When the powers-that-be at Disney and Lucasfilm decided that they wanted to set Star Wars Rebels in that time period between the prequels and the original trilogy, executive producer Dave Filoni knew that this new Disney XD animated series was going to be tough to pull off.
"Look, it's one thing to do what we did on Star Wars: The Clone Wars. That animated series was set between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. So we had a wealth of material to work with," Filoni explained during a recent phone interview. "We could make use of characters that had previously appeared in the prequels. We could pick up story threads from those two movies. It was a rich, rich vein to explore."
"Whereas with Rebels ... Going into this project, once we decided that its story should begin four years before the events of A New Hope ... Well, my biggest fear as we began developing this show is that I didn't want to repeat what George (Lucas) had already done," Dave continued. "I mean, I didn't want us inventing another Luke Skywalker. Luke is the chosen one. Luke is the son of Darth Vader. So given that Rebels is set in the particular time period in Star Wars history, I wondered how we could tell a story with this new animated series that would be truly unique and -- at the same time -- not duplicate what George had already done with the original trilogy?"
To solve this vexing story problem, Filoni put his head together with Simon Kinberg (i.e., the writer and producer of X-Men: Days of Future Past) and Carrie Beck of the Lucasfilm Story Group. And eventually these three found themselves circling back around to Order 66, that infamous directive that Emperor Palpatine issued as the Clone Wars was drawing to a close. Which then resulted in the slaughter of all but a handful of Jedi Knights.
"In Revenge of the Sith, we saw Obi-Wan and Yoda escape that purge. But what if there had been other Jedi Knights who had slipped out of their robes and stepped into the shadows just as Order 66 came down?," Dave said. "That's how we came with the character of Kanan Jarrus for Rebels. He's a survivor of the Emperor's Jedi purge. But just how old was Kanan when Order 66 came down? How far along was he in his Jedi training?"
"That's what I think is cool about Kanan, makes him different from any of the other Jedis that we've met before in the Star Wars universe. Kanan's sarcastic, he uses a blaster and -- to avoid being hunted down by the Galactic Empire -- Kanan's kept his Jedi past a closely guarded secret," Filoni continued. "In fact, the only reason that this cowboy Jedi finally broke out his lightsaber in Star Wars Rebels: Spark of Rebellion, the TV movie that we used to launch this new animated series, was because Ezra put Kanan in a situation where he had no choice but to reveal that he was a Jedi Knight."
"And who is Ezra?," you ask. Well, again -- plugging back into what had already been established in the Star Wars universe (i.e., That -- besides Luke Skywalker -- there had always been kids who were born in the galaxy who could wield the Force. And the Jedi Knights had been finding these kids throughout their entire history and then training them up at their Temple) -- Dave, Simon and Carrie wanted to explore the idea of what might happen to a Force-sensitive kid like this when there are no Jedi Knights left to train them.
"Ezra Bridger is this 14-year-old kid who's been growing up on his own in the age of the Empire. He's been stealing to survive. And while Ezra knows that he has some strange abilities, they're raw, unfocused, instinctive," Filoni said. "It's only when Ezra gets together with Kanan that he finally tries to harness this ability. But given that Kanan is out of practice, it's been so long since he regularly wielded the Force ... Well, he's not exactly the greatest teacher for Ezra."
"Which -- again -- I think is something different from what we've previously seen in a Star Wars story," Dave enthused. "Ezra's this kid who gets found by a Jedi who's kind of lost his way. Who's out of practice when it comes to wielding the Force. And I just like the idea that -- within this story -- Kanan could, by teaching Ezra, then become the Jedi that he could have been or was supposed to be but couldn't because everything fell apart after Order 66 came down."
Okay. Now that Filoni & Co. had two compelling characters that they could then build Star Wars Rebels around, the next big question was: What would this new animated series for Disney XD look like? To answer that question, Dave reached all the way to the very beginning of this franchise. Back to 1975, to be exact. Which was when George Lucas -- as he was struggling to get a handle on what the characters and the world of Star Wars might look like -- hired conceptual designer and illustrator Ralph McQuarrie.
And as any Star Wars history buff will tell you, those concept paintings that Ralph churned out over the course of 1975 had a huge impact on the franchise. They not only helped George zero in on what Darth Vader, R2-D2 and C-3PO should look like, they also influenced the way that key scenes in these films were shot. More to the point, it was these images that helped convince 20th Century Fox executives to actually fund production of A New Hope. And then when you factor in that Ralph McQuarrie's concept paintings established the "used future" look which eventually became the visual motif of this entire franchise ... The contribution of this one conceptual designer & illustrator to Star Wars canon is immeasurable.
"And the really great part is that George didn't actually use all of the ideas that Ralph came up with. Which then left us free to fold some of McQuarrie's leftover character designs and vehicles in Star Wars Rebels, " Filoni enthused. "Take -- for example -- Zeb Orrelios. The look of that member of the Ghost's crew was heavily influenced by Ralph's original design for Chewbacca. Likewise Chopper. Those expressive arms that come out that droid's head were originally features that Ralph had proposed for R2-D2."
"But it's not just Ralph McQuarrie's character designs that we're making use of on Star Wars Rebels. If you look at the concept paintings that Ralph did for the original trilogy, there's this distinctive way that he would paint the moons and the planets in the sky. And Kilian Plunkett -- who's the art director on this project -- and I really want that more illustrative look to be part of this animated series," Dave continued. "So we did some extensive study at the Lucasfilm archives and really looked at Ralph's paintings up-close. We then created these digital brushes that kind of emulate Ralph's hand and painting techniques and pencil lines. And give that we now use those brushes on all of our digital models ... Well, that's why I like to say that the overall look of Star Wars Rebels is a homage to Ralph, that his spirit is still very much alive in this new animated series."
Speaking of being alive ... Given that -- in Return of the Jedi -- Yoda tells Luke "When gone am I, the last of the Jedi you will be," one has to wonder what's eventually going to become of Ezra and Kanan. Especially since -- on the wake of last week's episode, "Rise of the Old Masters" -- the Inquisitor (i.e., the Pau'an that Darth Vader has tasked with hunting down all of the remaining Jedi in the galaxy) is now keenly aware that this reluctant master and his rebellious apprentice are out there somewhere.
"Yeah, given that we plan on adhering to Star Wars canon with Rebels, I think that's going to leave a lot of fans on edge. Make them wonder about what eventually happens to Kanan and Ezra," Filoni smiled. "Given these two characters are out there wielding the Force just four years before Luke connects with Obi-Wan Kenobi ... Well, that then sets up a lot of questions that now need to be answered. Like just how strong the Force is during this time period?"
Well, if you'd like to get some answers to those questions and/or be brought up to speed with this new chapter of the Star Wars saga, Episode 4 of Rebels -- "Breaking Ranks" -- airs tonight on Disney XD at 9 p.m. ET/ PT. And in "Breaking Ranks," you once again get to see something that was designed for the original trilogy but never quite made it on-screen.
"The Scout Walker that we use in this episode is actually a Joe Johnston design. It was an Imperial vehicle that they were thinking of using in the original trilogy but eventually opted to go with a more sophisticated design for that craft instead," Dave concluded. "And since Star Wars Rebels is set a few years before A New Hope, I decided that we could use some of Joe's earlier designs for vehicles that eventually led to the final look of that film. That way, the vehicles in Star Wars Rebels could then be seen as the Version As of what appeared in A New Hope. Rather than have us straight up repeat the vehicles that had appeared in that movie."