Every saga needs its heroes, but for a hero to truly grow and develop, conflict and enemies are needed. With the Empire not yet formed and a Galactic Republic in its place, George Lucas had to come up with a new threat to engulf the galaxy in.
Continuing our in-depth look to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace, Fantha Tracks takes a look behind the scenes in creating this new enemy: The Trade Federation.
Trade Federation – General concept & idea
Fiction rarely springs from the head of its creator without being influenced by the events, characters, and often stranger-than-fiction narratives that make up what we collectively call history. Certainly, this is true in the case of the Trade Federation and we can find many examples in history of similar organizations and situations that must have been the influence for George Lucas when he began writing the script.
The first of these are the Dutch East India Company and the British East India Company—multinational mega-corporations with trading bases throughout the Asian maritime world. Another example, and one that succeeded whereas the Trade Federation failed, was the overthrow of Queen Liliuokalanni of Hawaii in the 1890s. A group of businessmen ignored the orders of the president and forced the queen to abdicate her throne so they could install a government more favorable to their interests.
Nute Gunray and the Neimoidians
George Lucas had the idea of the Neimoidians being a spoiled and cowardly lot, using droids to not get their own hands dirty. This resulted in their somewhat shriveled and spidery appearance covered in rich decadent clothing. These costumes consisted of long robes that were based on kabuki costumes (Japanese theater form) mixed with nouveaux riches, as if giving themselves an air of nobility and class. Ian McCaig designed them and envisioned them as organic versions of the mechanical droids that made up their army. As such they ended up with thin limbs and elongated skulls that were not practical to do with actors in suits, and as such it was decided that they were to be made as CGI characters.
Twelve weeks before shooting started however that was changed. Because of their relative little screen time it was deemed faster and cheaper to do them with actors in masks and a costume. With this decision actors had to be cast in the roles. Silas Carson and Jerome Blake were cast as Nute Gunray and Rune Haako. With so little time remaining Creature Effects Supervisor Nick Dudman and his team, had to rush to get the costumes and heads for the Neimoidians ready. Each of these animatronic heads were capable of lip sync trough remote control and were sculpted by Gary Pollard.
The first Neimoidian to be shot for the movie however was not Nute or Rune as you may expect, but Lott Dod. The first week of filming in the Leavesden Studios had a focus on the Coruscant Senate scenes, including Silas Carson as Lott Dod. The voice was not done by Carson, but by Toby Longworth, who was thus the precedent for how all the Neimoidians would sound like. He was asked to do a Thai accent, mixed with his natural British accent. Filming their scenes with the masks could be a difficult task, and in an interview Jerome Blake revealed that a blooper of him made it into the final cut of the movie. During filming he got overheated and almost passed out. Starting to fall over, he managed to catch himself in time.
Nute Gunray and Rune Haako were however the last Neimoidians to be shot for the movie. Their scene at the end of the movie where Captain Panaka tells them that they can kiss their trade franchise goodbye was shot during the pick-up shoot after principal photography had wrapped. This was done because George Lucas felt that he needed to better close their story, and bring back Palpatine to tell that he had become the Supreme Chancellor.
Other notable Neimoidians in the movie include: Viff Almay, Zill Kartay, Kund Ekorr and Hap Brehg from the Trade Federation Occupation Council (as seen in the scenes on Theed as filmed in Caserta, Italy). Lufa Danak (Lott Dod’s aide) and Mik Regrap (Dod’s advisor), Daultay Dofine (played by Alan Ruscoe, voiced by Chris Sanders), Jull Dremon (chief gunner on both the battleships), Tey How (communications officer, voiced by Amanda Lucas and Marc Silk) and Sil Unch (a comm officer).
A small disclaimer: the names and proper identification of most of these were made by Tim Veekhoven and Kevin Beentjes along with myself in the Star Wars Insider (issue 147) which was published in a time that is now considered as part of Legends. However most of these had not received a name in 15 years, and will most likely not receive new names in the next 15 years either.
The army of the Trade Federation
B1 battle droids
Lucas wanted droids to replace the stormtroopers. Not knowing how much he could deviate from their design, Doug Chiang drew various possibilities, from human-sized droids to ones that were 12-feet tall. Eventually he arrived at a design in which he had elongated the helmet of stormtrooper and making the features more stylized. Chiang was inspired by African sculptures that had short legs on elongated torsos. To make it even more like a walking skeleton, he kept the arms and legs purposely thin. The backpacks of the battle droids were first thought up to be able to deploy various weapons, but eventually became the comlink booster packs that they are now in the movies. Their blasters were done the same way most of the weapons of the Original Trilogy were done: using real weapons and modifying those with extra barrels or other bits and bobs to give them an alien look.
To bring the battle droids to life a wide variety of techniques were used. First they (and the same goes for the droideka and the ships) were made as a practical version by the ILM model shop. This model would be used on set to provide reference for those on the set when it comes to lightning and eye lines. Then the model would get scanned to form the baseline for the digital battle droid model. To make the digital model move they added motion capture footage. Considering all the battle droids had to move the same way, it was easy to just keep copying the data of the one performer into all the droids that were needed. That became especially useful for the ground battle and the droids marching. In general this was a very difficult moment in the movie to make for ILM because everything took place during the day, which meant that more attention to details had to be paid and mistakes would be easier to spot for the viewer. For the surrounding hills they used stock footage from the hills around the town Livermore in the US, but with the hills more stretched and distorted to differentiate it from the actual hills.
The last thing to make the droids come to life was their sounds. The sound for their movement came from the servo motors that controlled the movement of Jabba’s eyeballs and their voices were electronically processed English. Originally sound designer Ben Burtt played with the idea of having each word recorded separately and out of context, much like the auto-responding telephone systems. But this idea was scrapped because with this the droids lost their ability to become ‘living characters’ of their own.
Notable battle droids include: OOM-9 (the best known of the commanders), OWO-1 (the commander who was in charge to check if the Jedi had been killed by the gas) and OWO-3 (not seen, but the one who actually fired the guns that destroyed the Radiant VII).
The droideka came from the simple suggestion of Lucas to have a droid that rolled, rather then walked or marched. Doug Chiang started these designs by taking the already approved design of the B1 battle droids and turning it into some kind of ball configuration. The sound of the droideka rolling came from skateboards being ridden over cement blocks inside the hallways of the Sir Francis Drake High School in Marin County.
Droid control ship & the rest of their fleet
Lucas told Chiang that he wanted a saucer shape of the old sci-fi classics, but with a distinct front and back to the ship. The director then later added a big ball in the center, which brings the Death Star into mind, one of the few nods to the designs from the Original Trilogy that the movie had to incorporate. For filming only partial sets were made with green screens.
One of the more interesting features of the droid control ship was the transmission screen from which Queen Amidala communicates with the Neimoidians. The look and sound of this screen was a reference to the old serials of Flash Gordon, a long-time influence of Lucas for Star Wars.
Vulture droids were also one of the ships that had a distinct throwback to the Original Trilogy, namely being some kind of variation or early design of the TIE fighters, only now to be piloted by a pilot droid. While that idea was eventually scrapped in favor of making the ship fully a droid, the ship in its flying configuration does somewhat resemble a TIE fighter. In its walking mode it was designed to look like a menacing predator like the Pterodactyl.
The landing ship was one that went through quite a few design changes. First it was more dirigible ship, hovering above the ground and dropping the MTTs from either a front hatch, or having them lowered down in cocoons. However Lucas wanted all the ships of the Trade Federation to look aggressive, so Chiang first redesigned the landing ship with the shape of a ship’s anchor, able to transform and unfold. That design was then modified with the appearance of a dragonfly in mind.
While appearing only briefly in the movie, and not even seen fully (it did appear in the comic adaptation of Episode I) until Attack of the Clones, the landing shuttle that took Gunray and Haako to Theed was a fully designed ship. Originally the Sheathipede-class transport shuttle had two wings, but Lucas asked one to be removed. This variation with two wings would appear later in The Clone Wars and be called a Maxillipede shuttle. Both shuttles were designed with a beetle in mind, seen in the carapace-like hull with protruding small legs.
For the space battle at the end of the movie Lucas used animatics, a pre-production tool in which simple crude animated objects play out the storyboard to get a sense of the look and feel and camera angles to be used for a scene. All the spaceships seen in the movie were a mixture of the scanned physical models shot with motion capture, or their digital counterparts. To save money some low resolution 2D images were used during the space battle whenever a ship passes by the camera in a quick fleeting moment.
The effect of the battleship exploding was a combination of practical pyro elements and computer generated elements
MTTs, AATs and STAPs
For the ground forces the production team figured that two kinds of vehicles would be needed: one to deliver the droids to a battlefield (which became the MTT) and a tank to fight alongside the battle droids, which became the AAT.
Considering the animalistic features that was everywhere in the designs for the Trade Federation, the designs for these vehicles followed accordingly. The MTT was seen as a battering ram, some sort of charging elephant. With the round hatch below the cockpit being the head, the trunks at the side becoming guns and the rest of the body being quite large and massive. For the scene in which we see Qui-Gon Jinn running away from the advancing MTTs that crush everything in their path, only the actor was not CGI. Liam Neeson was shot in front of a green screen, and while all the other forest scenes involving actors were shot in the Whippendell Woods, here every tree, plant and ground was digitally created.
STAPs, the small repulsor vehicles that the battle droids fly into battle, were supposed to be reminiscent of the speeder bikes from Return of the Jedi, but found their design being more based on a cross between a jet ski and a hummingbird. The sound of the STAP flying by was that of a turned-on electric razor being rubbed inside a metal salad bowl and a frying pan. This weird sound was also used as a base for the Gungan plasma shield, many of the weapons firing and the AAT.
The AAT’s design was not found in the animal world however, but was based on a much more common item used in your garden: a spade. The basic shape of one was expanded on and a turret added on the top completed this design. A later modification to this design added the round gunports, as if they were the claws of a lion.
And last, but not least, the final item from the Trade Federation that played a crucial role in the movie: Nute Gunray’s walking throne/chair. Alright, we admit, we were exaggerating with that importance, but still there were multiple designs drawn before they arrived at the final design. Originally the throne of Nute Gunray was to be a hovering one, but that was changed to a walking one, with beetle or spider-like legs, yet again due to the designs for everything from the Trade Federation being taken into the animalistic direction.