'Star Wars': How the Ewoks Came to TV 31 Years Ago

Ethan Alter
Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment

Long, long ago — try 1984 — on a network not so far away (ABC), Star Wars fans gathered around the TV to witness the next chapter in George Lucas’s beloved franchise. No, it wasn’t a long-lost Lando Calrissian spinoff or another terrifying Holiday Special. Instead, it was a feature-length family friendly adventure based around the furry woodland critters who had helped the Rebels defeat the Empire once and for all in Return of the Jedi. We’re talking, of course, about the Ewoks, who lived amongst the treetops on the Forest Moon of Endor and employed ingenious traps and other guerrilla tactics to combat Imperial troops and confused Jedi alike. Popular characters — and even more popular toys — with young audiences, Lucas saw the potential in giving the Ewoks their own adventure within the larger Star Wars universe.  

Out of that initiative came the back-to-back TV movies Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure, which premiered over Thanksgiving weekend in 1984and Ewoks: The Battle for Endor, which aired the following November. Shot entirely in and around Lucas’s longtime Northern California stomping grounds in Marin County, both movies starred then 15-year-old actor Warwick Davis reprising his role as Wicket, the most prominent Ewok character featured in Jedi. In Caravan of Courage, Wicket helps reunite two young human children, Cindel (Aubree Miller) and Mace (Eric Walker), with their parents, who have been kidnapped by the evil Gorax. The Battle for Endor takes place roughly six months later, and Cindel and Warwick find themselves in peril once again when the Ewok village is attacked by a gang of Sanyassan Marauders.      

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Both Ewok films were produced by Thomas G. Smith, a writer, director, and visual effects expert, who ran Lucas’s world-renowned FX house, Industrial Light & Magic, from 1980 to 1984 and worked directly on Jedi, as well as such era-defining blockbusters as Raiders of the Lost Ark and Poltergeist. He later wrote the coffee table book, Industrial Light & Magic: The Art of Special Effects, which is filled with behind-the-scenes details and photos from the making of the Star Wars films. In this exclusive “as told to” account Smith provided to Yahoo TV, he offers a revealing glimpse into the production of the Ewoks television movies, recalling how the movies’ villains were created and the battles he faced with network censors at the time. Star Wars fans: Learn much from this story, you will.   

Growing up in the 1950s, I was more interested in dramatic radio than I was in movies or TV. In fact, I took classes in radio when I entered Northwestern University. While I was a student, though, the medium died as a dramatic form, instead becoming a jukebox for music or a place for news and talk. Luckily, I took a film course my sophomore year and fell in love with making movies.

After a year of studying cinematography in France, followed by a stint in the Air Force, I landed a job producing and directing educational films for Encyclopedia Britannica. In 1977 — the same year Star Wars was released — I made a film about the Solar System for them that required a lot of visual effects, and that’s how I came to the attention of George Lucas and his company, Lucasfilm. When I saw Star Wars, I was blown away; the sound, music, and visual effects made the biggest impression on me. And of course the story was unlike anything I had ever seen. In 1979, George hired me to manage ILM, so I moved to Northern California in January 1980 arriving during the last four months of the production of visual effects for The Empire Strikes Back.

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I managed ILM from 1980 to 1984, overseeing the effects work for films such as E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, Return of the Jedi, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. By the time we finished Temple of Doom, I had been doing visual effects for nearly five years, and told George that I would be leaving and looking for a film of my own to produce or direct. But he had an intriguing pitch for me. In the wake of Return of the Jedi, George was interested in making something for TV about the Ewoks, who made their debut in that movie. His aspirations were simple: He proposed a half-hour live action film for children and asked me if I’d be interested in producing it. In Jedi, the Ewoks had impressed me as a fanciful and amusing addition to the Star Wars saga, so I said that I was, and stepped down from my role as the head of ILM in order to devote my attention to producing.

Eric Walker and his Ewok co-stars embark on a big adventure in Caravan of Courage

After leaving ILM, I began shopping for a network that might be interested in airing such a production. ABC, CBS, and NBC all told me that a half-hour film didn’t interest them, although ABC said if we could fill a two-hour movie of the week slot, they’d be interested. So we went with them, and our canvas grew bigger. The little, half-hour project we had in mind was now a two-hour primetime TV movie. George conceived the story of the film that became Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure with writer Bob Carrau, who wrote the shooting script. As far as I know, no consideration was given to using any other Star Wars theme characters such as Luke, Han, Leia, or Chewie. The film was intended to represent a standalone time and situation.  

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With the script in place, John Korty — a Marin County filmmaker and George’s longtime friend and neighbor — came onboard to direct. He was highly regarded by ABC and had won an Emmy in 1974 for directing the TV movie, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, starring Cicely Tyson. He also asked to be the Director of Photography, a dual job that’s rarely done on feature films. John worked as most TV directors do: He came in, shot the film, and moved on to another project after turning in a rough cut, and our long post production process dragged on. John would still drop in from time to time, but he was not as closely involved in post-production as George and I were.

Five-year-old Aubree Miller played Cindel in both Caravan of Courage and The Battle for Endor 

Korty chose the movie’s young star, Aubree Miller, to play Cindel. George had a daughter who was about Aubree’s age at the time, and she represented the audience he hoped to reach with the film. In a way, he approached Caravan of Courage as if he were telling a story to his daughter. He also wanted to bring Warwick Davis back to the screen as Wicket. Davis played the same role in Return of the Jedi and George felt that he was an enormous talent. I can’t say enough about his fine performance. Although Warwick was only 15 years old at the time, he had the dramatic sense of a mature adult actor. It was clear to me he’d be successful in film, either as a performer or perhaps behind the camera as a director, it’s rewarding to see he has indeed had such a successful career since the Ewok movies.

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In addition to producing Caravan of Courage, I oversaw the visual effects with supervisor, Denis Muren. Remember, this was before digital effects, so everything had to be either a photo trick or an optical effect. One of our most challenging tasks was creating the film’s villain, the giant Gorax. It evolved from a line in the script to a full-fledged character when ILM effects artist, Jon Berg, built a model. Onscreen, the character was brought to life through a combination of stop motion, as well as a performer in a suit. That performer was actually Jon Berg, dressed up in the Gorax suit that he had constructed. By slowing down the monster’s movements with a slow motion camera, it made him look bigger. All of the Gorax sequences were directed by second unit director, Joe Johnston; years later, when I was working for Disney, I recommended Joe for his first feature, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. He’s had a good career since, directing such movies as The Rocketeer and Captain America: The First Avenger.

Lucas personally supervised the film’s editing as we reached the end. ABC was a perfect partner for us; they provided technical advice, but didn’t try to change the story. Because of the overall intensity of the film and occasional battles scenes where Aubree seemed in jeopardy, we had some rough spots getting censorship approval, but that was smoothed out rather well before we went to air.

Before it aired, none of us thought of Caravan of Courage as anything more than a one-off TV film. It was only after its good ratings on American television — and a successful theatrical release overseas — that we considered a follow-up film, which became The Battle for Endor. Korty was not available, so we had to find someone new to direct. I proposed five potential candidates, and from that list George selected brothers Ken and Jim Wheat, who were both talented directors and good writers. When they joined the film, we had four or five sessions where George recounted the plot he had in mind. They took the story and very quickly wrote a 100-page script that captured the story George had written and seemed like the right tone for what we were doing.  

Miller and Warwick Davis, reprising his Return of the Jedi role as friendly Ewok Wicket

Storywise, Aubree and Warwick were the main link between the two films. Her co-star from Caravan of Courage, Eric Walker — who played Cindel’s brother Mace — was killed off early in Battle for Endor, along with many Ewoks. So Aubree was mainly on her own as one of the few human characters. A child in jeopardy is an old theme in children’s tales — think of the early Disney films like Snow White and Dumbo. But the violence may have been one of the reasons we struggled with TV censors when it was done. I have no idea if such stories could be told on television now. It seems we don’t want to scare the little ones too much these days.

In The Battle for Endor, Wicket’s role was of a little fellow who used his wits to outfox much larger adversaries. Terak and his motley gang were in fact very large people. We cast professional basketball players as the henchmen, while Terak himself is played by Carel Struycken, who later appeared as the Giant on Twin Peaks and is over seven feet tall. So our cast was either very tall people or little people in fur suits playing Ewoks. I recall during a casting session telling a seven-footer that he had the job just as someone a little over four feet tall entered the room to audition. He was too tall to be an Ewok so I had to turn him down. He asked the reason and I told him he was too tall. He looked at me, then at the basketball player who was leaving, and shook his head in disbelief.  

Seven-foot-tall actor Carel Struycken as The Battle for Endor’s towering villain, Terak

While making Caravan of Courage, we learned how much we could accomplish shooting in Marin County. So with Battle for Endor, we not only filmed in the nearby redwood forests, but also in a stone quarry and on our new soundstage, next door to ILM. We used moveable sets made of painted Styrofoam to enable a quick turnaround. The previous and subsequent Star Wars film were shot overseas, mainly using British film crews, so I’m proud that the two Ewok movies were made within ten miles of the Lucasfilm home office. We also used local behind the camera talent, many of them trained at ILM. They proved to be innovative and as skilled as any international crew.  

While I haven’t kept up with the Star Wars franchise in recent years, I’m still proud of Caravan of Courage and Battle for Endor. Both films came in on time and on budget, earned high ratings, and were nominated for several Emmys. I went on to supervise post-production on Disney’s 3-D park attraction, Captain EO — working closely with Michael Jackson for several months — and produced six features. I retired from features in 2002, but I still work on short documentaries from time to time and have also written a Civil War novel, Massacre at Baxter Springs, based on a real event in Kansas. And just like everyone else, I’m waiting with great anticipation to see The Force Awakens.  

Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure and The Battle for Endor are currently out of print, but can be found on Amazon and YouTube.

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