When Hideo Itoyanagi created an animated retelling of Star Wars: The Force Awakens for Japan, he gained a new fan: Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy.
In Itoyanagi’s short, he depicted the heroes and villains of The Force Awakens as BB units, i.e., in the shape of the beloved ball-droid BB-8. It was charming, adorable, and wholly original, and Kennedy wanted more.
“I met her in December 2017 when she came to Japan to promote Episode VIII,” Itoyanagi tells StarWars.com. “On the spot she asked me, ‘Will you create original shorts using your [stylized take on Star Wars] characters?’ I was so surprised.”
And with that, a new series of animated shorts was born.
StarWars.com is excited to announce Star Wars Roll Out, coming to StarWarsKids.com and YouTube.com/StarWarsKids beginning Friday, August 9. Created by Lucasfilm and Itoyanagi, the shorts star fan-favorite heroes of a galaxy far, far away in a bright and vibrant style. You can watch the series trailer below.
“As Star Wars evolves with each passing year, it’s important for us to find new, light-hearted, and kid-friendly expressions of the franchise that still carry the heart, soul, and adventure of its original form,” says James Waugh, Lucasfilm’s vice president, franchise content and strategy. “One of the wonderful things about our Star Wars Kids channel is that we can experiment to see how far we can stretch the franchise to a new expression, while still being totally rooted, recognizable, and authentic.”
Kennedy has made it a point to seek out and collaborate with new talent wherever they may be in the world. Roll Out is a direct result of that mindset. “Exploring unexpected, fresh directions with new voices helps to broaden our portfolio of talent,” Waugh adds. “Lucasfilm is a creative-first house and always will be. To find those unique creators that can partner with us on many projects to come is something that is critical for the future of the franchise.”
Indeed, Itoyanagi’s take is reflective of his own gifts and talent, while still feeling like Star Wars. The Star Wars Roll Out shorts blend humor, scares, action, and some surprising oddness — all of which are part of Star Wars — while presented in a cute, expressive tone and aesthetic that could only come from Itoyanagi.
“I wanted to come up with something never [before] seen in Star Wars animation,” Itoyanagi says. “I wanted to give everything a totally different look. Given that the characters are caricatured, I decided to make the backgrounds simple, with paper-cutout silhouettes put on top of each other like something you might see in a picture book. The camera motion is quite flat and might remind you of old video games. I wanted to take a different route from 3D animation and recent video games.”
Just the conceit of presenting all the characters in the form of BB units opens the door for unique visual opportunities. Characters don’t just roll, they bounce. Backgrounds can tilt, impacting the action. “Spinning” can also mean digging their way out of a problem. In other words, the animation style affords its own rules, which are often bent to very fun results.
“This is all Hideo Itoyanagi,” Waugh says. “It was inherent in the work he did that got our attention. But as we developed it further, it began to inform the narrative choices of the shorts as well, along with the sets and humor. We kept asking ourselves, ‘How could the sets and design impact the storytelling and its stakes, and comedy?’” Hideo responded by setting up worlds that behaved almost like an arcade pinball game. “In a world where everything rolls, the physics are different, the solutions to problems are different, the challenges are, too,” Waugh says. “Pretty soon the design aesthetic was part of every decision Hideo was making.”
In Star Wars Roll Out, our heroes often find themselves — in grand Star Wars and Lucasfilm tradition — facing a series of cascading problems. In some early episodes that StarWars.com was privileged to see, Chewbacca must deal with some minor porg annoyances before a much bigger threat arrives. He has to calm his famous Wookiee temper and solve the issue — while coming to an understanding with his feathered friends, and learning from them. In the end, it’s sometimes strange, yet completely delightful storytelling, loaded with heart.
“Hideo quite liked the idea that all of these shorts would be anchored by a theme — by a lesson — that would be subtly expressed, even with all the wackiness of the episode and fun stylization,” Waugh notes.
“Since the look and actions and of the characters are cute, I made sure the stories are heartwarming,” Itoyanagi says. “While problems do occur, I made sure the characters do not try to solve them with anger or hatred.”
While Star Wars Roll Out definitely comes from Itoyanagi’s heart, the end result stems from a true collaboration with Lucasfilm. The Lucasfilm Story Group worked closely with the animator, offering guidance when needed and also acting as a sounding board. “It was really fun,” Itoyanagi says. “They responded to my ideas and work with all kinds of feedback and advice. New ideas sprouted from such exchanges.”
“We were involved from start to finish to support Hideo” says Waugh, “helping him take his vision and translate that to a webisode series, aid in story and series development, and, like all good dramaturges, be a sounding board to assist the talent in finding the best way to communicate their ideas in the ideal form for the medium. It was a lot of fun and we were always impressed with how Hideo creatively approached the work.”
For his part, Itoyanagi more than enjoyed the experience.
“Having people who are willing to think about your project and share with you their candid thoughts is something to be very, very happy about,” he says. “Once I finish creating all the episodes of Roll Out, I will no longer be working with them. I can see myself feeling lonely already.”
Still, Waugh is quick to give credit where it’s due.
“At the end of the day,” Waugh says, “this is Hideo’s vision and his storytelling.”
While he’s not sure how he was introduced to Star Wars, Itoyanagi has been a fan for as long as he can remember. As a child, he loved the Ewoks and R2-D2, and credits their cuteness with, at least on a subconscious level, influencing his art style. Now a Star Wars creator himself, how does he feel about possibly introducing even one child to a galaxy far, far away with Star Wars Roll Out?
“That would be such an honor,” he says. “I feel so grateful from the bottom of my heart for been given this opportunity. Star Wars is loved by so many people. I would be so delighted if people get to [know] Star Wars through Roll Out.”
Dan Brooks is Lucasfilm’s senior content strategist of online, the editor of StarWars.com, and a writer. He loves Star Wars, ELO, and the New York Rangers, Jets, and Yankees. Follow him on Twitter @dan_brooks where he rants about all these things.
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