When Star Wars was introduced to a new generation with Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, it created a divide within the community. Was podracing great or lame? How exactly did Midi-chlorians work? And what exactly was going on with all that talk about trade deals? Are we being too hard on Jar-Jar? But there were some things everyone could agree on. Liam Neeson rules, as does Darth Maul. Now the film is turning 20 and those behind it are looking back.
SYFY WIRE attended the film's panel at Star Wars Celebration, which was led by host (and Ewok professional) Warwick Davis and featured the likes of Jean Bolte, Doug Chiang, John Knoll, and Matthew Wood — all original Lucasfilm staff on the movie. After showing a brief snippet of footage discussing the behind-the-scenes creation of the film — including 3,500 storyboards that featured something, every few images, that Knoll knew they had no way to create.
Knoll explained that Phantom Menace is still perhaps the biggest model endeavor that ILM ever tackled, which Bolte augmented with her digital model shop. Using Chiang's artwork, Bolte helped CGI move a huge step forward with her self-developed 3D paint program.
Speaking of steps forward, Chiang said that George Lucas wanted to make sure moving from the prequels to the first trilogy felt like a movement through period pieces. That meant sleekness prioritized over a lived-in feeling, newness over grit — something that went all the way down to the sound. Sebulba's pod, Wood said, took its sound effects from a brand new Ferrari with a hole punched in the muffler. Knoll even mentioned that he was the single pilot that died in the space battle above Naboo — dying because, thanks to his goatee, he was recognizable as a character who wasn't important.
But some of those more famous faces showed up on stage for a discussion of their own: Ray Park (Darth Maul) and Ian McDiarmid (the Emperor) — though the latter didn't laugh like he did during the trailer for The Rise of Skywalker. "I just happened to be in the area," Ian McDiarmid said of The Rise of Skywalker announcement panel, "and I thought I'd drop in for a laugh."
McDiarmid also explained that Neeson didn't know until the premiere that Palpatine and Darth Sidious were the same character — and McDiarmid didn't either until the first day of shooting. And perhaps fans will see him again — McDiarmid relates that Lucas said the Emperor was dead at the end of Return of the Jedi...but he said it with such a smirk that fans can't help but hope to see him again. Park also played two characters, both Maul and one of the royal guards. But as for the former, Park opened up a bit about his influences. Real martial arts played into the creation of Darth Maul's movements, but so too did games like Tekken and Soul Edge.
Finally, Anthony Daniels and Jar-Jar himself, Ahmed Best, arrived. Daniels mentioned that it'd been rumored that the franchise was going to an Episode IX since the beginning. Best mentioned that Binks came out of Buster Keaton, Jackie Chan, and his own background performing Stomp. He also explained that since the motion-capture was so cutting edge at the time, he was wearing a Jar-Jar suit in case the CGI didn't work for the shot. It was a back-up in case the technology didn't cut it.
Best's reception, like that of Kelly Marie Tran, has worked to undo some negative corners of the online fandom with in-person positivity — something a small video from George Lucas emphasized as he thanked fans for coming back to support one of his favorite films. Perhaps the end of the Skywalker saga and its follow-ups on Disney+ will lead to more Celebrations two decades down the line.
You can find all of our Star Wars Celebration coverage here.