Lightsabers, blasters, exotic aliens, space battles: they’re all components to the Star Wars Universe, but ultimately, what makes them sing is the story.
In the modern world of Star Wars, Supervising Director Dave Filoni of Star Wars: The Clone Wars is the keeper of an entire era of Star Wars mythos. In the special Lecture Hall area at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, FL, Filoni came to the convention to teach eager students how to tell a story in the Star Wars universe. The lecture hall packed to capacity before the panel began, and fans were ready to find out the intricacies of story telling in this world they all love.
Stay tuned and keep the refresh button handy as we update LIVE during Filoni’s special education.
Dave Filoni took the stage to great applause, saying “I’m wiped out! Last time I did this, I said next time I’m going to be more prepared. I am, but not as much as I’d like to be. I’ll start the first half hour with the basics of visual storytelling, and around 6 o’clock I’ll talk more about how you do that cinematically.
“Anyone that has seen me before knows I’m a talker. I may get off topic a bit, but I should be able to fill the time.
“Storytelling: we do it every day, and we’re consuming stories every day. What you’re probably not aware of is you’re doing this every day. At some point today, near the end of the day, you’ll meet up with your friends and they’ll say “what did you do today?” Then you have to tell that story, and you won’t think about it, you’ll do it naturally. There’s a way you can do that so they understand it and there’s a way you can do it that will make them say “what are you talking about?”
Filoni told a quick anecdote about a friend who uses terrible pacing in his own personal stories.
“All of it is about clarity. Clarity is the key component of a story. A lot of what I teach you today, you’ll go watch a movie and say ‘but Dave they didn’t do it that way in this movie, they broke that rule in this movie.’ But I’ll tell you what George Lucas tells me, and that’s if it’s easy to do, everyone would do it!
“There are tons of little choices that all matter.”
Filoni’s focus will, as advertised, be on telling a Star Wars story. “It’s fast, it’s clear, and hopefully it’s very original.”
After the basic introduction, Filoni started to outline his process.
“Where are we? Remember, the audience only knows what you’re showing – they don’t know anything else. The only thing that matters is what the camera sees. It’s like you have a hold of someone’s head. You see space, you see a planet, you see a little ship enter the screen, and a big ship enter the screen. The little ship is getting shot at, and suddenly you immediately feel bad for that ship and the people on it.
“Always be relating one thing to another, it’s critical. Don’t be coy. George doesn’t play those games, he’s very literal with stuff in Star Wars. Darth Vader wears black – pop – bad guy. Storm Troopers, guys in menacing suits with frown-looks on their helmets – pop – bad guys.”
Filoni talked about one of the clips from Season 5 that have been teased so far, where a bunch of Mandalorians are protecting Obi-Wan Kenobi, and they pull out these arm shields; that was just to help solve the idea of people not fighting in cover – and then he digressed.
“So clarity is key. One of the easiest examples is the establishing shot of the Senate.” Filoni drew a quick sketch showing the establishing shot, where you push in twoards a building, then can cut to that building. “The next shot then is the inside of the office, and you see people standing there. What we have to do at that point is go in, showing a shot of Palpatine, looking right to left.
“We then see him talking to the Jedi, they’re looking left to right, that shows that they’re talking to eachother. What that all tells you is Establishing, they’re in the room in this building, this guy is talking to these people. It’s also good to have over-the-shoulder shots. Yoda is hard to do that with though, because he’s so short!”
Filoni went on to talk about the individual types of shots.
“If you start on a closeup, it can be aggravating. The establishing shot is importnat.” Filoni drew a wide shot of the Jedi temple, then the wide shot of the interior where the council is sitting. “Now, again, you have the wide shot outside, then the wide shot inside, one idea goes to the next idea. After that, if we want to cut to one specific person, that’s when we can get a little more creative with our thinking.
“If I have a character, say Mace Windu in the right third of the establishing shot, then we bring that forward, but still keep him in the far right third.”
Filoni once again got on a tangent about how all the Jedi fold their hands while they sit. Then he started talking about how all the Jedi cut perfect circles with their lightsabers, and how the larger Jedi must cut out basically entire walls. He said George shakes his head when he talks about these sort of things in story meetings.
“Any time you’re watching a movie and it doesn’t cut to another angle, that’s all a single shot. If you look at Hitchcock, he did a lot of single shots. Cuaron does that too. All those relationships with those characters give you an idea of how characters relate to the scene. Does your eye want to travel. So between a wide shot where Mace is in the right third, and a close shot where he’s there, your eye doesn’t have to ping pong between those two shots.”
Next he drew three shots. Anakin is on the far left, and Obi-Wan is over the shoulder. the second panel has the left completely empty, and Obi-Wan is looking straight ahead on the right. “He can be talking or not talking, but your eye goes right to him. As a director, you’re saying Obi-Wan’s reaction to what Anakin is saying is important. One of the most important things to know is when you need to show another character for reaction. That’s a choice.” The third frame has Anakin, close up, but still on the left side of the screen.
“As long as Anakin is on the left and Obi-Wan is on the right, you’ll understand this, even if you don’t know who they are. There’s an invisible line where the characters are supposed to reside. When a character flips sides suddenly, that can be jarring. That’s not something you’ll see us do in Star Wars.”
There is something called a passing position shot, where one object or person crosses the other that allows for that kind of switch.
Filoni talked a bit about his time on King of the Hill where he introduced a three camera system to try to give a more grandiose sense to a scene.
“You have your three cameras, all focused toward a middle section. From those three cameras, you can pull them out to an A position to give you a corresponding wide shot. Then you can push them into a B position for the closer shot, say the top of a table and the torso of the character sitting there. Then the close-up is the C position with the close up. The camera never falls beyond a median line, so that you never break that screen direction line.
“It’s so simple, and it’s so easy to screw up. That’s one of the earliest things George taught me.”
Moving into composition, Filoni talked about his time with Avatar: The Last Airbender, and how he learned there that children today don’t understand three point perspective.
“Most of the time if I’m filming a character, say a dominant character like Dooku. we might do a three-quarter under look. In Avatar, we sometimes tried to do a forced perspective, close to far. What that’s imitating is a lens choice, out of something like a 16mm lens. Most of the time if you’re shooting a close-up you shoot with a 35mm camera. A lot of times because of the speed we work at, we’ll shoot a scene at 16mm for a wide screen, then do a closeup and forget to change the lens – that’s when the character faces look really weird.”
He said he pays attention to those sorts of things whenever he’s watching films. “It’s really amazing when you see how they pull it off, and it works,” and that’s what he’ll try to do in Clone Wars now. He mentioned Scorcese saying “when you start a movie, make sure that everyone working on it is trying to make the same movie.” Filoni says he has to do that in every individual episode.
“There’s so much expanded material now, but we have to say this is the version we’re making. That’s why I love having access to George, cause I can ask him directly.”
Moving to another aspect of composition, Filoni drew four panels, showing a turning head shot of Ahsoka.
In the first panel, she’s looking at us “You have a connection to her. The next, you don’t have as strong of one, the next you’re confused, then finally you are far away from her.”
He drew another example, with the wide head-on shot, then a very close shot where “your whole TV set becomes her face, and you’re right up in her emotion. I’m going to use that to devastating effect later this year,” Filoni hinted.
After the sketching, he showed a clip with no dialogue, to try to show that there’s emotion and attitude based solely off how the shot is framed and how the characters are moving through it. it’s an animatic, labled “Campfire 602.” The clip showed the screen direction of left to right, including the eye direction and where the characters are in the frame from shot to shot.
“George has always told me that any story can be a Star Wars story, it’s just the trapping of it that makes it Star Wars,” Filoni noted when a fan thought the scene was very focused on Jedi “rules,” saying that doesn’t enter the story until very late.
To close up the seminar, Filoni wanted to go into an action sequence on Clone Wars.
“I breakdown pretty much every action moment. We have action meetings where we break down every lightsaber battle, every blaster, everything.”
Talking specifically about the Season 3 two-part finale featuring Chewbacca. When the transport ship was crashing, he described to his episode director, “We have the beach low, I wanted Ahsoka and the other padawans to run up and jump onto the glass and that will get the Trandosians activated. Then she runs inside, and that starts a separate fight inside the cockpit, so now we have two action sequences going at the same time.
The Trandosians are much larger, so he can have a good hand-to-hand combat scene with these two kids. So I came up with the idea that one of them ran at him and jumped, then the other used the force to throw him and kick him.”
The staging of the shot has the three walls angled, and rotating for effect. That’s how he’d generally diagram the whole sequence. He also tries to bring in iconic moments during these initial plans, so that there are clear goal points. After the break down, they talk about individual shots and where the camera goes.
Filoni finished off by showing the final clip.
We’ll update later with some of Filoni’s sketches to give a better idea of what his descriptions here meant, but hopefully you learned something!