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The Phantom Menace's podrace was a triumph over a real natural disaster

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Jun 15, 2019, 11:40 AM EDT

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 stories that detail different aspects of the top-secret, often groundbreaking production of the movie. In this installment, we look at the podrace.

There are two scenes that immediately come to mind when one thinks of The Phantom Menace: the lightsaber duel between Darth Maul, Qui-Gon and Obi-wan, considered by many to be the best Jedi fencing match in all of Star Wars, and the podrace. The latter, a breathtaking nine-minute race sequence, took inspiration from George Lucas’s love of race cars and turned it up to eleven. It plays a pivotal role in the film, offering Anakin and his Jedi mentors a way to get off of the desert planet of Tatooine and back to the civilized parts of the galaxy. 

It’s thrilling and dangerous and might be one of the finest action sequences ever committed to film. But it was no easy task to bring the scene to life, though members of the crew were clamoring to work on it.

John Knoll, one of the three visual effects supervisors on The Phantom Menace, was keen to work on the challenging sequence. “Well, I was [the visual effects supervisor] on first so I got to pick all my favorite stuff [to supervise]," he said during a panel at this year's Star Wars Celebration. "The podrace in particular was something that appealed to me a lot.”

“Ben Burtt [editor, sound effects legend] had this idea of making a sequence that was more exciting than any other sort of action race sequence in any other film previous to this,” David Tattersall, the director of photography on The Phantom Menace, told SYFY WIRE. In order to get the right look and feel of the rhythm of the sequence, Burtt cut together his own version of it.

“He collected all the best, most exciting shots he could from race movies like Grand Prix, Ben Hur, horse racing movies, anything that had vehicles moving or crashing into each other and he created this animatic sequence and it was just about the movement in the frame and how long the shot lasted," Tattersall said. "It had a great rhythm and a great pace to it and a variety of shots of different sizes and it’s incredible how it worked even though the shots were some were black and white, some were color, some were standard, some were anamorphic. But that’s what George used as the template for the structure, the shape, and the taste of the final podrace.”

Inspiration is one thing, turning it into a gigantic production is quite another, especially when the filmmakers would have to go far and wide to collect the footage they would need.

One of the first places they went was to Tunisia, where they would be shooting the Mos Espa sequences and the exteriors of actors interacting with the podrace. The technical challenges of creating a sequence like the podrace were nothing compared to what mother nature would throw at the filmmakers.

Tattersall described a chaotic scene in Tunisia after their first day of touring the sets in the desert.

“We went back and were standing at the bar in the hotel just as the sun was going down and the wind started to kick up and it got really, really strong and all of the deck chairs around the pool blew away and the staff were running around pulling the shutters down," he recalled. "Shooting was going to start the next morning. We arrived at the set as the sun was coming up — and it was destroyed. It was like a tornado had come through it and some of those big pods, which weighed as much as a big vehicle, had been blown 100 yards, rolled over the desert. The Mos Espa set was destroyed. It was wood and plaster everywhere."

Ever the stoic leader, Lucas was "incredibly matter-of-fact about it," Tattersall remembered. "George just said, 'Let’s try and shoot something else.'"

The destruction could not be understated and the difficulty of resuming shooting felt insurmountable. According to Tattersall, the production had two massive circus-sized tents, one for catering, the other for costumes, hair, and make-up. “One of them blew away, disappeared off into the Sahara desert, never to be found.”

They found a series of shots they could do in the desert without a background and were shooting by that afternoon. “It was a sequence with Natalie [Portman, Padme Amidala] walking up over the sand dune away from the spaceship,” Tattersall said.

Meanwhile, producer Rick McCallum got on the phone and proceeded to play savior.

“Rick had phoned the construction department in London and rented an empty 747 and they filled it with plaster and wood and painters and plasterers that day and flew it over the next day," Tattersall recalled. "Trucks full of guys, and carpenters and plasterers and staff equipment and hardware showed up and they rebuilt the set in about three days. And we were shooting at it the next day, parts of it, as other parts were being rebuilt.”

The parts of the podrace filmed in Tunisia were only the first part of the puzzle, though. Tattersall had to film many more live action elements in studio in order to complete the sequence.

"The fun part was coming up with all the interactive lighting rigs,” Tattersall said. "While we were shooting young Jake Lloyd in the pod on a gimbal and it’s shaking around and the camera is rolling around and the lights are spinning around, it’s quite a lot going on outside the camera. Electricians pulling ropes with pulleys, it’s very noisy with the lights and the wind machines and George would be screaming on a megaphone, ‘Right now you’re going into a tunnel, now you’re going through the arches.’"

The whole course had been laid out ahead of time, and the crew had a master map that laid out all the crashes, explosions, and other race-related mini-disasters.

While the physical crew was in Tunisia and England working on the difficulty of filming the live-action portions of the sequence, the team at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) was making sure that the 3D elements would work. Part of that process was designing the characters in the first place.

The chief villain in the podrace, Sebulba, was years in the making, but the initial spark of his idea happened over the course of an afternoon. 

“Sebulba was my assignment. I was inspired by this camel that lived at the Oakland Zoo," concept artist Teryl Whitlatch explained to SYFY WIRE. "I was always going to the Oakland Zoo and drawing the animals, and there's this camel. They're very large, they're very grounded. They look very proud and they have an attitude. I thought to my little self, "What if we took the face of that camel and shrunk it down, but he still has his attitude?”

“If you look at his head, it's a camel,” Whitlatch said. “He's this little guy, and he's this color like this purple Easter Egg with yellow dots on him... Maybe I'd have a bad attitude, too. I drew him that morning, George came in the afternoon, and said, ‘Yep, that's him.’”

Once the design was approved, it was up to the animation department to figure out how he moved and fit into the space that the crew had filmed on set. More than filling the space, how did he walk and what was his character like?

“When animating Sebulba, we were studying Casablanca, Major Strasser in particular. Miguel Fuertes, who was the lead on Sebulba, was looking at the way that actor did things," director of animation Rob Coleman told SYFY WIRE. "In the scene when he's talking, he's not blinking. Miguel had come and pitched me the idea and looking at this footage, he said, ‘What if we did something like this with Sebulba? It gives a great deal of intensity, when you're not blinking.’"

Just as with the racing action scenes themselves, several classic movies were used to inform the creature's design and actions.

"He studied another film called Freaks from the 1930s directed by Tod Browning, which had a circus performer who walked on their hands and he used that as inspiration for how Sebulba would walk around," Coleman said. "We would look at that kind of that footage, and say, 'What are the choices, the conscious unconscious, that actors are making, and how could we layer that kind of nuance into our work?'"

But what is animation, of the characters or the race itself, without the sound to make it feel real? It was the task of people like Matthew Wood, one of the supervising sound editors, to work out.

“The first lap of the pod race where there is no music, and we're heavily relying on all the visual effects and all the sound to drive that scene and we were given a huge canvas to work with and that was a blessing," Wood explained at Star Wars Celebration. "I've never actually had an experience like that on a film where there's been such a long sequence where it can showcase our work like that.”

Wood, under the tutelage of Ben Burtt, spent years collecting the sounds that would be used in the podrace to complete the sequence.

“To make Anakin's pod was this high-end Porsche that I had recorded and Sebulba's was basically a Ferrari that a guy kindly punched a hole in his muffler for," he said. "We recorded a lot of that so it had that really low, throaty growl and that combined with a lot of the tech we used at the time to make that happen that sequence and those two pods are my favorite thing. It was thrilling.”

For those working in visual effects and animation, seeing the final product with sound was a dream come true. Knoll explained that when his team was working on shots like the podrace, it was accompanied only by silence.

“I remember just being overwhelmed by the experience because everything had been brought together, and I hadn't seen it in that form," Coleman said. "I didn't even hear the sound effects of the podracers until that screening. I saw the podrace mute forever, month after month after month, so to hear Sebulba's racer with that sound that it had, that was amazing.”

And audiences loved it. 

There are few film sequences that can produce the level of thrills and excitement generated by the podrace. Even Roger Ebert cited it in his glowing review of the movie, calling it one of the film’s highlights. “As surely as Anakin Skywalker points the way into the future of Star Wars, so does The Phantom Menace raise the curtain on this new freedom for filmmakers,” Ebert wrote in 1999. “And it's a lot of fun.”

And looking back after 20 years, he was right.