An excerpt from StarWars.com‘s oral history of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace:
“A New Beginning
Twenty years later, The Phantom Menace and the prequels at large may have finally found their time. Children who loved the film in 1999 have grown up. Anecdotally, Episode I remains as popular as ever with kids; prequel-related books and comics are maybe more prevalent than at any time since 1999, and the recent Qui-Gon/Obi-Wan Master & Apprentice novel landed on the New York Times Bestseller List; at Star Wars Celebration Chicago in April, a 20thanniversary panel drew thousands and many, many ovations — the loudest of which was for Ahmed Best. Here, the creators of The Phantom Menace reflect on the movie and its wider acceptance today.
George Lucas [The Phantom Menace writer and director, Star Wars creator]: I love the [Star Wars] movies. And I love Episode I very much because it fills in a lot of the holes. I really wanted to do that.
John Knoll [The Phantom Menace visual effects supervisor]: Well, I think [its new popularity] is good to see, because I think George took a lot of the criticism pretty hard. It was sort of painful for me to see how vicious people were about it and how personally George took that. I think the films didn’t deserve quite as much hate as they got. It pained me to see how hard George took that stuff.
Ben Burtt [The Phantom Menace sound designer and co-editor]: I said to my family back at the time of Phantom Menace and the other prequels, “Look, if people had these expectations, just wait until all this passes. The next generation that comes along is going to look at them very differently.”
That’s true now. My grandchildren, they’re all the right age for Star Wars, they’re two to 15, and they love it! I don’t get any critiques from them. They’ll watch any one of them. I think that time softens a lot of that. There’s a lot of expectation involved in your reaction to a movie.
Ahmed Best [Jar Jar Binks actor]: It was definitely the children — I had to start looking at Jar Jar through their eyes, and that’s what made me smile again. Now those kids are in their 20s and 30s. They have a different perspective on The Phantom Menace. The Phantom Menace, for them, is their Star Wars. [Episodes] IV, V, and VI, that’s their parents’ Star Wars, and VII, VIII, and IX, that’s their kids’ Star Wars. But the prequels, that’s theirs, and they defend the prequels. So I see the same thing. I see the resurgence of The Phantom Menace and the prequels, and they’re getting the attention that I think we wanted them to get 20 years ago. And the same thing with Jar Jar.
Rob Coleman [The Phantom Menace animation director]: It warms my heart, because I was so incredibly proud, obviously, to have been a key member of the creative team, to bring those films to life. I put everything of myself into that work and worked incredibly hard to get George’s vision onto the screen.
Doug Chiang [The Phantom Menace design director and Lucasfilm VP and creative director]: It validates a lot of what we were doing. It actually warms my heart because I love to see that. And I knew from several years ago that that generation was growing up, because I would get a lot of emails and contact saying that, you know, that was their favorite film.
It was always hard for me to look at it objectively because I grew up with the original trilogy, and I’m with that generation, but of course I had a big hand in the prequel trilogy. So, I feel tied to both. And I could understand and appreciate both. And I’m just very thankful that people can now see it as a whole, that each of these films and stories are made for a very specific generation. It covers many generations and it’s not just for one targeted group.
So for me to hear all of that now is actually very rewarding, because I knew we were doing something very special. We were pushing boundaries for sure, and that’s totally what Star Wars is. You’re taking risks. I’m just very thrilled that it’s coming together in this way. I think the best thing for me is seeing the content, the Episode I content, being played out, like in the Battlefront video games, where you can see the designs and the worlds that we created come to life in a bigger way.
And that really validates it for me because they’re worlds that I want to visit again. I really want to go back there and enjoy it. I’m just glad that people are starting to appreciate that, because I felt that instinctually, and I couldn’t really share it openly until just recently. It is kind of hard — when you create something, you want everybody to love it. Of course, you can’t please everybody. [Laughs]
Jean Bolte [The Phantom Menace Viewpaint supervisor]: To go to Star Wars Celebration, and see and hear the fans so interested in what our contribution had been…. It really did completely change my point of view about having the privilege of having had something to do with these films.
John Knoll: I think [the Star Wars Celebration panel] was great, especially the warm reaction there was to Ahmed. I know he took it hard, all the vicious comments that people had about Jar Jar. That’s not his fault, he didn’t write that character. He’s an actor who did a really good job and worked hard to do that job well. To see the really warm reaction of the crowd made me feel — it was heartwarming.
Ahmed Best: To be very honest, I was very afraid to go to Celebration. Every time I’m in a Star Wars setting, I spend most of my time defending our work and defending Jar Jar. And I just don’t want to do that anymore. So I was very reluctant to come to Celebration because of that, and I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised. It wasn’t the case at all. I just felt nothing but love and respect and admiration for the work we did. I couldn’t have been more proud and I couldn’t have been happier. I wish George was there because I think we’re at a time right now where we have to stand in that work. We have to say, “We did it,” and step into that in a very proud way, because it stands the test of time.
George Lucas is a futurist. That guy can see 20, 30, 50 years into the future. As an artist and as a creator and as an innovator, he’s done things that no one else has done, no one else has even thought of. I know the fan backlash of 20 years ago was loud, but that’s really all it was. It was just loud. And now we have to be louder in our pride for this thing, because we have an army behind us of people who love those movies.
Rob Coleman: [George] said something along the lines of, “I could put you at a table at any mall in America and kids would be lining up to get your autograph.” I was like, “Oh, George.” He said, “They’re going to put Jar Jar on your tombstone.” I was like, “No, they’re not!”
And he’s right. Twenty years on, I still get people that are much younger than me, coming up to me and saying, “Jar Jar is my favorite character.”
Trisha Biggar [The Phantom Menace costume designer]: I still get letters from people, which is fantastic. You think, it’s 20 years later and it’s amazing that people still want to write and say how much they love the films. I got a letter yesterday, in fact. It’s brilliant, it’s absolutely brilliant.
Doug Chiang: It’s pretty amazing. I would say it really started my whole career. Even though I was 30 at that time, it defined who I am as an artist, it defined my work ethic, it defined my style. I owe a lot to those seven years that I worked with George working on Episodes I and II. Looking back now, it’s nothing but fond memories. It’s amazing. Even though I say sometimes that it was a heartache and it was really hard, and I didn’t enjoy it, I did. I was living my dream.
John Knoll: I still feel like I owe George a lot to have been given that opportunity. On those three films, I feel like I got a whole career’s worth of experience packed into eight years. George never constricted his thinking to what he knew for sure the tools were capable of; his attitude was, “Yeah, well, I’m writing what I want to see, so you guys will figure it out.” I loved that he would constantly throw those challenges out with the confidence [that] you guys will figure it out. That was great.
[Laughs] I remember saying, “If I survive Episode I, nothing’s ever going to faze me again. If I can do that, I can do anything.” It really kind of was that way; then I wasn’t at all ever worried or intimidated about big shows. “Yeah, we got a process for doing it, we’ll figure it out.” I really developed a lot of confidence in the process of how we break these things down and how we manage big projects.
Iain McCaig [The Phantom Menace concept artist]: I love it. I love that film. I love Episode I, I love everything about it.
Ahmed Best: I look back at the work that we’ve done and I’m nothing more than proud. We did groundbreaking, innovative work. As far as innovation goes in movies since, they’ve taken what we’ve done and expanded on it, the Avatars and The Lord of the Rings. But Phantom Menace innovated that stuff. It works because we did it.
George Lucas: I still enjoy watching it. I haven’t shown it to my daughter yet; she’s five, but I’ll probably show it to her in the next year or so. And I have a grandson who also has got all the stuff. He’s the Star Wars guy. He wants to know how old Luke was when he was fighting Vader, how old was Anakin in the first film. He relates to who they are and what they are.
I think he obviously relates a lot more to Phantom Menace than the other films because the hero is his age. He’s four, going on five, so he’s decided that Anakin is five. You can make that leap. He wanted a hero who is the same age as himself.”