Shooting The Clone Wars: A Conversation With Dave Filoni, Part 1

by Tad Leckman October 30, 2012
Star Wars: The Clone Wars Supervising Director, Dave Filoni

Dave Filoni, a veteran 2D storyboard artist, has led the Clone Wars crew to a brave new world where shot design begins with 3D previsualization.

I had the great fortune to work closely with the artists at Lucasfilm Singapore working on the first three seasons of The Clone Wars. I watched them grow and watched the quality of the show improve along with them. And while I’m very familiar with final animation and lighting of the show, I only knew a little bit about how the show was conceived and shot by the directors and 3D story artists in California. I recently had a chance to spend the day at Big Rock Ranch, diving into that world and talking to the crew about the previsulaization process and their approach to “shooting” what adds up to over eight hours of finished work each season on a very tight schedule.

I’ll start this special series of interviews with The Clone Wars’ Supervising Director, Dave Filoni, who guides the overall production of the series, as well as directing several episodes himself each season.

Tad Leckman: Most of what the Previsulaization Society and its members do revolves around live-action and effects-based previz, but there is definitely overlap between what a previz artist does to help design and plan shots for live-action and what a 3D Story or 3D Layout artist does for animation like Clone Wars.

Dave Filoni: That’s true, but it’s quite different, too. The interesting thing about the cinematic version of previz is that largely it’s all disposable. You kind of do it knowing that it might be a lot of plate work or that the 3D characters are truly proxies and that they’ll be replaced by the actual actors later. So it is a lot of blocking movement.

For us it’s very much 1:1. The camera that we use in previz will be the camera. It doesn’t go to an effects artist who tweaks it. The posing of the characters and even the mild expressions that we get into it drive the communication process with the animator, so it’s a very literal usage of previz, unlike a lot of other previz, which is kind of an experimental process: “This is what it might look like.” 

For us it’s “This is what it will look like.”

TL: And it feels like that in getting to “what it will look like,” you have several things to balance. You have the cinematic language of Star Wars, which has changed a bit but still has conventions like the Kurosawa wipes and how objects enter and exit frame. And then, for certain episodes, there is a specific cinematic style you might be referencing which also gets added to the mix: the Zillo Beast is kaiju, the Chewbacca episodes feel like Predator, etc. And then of course, the episode director wants to bring something of themselves to it. At what point does it all come together? When do you start seeing what the episode is going to look like and how it’s going to be shot?

DF: I always find from the very first day of story with George that I have a good idea of how I want it to look and what it’s going to be. As anyone knows, with story you’d be hard pressed to ever say “We’re going to do this and it’s never been done before.” It’s just not the case. And it’s not a disadvantage, in fact it is an incredible advantage, because you can go back and look at how numerous directors have attempted to achieve success in telling certain types of stories.

 So if you are doing a giant monster movie and you try to convince yourself that you’re not going to watch one because you want to innovate, you’re just crazy. You know, I’m a huge Godzilla fan so I gave a good vocabulary for the kind of things that Ishirô Honda had been doing since 1954, so that’s part of me already.

“When we do a Boba Fett episode, it is Sergio Leone.”

When we do a Boba Fett episode, it is Sergio Leone. It’s a cowboy movie, so we try to shoot it with a lot of those same angles, the same off-the-hip love, and we’ll cut to speed it up. So, I have the guys watch those genre films before they actually go into it. I have them listen to music from lots of those pictures as well, to get them really in the mindset.

But on day one, with George, I actually do a bunch of sketches, because I was a traditional storyboard artist for years. So, I basically will draw in the story meetings with the writers. I sketch broad story beats. There are always a couple of moments in every film, the big take-away moments, that say, “This is what it’s about.” When I worked on Avatar: The Last Airbender and was doing storyboards, I would always try to define for my team the images that said, “This is what the story is really about.” I kind of hold those all the way through the design process all the way to the final picture. You know that kind of keeps us on the same rails, so we have these images that define what the story is.

I’ve had the guys go watch The Last Temptation of Christ to watch the way the transitions work. How do you do something that feels more esoteric and strange. It’s studying. From the onset, for seven years now, I’ve also just learned directly from George what his visual sensibility is. How he likes to cut a film, and how he likes to keep it moving. It’s a very traditional, direct approach. You start wide, go in, go in. It’s the most basic thing.

I think we live in a time, especially with previz, that people keep trying to convince themselves to break out of that , and they cause themselves all kinds of problems because they forget one fundamental thing, which is if you lose the audience at any time, it doesn’t matter how good your story is, you’re going to fail. You’re here to show the audience what is important in every single frame of the film. George has really reinforced that in me, so that when I tell these Star Wars stories, we try to cut them pretty tight and keep things moving and be deadly clear with everything without hitting you on the head. And that’s the fine line. 

Note: At this point in the interview, I got an unexpected look at how closely Filoni works with George Lucas, and how dedicated he is to the show. Filoni is pulled out of our meeting for a few minutes to field a call from “The Boss” and he returns a few minutes later with several pages of handwritten notes. “I don’t believe he had time to watch that episode! We just gave it to him yesterday! How does he do it all? Whenever you think you’ve had a busy day, I can almost guarantee that George Lucas has had a busier one.”

TL: So your initial sketching during the writing phase is the closest thing to traditional storyboarding still being done on the show?

DF: Kind of. It’s more like showing you a painting and then talking you through the story with a single image.

When we got here we, did storyboards originally on Clone Wars for about the first year. But for me, even as a storyboard artist, it became clear that since our medium is CG and we have a very tight schedule, we would draw it and then previz it and then shoot it. That’s the traditional process. But now we just go in and I sit down with the episodic director and their layout team I’ll read the whole script with the guys, and discuss how I want the episode to be. And by just reading through it together, we can also see if it’s going to work. Before that, I’ve gone through a couple of rounds with the writers and gone go back and forth to try to finalize the script.

If we have a fight or a starship chase, I’ll have a white board where I’ll draw…not shots, but the entire landscape of it. Like when we did the Battle of Umbara series last season, I literally drew the landscape from where they landed, the entire battle plane and mountain range all the way to where they were going to go. Even though we were going to cut around those locations, that overview gives everybody a guide for screen direction, what direction all the characters are moving, where the line is, etc.

On some scenes we go over things a lot tighter than others. But, things like The Jedi Council Room…I don’t need to explain that. We’ve shot that so many times. The same with The Senate.

A lot of times we’ll just map things out in a plan view, and we also have the set by the time we’re ready to do previz. We’ll fly the set. Just like a live-action director will walk the set with his whole team and say I want a mark here and a mark here. So I’ll talk to the guys and say I want the characters to walk over to here and then stop and then Anakin’s going to peel off and walk over here…

I’ll explain how I want the basic blocking to go, but then it’s up to the episodic directors to hold to that blocking, but they also bring a lot of their own creativity to it. Then, after a couple of weeks of the episodic directors working with their teams, I’ll come in and look at how the general feel of the show is going, and I’ll watch everything, both from a God’s-eye view of the blocking and the specific shots. When I direct an episode (I’m doing two right now), typically I’ll have the guys do the blocking and I’ll tell them where the line is, but I don’t typically let them do any shots. I’ll say I’m looking for this angle here and I want you to pay attention to these angles and then we’ll go in and find the shots myself afterward.

TL: Is that typical of the other directors, too?

DF: I think so for the most part. The problem with working shot to shot is that you’re not using what to me is the biggest benefit of previz, which is that we can shoot super long shots will all kinds of heads and tail. And then when we get it into editorial we can treat it more like actual coverage, where a board is always limited. And the editor and I love having long heads and tail on everything so we ask the directors to try to shoot proper ins and outs.

I’ll make them watch movies, especially older movies, like Hitchcock movies, to show them how long you can actually sit on a character. It’s the one thing with storyboards and even previz where I think you can get ahead of yourself and even betray yourself. People get stuck on the notion that, if I cut, it means it’s active. So you’re actually cutting to make something happen and you’re forgetting that the actor, or in our case the animator, will be providing so much performance that you really just want to sit on that and really feel the emotion of the shot.

So we’re working on how to get things longer. It’s just trusting the animator. And Keith Kellogg and this team have really improved the fidelity of all the characters so now we can sit on shots longer. Of course, then sometimes it’s harder to animate those longer shots…it’s a bit of push and pull to figure it all out.

In Part 2 of this interview, Dave and I will dive deeper into the previz process for Star Wars: The Clone Wars, using Lucasfilm’s proprietary software and leaving storyboards behind.  

Don’t forget that Star Wars: The Clone Wars - Season 5 is currently underway and can be seen on Saturdays at 9:30am on Cartoon Network and streamed after air date at StarWars.com.

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