Before Star Wars film reboot, a new animated Rebels

SAN FRANCISCO (AFP) - Star Wars fans breathlessly waiting for the next episode in the legendary saga to hit movie screens late next year are about to meet a new band of ragtag rebels trying to defeat the Empire.

The animated Star Wars: Rebels, which will debut in October on the Disney XD channel, is Lucasfilm's latest foray into the world of Jedi knights and light sabers, with an eye towards winning over a new generation.

"It's a story that can get very dark but it has to inspire hope - it must be fun," explains Dave Filoni, the executive producer of the hotly-anticipated series, during a visit to Lucasfilm headquarters in San Francisco.

Killian Plunkett, the show's artistic director, said: "At the beginning, we only knew there would be five characters living in a spaceship."

Those characters - the "Cowboy Jedi" Kanan, Ezra, pilot Hera, Zeb and Sabine - will help fans understand the origins of the Rebel Alliance that later will overthrow Darth Vader and the Galactic Empire.

"They're archetypes - they're like a family" - much like Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Han Solo were - but adapted for 21st century viewers, Filoni notes.

The action in Rebels is set between Episodes III and IV of the original saga - just before the time of Skywalker and Solo.

"Luke is very traditional - he lives with his uncle on the farm. Ezra is an orphan. He survives on his own," Filoni said, comparing one of his new heroes with the leader of the old guard.

For Filoni, Ezra is "more like a young Indiana Jones," referring to another indelible George Lucas character.

"Some kids nowadays, they might feel a bit more alone - they spend a lot of time alone at home while their parents are at work," he says.

The new team of rebels will confront a new villain - The Inquisitor, voiced by British actor Jason Isaacs, who portrayed Harry Potter baddie Lucius Malfoy.

Creating new characters in the Star Wars universe is no simple task.

Hera, a Twi'lek pilot and a leader of the rebel group with green tentacles for hair, initially looked like a chubby little girl with pigtails. Kanan was blond - and is now dark-haired with a goatee.

Ever since Lucas sold his company to Disney and started sliding towards retirement, the creators of Star Wars: Rebels have religiously looked to his archives for guidance, and adopted some of the 1970s flair of the original films.

"When Phantom Menace came out (in 1999), we were drunk with technology. Now we want a look that's a bit more old school," says Joel Aaron, the show's special effects supervisor.

As a result, the animation has more of a vintage look, with lines that are not as crisp as in other computer-generated series. Spaceships take geometric shapes that seem less than aerodynamic.

"It's good if it looks cartoonish," says animation director Keith Kellogg.

That said, if a jump does not look realistic enough, it's back to the drawing board. Kellogg says he spends hours making various gestures and expressions to help his team of artists.

Those artists recycle various animated movements, but change small details - the angle of a head, the colour palette, the decor - to keep it fresh.

No Star Wars series would be complete without the iconic light sabers. Aaron watched the epic battle scene in the first film between Darth Vader and Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi countless times for inspiration.

At that time, some of the special effects were done with bits of string.

"The first light saber had been made with a rotative handle, and some reflecting tape on a wand. They had directed a light on a mirror and then reflected that mirror on the reflecting tape," Aaron said.

"That's how you got the flickering halo." Disney has not really weighed in on Lucasfilm's activities, the team says.

Plunkett says only that company executives did not like the first sketches of the muscular rebel Zeb, who at first had the head of a boar and a military uniform. In the series, his face is more reptilian and he wears a spacesuit.

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