The light side of the Force

Special to The Times

On the planet Muunilist, an army of Clone Troopers attacks swarms of warrior Droids; Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi tells his student Anakin Skywalker that his abilities as a pilot are not in question but his maturity is; Master Yoda concurs. It's the cosmos of "Star Wars," but the animated characters have the elegant minimalism of "Samurai Jack."

"Star Wars: Clone Wars," a 20-chapter "epic micro series" debuting in three-minute episodes tonight at 8 on Cartoon Network, represents a fusion of the worlds of George Lucas and Genndy Tartakovsky, the creator of the network's "Dexter's Laboratory" and "Samurai Jack."

When the idea for the program was initially presented to him, Tartakovsky, who served as producer-director, didn't believe it would ever be made. Never mind that executives at Lucasfilm liked Cartoon Network's proposal to create a series that would air while "Episode III" was being filmed.

"I talked to Paul Rudish, who's one of the art directors [on the coming feature], and said, 'This might happen, but I sincerely doubt it. There's no way we're going to do an animated "Star Wars," ' " Tartakovsky recalls. "Cartoon Network initially got approval to make it with one-minute episodes. I told them I couldn't do anything in that short a time; they'd have to be at least three to five minutes. They went back to Lucasfilm and told them they had the team behind 'Samurai Jack,' and they decided we were worthy."

The first hurdle Tartakovsky and his crew had to overcome was their trepidation at tackling a property many viewers regard as just short of Holy Writ. "We tried not to think about the fact that it was 'Star Wars,' we'd loved it as kids, it would be seen by millions of fans -- that pressure would keep you from doing anything," Tartakovsky says. "We all grew up watching the movies, and we felt like we knew them -- not as well as George, of course -- but well enough to add our own interpretations."

Turns out they were right: Lucas likes "Clone Wars." "I'm a big fan of 'Samurai Jack,' so I was really excited when I heard that Genndy was doing this project," he says via e-mail. "I watched 'Clone Wars' with my son Jett right after I got back from shooting 'Episode III,' and we just loved it. 'Clone Wars' is definitely 'Star Wars,' but it clearly has Genndy's style. Visually, it's like nothing else out there."

After quieting their initial qualms, the crew explored what kind of storytelling can be done in just three minutes -- less than an episode of "Rocky and Bullwinkle." "The first thing I did was put together three-minute segments of 'Jack,' just to see what you can get across," Tartakovsky says. "I realized it was more time than I thought, but every scene has to say something. You can't have a beauty scene for beauty's sake."

After working together for 12 years, Tartakovksy's crew has developed an recognizable visual style they wanted to preserve. But "Clone Wars" couldn't look like a continuation of "Samurai Jack"; the characters had to resemble their live-action counterparts. "We played with the style a bit to make it fit, but the biggest problem was: Do we caricature the actors or do we caricature the personalities in the movies?" Tartakovsky explains. "It became less about how does Ewan McGregor look and more about how does Obi-Wan Kenobi look as an animated character. Once we made that leap, we felt comfortable with the look."

Unlike many recent animated films, "Clone Wars" doesn't use rapid-fire cuts.

"The series is supposed to resemble 'Star Wars,' and the 'Star Wars' films don't use the stylized cutting of MTV," Tartakovsky says. "Akira Kurosawa, David Lean and Alfred Hitchcock were the main inspirations for 'Samurai Jack,' along with a lot of '70s cinema. Lucas fits very naturally into that group....

"I love the way the long scenes feel -- one of the characteristics of '70s filmmaking is that you don't cut around a lot; you let things play out. I did that on 'Samurai Jack,' and it carried over into 'Clone Wars.' In some episodes, we use 40 or 50 poses in a fight scene; in any other TV show or even most features, you'd use 10 or 12. Those extra poses really make a difference: You feel the action in the fight much more than you would if it were cut! cut! cut!"


'Star Wars: Clone Wars'

Where: Cartoon Network

When: 8 p.m. weekdays, beginning tonight

What else: The first 10 three-minute episodes run through Nov. 20; the second 10 will start airing next spring.

Producer, director, Genndy Tartakovsky.

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