Droids Revisited: An Interview with Artist Jeff Carlisle

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September 7, 2010

By Pete Vilmur

While researching our anniversary coverage of the Droids and Ewoks animated series, we discovered a little-known set of illustrations by official Star Wars artist Jeff Carlisle that revisited the characters and hardware of Droids in a 2004 article for Polyhedron magazine. Since so few artists venture into the realm of Droids these days (for lack of good reference imagery, no doubt!), we wanted to know how Carlisle was able to devise such striking likenesses of these characters and vehicles, which we guess have been seen by fewer fans than the infamous "Star Wars Holiday Special" (not that we don't appreciate the Holiday Special).

"Before the Race" was composed by Carlisle for a Droids tribute article appearing in the June 2004 issue of Polyhedron magazine

We asked Carlisle a few questions about his Droids illustrations, and why there remains such a devotion to the series among some fans:

After 25 years with limited release on video and DVD, why do you think there's still a devoted faction of fans interested in the Droids and Ewoks series?

I think it had a lot to do with the age that fans were when the series came out. If you were young when Star Wars was originally released (I was four, for example), then you were an adolescent when Droids and Ewoks came out [check out a piece of Carlisle's first Droids-inspired artwork from 1985 done at age 12]. Also, it helps that they were actually very good shows -- I mean, you had the same variation of quality that existed in children's programming at the time, but you might give it a bit of a pass because it was Star Wars. You would have Jar Jar Binks-like slapstick one minute and then some really cool and slightly scary design the next.

I also think there was still a bit of innocence in the Star Wars universe at the time -- the Marvel comics were still around, there wasn't as much of an emphasis put on continuity, and there seemed to be a little more latitude in the types of stories that Lucasfilm wanted to tell in the Star Wars universe.

And it was a handmade show -- that is very appealing to a lot of people. There was a lot of love and care that went into every aspect of that show, and when I meet fans of the series today they are still excited about it.

What aspects of the Droids series specifically distinguished it from other animation of the day and, perhaps, today?

I think it was a confluence of the time in which it was produced and the people who worked on it that made it unique. It was made by hand animation on cels and it had that hand-crafted feeling to it. The backgrounds were done in watercolors and airbrush. The characters were stylized and C-3PO only had three fingers on each hand. Nelvana, the animation company that did the Droids and Ewoks cartoon, also animated the famous (or, perhaps infamous) animated sequence in "The Star Wars Holiday Special" and decided to keep the same basic aesthetic for Droids.

An original piece of advertising artwork for the 1985 Droids series

And that aesthetic owed a lot to serious science fiction comics and animation of the time, like Heavy Metal magazine and the animated film it spawned. Nelvana had also recently finished its cult classic full-length animated film Rock and Rule which had a similar sense of design and attitude to those more adult science fiction comics. The same team of people who worked on that movie worked on this show. So, the music is similar, the backgrounds and technology look similar and even much of the voice cast came from the same pool. Droids also had the wealth of Lucasfilm's crew to draw from as well, with Ben Burtt not only providing his sound effects library but writing episodes, and Anthony Daniels reprising his role as C-3PO with George Lucas providing input as well.

And that theme music by Stewart Copeland [of The Police]! What other cartoon on TV had that kind of sound?

Several years ago you created some new imagery based on hardware, characters and creatures of Droids for Polyhedron magazine -- how did that deal come about?

Well, in a strange way, I caused that to happen. In 2002, I was on a trip to the Wizards of the Coast offices in Seattle, back before the magazine arm of the company split off into Paizo Publishing. I was doing design work for Star Wars Gamer magazine at the time and I suggested doing some Droids content. Unfortunately, the magazine ended before we could pursue that further.

Later at a convention the next year, though, I got to talking to Erik Mona, who works for Paizo, and knowing that they were thinking of continuing Star Wars RPG content in the pages of the Dungeon magazine supplement Polyhedron, I once again brought up Droids -- specifically, the first arc of the show, the Speeder Racers versus the Fromm Gang. I had a drawing of the White Witch racing speeder with me and showed it to him, which he thought was pretty cool. I thought that was it -- but almost a year later I received an email with the Polyhedron article about that very arc in it, and did the article without realizing that my inability to shut up about Droids had caused the article to happen in the first place!

Aside from a few episodes available on video or DVD, there's little reference out there to draw from -- what did you use?

Well, I hate to admit that I had found some bootleg copies of the show on VHS tape -- but there was very little reference to draw from online, and as this was for an approved job I watched the episodes over and over, looking for anything that I could draw from for the article. So, it was basically me watching these tapes and pausing to sketch the various things I needed for the article, then going back and doing cleanup illustrations later. A couple of humorous moments arose as I realized that Boba Fett's Silver Speeder, which was a primary illustration for the article, was never actually shown in its entirety in the show -- it was only seen in bits and pieces. And when they asked me to draw The Sand Sloth for the article, I drew the animal instead of Kea Moll's spaceship! Luckily, I had drawn the ship as well and was able to finish it in time.

At first, we thought about taking the design aesthetic of the show and updating it so that it would look and fit more with the prequels -- and also draw the characters and vehicles as realistic as possible. But it was decided very early to try to match the style of the show which gave me a chance to add in some "easter eggs" as well. The very first image I ever saw of Droids was in an issue of Starlog magazine and it showed Artoo and Threepio with what must be an early version of Thall Joben and Kea Moll (with a baby!) running from a horde of aliens to what looks like a female version of Tig Fromm commanding them. As a tribute to that image, I took some of those creatures and populated the two-page "Bar Scene" illustration with them [shown at the top of this story]. I also used the TV screens to show the racing track, the racing promoter Zebulon Dak who figures into the last scene of the story arc, and even a scene from [the episode] "Rock and Rule" playing in the background. Have I mentioned I am a geek?

Have you explored the animated Droids or Ewoks universes since then? Or, have any designs from the series quietly worked their way into your work?

I think the design sense of the show is always with me, as are all the comics and science fiction illustrations I saw as a child. Occasionally, I find myself slipping familiar shapes from some of the vehicles or character types into the backgrounds of some of my illustrations, but for the most part it's more a sense of that mixture of whimsy and cool design that stays with me. I did get to do a flat-out tribute last year when I was asked to participate in the "Mighty Muggs Strikes Back" charity art project for last year's San Diego Comic-Con. I made my Mighty Mugg in the likeness of Thall Joben, who was not only one of my favorite characters but one of my all time favorite action figures as well. I think it went over pretty well -- for those who could figure out who he was! (See our profile story on Jeff Carlisle's Mighty Muggs entry here)

As to the future, I'd love to have Droids characters or settings pop up in The Clone Wars -- maybe in the webcomics, but ideally in the show itself...everyone would be about ten years younger than on the show. Maybe young Mungo Baobab or Thall Joben and Jord Dusat as kids?

Check out Carlisle's full spreads from Polyhedron 170 (June, 2004) at his official website here.

Keywords: Classic Animation, Artists, Television

Filed under: Vault, Collecting, The Movies, Saga

Databank: R2-D2 (Artoo-Detoo), C-3PO (See-Threepio), Fett, Boba
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