“Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace arrived on May 19, 1999, to a degree of anticipation and hype rarely seen before, or since, for a movie. There was good cause. It was the first new film in the Star Wars saga since 1983’s Return of the Jedi, and the kickoff of the prequel trilogy, which promised to tell the story of how Anakin Skywalker turned to the dark side and became Darth Vader, while the Emperor rose to power. George Lucas himself wrote the script and was back directing for the first time since 1977’s Star Wars, and the movie became a giant leap forward in digital effects — including a record number of effects shots and a major CG character in Jar Jar Binks. “All of the Star Wars movies, in one way or another, are about me and my take on the world,” Lucas tells StarWars.com. That might be especially true for The Phantom Menace, a colorful mashup of Kurosawa, political intrigue and history, racing, and family. As The Phantom Menace celebrates its 20th anniversary this month, StarWars.com spoke with several of its greatest architects to tell the story of how it came to be, and to reflect on it today.
Every Saga Has a Beginning
Following the release of Return of the Jedi in 1983, George Lucas’s commitments to Star Wars, at least in film, were complete. In the intervening years — dubbed “The Dark Times” by fans — Star Wars was largely absent from the public consciousness. Lucas, for his part, spent the time raising his family and somewhat quietly shepherding the evolution of digital effects with Industrial Light & Magic, resulting in innovations like the liquid-metal T-1000 of Terminator 2 (1991) and the mind-blowingly lifelike dinosaurs of Jurassic Park (1993).
Finally, on November 1, 1994, Lucas sat down to write Episode I.
George Lucas, The Phantom Menace writer and director, Star Wars creator: Well, my decision to make Episode I was more or less driven by technology. The first three Star Wars films were designed very, very carefully to be done cheaply. We didn’t go to any big cities, we didn’t have a lot of costumes, we didn’t have a lot of extras. We didn’t have a lot of the things that cost money on a movie like that. So it was really driven by what I could afford. You have to remember, the first film was made for 13 million dollars. Today, that same film costs 300 million dollars. Even in those days, 2001 cost like 25 million dollars. And I think we had more special effects than that did.
With Episode I, I didn’t want to tell a limited story. I had to go into the politics and the bigger issues of the Republic and that sort of thing. I had to go into bigger issues. And in order to do that, I had to come up with a way of doing it, and that’s what digital technology brought me. I had Yoda but he couldn’t fight. I had cities, but I couldn’t build models that big. I had lots and lots of costumes, but I couldn’t afford to make them. So there were a lot of issues that were just practical — Episode I wasn’t doable for a long time, so I waited until we had the technology to do it.
John Knoll, The Phantom Menace visual effects supervisor: George had mentioned it in one of the company meetings. Back in the mid-‘90s, annually, we’d have a big company meeting, and George would usually address us and sort of tell us what he was thinking. From the time I started there, every year somebody would ask, “Are you ever going to go back and make more Star Warsmovies?”
I remember around ’94 or so, in one of the company meetings he said, “Yeah, actually, I think I am. I’m looking at writing stories now.” There was a lot of excitement about that. […]”
Read the full article at StarWars.com.