Star Wars Saturday mornings: Droids and Ewoks 30 years later

Contributed by
Dec 2, 2015, 5:26 PM EST

Before Star Wars Rebels, before Star Wars: The Clone Wars and The Clone Wars microseries, the Star Wars universe was brought to television by two other animated shows. Thirty years ago, Droids and Ewoks premiered on Sept. 7, 1985, and introduced the idea of episodic Star Wars animated series to fans.

Produced by Canadian animation company Nelvana, Droids showed fans what C-3PO and R2-D2 were up to before A New Hope, while Ewoks followed the lives of Wicket W. Warrick and the Ewoks before the Battle of Endor seen in Return of the Jedi. Though they were short-lived cartoons, Droids and Ewoks helped show the potential for Star Wars in the world of animated TV.

The Infamous Holiday Special

The first television special Nelvana produced was A Cosmic Christmas in 1977. Clive Smith, one of the original founders of Nelvana and a producer on both Droids and Ewoks, told Blastr that George Lucas saw that Christmas animation and liked it. As a result, they were invited to create the cartoon segment of The Star Wars Holiday Special.

“In doing that, what we really did was design an animated look for the Star Wars characters, for Han Solo and Luke Skywalker and C-3PO and R2-D2 and Princess Leia and Chewbacca, of course, and so we had the job of translating this live-action look into animation,” Smith said.

That short segment in the 1978 special was the first time Star Wars was transformed into an animated world. Droids and Ewoks would look slightly different from this first attempt, but Nelvana’s success with the segment led to them working on the two future series.

Designing The Series

According to Smith, there were many discussions back and forth with Lucas about bringing the characters and settings of Star Wars to the two animated series. Producers from Lucasfilm helped oversee the direction of the shows at Nelvana, but Smith also had conversations with Lucas directly, going down to California every two weeks or so from Toronto.

“We had a lot of meetings looking at designs and trying out designs, experimenting with the animation, seeing how the animation works, seeing how the characters looked. A lot of discussion about how the robots moved and how and what sort of sound effects they would have, and, of course, we were designing new characters and we were designing new hardware in the sense of spaceships and characters,” he said. “So, a lot of development and a lot of back and forth and a lot of comments from George and from his designers down there [who] had a lot of input as well into what we were doing.”

Smith said the shows were like any animated project in that you were not just taking a camera and shooting like live action, but designing every detail in the animated world. Those details in Droids and Ewoks, however, had to work within the Star Wars brand.

“It was a huge responsibility, really, for us to follow up and make sure, because Star Wars already had such an incredible reputation and such a huge following. We really had to kind of make sure that we were as good as everything that’d gone before. It was very exciting. It was fantastic to be asked and to be invited to do this,” he said.

"It was a huge responsibility, really, for us to follow up and make sure, because Star Wars already had such an incredible reputation and such a huge following. we really had to kind of make sure that we were as good as everything that’d gone before."

To Smith, protecting the brand and the whole Star Wars legacy was important to everyone at Nelvana as well as to Lucas and those at Lucasfilm.

Producing And Drawing Cartoon Worlds For Star Wars

Lenora Hume, a supervising producer on the cartoons, told Blastr that the shows were very different stylistically.

“They were really quite independent production entities with totally different crews on them. They even were produced overseas in two different countries. Droids was done in Korea ,and Ewoks in Taiwan, the actual animation production,” Hume said. “So all the preproduction, posing, and keys and all of that was done in Canada and then it was shipped to both those countries with supervision over there from Nelvana. We had animation directors on site and effects people and all of that.”

Layout artist Brian Lemay was briefly a part of Ewoks before moving to join the Droids team. He worked on three episodes of Ewoks, but grew tired of drawing Endor’s big trees all the time and asked to be switched to the other cartoon. Working on Droids, Lemay said there were the standard characters of R2-D2 and C-3PO that the show focused on but then every three or so episodes a new central character would also show up. For example, the characters Jord Dusat, Thall Joben, and Kea Moll feature in the first four episodes before C-3PO and R2-D2 leave them at the end of the fourth episode, “A Race to the Finish.”

Ewoks was completely different where it was one just big continuous show that was all the way through,” Lemay said. “So, every time you have a brand new set of characters [in Droids], you’d get new model sheets for those characters and then you’d have to figure out what they look like and then you’d also get prop sheets, so if there was a landspeeder or TIE fighter or an alien fighter or something like that, you would get model sheets to show what those look like as well, so you could draw them accurately.”

Communication was key throughout production. Line producer Peter Hudecki acted as a liaison between the series’ teams, Lucasfilm, and the network distributing the shows, ABC. He worked through the approval stages with all involved to get approval on storyboards, voice recordings, and more.

“They had approval on animation when they got to finally screen a rough cut and my job was to sort of negotiate through the creative with them and it would sometimes be panel by panel and ‘why is it shot like this? Can we change that?’ There were times when I’d have to sort of argue points and resolve issues along the way and then communicate them back to the creative staff and then communicate them up to the owners and sort of administrative producers,” Hudecki explained.

One of the areas presenting a challenge when it came to approval was broadcast standards and practices (S&P), which Hudecki told Blastr were very rigid at the time and required a lot of hard work from the team to keep many scenes in the shows. Looking back at the rather tame Droids and Ewoks, it might be hard to think of what exactly standards and practices would have a problem with, but aspects like weapons, which were so common in the movies, presented an issue. Hudecki said that, in the early stages of designs for Droids, they had some fantastic weaponry, but would be told it looked too much like a weapon or gun and couldn’t be used. As a result, they had to modify and change things in order to get them through.

Another common concern for standards and practices was if a scene suggested a potentially imitable action a kid might try, in which case Hudecki said they would request it be cut out. This could be a sequence suggesting violence or including water or fire. For example, open fire would be an issue with S&P, who would ask for something like torches that might be providing light in a cave to be protected somehow, or they should otherwise not use them at all or use something else.

"One of the writers had to invent words that the Ewoks could say that weren’t suggestive in any way."

“If they [Ewoks] jumped out of a tree, trees were always a headache with Ewoks, and so the height. Kids climbing trees and making little bridges and then going across branch-to-branch, that kind of thing was also something they would be very upset about,” Hudecki said. “We had to watch the language, too. One of the writers had to invent words that the Ewoks could say that weren’t suggestive in any way. So little Ewok expressions they would shout if they were surprised or they were upset they had to really carefully come up with expressions that didn’t sound like swear words or curses. It was really tough because we never knew. They would find fault with the most innocent things and so one of the challenges for me then was to try and keep them appeased while having somebody at Lucasfilm saying ‘that’s ridiculous’ or having the director at Nelvana saying, ‘Well, that’s impossible, if we take that out it won’t be funny and I refuse to take that out’ and S&P would say, ‘you have to take that out’ and ABC would say, ‘You have to listen to them’ and it was, like, OK. We have to get the show done.”

These restrictions have been brought up as well by writer Paul Dini, who would go on to work on numerous Warner Bros. and DC Comics shows like Batman: The Animated Series. In a 2008 interview with Newsarama about his return to Star Wars writing for the animated series The Clone Wars, Dini commented on how he felt he could “finally say [he] worked on the real Star Wars.”

“Yes, I worked at the [Skywalker] Ranch for nearly four years on Ewoks & Droids, but it wasn't the same. Those shows fell under the control of the very restrictive network broadcast standards at the time, and they could never be anything than basic Saturday Morning cartoons. Some nice animation in some of them, but pretty much kid's stuff. Clone Wars is the real thing, with a stunning artistic vision and characters playing for life and death stakes,” he said.

Cancellation And Impact

Perhaps these limitations played a role in why Droids and Ewoks didn’t last longer on TV. While Droids lasted one season and was followed by a TV special The Great Heep, Ewoks managed to last for two. The stylistic differences may have also contributed, with the cute characters in Ewoks possibly fitting slightly more into the Saturday morning cartoon world and helping it last longer.

Hume told Blastr that she thinks it was “a bit of a surprise that they didn’t sort of resonate more with the audience,” especially in the case of Droids, although she thinks the secondary characters presented a challenge and was part of why it in particular didn’t see a second season. Since the show took place before A New Hope, they did not have access to recognizable characters people loved from the films, like Luke Skywalker.

This is a sentiment also expressed by Lemay, who never thought the shows would last for years. While he and, apparently, others thought Wicket on Ewoks was so annoying the show could not possibly go on forever, he did find Droids interesting and enjoyed working on it from a technical and drawing point of view, though he thought there was nothing engaging about it. He also believes the secondary characters not being directly from Star Wars was part of why it didn’t connect.

“The secondary characters that they were involved with were not really strong characters. They were just these characters that were thrown in to carry them through an adventure of sorts, and so I think, from that point of view, it had a limited basis where you do your three episodes of the one storyline and then you go to the next one and then you go to the next one and it’s, like, ‘Ok we get the idea. They’ve gone on these previous adventures and now they’re going to meet Luke and Leia and the rest of the characters.’ I think if it had been set after or in-between or something like that, then, I don’t know, maybe it would have worked better,” Lemay said. “Because if you watch the new Star Wars, it’s a little more engaging because the characters are based in the standard cannon of the Star Wars experience. That’s my feeling on it. It didn’t really feel like it was part of it, but it was an experiment to see if it could actually do something.”

After Ewoks and Droids, Star Wars would not return to animated TV until The Clone Wars microseries in 2003. Finding connections or influences between these first shows and the ones that have come since is difficult. A better connection can perhaps be seen looking at Droids and the prequel films. Droids was really the first attempt at a prequel and connections between the two have been pointed out over the years. Still, Hudecki thinks most people don’t remember Droids.

Ewoks, however, was the first time that Star Wars got into the Saturday morning world, and the Saturday morning world is not perceived as the highest standard of entertainment, so it was a little bit risky, I think, for them to go into that market. I personally don’t believe that the series were deeply significant because they were Saturday morning cartoon versions, but I know that it had a huge fan base and that they were good shows and they launched a number of very successful careers for a lot of talented people and it was so much fun to work on,” he said.  

For Smith, he thinks the series for the day at the time had an audience, were enjoyed very much, and do share a certain connection with Star Wars.

"With a lot of CG today, because it’s digitally created, a lot of digital stuff looks the same and there’s a quality about drawn animation that is really nice and really is something that people kind of treasure"

“I thought we did a really decent job and they’re vintage now obviously and I think people do look back at them and see the kind of a charm that they had,” Smith said. “With a lot of CG today, because it’s digitally created, a lot of digital stuff looks the same and there’s a quality about drawn animation that is really nice and really is something that people kind of treasure so I think looking back at those hand drawn series I think they have a real warmth and a real charm about them and that’s something the Star Wars series also has, a warmth and a charm.”

After 30 years Ewoks and Droids may not be the best remembered entries into the Star Wars franchise or even the most popular. However they remain an essential part of and important beginning to Star Wars’ journey into the realm of TV animation. This first idea to try and tell animated episodic stories started Star Wars on a path that has led to the characters and stories that have been created since. If Star Wars had tried live action instead, things might look different on TV today.