The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles Was a Testbed for the Prequels

“It was the beginning of digital effects.”

Man in a fedora and jacket stands on a country road at twilight with illustrated viruses floating ar...
Lais Borges/Inverse; Lucasfilm
Celebrating the Prequels

There is no doubt that the special effects in The Phantom Menace were groundbreaking. When Jar Jar Binks and Watto hit the screen, complaints about the characters had more to do with their function in the story (and what some felt to be their problematic undertones) rather than their visual design. According to producer Rick McCallum — who got his start at Lucasfilm working on The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles before producing movies for the studio all the way up to Red Tails in 2012 — there was only one shot in The Phantom Menace that wasn’t manipulated with computer-generated imagery, which means just about everything was run through the computer.

The emphasis on CGI was largely a marketing technique that backfired, though. Although there was a substantial amount of CGI, there were more physical effects and models built for The Phantom Menace than the entire classic trilogy combined.

“It was the beginning of digital effects.”

But how did Lucasfilm and Industrial Light and Magic build the technology to produce such a film that still looks modern but timeless after 25 years? And how did it change the production pipeline for Lucasfilm for all time?

Famously, the work Industrial Light and Magic did on Jurassic Park helped push the computer-generated technology forward in a meaningful way, but McCallum tells Inverse that the testbed for this technology was actually The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.

Sean Patrick Flanery as young Indiana Jones.

Keith Hamshere/Moviepix/Getty Images

Just three years after the release of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, George Lucas conceived The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles as a way to expand the mythos of everyone’s favorite archeologist and reveal all the ways Indy’s life intersected with real history. Starring four different actors as Indiana Jones at various points in his life (Sean Patrick Flannery, Corey Carrier, George Hall, and a brief appearance by Harrison Ford), the show was a globetrotting adventure and a history lesson for viewers. It tied into the movies, and the later movies tied back into it, making the whole thing feel authentically canon. Lucas created and executive produced the show and, in classic George Lucas fashion, used it as a vehicle to push forward technological art forms.

“It was the beginning of digital effects,” McCallum says. “We were the very first to have real visual effects that were done digitally. I mean, they were done on an Apple computer, but nevertheless, we had sometimes 50, 60, 70 shots in each episode. And the dream was how could we make something all around the world for the same cost of a typical show in the United States that shot on the stage in five days.”

The team did that by basing itself out of Prague, working exclusively with local crews, and keeping the department heads in England. “That group became very intensely close,” McCallum says. “We all became very close, still great friends. I took everybody from Young Indy on to Star Wars, so altogether we were together for 15 years.”

The sort of effects used on The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles helped stretch the budget, things like creating new backgrounds for shots, painting out anachronistic details, and even doubling or tripling shots and crowds. They could replace a clear blue sky with a sunset to tell a different visual story without having to spend time waiting for the golden hour. They could also extend sets so they wouldn’t have to physically build so many.

Executive producer George Lucas on the set of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.

Keith Hamshere/Moviepix/Getty Images

At one point, Lucas told American Cinematographer Magazine that Young Indy was a perfect test case for what they could do because the resolution on TV was so much lower and more forgiving than in a feature film. But the pace at which he did the show was incredible for the FX team. “We were able to move things around much more quickly and cheaply, so I could use [digital technology] more often. I said, ‘I want to be able to do a couple hundred shots in every hourlong episode and still have a budget that’s under $50,000.’ I wanted to be able to play with this stuff and see how it worked,” McCallum says. “In the end, we made 22 ‘feature films’ in the space of five years, and we experimented with all kinds of things. Some things worked, some didn’t. We learned a lot in the process, and that’s what I’m using now.”

At one point while shooting The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles in Thailand, Lucas pulled McCallum aside and explained how he wanted to make the prequels, and it had everything to do with the discipline and nimble production that arose out of Young Indy.

“What we were trying to do was set up a template for how Star Wars, the films, were going to be made later on.”

“You have to be fantastically well-organized,” McCallum recalls. “You have to have the machine that works because you don’t have the opportunity like you would normally on a big-budget film to work with 2,000 to 3,000 people. We had a relatively small crew on Star Wars. We needed to be able to travel and shoot the same day we arrived. That was what the template of Young Indy was because Young Indy went on for basically four and a half years.”

They also changed how they structured their sets and actor contracts, which carried over to the world of Star Wars.

“We could go back into production after the initial shoot after we’d had a chance to see how the story was evolving,” McCallum says. “It meant building sets months beforehand and letting them stand so we could return to them as necessary, which meant shooting in places other than traditional studios, where you have to get your sets in and out very quickly.”

Young Indiana Jones Chronicles star Sean Patrick Flanery with executive producer George Lucas and actor Corey Carrier.

Keith Hamshere/Moviepix/Getty Images

It also meant retaining a tight-knit crew. McCallum drastically reduced the members of the team from an average of 60 to 100 down to 40. They quickly bonded over grueling production times.

“The thing that made Young Indy hard was that it was just relentless,” McCallum says. “The first year, we shot 52 weeks, nonstop. In 16 weeks, we did 17 countries. Everybody was away from home for a year. And unlike most feature films, where you’re doing five days a week, this we had to do six days a week because what we were trying to do was set up a template for how Star Wars, the films, were going to be made later on. I didn’t know that at the time. That was a secret of George’s.”

Nick Gillard, who worked on stunts for the Indiana Jones movies, was called in to be the stunt coordinator on Young Indy. He recalls the first time he realized the show was a training ground for the Star Wars prequels.

“As soon as I got on the plane, I got it open, and it was the storyboards for the podrace.”

“We were shooting with Sean Patrick Flannery in Morocco,” Gillard tells Inverse. “Often when you’re flying somewhere, they’ll give you something to take to the production office. Rick McCallum gave me this envelope to take and says ‘Don’t open it.’ Of course, as soon as I got on the plane, I got it open, and it was the storyboards for the podrace. And I’m thinking, ‘They’re doing another Star Wars.’ When I got there, he offered it to me.”

The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles might be mostly forgotten to the Tatooine sands of time, but its legacy lives on in the Star Wars trilogy that followed. And McCallum says he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“It was a fantastic experience. I wouldn't trade it for anything.”

This article is part of the “Celebrating the Prequels” series, a two-weeklong series of articles about the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy leading up to the 25th anniversary of The Phantom Menace.

Related Tags