One need not search far on the Internet to notice that whenever the subject of behind-the-scenes Star Wars facts springs up, the prequel trilogy almost always tends to fall by the wayside, dismissed over misconceptions that its use of CGI doesn’t leave much in the way of fascinating production tidbits. While true that visual effects development shifted from practical to computer generated during The Phantom Menace onward, it still required a team of creative visionaries sketching out, sculpting, and building the people, creatures, and ships to be brought to life on the computer — something that no piece of technology, no matter how advanced, can ever do alone. And like Episodes IV through VI before it, the prequel trilogy has its own set of strangely insightful secrets sure to add to your near-encyclopedic knowledge of Star Wars trivia!
1. Racers, Put Some Clothes On!
Just when fans thought that Star Wars aliens couldn’t get any weirder — or concept artist Terryl Whitlatch’s creativity more uninhibited — The Phantom Menace’s Podracer menagerie proved us wrong yet again, showcasing some of the most imaginative species since A New Hope or Return of the Jedi. Her background in paleontology and zoology, Whitlatch’s understanding of animal anatomy informed her designs, resulting in creatures with unusual body proportions. And it was likely for this reason, in order to envision how they’d move within and interact with their environment, that Whitlatch drew Sebulba, Teemto Pagalies, and the rest as naked as the day their respective gods made them! Clothes and other accessories were doubtless omitted at first to give the CGI department a better sense of the racers’ unique movements, a complete departure from the more humanoid build of Rodians or Weequays, for example. Hey, if you were broiling under Tatooine’s twin suns, you wouldn’t be above hitting the raceway sans clothes either!
2. Attack of the Trade Federation Saucers
It’d be 30-odd years before the galaxy would quiver beneath the Death Star’s terrifying shadow, for the moment receiving a taste of seemingly omnipotent superweapons thanks to the Trade Federation’s fleet of Lucrehulk-class battleships. From day one the film’s concept artists sought to evoke traditional Star Wars vehicular aesthetics in the ship’s design: utilitarian, uniform, and unembellished. Early illustrations, inspired partly by Imperial Star Destroyers, sported a trench circling the battleship’s rim and, in a tip of the hat to classic science fiction, a shape resembling flying saucers. Though fond of the design, the creative team soon settled on today’s familiar open-ring configuration, of which allowed for more possibilities such as rotational capabilities and detachment of the central sphere. But whether intentional or otherwise, the spirit of the battleship’s UFO origins lived on in its Neimoidian crew, bearing an uncanny resemblance to our real world descriptions of “alien grays.”
3. A Gungan and His Dog
Although Star Wars might be set in a galaxy far, far away, the spiritual bond between man and dog spans the cosmos. The notion to pair Jar Jar Binks with a canine companion was entertained during The Phantom Menace’s early stages — intended as a lovable foil or an accomplice in the Gungan’s fumbling antics. Concept art by Whitlatch does exist, but it was eventually decided to keep Jar Jar a solo act and drop the idea…somewhat, at least. The alien canine waddled and slobbered its way into series canon through the book The Wildlife of Star Wars: A Field Guide, illustrated, again, by Whitlatch. Officially known as “blarths,” the initial characteristics were retained for the species, described as laid-back, good-natured creatures whose constant desire for attention oftentimes leads to — if the above image is any indication — innocent disaster.
4. Skeleton Crew
Star Wars’ enduring tradition of paying homage to groundbreaking cinema didn’t slow down with the prequel trilogy, and when time came to design the look of the Trade Federation’s battle droid legion, The Phantom Menace’s concept artists looked no further than to special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen for inspiration. Those who worked closely with then design director Doug Chiang stated that he had modeled the battle droid’s spindly frame on the reanimated skeleton warriors from Jason and the Argonauts — a film that pops up in many a filmmaker’s recollections of influential movies. This didn’t mean that finalizing the look was simple. Artists spent a fair deal of time illustrating various head concepts and deciding on color schemes, of which was originally a stark, skeletal white.
5. The Force is Strong with Hasbro
It isn’t unheard of for toy companies holding intellectual property rights to take liberties for play features’ sake, though having those play features influence a major film franchises’ conceptual designs certainly is. Hasbro’s — the chief license-holder of Star Wars merchandise — release of Obi-Wan Kenobi’s Jedi starfighter for its Attack of the Clones line included two breakaway panels that not only revealed hidden missile launchers, but also deployable flight stabilizers. Impressed with the latter gimmick, George Lucas commissioned that Revenge of the Sith’s upgraded Jedi starfighters incorporate that very element, besides abandoning the triangular shape and linking the trilogies together visually via the TIE fighter-inspired cockpit window.
6. The Many Faces of General Grievous
An interesting aspect of Star Wars concept art (or that of any film) is being able to chart a character’s evolution from a rough idea to a finalized product, each adjustment bringing it closer to familiarity. The changes Revenge of the Sith’s General Grievous underwent could only be described as sharp, drastic leaps. Concept artists submitted numerous approaches to Grievous that presented him as a wholly alien warlord, a scythe-wielding female warrior, a child, and — which would have been a delight for steampunk aficionados — a steam-powered droid with a gaping, furnace-like mouth. These organic and mechanical designs eventually coalesced in Grievous’ transformation into a cyborg, Lucas himself suggesting that his organs be housed in a fluid-filled container behind a concealed chest cavity.
Steven Romano is a writer, a geek culture enthusiast and, above all, a longtime fan of the galaxy far, far away. Landspeeder, don’t bantha, over to his blog and Twitter at @Steven_Romano.