There’s no denying that since the first season of Clone Wars Star Wars animation has come a long way. The newest season of The Bad Batch is a spectacle to look at, and Lucasfilm cinematography lighting & VFX director, Joel Aron, sat down with StarWars.com to share some of the tricks they used to make the animation look as cinematic as possible.
This idea actually came from George Lucas himself as Aron explains, “As George Lucas said back on Clone Wars, you need to be able to stop on any frame in any episode and have it look like a still painting or something right off the big screen. George said, ‘We’re not making this for Blu-rays and DVDs, we’re making this for people who like to see things in the cinema.’ We haven’t stopped doing that. We keep pushing.”
Some of these tricks are as simple as how the series are framed with Tales of the Jedi and The Bad Batch using an anamorphic lensing style, giving it a wide-screen look like any Lucasfilm movie you would see in theaters. From there, the team implemented CG effects that are actually used in live-action filmmaking into their animated work.
Aron says, “I spent the better part of 17 years trying to make things look photo-real to fit into a live-action visual effects shot. Working on movies like The Perfect Storm  and Pearl Harbor , you had to immerse yourself in that type of filmmaking to make sure that you could produce CG content on that cinematic level. Jurassic Park  only had 50-some CG effects shots, but they all connect with the audience. Things were crafted by hand. There was no auto-rotoscoping to blend elements together. There was a quality of the filmmaking that allowed the simplicity of the effects to hide within it.”
Some of these ideas were first implemented in Star Wars Rebels by taking the edges of the models and blurring them more to make them appear real in their surroundings. This idea came from Jurassic Park as Aron explained, “When you have a digital T-rex against a live-action shot, the edge of that T-rex can’t be sharp. There’s a blur that makes it look like it’s there. So I took that same method into Rebels. That show has a sizzle all around the edges. There was contrast. I wanted to rip up the edges all the time.” This is a method they now use in all of their animation projects to continue with the cinema-first mindset.
Aron says it all comes down to tricking the audience. Animation is expensive so things like water effects and set pieces can be very costly and time-consuming to do within their time limits. He explains:
“Stop thinking about doing it for real. We just have to fool the audience, and they’ll believe it. The sound design will take it home. Back on my first movie at ILM, Hook , an artist named Steve Price told me, ‘Whenever you’re doing VFX shot work, you have to play the sound in your head.’ I still do that. In our reviews I’m making sound effects as we watch. When we’re doing something like water, it’s all visual trickery. And this goes back to the practical era of visual effects.”
He explains that sound effects are a big part of this foolery. In The Bad Batch season two opener, the team runs across a beach. As mentioned, water is expensive to fully animate. So instead, they framed the shots to not show the Batch’s feet hitting the water, letting the sound effect indicate the action off-screen.
Another trick came in the episode “Faster.” Aron wanted to do a racing episode, but animating separate racers is a lot of hard work. Instead, in most of the shots, the racers are still and it’s the background that is moving. He explains, “When the race is happening, the ships aren’t moving in a lot of the shots, but the environment looks like it is. It’s like rear projection! The ship is still and the background is whirring by. If that’s in your head with the sound design, you can totally fake it. That opened a whole new road of opportunity for us with shooting.”
All the tricks are clearly paying off as The Bad Batch is the best that Star Wars animation has ever looked. The “cinema first” direction is part of the show’s success with Aron adding, “We still keep the fingerprints of the classic George Lucas style in there.”
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