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The Complete Guide To Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

The Complete Guide To Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

The Star Wars saga had be dormant for over 16 years when George Lucas decided to restart the franchise with a prequel trilogy. Expectations were high, but the Phantom Menace would soon become shorthand for bitterly underwhelming. SciFiNow celebrates 25 years of Star Wars Episode I.

Star Wars Episode I - Phantom Menace L-R: R2-D2 (Kenny Baker), Ewan McGregor, Jake Lloyd & Liam Neeson

Even now, 25 years after its release, the merest mention of The Phantom Menace title sense shivers through most sci-fi fans. However, when George Lucas announced he was planning to make a new Star Wars trilogy to Variety in 1993, the reaction was a very different one. Despite Lucas’ promises of two additional trilogies during the press junkets for Empire Strikes Back and again during Return Of The Jedi, few believed that the director would truly return to the universe. This cynicism was borne out when – after losing much of his fortune in a divorce in 1987 – Lucas began denying that he had ever mentioned a sequel trilogy. Star Wars, it seemed, was dead.

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace - Unit Stills
Perhaps falling asleep in the perm machine wasn’t such a good idea! Natalie Portman as Queen Padme Amidala

Then at the beginning of the 1990s, the franchise was reinvigorated by a popular comic run by Dark Horse Comics and a Lucasfilm-endorsed trilogy of books by Timothy Zahn. The success of these projects combined with the rise in CGI technology, popularised in 1993 with the release of Jurassic Park, swayed Lucas round to the idea of returning to a galaxy far, far away.

After announcing that he would be returning to the Star Wars universe in 1993, Lucas began one of the longest productions he would ever embark upon. The director began developing the story, returning to his original 15-page outline assembled back in 1976. The outline contained notes and intricate backstories for a number of the characters to help Lucas during the writing of A New Hope. A key element in the outline was that of Luke Skywalker’s lineage – specifically, the story surrounding Anakin Skywalker and his fall to the Dark Side and becoming Darth Vader.

Lucas began writing the story outline and script in November 1994; the process of reaching a workable script would take him four months. However, Lucas was mindful of the time spent on the previous movies in design and special effects development. With his own money at stake, Lucas was keen to combat any production issues that might affect costs.

With the script still being worked on, producer Rick McCallum searched for concept artists and after sifting through over 2,500 submissions from young artists, he finally formed the Star Wars: Episode I art department on 18 January 1995. The head of the department would be conceptual artist Doug Chiang. However, having a conceptualisation department with no script or storyline to work from seemed to many a waste of money – what could the team possibly make? The answer came to the team from Lucas in the form of cryptic words and no other guidelines. Exotic words such as Neimoidian, Podrace and Otoh Gunga all filtered down from the writer to the team, effectively challenging them to make something based upon words alone.

Star Wars Episode I - Phantom MenaceVoice of Ahmed Best as Jar-Jar Binks
The controversial use of Jar-Jar Binks as an all-CGI character in The Phantom Menace

It seemed like a frivolous indulgence, effectively giving the art department carte blanche to run in any direction they saw fit in conceptualising the seemingly random words. Yet it would prove a canny move by Lucas. By the time the draft script was completed, Lucas had thousands of concepts, doodles, designs and ideas ready to be hand-picked by him for further development into more solid concepts and designs for ILM.

The art department were not the only team working blind to Lucas’s unseen script. McCallum spent six months scouting locations with production designer Gavin Bocquet, covering over 4,000 miles. However, with the script finished, neither McCallum nor Bocquet really knew what they were looking for as they scouted locations such as Tunisia, Portugal and Italy.

“Even though George hadn’t even started writing the script yet, we had an idea of what he was going to need. We knew we were going to have to re-create the planet Tatooine, for example. We also explored locations for Naboo. George wanted gardens and a lush landscape.”

By June 1995 and with the shoot date still over two years away, Lucas began the casting for The Phantom Menace. He hired casting director Robin Gurland to seek out the talent for the key roles, keeping in mind that many would be required for all three movies in the new trilogy.

The key roles of Padmé Amidala and Obi-Wan Kenobi would have to remain constant throughout all three films so Gurland and Lucas had to choose wisely. For the part of Obi-Wan, Gurland’s main challenge was to find an actor who would be believable as a young Alec Guinness.

Gurland narrowed the list to 50 potential actors, including Kenneth Branagh. To aid the selection, Rick McCallum asked Gurland for a videotape of the potentials split screened next to footage of Guinness in old Ealing movies for comparison. Ewan McGregor eventually won the role with Lucas noting: “He is an extremely strong actor and he has the energy, the grace and the enthusiasm to play Obi-Wan Kenobi.”

Natalie Portman was cast after a meeting with Gurland and Lucas. Gurland chose the actress after seeing her in a number of varied roles including Léon, Mars Attacks! and Heat.

Liam Neeson was quickly cast as Qui-Gon Jinn despite the script calling for a Jedi in his sixties, Gurland kept the Irish actor on her list. Eventually, Neeson met Lucas and spoke plainly to the director, telling him, “For what it’s worth, George, I would love a part in this film”.

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace - Unit Stills
We’d like to have seen Grand Moff Tarkin try to call Vader ‘Annie’.

The casting of young Anakin Skywalker was far more troublesome, however. Gurland, Lucas and McCallum saw over 3,000 children during the course of casting for the young hero. The role took two years to be finally cast, with newcomer Jake Lloyd initially discounted due to his age at the time of his first screen test. Yet, two years on and with Anakin Skywalker still not cast, Gurland called the boy back with two others and had the three screen-tested again at Skywalker Ranch.

Lucas made the final call on Lloyd, noting at the time that “He was bouncy, cheerful, everything we wanted. He reminded me of a young Luke Skywalker; and that was good because he had to embody the same presence as Luke had in the first film”.

With the casting well underway, thoughts turned to who would be directing the latest Star Wars film. Unsubstantiated rumours circulated that Lucas had approached Young Indiana Jones director David Hare. Allegedly, Lucas hoped that Hare would handle the directing of the actors, while he handled the action sequences. Hare declined the job. Lucas recalls things very differently, however, claiming in the official book about the making of Phantom Menace that it was always his intention to direct the film. “As much as I wanted to hand over the last two films to other directors, I ended up being there all the time, and I had to work as hard as if I was directing anyway,” he said in a rather ungracious nod to Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand. “The other reason I wanted to direct Episode I was that we were going to be attempting new things, and in truth, I didn’t quite know how we were going to do them – nobody did. So I figured I needed to be there at all times.”

With the crew and cast assembled, filming for The Phantom Menace began at the massive Leavesden Film Studios on 26 June 1997. The studio, which had been a former Rolls-Royce factory, was the only studio large enough to house the production, thanks to a 500,000 square-foot filming area and 80-acre backlot. The studio would house most of the film sets, while the rest of the shoot would take place in Tunisia and the Italian Caserta Palace, doubling for Tatooine and Naboo respectively.

The 65-day shoot passed relatively smoothly. However, in what was now a Star Wars tradition, filming in Tunisia was hampered by a massive sandstorm. The storm scattered props and wrecked many sets. The damage was estimated at £80,000 but even with this setback and delays subsequently repairing the sets, the filming in Tunisia wrapped on schedule. Further costs and delays came from an unusual direction. With the sets all being enhanced by digital effects, the majority were built to head height with the rest of the set being a blue screen. However, an oversight about Liam Neeson’s height meant that all the sets needed raising, costing the production an extra $150,000.

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace - Unit Stills Naboo
Now that looks like it could be even faster than a Pod Racer

For Phantom Menace’s visual effects, ILM was once again drafted in. Despite a growing number of films utilising CGI technology for the effects, Phantom Menace was to be the San Francisco-based company’s biggest challenge to date. It was Lucas’s intention to use CGI wherever possible. The director was fascinated by the technology and the opportunities it offered. From expanding sets into massive Vistas, to fully realising CGI creatures rather than relying on animatronics, CGI appeared to the director as the Holy Grail for the production.

“I didn’t want to go back and write one of these movies unless I had the technology available to really tell the kind of story I was interested in telling. I wanted to be able to explore the world I’d created to its fullest potential,” the creator revealed.

ILM had its work cut out for it, with over 1,950 visual effects shots required. Additionally, Lucas and visual effects supervisor John Knoll used CGI to create 3,500 storyboards and moving ‘animatics’, planning the movie down to the smallest detail. In the end, the effects took two years of pre-production and a further two years post-production to complete.

Such was the size of the task at hand that unusually for an effects-driven movie, three visual supervisors were brought onto the production to deal with individual areas of the film with the respective teams. Knoll would not only be the on-set supervisor for visual effects, but his team would deal with the pod race and space battles. Star Wars alumni Dennis Muren would supervise the underwater sequences, the Gungan city of Otoh Gunga and the ground battle between the Gungans and the Trade Federation.

Lastly, ILM veteran Scott Squires and his group would oversee all the Lightsaber effects, the Jedi versus Sith showdown in the Theed generator, and the Theed digital sets. All three teams would work in conjunction with the ILM model shop as well as digital effects animation supervisor Rob Coleman.

Star Wars Episode I - Phantom Menace
Don’t cross the streams… oh wait, different franchise.

The effects would give Lucas such control over the film’s look that it permeated every shot. Even scenes of straightforward dialogue would be comprised of up to six layers of CGI. In some scenes, the best take of one actor would be digitally spliced together with the best take of another. Then further digital tinkering such as reversing the actors’ movements and even lifting the movements from another take entirely would be used to give Lucas the shot he wanted. This technique prompted Liam Neeson, upon the film’s release to complain that: “We are basically puppets. I don’t think I can live with the inauthenticity of movies any more.”

The film was completed with editing and scoring in February 1999, just three months before its release. Premiering on 19 May 1999, 16 years after Return Of The Jedi, Phantom Menace was greeted with decidedly mixed reviews. Critics would praise the effects and action, while condemning the writing, characterisation and acting. However, this did not stop Episode I from grossing $924 million worldwide at the box office, making it the highest grossing movie of 1999 and the highest grossing movie of the Star Wars saga.

Yet despite the immense financial success, Lucasfilm could not rest on its laurels. Within a month of the Phantom Menace’s phenomenal release, the art department at Skywalker Ranch was given a script to develop designs for – a script simply titled Episode II.

But that is a completely different story…

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is streaming now on Disney+