Clone Wars Animation Review

I saw Clone Wars Sunday night (late show). All in all, I’m excited by the prospects for the computer-generated Expanded Universe. Clone Wars looks effing fantastic. Many of the visual elements of A New Hope etc. (the Catina, Jabba’s go-go dancer, droids, aliens) are revisualized extremely well in all-CG. But first let’s get to the downside.

The Clone Wars creative team failed with Anakin and Obi-Wan Kenobi. Art design, animation, voice actors, character, dialog: all bad. But Star Wars is about the cool villains anyway. It looks like CG Skywalker and Obi-Wan were designed to look exactly like action figures. (“Merchandising! Merchandising! Where the real money from the movie is made!”) I tried my best to ignore them and just pretended they weren’t really Anakin and Obi-Wan--because they aren’t. There’s not a hint that action figure Anakin has already committed mass murder on the sand people. By contrast, the CG alien species are breath-taking! The CG humans were crap.

In defense of Lucasfilms Singapore, I don’t think anyone has done a good job with CG humans. Besides a character’s primary movement, animators create ‘secondary motion’--that’s body language plus all the Newtonian stuff. ‘Articulated’ animation includes facial expression, head gestures, talking with your hands, etc. Good secondary motion is the mark of a world class master animator. Look at Bugs Bunny hand-drawn, or Sepulba and Watto in Attack Of the Clones. It works with CG aliens and stylized toon characters, but I’ve never seen it done well in CG humans. Trying to make CG human characters look affable, they always look like re-animated corpses to me. I think it’s gross.

I don’t understand why CG Anakin and CG Obi-Wan have such stiff walks. The octoped droids have better walks than the CG humans, and believe me, designing a multi-legged walk cycle is rough. In hand-drawn, on a TV budget you animate a stiff walk to save money because you have to draw every cel. It’s a lot more work to draw smooth, natural walks. But ‘walk cycles’ are reusable in CG. Once the animator designs the walk cycle, you just slap it on the character and loop it. These walk cycles look like they were made literally in five minutes. But a pro animator could make a good walk cycle for CG Anakin in an hour; once it’s done, you’re set for the entire TV series. So that I don’t get.

Stiff walk cycles are part of ‘limited’ animation style -- simple, stripped-down animation used to save money. It takes a lot less time, but its not easy. That’s because limited animation looks cheap/stupid unless the team comes up with a brilliant stylization. Limited also needs a brilliant voice actor to work well.

Take the old Flintstones cartoons out of Hanna-Barbera Studio. Limited animation, yes, but it’s little stylizations like Fred Flintstone bowling on his tip-toes, little signatures that give the characters personality so they look cool/funny instead of stupid/cheap. South Park is another perfect example. The best example is Frank Oz’s puppet Yoda in Empire Strikes Back. With a handful of puppet gestures (e.g., Yoda poking at Luke with his cane), Yoda becomes an icon of wisdom in your imagination. I mean, how convincing is puppet Yoda? How convincing are Fred and Wilma? Barney Rubble? Forget about it. Fantastic stuff. So it can be done. It wasn’t done in Clone Wars -- at least not with Anakin and Obi-Wan.

I think it’s a mistake to skip the opening scroll. I guess they want to distinguish Clone Wars from Episodes 1-6, but I think they misjudged here. The scroll is just so basic to Star Wars. The sixth time you saw the scroll in Revenge of the Sith, did you think to yourself, ‘not that again?’ Maybe I’m wrong.

Another huge problem is the music. You cannot overstate the importance of John Williams to Star Wars. Think about it. At its heart, Star Wars is about fantastic visuals set to incomparable music scores. There’s other great efx houses besides ILM, other great stories with fantastic visuals. It’s the music perfectly matching the visuals that makes Star Wars unique. You’re not going to get Williams working for TV, and the guy is so in a class by himself. But I’d keep elements of the original movie scores as signatures in all future Expanded Universe spin-offs. John Williams is indispensable. If it doesn’t have John Williams, its not Star Wars.

Futurewise, I’m still excited about seeing the Expanded Universe in CG for the rest of my life. Lucasfilms has to solve the problem of bland CG humans who look like crap next to the super cool CG aliens. The good guys need work. But the Sith, the Hutts, the droids! Oh man, they are so hot in CG! Bring on Thrawn!

Action: GOOD

Banter: BAD

CG Sith: YES

CG Jedi: NO

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