A team of forty-five animators worked on The Phantom Menace. A full fifteen of them were assigned to Jar Jar. "The actors would rehearse with Ahmed, who had such a wonderful physicality," says animation supervisor Rob Coleman. "Then we'd pull him out of the shot, and he'd be reading his lines off set. Then we would have a blank space to put the digital character in." The team had to make sure that Jar Jar didn't look too cartoony. Says Coleman, "The audience expects to see certain laws of physics, whether they think about it or not. You can only move across a room so fast; you can only jump so high."
The ears were a special challenge, as were Jar Jar's clothes, a Lenny Kravitz-like ensemble of leather pants and a leather vest. "We have this incredible 'soft-wear' department at ILM; these guys are total brainiacs who come from physics backgrounds," says Coleman. "They came up with this clothing soft-wear." The ears, after all, had to bounce against Jar Jar's back in just the right way; the sweater tied around his waist had to move realistically as he walked.
Coleman conceptualized Jar Jar in 1997, along with Lucas and three other visual-effects supervisors. "It was the four of us at the Ranch," he says. "George would tell us what he was seeing and what he was hoping for." He laughs. "George loved doing that. He loved watching our faces. We would drive back from the Ranch and be like, 'Oh, man, how are we going to do this movie?' But we love a challenge."
The name Jar Jar was assigned, as was Gungan, which came from Lucas' young son Jett's name for tractors and trucks. "I just liked the sound of it," says Lucas. "I'm always on the lookout for interesting-sounding words. I have to come up with hundreds of them, and I don't like names with x's and z's in them that people like to use in space films."
As for Jar Jar's voice, Lucas wasn't initially sold on having Best do it. "I knew he was auditioning other people, but I made a conscious decision to be the voice," says Best. "I felt like Tony Robbins! Make the conscious decision and the power for success will work for you!"
"At one point," says Coleman, "George just turned to me and said, 'Ahmed is Jar Jar.' "
"It happened in the same way as Tony Daniels when he was doing C-3PO," says Lucas. "They really get into the character and make it their own."
In early versions of the movie, Jar Jar's speech was a bit hard to understand. "When we first saw it," says Lucas, "some people that had never seen him before didn't know what was going on. They had a hard time following it. So we redid it, but I still kept that kind of dialogue." Lucas points out that no one understood Yoda at first, either. "Now everybody can," he says. "The first time you hear Jar Jar, it takes about halfway through the movie to figure out what he's saying. Once you figure it out, it's easy. If you go back and see it a second time, you can understand him all the way through."
Lucas doesn't care too terribly much that some folks have a problem with Jar Jar. "I think the comic-relief character is an important dramatic device," he says. "Some of the fans that want The Phantom Menace to be The Terminator don't like the idea that there are comic characters in it. I certainly am not going to make a grim bloodfest out of Star Wars."
As the cult of Jar Jar grows, so, too, does the rumor mill, a hazard of celebrity. There are the whispers that Jar Jar is gay. "Where the hell did they get that from?" says Best, quaffing bottled water at a favorite Brooklyn coffee shop. Best was recently quizzed about Jar Jar's proclivities by reporters at the Phantom Menace press junket. "They wanted a scoop," he shrugs. "I guess they wanted to get the gay-amphibian community in on the movie."
Don't even get him started on the current theory that Jar Jar is Jamaican. "That is a really big insult to Jamaican people," he declares. "Just because the language is a bit different, they stick an accent on it? Jar Jar has nothing to do with the Caribbean! He is an amphibian from the planet Naboo." One reporter was concerned that Jar Jar, being of Caribbean descent, was perpetuating the slave mentality by being indebted to Qui-Gon Jinn. "I said, 'You know what? You have got to check your head and examine your own beliefs. Jar Jar is an orange frog. Heads need to relax. That shit is crazy." He takes a pause. "I just thought I was doing a funny role," he says. "I didn't know that the Jedi were a metaphor for the Man."
Best's surreal adventures continued with his first Star Wars convention, at an airport hangar in Denver that was descended upon by 40,000 people. He took questions from the stage, alongside Jake Lloyd and Ray Park, who plays the evil Darth Maul. Best spent the first day incognito. "Nobody recognized me until I spoke onstage," he says. "Then it was pure madness and people pushing." Best-entertained questions – among them, "What is your favorite ice cream flavor?"
"I told him I was lactose intolerant, and the room erupted," Best marvels. "Everybody cheered. I guess Star Wars brings out the lactose-intolerant people."
Best says that this movie was the most fun he has ever had in his life. "I haven't stopped working on this movie for the past two years," he says. "I know Liam, Ewan, Natalie and Jake have all gone on to do other things, but I've been doing re-shoots, looping and more motion capture at ILM." Best is not sure what is ahead for him, but he is sure of his path. "I don't do this because I want to be famous," he says. "I do this because I can't help it. This is what found me: acting and music and performing." He still performs with his band, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, he's hoping that Jar Jar is in the next movie. "George hasn't said that," says Best. "But he keeps alluding to the fact that Jar Jar will be back. I hope so, because they're gonna shoot the next movie in Australia. I love Australia. And being part of the Star Wars universe is nice. You get to get up every day and play Star Wars and get paid for it."
It's good, then, that Best still sees his buddy Lucas. The two like to have lunch together. "A lot of people think that he's this icon, but he's just some guy with really creative ideas who likes to hang out," Best reasons. He enjoys asking Lucas questions like, "Why do Stormtroopers wear those helmets?"
"There are tons of details that I don't know about," says Lucas, chortling. "Part of it's easy for me, because what I don't have an answer for, I just make up." He does confirm that he is already writing the next film: "We've gained a huge amount of knowledge on this film that obviously we will use on the next one."
During our visit, Best said he hadn't yet seen the completed film, just parts of it. "I'm really excited to see how it ended up," he says. "It's going to be a great film, and I'm really proud to be in it. I want to see the magic that's going to be there when it's completed."
Days later, animation supervisor Coleman ran into Best after a screening. "I told him, 'You are the essence of the character. You did so much for us.' " Best couldn't answer. "He couldn't articulate it at all," Coleman says with a laugh. "He was dumbstruck." Just the way he was in that darkened theater when he was three years old.
This story is from the June 24th, 1999 issue of Rolling Stone.
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