve never done before. I can say with all the passion in my heart that there is nothing on television like what we are doing now. There’s nothing on the scale.
It’s this devotion to actually realizing what you’re working on. Like when Jesse did the shot of Anakin with Vader behind him, he knew he was getting that shot.
BSR!: He told me that there wasn’t anything in the notes for the actual laserblast hitting Alderaan. He just did it. And for the premiere of season three, when they shoot out the guns in the training simulator, he actually went through shot for shot in Return of the Jedi, hand drew all of the electrical sparks from Palpatine’s Force Lightning, and worked all those into the sparks taking out the guns.
JA: Dude, that’s a good story. Dave and I are talking about this: We’d love to put focus on the teams we work with. As much as we’re out here, waving the flag for this show, there’s no way, with how tight the schedule is for the show – there’s no way to work on this show unless you can handle the heat in the kitchen. J esse can handle it, Woon Chi can handle it. You’re going to see in this space battle. Woon Chi is a hard core, hard core Star Wars fan. He gets this one shot that you’re going to see, and all the effects were in there. But one thing we always talk about is all the cool little things we saw in the opening space battle of Revenge of the Sith, so Woon Chi said “Hey, I added these – is it okay if I added these little tiny missles that are blue *ssszzzzzzzooooop!*” Look for that. I was happy with the shot the way the effects were with the lighting because sometimes you have to let it end and say that’s everything we got and I can do everything I can in color correct. The colorist is named Shawn Wells. He and I are in the same mind, because we sculpt the show at the end. That shot came in, and Woon Chi asked if the blue missles were ok – it wasn’t even his job to put them in. He just thought they would be really cool and knew how to do it really quickly. Here’s a guy already stretched to the nines, fourteen, fifteen hours a day, six days a week, and he still goes that extra mile to instead of put what just needs to be in the shot, but add a little how-cool-is-this blue missles.
BSR!: I got a tweet from Jesse a couple weeks ago, “I just finished 19 shots there” some random number so George could see his episode.
JA: Episode 405. I’ll show you a clip of that at my panel. We’ve got designs that Dave is going to show – We’re going to planets, using influence from everything we love – Rome, Cleopatra,The Shining.
BSR!: That’s the way to do things. You have to bring what you know and love into things.
JA: That’s really all I do. I take photographs. If you ask anyone at work, there isn’t a place I go without pictures. I’ve been shooting behind the scenes for everything.
BSR!: I’ve been covering The Clone Wars since Season One, and have never seen you without a camera.
JA: It’s what I do. Because of that, I watch so much of movies that influenced me. Last night, I watched Moon again – we got an episode coming up. Anyway. Everything is an influence for me – Yesterday I got busted in my office for watching Three Kings again. I watch Lawrence of Arabia – George was in last week and he jokingly said “Lawrence of Arabia” and I’m like “Oh my God.” I’ve been watching Lawrence of Arabia, putting it on every night for the last three months, because that movie was obviously an influence for when George did all the desert shots. You needed to feel being in that desert, feel that heat. Everything’s an influence for me. Every lighting shot you see, I’m intimate with. No one has photographic memory, it’s a myth. But you either have that memory or you don’t. I have a memory for almost every single shot of every single episode and I know how every one is lit. I can watch a cut and know that that shot is missing, it’s the wrong take because the lighting is wrong. That Dave has entrusted to me for season three and all of season four and everything in the future. He knows that I think like he does, which is that it is all about the shape and the composition for lighting. It’s all about the pose. If you know the environment, like you can’t light something like an old Western if it’s meant to be in downtown Chicago. Lighting is critical. It’s what we’ve been doing, lately.
BSR!: I read somewhere, or maybe heard at Celebration, that all the bars in the show are the same bar, lit differently. But they’re all so drastically different that I don’t think anyone watching it would go, “That’s the same bar” ever. From the shot of Plo Koon and Ahsoka walking into the disco lights to the bounty hunter guys in one of the Senate episodes, watching dancers, as they’re chasing Padme.
JA: Yeah, but we have some new bars coming up.
BSR!: I don’t mind. I can’t tell.
Joel: I will tell you this. Every time we go to that place in A New Hope that’s a bar, I’m obsessed. I can’t get those angles that you saw in A New Hope that makes you think of the cantina bar. Even though we’re shooting in a set that is supposed to be like the cantina bar, you still want to make it look like the cantina bar. The only way to do that is to make sure the proportions are right and the camera angles are right. That’s why I was looking at this book (Blueprints), and we need to get the blueprints for the cantina, so I can know exactly and then I can do it. Right now, I’m wrestling. The 3D story artists are wrestling.
And that was all the time we had on the record.