A seemingly minor bit of news out of the recent Star Wars: Celebration Europe convention was an oblique reference to something called the “story group” within Lucasfilm. If you know me at all you know that not only do I love a good story, but I am also fascinated by the creative process of writing and of collaborative storytelling. The idea that there may be significant changes in the decision making and creative processes of how the story of Star Wars is told has me very curious. It has me wondering…
What is the story group?
@stern_man More than 140 chars allow. Nutshell: story group is about ensuring future storytelling meshes better far more than in past
— Pablo Hidalgo
Background on Continuity and Storytelling:
In interviews with some key players at Lucasfilm we get a background on how the cross division storytelling process and continuity review has worked previously. This background allows us to guess at what has changed with what appears to be this new working group across Lucasfilm’s divisions.
In a 2010 interview Pablo Hidalgo, Lucasfilm’s Brand Communications Manager (formerly manager of on-line content) discusses his previously informal input in the storytelling process.
“20. And now, fan questions. Lord Tuetanus from Durango asks, what is the editorial process for creation of new content in Lucasfilm? Continuity, magical word, how is it controlled?
If you’re referring to published, expanded universe content, then it’s really up to the editors in our Licensing group to work with the publishing partners and the authors to develop a story, and the editors and Leland Chee review the story for any new continuity, potential conflicts, or opportunities to connect to other stories. I have no formal involvement in this, but I am an occasional guest who is allowed to sit in on story conferences and offer input from time to time.
If you’re referring to the stories that come out television production, that comes out collaboration from George Lucas, Dave Filoni, and a team of writers during a story conference. They have access to all the Expanded Universe reference books during development, and will occasionally send queries to Leland and myself to see if there’s opportunity to connect with the EU. But aside from that, I have no involvement on the story side of The Clone Wars.” (Source: Korpil.net Interview with Pablo Hidalgo, Nov. 2010)
On the publishing side former Lucas Licensing Executive Editor Sue Rostoni described the story creation process to EU Cantina.
“EUC (Fan Question): I was wondering if you could describe how you handle manuscripts. I don’t fully understand what happens when you get them. Do they come to you electronically, or on paper? How do you make edits? When editing, what do you look for?
SR: The manuscripts arrive electronically. In the past, I would print them out and edit on paper, but over the last few years I’ve grown fond of editing electronically. It’s easier for me and I believe I do a better job. For one, my writing gets sloppy after a few sentences and there’s never enough room in the margin or between lines to really get my thoughts out. There’s no limit to my verbosity when editing electronically. So I edit in “Word” using “Track Changes” and the “Comments” options.
I especially use the comment option when there are continuity issues for Leland Chee’s input, or specific things for him to note in the Holocron. Leland will make his comments in the manuscript and send it back to me.
Shelly Shapiro is more responsible for seeing that the story works as a whole and the writing runs smoothly, while I make sure the story and characters fit the sensibility of Star Wars. I watch for things that take me out of the story, sometimes just a word like “typewriter” will do it, sometimes it’s when someone acts out of character. And since Star Wars is populated by an abundance of aliens, I have to remind myself that while most readers will automatically “see” a Wookiee, it helps to have a few reminders of the appearance of some of the less known aliens.
And, of course, I want to have an emotional response to the story, to both be entertained and challenged, and to be able to identify how the events change the primary characters.” (Source: EUCantina.net Interview with Sue Rostoni, May 2011)
Leland Chee, Lucasfilm’s Continuity Database Administrator (a.k.a Keeper of the Holocron) explains the Holocron and his role in the creative story telling process.
Image by Siddique Hussain
The Holocron which Chee created replaced the old Star Wars bible (a set of large black binders) and contains various in-universe information broken down by subject matter of Character, Location, Alien/Creature, Technology (Droids, Vehicles, Weapons), Group/Organization, Terminology, Event, Flora, and Language. As of 2011 there was over 45,000 entrees in the Holocron. The Holocron is used by various individuals withing Lucasfilm as well as select licensees and writers.
”In the real world, the Holocron is an internal database maintained by Lucas Licensing that tracks all the fictional elements created for theStar Wars universe. The database includes material from the films and The Clone WarsTV series as well as everything from the Expanded Universe (EU) which includes books, comics, videogames, trading cards, roleplaying games, websites, toys, cartoons, and just about every officially sanctioned fictional element of the Star Wars universe.” (Source: Keeper of the Holocron on Facebook)
The Holocron allows folks whether it is editorial staff or writers themselves to check elements of their stories against the established continuity.
Roqoo Depot did an excellent interview with Chee in which he details what his job is and isn’t as well as his input on the creative process.
“What’s a typical day at the office?
LC: Because we have so many diverse projects going on at a time, I can never be quite sure how my day is going to go. The bulk of of my time is spent going through novel manuscripts, comic book scripts, and video game documents. Oftentimes, the authors and editors will add or point out specific continuity questions on the manuscripts they’d like me to address. As I am going through these, I am creating new entries in the Holocron database for anything new that’s created and adding any new backstory to existing entries. I also spend time going through art, whether it be interior art for Essential Guides, video game concept art, or comic art. At any point through the day, I may get calls or e-mails from editors or authors with questions or requests for reference. The scope of my duties goes beyond publishing and video games. I might be asked to check the text on the back of a trading card, or check trivia questions on a calendar, or confirm vehicle stats on a t-shirt. I might be asked to check pronunciations for an audio book, or someone needs the Aurebesh font, or someone might be looking to confirm that the appropriate translation for “Darth Vader” in French is “Dark Vador.” And I do this for the Indiana Jones material as well.
What are the most common misconceptions about your job?
LC: Star Wars continuity, even EU continuity, does not rest on my shoulders. Our licensees submit product directly to either our editors or our product development managers. The Holocron serves as a tool for them to check any issues regarding continuity, and after that, if the editors or developers have any questions, they pass it along to me to check for continuity. At the same time, I am constantly on the lookout to make sure that any new continuity being created gets entered in the Holocron. With regard to the the films and The Clone Wars, I am not involved in continuity approvals though I have often been asked to provide reference material.
At what point in the reviewing/editing process of a Star Wars book do you come in and look for continuity errors? Do you work with the author during the writing process, after the final draft is submitted, or after the editors go over it?
LC: I work with the Licensing editors at the onset looking at outlines and manuscripts. I have been present for nearly all of the writers’ conferences for the multi-author/multi-book story dating back to when I started in 2000. I work directly with the authors when there are specific continuity points that need ironing out or if the books are heavily tied to other titles currently in development, whether it involves The Clone Wars, video games, or other fiction.” (Source: Roqoo Depot Interview with Leland Chee)
In addition to the processes they described we know that there are different story conferences that occur at Lucasfilm each year. For The Clone Wars series before a season went into production, Lucas, Filoni and other writers and production staff on the series would meet at Skywalker Ranch to break the stories and assign writing duties for episodes and story arcs to writers. On the licensing end there has been a greater push in recent years of cooperation between the comic license holder Dark Horse Comics and the adult novel license holder Del Rey. This spirit of cooperation has extended to editorial staff conferences at Lucasfilm where the staff at Lucas Licensing (LucasBooks) get together with editors from Dark Horse and Del Rey and develop story ideas and plot out the direction of the Expanded Universe.
So in the past while there were certainly organized periods of time when story telling whether it was an adult or young adult novelization of a television property like The Clone Wars, or multiple stories taking place in the same time period with some of the same characters like the Knight Errant comic and novel, we have seen cooperation between Lucasfilm, Lucas Licensing and it’s licensees. What we haven’t really seen is a unified storytelling vision that has been executed across all platforms.
I think some of this stems from previous leadership, where as his own privately held company, George Lucas may have allowed the licensing division to let other storytellers play in his universe, he didn’t really consider that part of his story so he tolerated it’s existence and sometimes enjoyed it and borrowed from it. At the same time his focus was very much on telling the stories he wanted to tell. The result is you had the storytelling in Star Wars being pulled in various directions across multiple in-universe time periods. Folks like Leland Chee played traffic cop, seeming to prevent as many crashes as possible but acknowledging that it was never going to all fit perfectly.
With the purchase of Lucasfilm by Disney and the announcement of new films and new TV ventures it created a great deal of uncertainty for the direction of future Star Wars storytelling in other formats. What seems to have developed is a bit of a holding pattern. Until it is known what exactly the Sequel Trilogy is going to do to continuity we don’t really know what is going to happen to the Expanded Universe.
What is the purpose of this new “Story Group?”
Disney did not become the giant corporation that it is by being stupid. The prime revenue sources for the Star Wars property will come from feature films. Everything else is and should be secondary to the films. It also makes sense that as you attempt to attract new fans and hook them on new Star Wars stories for years to come that you would want simplify the Star Wars universe, grounding everything primarily in the first six films so that they can jump in now with Episode VII or with Star Wars Rebels and the stories will make sense and fit.
To me the indication based on the description above is that the purpose of this group is to enforce narrative or continuity discipline going forward. Which means a different emphasis in the editorial oversight from Lucasfilm and not allowing as much decision making on the licensee end of things on the direction of plots and characters.
I believe that this will have two effects in the short term. The first is that it will provide a more cohesive set of stories. The second is that we will hit a storytelling bottleneck, where the pace and number of stories released in other medium will be greatly reduced until we have a clearer picture of where the story in the films is going.
Of course the beauty of the story group is that assuming the key players on the film side of the company are part of it, it should allow the story group to have access to the film stories as early as possible which will let them commission books, comics and animation that fit with this.
There will no doubt be some conflicts as last minute edits and decisions in the films could create continuity hiccups with other materials, but no matter what system you establish that is going to occur.
What do we know about the Story Group?
At present we don’t have a great deal of information about the story group.
It is not clear whether it is a formal structure within Lucasfilm or more of an informal or ad hoc working group. Based on Pablo’s tweet it sounds like it is more formal than anything they have had in place in the past.
The membership of the group is also unclear. We do not know how many members the story group has or who is part of the group.
Jennifer Heddle, LucasBooks Senior Editor
It appears that at least Pablo Hidalgo and Leland Chee are part of the group. As Senior Editor at Lucasfilm/LucasBooks Jennifer Heddle is almost certainly part of the group as well, she is the successor to Sue Rostoni and deals with both novels and comics. Simon Kinberg who is one of the three executive producers on Star Wars Rebels is also involved in the Star Wars feature films for Lucasfilm so it would make tons of sense for him to be a key figure in the story group.
Other likely names to be involved would be Michael Arndt, Lawrence Kasdan, Dave Filoni, and Greg Weisman.
At the senior leadership levels of Lucasfilm, Paul Southern is Lucasfilm’s Vice President, Licensing and Consumer Products Marketing and Senior Advisor Howard Roffman (former head of Licensing) could also be part of the story group.
Additionally it could be a bit like the United Nations Security Council where there are some permanent members and some temporary members. Individuals like JJ Abrams or Kathleen Kennedy may sit in on meetings, lead a meeting or simply send a memorandum with instructions to a meeting or they could be core members of the story group. We simply don’t have much information at this point.