How the Clone Wars microseries led the way for Star Wars' return to TV

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Apr 29, 2015, 12:43 PM EDT

In today's world, it's easy to just accept the idea that Star Wars is on TV. Dave Filoni's Star Wars: The Clone Wars series lasted five seasons and received a sixth on Netflix, while its successor, Star Wars Rebels, just wrapped up a successful season one and will be returning for a second. There was a time, however, when Star Wars had not been on TV since the Ewoks and Droids animated series in the 1980s. The show that changed all of that was the Star Wars: Clone Wars microseries.

Premiering on Cartoon Network in November 2003, the microseries filled the gap between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. For the first time, it offered a chance to see on screen what the often-referenced Clone Wars were actually like. It set the stage for the release of what many thought would be the last Star Wars film, ending in March 2005 with a direct setup to the beginning of Revenge of the Sith.

Ten years later, it's hard to ignore the impact the Emmy award-winning, 25-episode microseries had on the franchise. It paved the way for the longer animated series that would follow and, among fans, remains a beloved entry in the Star Wars universe.

Bringing Star Wars Back To TV

Clone Wars director and producer Genndy Tartakovsky is well known for his work on hit Cartoon Network series like Dexter's Laboratory and Samurai Jack. Tartakovsky, who is directing Hotel Transylvania 2 at the moment, told Blastr it was toward the end of working on Samurai Jack that he learned about the microseries. Tartakovsky met with his then-boss, Mike Lazzo, who told him the channel might get Star Wars as an animated program. He asked Tartakovsky if he would want to do it but told him they could only do one-minute episodes.

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"I said 'well, I would love to do it, but one-minute episodes are basically commercials, and so I don't really want to do that. But if we can get at least maybe 3 or 5 minutes I could see what we could try and do with it,'" Tartakovsky explained.

The request was brought to George Lucas, who, in the end, gave Tartakovsky the extra time of 3 to 5 minutes.

"It was very quick, because I never knew anything was brewing. It was one of those things that just kind of happened in a conversation, and next thing you know they go, 'Yup, you can have more time, and you get two weeks to make a presentation.' So then it's me and [art director] Paul Rudish just kind of freaking out and figuring out what's going to be the style, what are we going to actually do for it, because they just said, 'We just want Clone Wars,' so we had to figure all that stuff out in two weeks' time," Tartakovsky said.

A direction he did receive for the first season of the microseries was that they could not progress any type of story involving elements like Anakin and had to avoid character arcs. Understanding that Lucasfilm wanted to leave those things for the movies, Tartakovsky was fine with it, and the team came up with the idea that, for these mini-episodes, viewers would get dropped into different battles and events taking place across the galaxy during the Clone Wars.

"That was a good way to feature other characters and not always rely on our heroes. We made a little bit of a character arc, but it was very subtle and they seemed to be OK with it," he said.

Bringing these characters to life was a group of talented voice actors, some of whom would continue to voice them beyond the microseries, like Tom Kane as Yoda and James Arnold Taylor as Obi-Wan Kenobi. Taylor told Blastr that, when he auditioned for the microseries, he was asked to go in and read for a match for Ewan McGregor's voice, but was not told it was for a series. He thought it would perhaps be for some of the movie's trailers or lines for a game.

"I get the call from my agents that I booked the job, so I thought, 'OK, this is great, so what is this? Just a one-day thing where I'm coming in and doing some lines?' and they said, 'No, it's a series, it's a Star Wars cartoon,' and I about fell out of my chair, because, you know, growing up loving Star Wars, loving these characters, and then being an animation guy that spends his time doing animation and cartoons, it's like, 'Well, my two worlds are colliding here,' so it was perfect. It was meant to be," Taylor said.

The Challenge of a Microseries

According to Tartakovsky, once Lucas saw the first season and liked how it turned out he really empowered them for the next season. He offered them slightly longer episodes and the chance to introduce a character at the end of season two that would appear in Revenge of the Sith.

"We were able to introduce [General] Grievous, and, even at the time, he was kind of a new addition, so George didn't have him all figured out," said Tartakovsky. "We were kind of able to give it our own spin and make him a real badass."

The appearance of Grievous in that season is unforgettable. He makes quite a first impression as he challenges six Jedi, fights five of them at once, kills three of them and forces the survivors to retreat. The introduction of Grievous is a perfect example of how the microseries excelled at setting up events leading up to the final installment of the prequel trilogy.

While the team was able to achieve much in a short amount of time, Tartakovsky admits that working with such a short episode format was a challenge at first. He said they realized that the more complex an episode was, the faster it seemed. They decided they should focus on one aspect, make that as cool as they wanted, and by focusing on that one idea give the illusion it was a bit longer. Lucasfilm was also OK with episodes that went slightly over the limit, which Tartakovsky said made things easier.

The concise episodes made recording dialogue an interesting experience as well. For Taylor, it wasn't much different from other animated shows in that they would still record for generally just one episode at a time even if they were short.

"Each time, you had maybe a few lines. 'What was that?' 'That was Anakin.' 'I'm on my way.' Those kinds of things. It wasn't a lot of dialogue, so you'd spend more time parking your car then you would going in to do it, but it was all so great because we knew what we were doing and we knew Genndy's vision for it all," he explained.

For the microseries, Taylor received scripts a day or two in advance, unlike the longer Clone Wars series, for which he would receive scripts the day of. While the episodes would all be voiced before being animated, that didn't mean the actors didn't get a chance to see what this largely unexplored time period might look like before it aired.

"Someone would messenger [the scripts] over to me, and then I'd get these huge storyboard scripts that were the whole episode drawn out in storyboards, and most of the time, Genndy's and some of the other artists' hand sketches of the characters telling the story. Really fascinating, fun stuff to see and kind of be there for the groundbreaking of all of these new worlds that we explored that we are now taking for granted in the world of Star Wars [with] all these animated shows. It was really a first time for all of that, it was exciting stuff," he said.

Legacy And Influence

Taylor recalls the microseries being released with anticipation.

"There wasn't a lot going on in the world of Star Wars animation, and so this was really a new adventure for all of us," he said.

The adventure concluded in March 2005, when the microseries ended and led directly into the opening battle of Revenge of the Sith, which arrived in theaters that May. It would be three years before Star Wars would appear in a TV series again, when Filoni's longer Clone Wars animated series would premiere in 2008. Even though a different team took over for that Clone Wars series, some aspects of the microseries, such as its look, did influence the new show. Tartakovsky didn't really watch the show but knows some of the microseries' design played a role. Taylor, who voiced Obi-Wan for that series as well, said while there was an influence of the microseries on the longer series they were also both very different. He was free not to have to match McGregor's voice exactly on Filoni's series, for example.

"George and Dave Filoni said, 'Make this character your own now, and take him in places you would,' and my Obi-Wan for that was really primarily influenced by Dave Filoni's vision of him, and in the microseries, it was more so Genndy, but also the films, and then George Lucas' vision and Ewan McGregor's vision, so both were great fun to do, but both were very different from each other. I think I learned a lot from the microseries and kind of cutting my teeth on what was in store for me in the world of Star Wars for years to come," Taylor said.

For Tartakovsky, it was painful to have the longer series basically replace the microseries in the Star Wars canon, since he felt they paved the road, but he still thinks the microseries remains important to Star Wars. He feels they had an effect on the tone of what followed in the franchise. He was also surprised to see a familiar-looking scene when the new The Force Awakens teaser trailer debuted: A crashed Star Destroyer looks very similar to crashed Destroyers seen in the microseries.

"I don't know if it was just an accident. I don't know if J.J. [Abrams] came up with it or somebody else did and they never saw what we did, but it's exactly the same, which is really fun, because seeing it done for a 100 million dollars versus 50 bucks was awesome, to see that executed so great," he said.

Taylor sees the microseries' importance in how it broke ground and played a role in the current power of Lucasfilm animation. He also feels that the stories are very powerful.

"I really loved the stories. I love where they took us and what they did with those characters, from [Asajj] Ventress to Anakin and all in between. Mace Windu has an amazing arc in that series as well, so it's really important to me as a Star Wars fan. I don't really know if I know of a single Star Wars fan that I've met, and I've met one or two in my day, that hasn't loved the microseries if they've seen it," he said.

Tartakovsky said, whenever he sees fans react positively to the microseries, he feels he contributed in a small way to the universe. He also feels, as many believe, "It happened in the Star Wars universe to a degree." For Tartakovsky it was great to be a part of a universe that was one of his biggest inspirations as a kid. Looking back a decade later, Tartakovsky said he has "very fond memories of doing it."

"There was just a handful of us, and it was nice that way," he said. "After doing Dexter's Laboratory and Powerpuff Girls and Samurai Jack, we were at the top of our game, and the timing was right for us to do it, and I think it kind of shows. I watched some of them recently at a lecture I did, and they still stand up pretty well."

The microseries is certainly as exciting to watch now as it was 10 years ago. It's hard not to feel a thrill when seeing the Jedi in action during the Clone Wars, or seeing clever explanations for aspects of Revenge of the Sith, like Grievous' cough. Exploring that period of time in the Star Wars universe for the first time on screen sparked a shift in our thinking about the potential for Star Wars on TV. Without the microseries, we would probably not be enjoying all the Star Wars animation we have today.