To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the first episode of the Skywalker saga, Star Wars: Episode I —The Phantom Menace, SYFY WIRE has put together a series of retrospectives and oral histories that detail different aspects of the top-secret, often groundbreaking production of the movie. In this installment, we look at that lovable Gungan scamp, general, and senator, Jar Jar Binks.
Until recently, there might not have been a more divisive character in fandom than Jar Jar Binks. Older generations of fans didn’t understand him and never quite listened to the younger generations about his importance, but now the character is experiencing a renaissance of popularity. At this year's Star Wars Celebration Chicago, Ahmed Best, the actor behind the character, received an extended standing ovation, and a stadium full of people chanted his name when he was introduced.
In the years leading up to the release of The Phantom Menace, Jar Jar was a unique challenge on every level. We start with Teryl Whitlatch, the concept artist chiefly in charge of creating the look of the character:
Teryl Whitlatch: Even though Jar Jar was primarily my responsibility, all of us contributed to him. Doug Chiang [supervising art director] did, and Iain McCaig [concept artist] did, and then I did.
George was taking time with him, because he also was wrestling with the decision he had to make. There’s the original Star Wars audience, everybody who's seen the original trilogy starting in 1977, and at that age, most of us were teenagers, and older for the most part, but then the next generation of Star Wars fans were going to be the little kids. Like 5, 6 years old. They're going to be the kids of the kids who saw the original movie. From a child's point of view, if you see the original Star Wars, [those movies] could be kind of scary. People are getting shot. There are some scary creatures. And so Jar Jar, this main character, had to be kind of a safe character, so little children could feel comfortable and okay with him ... And George had small children at the time. And so it's like, "Well, which audience?”
And then he made decision to include Jar Jar, and it really depends when you're born how you feel about that particular character.
Whitlatch: When [George] first talked about Jar Jar, his idea was of a character that was tall, gangly, and definitely not human. He lived in a swamp, and his people were amphibious. His people had to be comfortable both on land and in the water, but they primarily lived under the water, and the rest of the Gungans — he had named them, he just wasn't quite sure what they looked like — were pretty graceful and not clumsy.
Jar Jar had more of a Charlie Chaplin and Danny Kaye aspect, where he had a certain grace. Those were the two actors to look at as far as Jar Jar's personality and how he moved and such. How he looked, of course, had to do with his amphibious abilities and that he could not possibly be confused as a human being in a creature costume.
Ahmed Best (via Celebration Chicago): Jar Jar was very much Buster Keaton, and I was a huge Buster Keaton fan, Charlie Chaplin fan, Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, like it was always physical for me. I grew up in martial arts, and I really enjoyed being a physical person, and STOMP was extremely physical. It's a musical with no words. And it was really about communication through physicality and percussion. So when Robin Gurland [casting director] saw me in STOMP, she looked at me and the way I was moving and thought that I might be good for what George was looking for. And then she brought me to Skywalker Ranch, which was mad trippy.
Whitlatch: When I was at Industrial Light & Magic [ILM], I did just this little doodle of this little frog-like creature, worried with big bubbly eyes and features. It had nothing to do with Star Wars. I’d just come off a big job, I can't even remember what film it was, but it was lots and lots of hours and I was really, really tired. I'd worked till late at night and was now back in the morning, and I'd just finished my part and I was going to be put on another film, and I was waiting for another one of my art directors to get back to me, and I was just sketching kind of how I felt. I was like, "I'm fried, I'm just so fried. I'm so glad I'm done." You have this false euphoria because you're really, really tired …
Whitlatch: I kept that little sketch and I put it on my bulletin board when I got to the big house [Skywalker Ranch], and George saw it and said, "Yeah, that's kind of what I'm looking for, not quite, but kind of that feeling." And then Doug [Chiang] worked up an idea that had kind of a duck-billed dinosaur head but just the head part, and George kinda liked that direction. He liked my little funny creature sketch and said, "Let's work on these aspects here.”
And so what I did is I did variations on themes. Jar Jar looked like quite a few different animals for a while, but pretty much kept kind of that duck-billed dinosaur feel. We just refined, refined, and refined it. And then at a certain point, George said, "What if he had kind of long ears?" So we put some long ears on him so he could flap around to comic effect.
And that was Jar Jar.
Rob Coleman [animation director]: It would have been [visual effects supervisor] John Knoll who was making the decisions early on, before I got involved in the film, about how they were gonna tackle Jar Jar. George wanted to have Ahmed's performance on the screen, but he wanted him to be an otherworldly character that couldn't just be someone in a rubber suit. The initial plan was they had Ahmed in that full suit right up to his neck, and then he had a headpiece with eyes on it so the actors would look at the eyes. Ahmed was going to perform the body and ILM was going to attach the neck and head and that we would be tracking him, frame by frame, through the entire film.
We did the first test, and what we found was that tracking [the neck] was very hard and very time-consuming, and even it being off just a sliver, even just a couple of pixels, you would see a disconnect. You wouldn't believe that the head and neck were following along with Ahmed. Ahmed's movement was so complicated that it was really, really difficult, and we were told we have to solve this. At that point, I could see that this was going to be laborious.
We knew that we were going to have a full digital Jar Jar for shots that were too dangerous for Ahmed to do, so we already had that in the pipeline. So I asked one of my most senior animators — a guy named Lou Dellarosa, who ended up being the Jar Jar animation lead — to follow, frame by frame, what Ahmed was doing with his entire body but have the freedom to animate it completely. We created a side-by-side and showed it to George. We told him how long it took to do the tracking, which was longer than the fully animated one because Lou wasn't tied to counter-animating the neck and the head.
Best: The reason why I was in the suit was really as a backup in case the CGI didn't work. Or in case they needed the shot and they couldn't animate the shot, and fortunately it was ILM and Lucasfilm. They are just so incredibly intelligent and talented and collaborative. They let this young 20-year-old kid be a part of this thing, and really be a pioneer in the history of film.
Coleman: Internally, we felt that the fully animated one was a better result. I don't remember George being irritated, I think he was being more ... nervous or cautious. Because he was concerned that we didn't have the chops, that we wouldn't be able to animate him in the way that Ahmed was moving. This then prompted a guy named Jeff Light to come to me and say, “I need to tell you about motion capture.”
Best: John Knoll, Rob Coleman, ILM, we kind of all became Jar Jar. We were all Jar Jar. It became this real symbiotic relationship, and we developed a style and a language and literal code, on set and on site, that really was the blueprint for what motion capture acting is today. It wasn’t without its hiccups, and it wasn’t without its challenges; we didn’t know what was going to work, so we did everything. Even after principal photography was over, I was over at ILM and it was me, George, and John, and Rob, and we were all trying to figure this thing out.
Coleman: That's how we ended up down the motion capture route, because George had said, "Look, I cast Ahmed because of what he can do physically, and I don't wanna lose any of that.”
So Jeff and his team and the motion capture group started putting together tests to illustrate to George that we could actually put Ahmed into a mo-cap suit, we could capture his physical performance, and we could then apply that to the fully digital model, and that's where we ended up. It would have taken us so long to do what Ahmed could do in real time trying to figure out the technology.
Coleman: And, truthfully, at the time, we weren't making a big deal about motion capture because we didn't know it was a big deal. Yes, we were on the bleeding edge of technology, and yes, we were finding our way through it, but we didn't know. It wasn't something that I felt at the time we needed to herald. It was Weta and Peter Jackson and Andy Serkis who came along later. And I think — this is a theory, I don't know — but Peter Jackson was trying to get Andy Serkis an Oscar nomination and was promoting [mo-cap] more. And so yeah, they've conveniently forgotten about us. I think also a lot of the adults in the world didn't like Jar Jar, so they didn't wanna be reminded of that character, but that's just my opinion.
Best: Even Liam [Neeson], Ewan [McGregor], Natalie [Portman], and Jake [Lloyd] were trying to figure out how believable this was going to be in the real world. What was exciting about it was that we were pioneers in this way of acting. Even if you weren’t on camera, you still had to interact with me in a way that was believable. A lot of the takes would be with me and without me, and figuring that out, being in the room, it felt like what filmmaking is supposed to be, this collaborative experience where all the artists are in a space and we have a challenge and we’re all facing this challenge together.
Coleman: In the production of The Phantom Menace, you know, Jar Jar wasn't my favorite character, but I was working for George Lucas on a Star Wars film, who was I to question? And he was completely committed to that character, so I was completely committed to George.
It wasn't a huge surprise that there was some backlash. I remember George saying, "Look, this character’s for the youngest members of the audience, the new people, the new kids that are going to have this be their first Star Wars film." He said this was specifically for them, and he had even called that some of the older fans were not gonna respond well and he didn't care, he was making it for his own kids, and for the kids around the world.
Best: Growing up in the South Bronx, you never think that you would ever get a look like Star Wars. No one prepared me. There's no school for that. When you're on the playground running for your life, you're like, in about 20 years I'm gonna be in Star Wars and all y'all gonna f**king regret it. There's never any of that.
So going to Skywalker Ranch and then eventually screen-testing at ILM in the mo-cap suit and everybody going, "We don't know what's gonna happen. Just go do some stuff." And I was just like, "I'm just gonna be as physical as I possibly can and try to give George everything he wanted.”
Best: [Later], I went to Skywalker Ranch to sit with George in the editing room; I made it a point to always be around George because I wanted to learn. That’s when I first saw a fully rendered scene with Liam [Neeson] in that first scene in the editing bay. Watching George put all that together with the CG elements and the live elements and the special effects and the VFX was phenomenal, and that’s when I was like, “Oh, this could actually work. This is going to be a thing.”
Coleman: Fast-forward to the New York City premiere of the film, where all the press from around the world, both domestic international, had assembled for the press junket. I had to be a representative for ILM and went to New York with George, and the actors were there and everything. And it was in the series of interviews that it started to be clear to me that the press were not favoring Jar Jar. Reviewer after reviewer came in and questioned me about the character, and a lot of them are very negative about it, and so I honestly was kinda down ... We'd busted our butts to make this character, and people were not responding well to it. And at this point I hadn't met any kids yet that had seen the film, because this was all adults going to see the premiere and then the press writing about it.
So the following day, we’re flying back to California. They asked me to go on George's private jet with him. It’s not a big one, but I was sitting up in the front and he'd got on the plane with his publicist [Lynne Hale] and a huge stack of papers. George sits down at the back of the plane with these reviews, and we took off and I was just sitting there kind of glum. A couple of hours into the flight George waves me back.
He says, "What's the matter? You okay? You look really upset."
And I said, "These reviews are dreadful and they just hate our work," and he went, "Whoa, whoa, whoa. Did you read all the reviews? Because I've read every single one. What you need to know and what you need to remember is not one review said he doesn't look real. They've treated that character like he was alive, and in that movie, just like the Chris Tucker character in The Fifth Element. You should be incredibly proud."
I was like, "What?"
And he went, "Rob, they didn't say he was badly animated, they didn't say he looked fake. They just don't like the character; that's not on you. That's on me, and that's fine with me, I didn't make that character for them. I made it for all the kids." And then he said, "I could put you at a card table in any mall in America and put a sign up says, ‘This is the guy that made Jar Jar Binks,’ and there would be lines of kids lining up to get your autograph."
I went, "Aw, George, that's not true."
Well, fast-forward years later, I was asked to go to Disney World in Florida for one of the Star Wars weekends and sure enough, hundreds and hundreds of people lined up and told me how much they loved the character, but that was years later. So he was right!
Whitlatch: I would say that most people actually liked the character a lot. He sure made a lot of money, too.
Best: Years ago, George told me that this was how it was going to be. He was like, “The kids that grow up with Jar Jar, they’re not even going to think about all the criticism that happened back then.”
He was very prescient. Everyone now who was a child then has so much endearment for Jar Jar, they just grew up with that and they look at their parents like, “What are you talking about?”
People my age are the ones who were the Jar Jar haters, but the young people are the ones who gave it the strength.