Skip to Content

20 years of The Phantom Menace at Star Wars Celebration

  • Link Copied

Lucasfilm Legends Share Memories At Star Wars Celebration

2019 marks the 20th anniversary of the release of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. A special panel was held at this year’s Star Wars Celebration in Chicago to honor the occasion. Four behind-the-scenes crew members of The Phantom Menace – all of them still active Lucasfilm employees – graced the Celebration stage to share their memories and insights with host Warwick Davis.

Lucasfilm Art Director Doug Chiang was among the first to work on The Phantom Menace. To him, director George Lucas was “very smart” in the way he began the new trilogy of films. “He wanted to…make sure that the Star Wars galaxy was very cohesive,” Chiang continued, “because he never really considered it science fiction. He always thought of it as a period film…Episode I was going to be more grounded in the 1920’s and 30’s, whereas the original trilogy was more in the 1970’s. That gave me a really great foundation and became a template for all the films now going forward.”

John Knoll of Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) was the first Visual Effects Supervisor assigned to The Phantom Menace. His group tackled some of the film’s most ambitious sequences including the Podrace, the climactic space battle, and the city-planet Coruscant.

The project came at a significant moment in visual effects history when traditional craft and technique was blending with cutting-edge digital tools. The Phantom Menace showcased characters like Jar Jar Binks and Watto, among the first leading computer graphics (CG) characters in movie history, as well as a heavy use of practical miniature photography. “It was the biggest model [effects] production that we ever did at ILM, and maybe ever on any film,” John Knoll commented.

Knoll’s first exposure to the scale of the project came at an early meeting with George Lucas at Skywalker Ranch where the core team reviewed some 3,500 storyboards, “almost every one of which,” as Knoll explained, “contained something that our pipeline at the time was not capable of doing. The list was pretty overwhelming. I walked out of that meeting with my head spinning.”

Viewpaint Supervisor Jean Bolte – making her first Celebration appearance – helped pioneer new CG techniques on The Phantom Menace. Her department crafted digital textures and surfaces for the numerous characters, vehicles, and other digital creations in the film.

By adding these layers, Bolte was “giving them a story,” as she described. ILM’s new digital paint program, though “still in its infancy” at the time, ensured their ability to complete “this astonishingly huge show.”

One of Bolte’s favorite characters to work on in The Phantom Menace was Watto. The junk dealer was “close to my heart,” as she put it, explaining how she collects items – from snake skins to metal scraps – to “bring realism into my work…If I didn’t have this career [at ILM], I’d be just fine with a folding table at  a flea market dealing junk because I’m fascinated in collecting those things.”

Supervising Sound Editor Matthew Wood began his Skywalker Sound career on Lucasfilm’s The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones, the “testing ground” for the sound innovations made on the prequel trilogy. “We worked in a non-linear fashion” on The Phantom Menace, as Wood explained, “It was all digital at that point.”

The Podrace was an early sequence Wood was involved in. Collaborating with his mentor Ben Burtt, he “went out and recorded anything I could get my hands on. All different kinds of sounds from jet boats and helicopters and un-muffled Ferraris and all this crazy stuff at this custom race track I went to.”

Like the visuals, sound in The Phantom Menace would be different than prior Star Wars fare. “We wanted to make it sleek and not very well worn,” Wood explained. “We wanted to create a world that complemented what Doug Chiang and his team created visually.” With a wink he described the “symbiont circle” between the sounds and visuals in the film.

In addition to the Lucasfilm panelists, fan-favorite actors Ray Park (Darth Maul), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Ahmed Best (Jar Jar Binks), and Ian McDiarmid (Senator Palpatine & Darth Sidious) also joined in the fun onstage.

A video greeting from George Lucas himself capped things off. “We broke a lot of ground… It was the beginning of digital [cinema],” Lucas noted. “The fans are always a big part of these movies,” he continued, “and those of you who are here are the fans of Episode I. I love each and every one of you.”

Watch the Full Panel Streamed Live at Celebration.

Related Topics