How animation changed Star Wars: Ewoks and Droids

Title banner for 'Star Wars: Ewoks' part of the Star Wars: Vintage collection on Disney+
Title banner for 'Star Wars: Ewoks' part of the Star Wars: Vintage collection on Disney+ /

How has every animated series impacted the Star Wars franchise?

To understand how vital animation was to George Lucas, look to the zoetrope. This device is considered one of the earliest forms of animation that predated film. George Lucas named his production company American Zoetrope after it. His first film, “Look at Life,” was animated. This medium has always been at the core of his work. From the Holiday Special to Star Wars: Visions and beyond…

This is “How Animation Changed Star Wars.”

In an interview with the science fiction magazine Starlog, published in 1985, George Lucas stated, “I’ve always been interested in animation. And, again, it’s a chance to experiment with ideas and new people and Star Wars characters. The Star Wars world is much easier to deal with in animation. You can be much more flexible in development of ideas. I’ve put off doing it for years because I didn’t have the time.”

This was the same year two major Star Wars projects would debut on September 7, 1985. The world was introduced to Star Wars: Ewoks and Star Wars: Droids: The Adventures of R2-D2 and C-3P0. Both series were created by the animation company Nelvana, who animated “The Story of the Faithful Wookiee” for The Star Wars Holiday Special. George Lucas was so impressed with their work that he brought them on to make the first Star Wars series for television.

To understand how and why Ewoks and Droids were such groundbreaking series, it’s important to understand the time period when they debuted. I’ve written in far more detail about the history of animation and Lucasfilm’s place in it, but the simple explanation is that the mid-1980s was an incredibly transitional time for the medium. This was the era when animation shifted from what is considered The Dark Age of Animation (1950s to the mid-1980s) into The Renaissance Age of Animation (mid-1980s to early 2000s). The Dark Age of Animation had a profound impact on what was being created and reinforced the negative stigma that animation was “only for kids.” Two big reasons for this were the use of limited animation and The Television Code of 1952.

What is Limited Animation?

A good example of limited animation is a classic episode of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! These series were formulaic, using the same shots repeatedly from episode to episode. Where the animation was simple, the writing and voice acting had to thrive to carry the story. During this time period, it became the norm and the rule for the medium.

Fred Seibert, the last president of the Hanna-Barbera animation studio, wrote 15 essays about the company. In it, he perfectly summed up the importance of limited animation, stating:

"“Over the years, I’ve occasionally heard Hanna-Barbera criticized for ‘cheapening’ the art of cartoons by inventing a technique for television called ‘limited animation.’Here’s the true story: When theatrical cartoons were on death’s door, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera single-handedly (or, rather, double-handily) rescued cartoons from oblivion.  As a cartoon blues man might say, ‘If it wasn’t for limited animation, we wouldn’t have no animation at all.’”"

With the rise of television, live-action and animated films were challenged, especially when they were so costly to make. Why should people go to the movies for entertainment when this box in their home did the same thing as the picture shows? The issue for animation was that a television budget was far smaller than a theatrical budget, meaning there had to be innovation, or the medium would die.

Hanna-Barbera would not be the inventors of limited animation. In fact, one of the earliest examples comes from the 1942 Merrie Melodies short The Dover Boys, with its use of limited animation and smear frames, the latter of which was invented by famed animator Chuck Jones. It would be the Hanna-Barbera duo to utilize limited animation for its full potential, both defining and saving animation for television with series like The Huckleberry Hound Show and The Flintstones.

What is The Television Code of 1952?

The Television Code of 1952 was built on top of the Hays Code of 1930. Originally, the Hays Code was self-imposed rules from Hollywood to cut down on racy content from the roaring 20s in cinema. This also pushed back against violence, nudity, and “sex perversion,” AKA LGBTQIA+ content. This is where the rise of queer coding in media would come from, like with Bugs Bunny dressing in drag and kissing other men as a way to get around these rules. Where the Hays Code was self-regulated, the Television Code of 1952 made it law and forced animated content on television to be family-oriented. It also forced Christian content as all channels had to have some religious broadcasting and could only showcase nuclear families. This is why early shows had parents sleeping in separate beds. It was incredibly racy for Fred and Wilma Flintstone to share a bed in an animated series.

With limited animation, which kids found more appealing than adults, and the Television Code forcing creators to make family content, this was the perfect storm to reinforce the negative stigma that animation was only for kids. However, that did not stop George Lucas from wanting to do more with animation.

How Droids and Ewoks Changed Star Wars

What’s ironic is that Droids and Ewoks could have possibly thrived if they debuted 1-2 years later. The kinds of storytelling these shows were doing would have fit so well during The Renaissance Age of Animation. These two shows were caught in the transitional period from one era to the next. In many ways, they had all the successful markings of their peers like He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and Care Bears (also by Nelvana). However, I am getting ahead of myself, so let’s focus on the gist of this article.

How did these two series change the Star Wars franchise? On the surface, it’s a simple answer:

They were the first Star Wars series on television. Ewoks and Droids set the stage for shows down the line like The Clone Wars, The Mandalorian, and beyond.

But what George Lucas did with Nelvana was more than that simple explanation. Lucas wanted to raise the standard of the Saturday Morning Cartoon with better animation and voice acting for the era. That is precisely what hindered these two series and led to their demise. Their greatest strength was also their biggest weakness: their production costs.

Fighting the ABC Network

George focused these series on droids and Ewoks for a few reasons. With the Television Code, they had to be tailored to children, and these characters were perfect for the youngest Star Wars fans. He also wanted to avoid the original trilogy’s main characters. That way, these shows wouldn’t clash with the canon of the films. He was so adamant about this point that it sometimes put him at odds with his production team. Boba Fett’s return in Droids was the closest legacy character to appear outside of C-3PO, R2-D2, and Wicket. The bounty hunter still sported a similar look to his Holiday Special appearance.

In good George Lucas fashion, he tried to push the boundaries of the kinds of stories told in these shows. He could have settled for similar stories other animated shows did at that time, but he wanted to push animation to its limit with story and creation. One of the best examples is the canceled Ewoks episode “The Starman.”

In this episode, an Imperial pilot crashed on Endor. The Ewoks tended to his wounds but faced a greater challenge when the Empire showed up looking for the pilot. The pilot had to choose whether to side with the Empire or defend the Ewok people who helped him. ABC canceled the episode. Their reason?

The concept was “too Star Warsy.”

The writer of “The Starman,” Paul Dini, who would later go on to be the co-creator of Harley Quinn in Batman: The Animated Series and also write for The Clone Wars, said in a 2004 interview while discussing Genndy Tartakovsky’s Star Wars: Clone Wars:

"“The thing with that was, by the time we did Ewoks and Droids, that was kind of the state of the art for Saturday morning cartoons. We couldn’t really do everything we really wanted to do with those…That was something we just didn’t have when we did those shows originally, because we were dealing with a regime at the network that just wanted safe children’s programming. Every time we wanted to stretch it a little bit, they would kick up a fuss over it… They wouldn’t like it, they wouldn’t understand it, they’d be fearful of it. They would just say ‘It’s not for us. We don’t see the entertainment value in it.’With Ewoks and Droids, we tried to give it as good a look as we could, and tried to make it feel special as part of the Star Wars universe. But, like I said, with Saturday morning TV you’re dealing with the corporate mentality that just wants to do everything safe and sweet. And that’s what we were stuck with, time and time again. Ultimately it became a battle that was just not worth fighting. It became, ‘Okay, let’s just try to do the show the best we can. Maybe it’ll be good.’”"

Groundbreaking TV for the 1980s

As Dini said, the creators really did give these series everything they had. The production was both a triumph and a downfall for the shows; while they still used limited animation, they tried to innovate in new ways. Nelvana’s co-founder Clive A. Smith estimated that the hour-long block of Droids and Ewoks cost roughly $500,000 to $600,000 or $250,000 to $300,000 per episode to produce. This made them some of the most expensive animated series created in this time period. In comparison, the first season of South Park in 1997 cost about $250,000 per episode.

A big reason for this is how many animated cels were used per episode. Animation cels were used in traditional hand-drawn animation to make the characters move against the still background. Droids used up to 24,000 cels per episode, stressing both Nelvana and Hanho Heung-Up, the South Korean company that helped with production. That amount of cels per episode, especially coming out of the era of limited animation, was practically unheard of for that time. This would be the downfall of Droids, which had more challenging designs of the two shows, making it only run for one season.

Ewoks would get a second season, and a big reason is Lucasfilm took over the creation in-house, thus ending Nelvana’s role in this story. The series’ format changed as the show simplified in ways to make production easier. One example was more narrative focus on core characters, which ultimately wrote out some of the Season 1 characters entirely. It also became two 11-minute segments per half hour, which made production more accessible. Still, this wouldn’t be enough to save the show for a third season with its low ratings. The final episode of Ewoks would air in December 1986, ending Star Wars’ first run on the small screen.

Just because these shows were animated, it did not mean that George Lucas and the teams of Nelvana and Lucasfilm took it easy. They still tried to push the boundaries of what kind of storytelling could be done in the franchise. They wanted to change how animation could function on television, even battling ABC at times. While dated and a bit goofy now, Ewoks and Droids laid the foundation for all Star Wars television.

They especially influenced the creator of the next entry in this series, Genndy Tartakovsky.

Look for the next entry of “How Animation Changed Star Wars” here at Dork Side of the Force.