George Lucas and Natalie Portman in a Star Wars: The Phantom Menace behind-the-scenes still

Jar Jar Wasn’t Always All-CGI (and 4 Other Things We Learned From Star Wars: The Phantom Menace’s Making Of Doc)

Unlike today’s Star Wars behind-the-scenes specials, The Beginning: Making Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace pulls surprisingly few punches. Here are five noteworthy things we learned about The Phantom Menace from this disarmingly raw making of documentary.

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5. The Wrong Actor Landed the Anakin Skywalker Role

George Lucas and Jake Lloyd in a Star Wars: The Phantom Menace behind-the-scenes still

Poor Jake Lloyd copped a lot of flack for his portrayal of the future Darth Vader, Anakin Skywalker, in The Phantom Menace. That amount of intense public scrutiny would’ve been hard for any actor to take, let alone a 10-year-old. So, it feels wrong to pile on the poor guy, especially in light of his subsequent mental health issues and legal troubles. Still, if we’re being objective, Lloyd’s performance in The Phantom Menace is (at best) uneven, and hurts the movie.

Star Wars creator (and The Phantom Menace‘s writer-director) George Lucas would’ve been better off casting someone else and he very nearly did. As shown in The Beginning, Lucas and casting director Robin Gurland narrowed the hundreds of potential Anakin actors down to Lloyd and another child performer, Devon Michael. Lucas ultimately took a punt on Lloyd, despite Michael delivering a far more polished performance in screen tests with Natalie Portman.

Lucas soon regretted this decision. The Beginning includes footage of the filmmaker lamenting the inconsistency of Lloyd’s performance. It also captures Lloyd struggling with made-up Star Wars words (like Coruscant). It’s clear Lucas should’ve gone with Michael instead – but the space cruiser has well and truly sailed by then.

4. Nobody Wanted to Say No to George Lucas

George Lucas highlighting storyboards in a Star Wars: The Phantom Menace behind-the-scenes still

This is hardly a surprise: not only did George Lucas create Star Wars, but he was still the head of Lucasfilm when The Phantom Menace was in the works. That’s not exactly someone you casually push back against. Even so, it’s painful to watch The Phantom Menace crewmembers constantly biting their tongues around Lucas in The Beginning.

The above Anakin casting decision is a great example. Nobody objects when Lucas picks Lloyd over Michael, even though they all seemingly agree the latter is a more mature performer. It’s the same when Lucas tallies up The Phantom Menace‘s visual effects shots. All the senior ILM staffers in the room are visibly worried by the scale and complexity of Lucas’ vision. However, only visual effects supervisor John Knoll openly voices these concerns (and even then, in a cheery way). Is it any wonder awkward conversations around CGI costs and timelines happen later?

This doesn’t mean Lucas comes across as a bad boss in The Beginning. He clearly has tremendous faith in his crew’s ability to achieve the impossible, and he’s supportive of the cast (particularly Lloyd). But at some point during the making of The Phantom Menace, he needed to hear “no.”

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3. The Rough Cut Screening Was a Disaster

A behind-the-scenes still from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace's climactic lightsaber duel

One of the more telling moments in The Beginning comes after Lucas screens his rough cut of The Phantom Menace. Nobody uses the word “disaster,” however, the general mood is that they’ve just witnessed a speeder crash of a movie. Even Lucas admits The Phantom Menace‘s various pieces aren’t clicking. “It’s a little disjointed,” he says. “It’s bold in terms of jerking people around, but […] I may have gone too far in a few places.”

One of the film’s two editors, Ben Burtt, agrees. “It seems like a lot of short scenes,” he volunteers, before bemoaning the third act’s wild tonal jumps. “In the space of about 90 seconds, you go from lamenting the death of a hero to escape, to slightly comedic with Jar Jar, to Anakin returning with his little tag,” Burtt says. “It’s a lot, and it’s really in a very short time.”

In response, Lucas admits that The Phantom Menace‘s multi-thread finale “boggles the mind.” At the same time, he and Burtt both acknowledge that a major re-edit isn’t an option. A separate conversation between Lucas, Burtt, and producer Rick McCallum follows, where Lucas worries The Phantom Menace‘s climax will drive audiences “nuts.”

2. (Almost) Everyone Looks Miserable At Some Point

Practical podracer engines in a Star Wars: The Phantom Menace behind-the-scenes still

Every film production has its tough days – but The Beginning presents the making of The Phantom Menace as a particularly tough slog. Aside from the previously mentioned testy conversations over CGI costs between Lucas, Knoll, and visual effects producer Jeff Olson, the documentary includes shots of cast and crew alike looking deflated.

From Shmi Skywalker actor Pernilla August picking her lip after Lloyd has flubbed yet another take, to crew members literally dropping their heads into their hands, The Phantom Menace set often isn’t the magical place you’d expect. But the real low point comes after a sandstorm flattens the Tunisian desert location standing in for Tatooine. It is (as McCallum puts it in the doc) f–king grim.

But some folks had a good time. Obi-Wan Kenobi actor Ewan McGregor starts off jazzed to be in a Star Wars movie and that enthusiasm doesn’t dim. His co-star Ahmed Best is also regularly upbeat, while Lloyd appears mercifully oblivious to the grown-ups’ misery.

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1. Jar Jar Binks Wasn’t Going to Be Fully CGI

Ahmed Best in a Star Wars: The Phantom Menace behind-the-scenes still

Ever wondered why ILM went to so much effort fabricating a Jar Jar Binks suit for Ahmed Best to wear when Jar Jar was realized entirely through CGI? Well, wonder no more: The Beginning devotes a sizeable chunk of screentime to Lucas’ unsuccessful plan to create Jar Jar through a blend of CGI and practical effects.

See those green studs on Best’s collar? Those are actually markers to help ILM track the actor’s head so they can replace it with Jar Jar’s. We briefly see some test footage of this approach, and it works reasonably well. So, why did Lucas scrap it? Because the all-CGI Jar Jar took ILM half as much time. This left Lucas $100,000 out of pocket on the suit, although ILM referenced it when lighting Jar Jar’s 3D model, at least.

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace is currently streaming on Disney+, as part of the platform’s Star Wars collection.

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Leon Miller
Leon is a freelance contributor at The Escapist, covering movies, TV, video games, and comics. Active in the industry since 2016, Leon's previous by-lines include articles for Polygon, Popverse, Screen Rant, CBR, Dexerto, Cultured Vultures, PanelxPanel, Taste of Cinema, and more.