Count Dooku with his lightsaber ignited in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones.

Roel Robles on the origins of Count Dooku’s lightsaber hilt design

The middle chapter of the prequel trilogy, Star Wars: Attack of the Clonesarrived May 16, 2002. To celebrate 20 years of the filmand anniversary, StarWars.com presents Clone at 20, a special series of interviews, editorials, etc.

Cinema audiences first met the villainous Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) 20 years ago at Star Wars: Attack of the Clones. This Jedi-turned-Sith was not only the leader of the growing separatist movement, but one of the galaxy’s most feared swordsmen. In the novelization of attack of the clones written by R.A. Salvatore, Dooku’s fighting style is described as “balanced” and “arcane…more forward and backward, thrust and riposte, than the typical circular movements currently employed by most Jedi”.

The character’s towering abilities were matched by a distinctive curved lightsaber hilt that caught the eye of many fans. It’s partly thanks to a budding young concept artist on the attack of the clones crew that this weapon has become so iconic.

“I’ve always loved drawing since I was a child,” says Roel Robles, art department assistant at attack of the clones who immigrated with his family from the Philippines to the United States when he was four years old. “My parents wanted me to pursue a career in business, but I never stopped wanting to be an artist.”

Like star wars reentering popular culture in the 1990s with new books, comics, and theatrical re-releases, the longtime Robles fan decided to follow his dream. He found Lucasfilm in the yellow pages and cold called them. With no formal film or art background, he found a job in the Skywalker Ranch mailroom. “I thought it would be a way to get your foot in the door. If I could find my place in the art department within a year, that would be great. Otherwise, I would try something else.

Robles with his family in the art department, including son Kirk, daughter Kelsey and wife Virna.

While Robles worked delivering letters and packages to Lucasfilm staff at the Ranch, he also illustrated posters and graphics for corporate events or parties. “Being in the mailroom, I was able to meet different people, including concept artists and producer Rick McCallum,” he says. After six months, McCallum recruited him as an artistic assistant working with the team inside the main house. “I was able to live my dream”

Robles describes the experience as a “star wars university.” Designers like Doug Chiang, Iain McCaig, and Ed Natividad served as mentors to the aspiring conceptual artist. He was able to “touch a bit of everything,” including drawing, digital painting, and model making. Robles even helped editor and sound designer Ben Burtt shoot animatics using the original landspeeder prop from Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) as a replacement. “I had worked as a valet at the Hyatt and used to park cars,” adds Robles, “so I jumped in the landspeeder and maneuvered it!”

A sample of Robles' collection of swords, including pieces from the Philippines, China and Japan.

A sample of Robles’ collection of swords, including pieces from the Philippines, China and Japan.

Among the hundreds, if not thousands, of Episode II design needs was the hilt of Count Dooku’s lightsaber. Robles saw the opportunity to help influence a new take on the familiar weapon. “We were trying to come up with a different lightsaber design,” he recalls. “I do Filipino martial arts, which includes fighting with different sticks and knives. I had a collection of Filipino and Asian fighting swords. So when we were doing Count Dooku’s hilt, I brought my collection for so everyone can see it.

A comparison of the barong with Dooku's lightsaber.

A comparison of the barong with Dooku’s lightsaber.

Count Dooku holding his lightsaber

One of Robles’ favorite pieces was a traditional Filipino weapon known as a barong, which sported a curved wooden handle and a short but heavy blade. “George [Lucas] came to go through all the swords,” he recalls, “and he actually picked the barong, which I was hoping for. Coincidentally, Dermot Power had previously worked on the concept of a curved lightsaber hilt. [Some of this work would evolve into the character Asajj Ventress. – Ed.] We worked together to refine and tweak it to look like what George wanted. Additionally, Robles suggested an idea for a blind female Jedi character. “I felt like since the Jedi were one with the Force, you wouldn’t really need to use your eyes, but George hadn’t been there then.”

Robles instructs production coordinator Fay David (left) on the use of Escrima sticks.

Robles instructs production coordinator Fay David (left) on the use of Escrima sticks.

For Robles, the work on Dooku’s saber wasn’t just a highlight of attack of the clones but a special opportunity “to involve my Filipino culture in my work,” he says. “It’s really cool to say that Count Dooku’s lightsaber was inspired by this Filipino sword.” He also performed martial arts demonstrations for the art department. “We tried different weapons like single sword, dual swords, sword and knife, dual knives and Escrima staffs using a whipping motion just to show the possible range of how Jedi could fight” , he explains. “Since then, there has been an abundance of Filipino martial arts in movies.”

After attack of the clones, Robles continued his budding artistic career with new ventures and found success in film, video games, and other endeavors. He even returned to Skywalker Ranch in 2014 to work with Skywalker Sound on his short film, Usagi Yojimbo The Last Request.

Robles still considers his days with Lucasfilm to be a particularly meaningful time. “Skywalker Ranch was a real creative campus and I’m so glad I had the chance to work there,” he recalls. “When I was with the art department on star wars, I felt that they were my people. I’m still friends with many former Lucasfilm colleagues. People were down to earth and ready to help, and we had the same passions. When we get back together, it’s like nothing has changed.

Lucas O. Seastrom is a writer and historian at Lucasfilm. He grew up on a farm in California’s Central Valley and is a star wars and Indiana Jones fan.

Site tags: #StarWarsBlog, #ClonesAt20

KEYWORDS: Clones at 20, Count Dooku, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)

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