The Beginning: Watching the Making of The Phantom Menace

June 9, 2017

Star Wars: The Beginning

“Jar Jar is the key to all this.” – George Lucas, 1997

It’s June 6th, 1997 and I’m watching Jake Lloyd sign his contract to play Anakin Skywalker in what looks like a modest, if definitely upper-middle-class, kitchen. He signs his name carefully in recently learned cursive and smiles at the array of adults before him when he finishes. They applaud his obvious effort. Lloyd begins to run around his house, excited, but probably not really comprehending the cultural gravity of the moment he occupies. The adults watch him with unfocused amusement and ask him the usual adult-to-kid patronizing questions. He smiles a crooked kid smile that carries no concept of the future.

He just knows he’s going to be in Star Wars.

It’s June 5th, 2017 and as I crouch over a notepad in my living room, I know exactly where this moment, part of a collective that’s been edited and showcased for a “making of” featurette that was originally on The Phantom Menace home video release, is going. It plays out in 1997 before the world could even conceive that Star Wars would again dominate pop culture. It plays out before the cultural high of a new Star Wars film begins to ebb and transmute into critical derision and fan disillusionment.

In 1999, the making of The Phantom Menace felt like exactly what it was supposed to be – an exciting visual record about the making of the first Star Wars film in sixteen years.  In 2017, it feels foreboding and surrealistic – a visual catalog of the mistakes and unsung triumphs that would eventually characterize the film as a whole.

“We’re All Really Excited”

The surreality that comes with viewing any “making of” documentary is derived from the juxtaposition of our feelings about a film in cultural hindsight. There is a mythic quality to watching beloved scenes and characters as they are painstakingly forged into existence. If you watch the making of Star Wars, that mythic feeling is strong. You know scrappy dreamer George Lucas turned out to be right – that his space-fantasy flick the actors and crew couldn’t quite take seriously turns into the single greatest franchise of all time.

It’s the triumphant story of an underdog.

Watching the making of The Phantom Menace is completely different. The film’s release is, inarguably, one of the biggest pop-culture moments of the 90’s. Everybody involved knows exactly what they are getting into and just how momentous the undertaking is. From the scene in the documentary I mentioned above with Jake Lloyd’s family and agents to Rick McCallum’s exuberant f-bomb laced conversations with actors, crew, and fans alike – everyone knows what making a new Star Wars films means for the world and for themselves. You don’t have to imagine their excitement as no one on screen, except maybe George himself, can contain it.

A prime example of this excitement is when Ahmed Best, the actor who plays Jar Jar Binks, shows up in the documentary. He’s nearly vibrating in anticipation and you can tell the guy sees his whole life ahead of him; that he clearly feels like he’s finally made it.

Unlike the original Star Wars, nobody questions the script and nobody challenges George. Star Wars is an established phenomenon and everybody involved is content to ride its wave.

 A $50 Million Dollar Budget

Throughout the documentary, there are moments where you can visibly watch George move closer and closer to the completely CGI special effects that would dominate the prequel era. Compared to Episodes II and III, The Phantom Menace is rife with practical effects – towering podracer engines are showcased under the heat of a Tunisian sun and mostly-finished AAT’s sit parked in the gray morning on a studio lot in England.

But there are multiple instances where George has a conversation with ILM’s John Knoll about how much cheaper CGI is. You can almost pause the frame where Lucas is figuring this out and see the idiomatic cogs turning towards the eventual sets, vehicles, and characters that will be completely computer generated in the future.

This is encapsulated in a “subplot” that follows the various processes behind creating Jar Jar. We forget, in the constant barrage of “mesa, yousa” jokes and Darth Jar Jar theories, that Jar Jar was one of the first fully computer animated characters in a live-action film, and one of the earliest uses of motion capture. This was caused by the fact that it was much easier to completely manufacture Best’s performance on a computer rather than digitally augment the suit he wore for most of the filming.

The documentarians were capturing a milestone in filmmaking on camera, but the impact is lost being tied to a character so intensely despised that fans would eventually make fan-films about his death. 

“Faster and More Intense”

When I first watched this documentary in late-1999, there was a certain sequence that captured my attention – the rehearsal of the final lightsaber duel between Ray Park (Darth Maul), Ewan McGregor (Obi-Wan Kenobi), and stunt coordinator Nick Gillard.

The pace is frenetic and real – the metal sabers click-clacking to a machine gun rhythm. Ray Park has a black eye complete with the red iris that signifies a burst blood vessel. I’m not sure this and the fight rehearsal are connected, but I like to think so. McGregor is focused and intense but also having fun. It’s a charming trait that will characterize his performance throughout the prequels.

Rewatching this in 2017, I’m reminded of one thing – this choreography is still stunning and remarkable in its aggression. It sets a standard that all other lightsaber duels, and perhaps even fight scenes in general, should aspire towards.

“EXT. Space.”

Watching the making of The Phantom Menace eighteen years later usurps reality for an hour and six minutes. It’s a visual time capsule set before the fandom tempest that would become the prequel era. It’s a record of mistakes and risks, but it also carries with it the excitement that marks a time before the possibilities and ultimate direction of the Star Wars universe was unknown.

For every glaring flaw it has, The Phantom Menace irrevocably changed the course of Star Wars. The “making of” proves this, just not in the way the documentarians may have thought.

You can watch it for yourself here: The Beginning: Making Star Wars: Episode I

16 days until A Star Wars Comic #6
188 days until Star Wars: The Last Jedi
7 days until the next blog post

– Jim