March Mania
02/22/2001 - Updated 08:33 PM ET

Lucas: The titan of tech

NICASIO, Calif. George Lucas runs a mighty little empire built on the shoulders of the Star Wars films and his involvement with dozens of others through his effects company, Industrial Light & Magic. The heart of the operation is here at Skywalker Ranch, 6,000 guarded green acres in Marin County, that is home to Skywalker Sound (a post-production facility), THX (the theater sound system division) and various computer gaming and movie franchising arms. ILM, winner of 14 Oscars and up for another, is in a nearby office complex with plans to move to San Francisco's Presidio mid-decade.


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But Lucas, a single father of three adopted children with a passion for a low profile, will continue to work out of this secluded Xanadu. He reminisces about the early days and muses about the future of film with USA TODAY's Marco R. della Cava:

Q: When you started on Star Wars in 1975, did you ever imagine things would go this far?

A: I really had no idea. At that time (Hollywood) studios had closed all their effects shops. To try to pull off a major-scale special-effects film at that point in time was considered ludicrous and naive. I hired a bunch of kids basically; the average age of the company was 23. We had 30 or 40 guys and we set out to make this science-fiction film. I never thought it would go any further.

Q: What were the principal challenges?

A: The big challenge was to have some flexibility in movement with special-effects shots. That was the major key to having Star Wars work. As opposed to long static shots in 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the action transpires in the frame and the camera doesn't move. John Dykstra, who worked for me, came along saying we can create a camera that can do matched moves. And I bought that idea. I didn't have any more ideas. If anything else, it was faith in John. You had to build a piece of machinery so precise that hundredths of millimeters were important.

Q: At what point did you begin thinking about using computers in film?

A: Back during the days of the first Star Wars, my feeling was we were going to go digital. I could see from what some friends were doing with computers that that was the new direction for film. So I started a computer division. I gave a group of scientists a mandate to develop a number of systems that we could use to move the special effects world into the digital realm. One of those things ended up being Pixar (the folks behind Toy Story), which was really specialized computer graphics.

Q: You've made four Star Wars movies, and two are still to come. What makes you so committed to these Star Wars episodes?

A: I don't know (laughs). This is not a good time to ask me this (in the middle of Episode II production). When I wrote the first one, I was determined to finish the story, the trilogy. After that, I was done, I didn't want to do this anymore. I did have an idea for a prequel and sequels after that, but then I thought I'd be doing this for another hundred years. That was not going to happen. So after the first three episodes I was ready for a break. I had a family and I wanted to do some living.

Q: Why did you come back?

A: When I came back to do Episode I, I'd reached a point where I could tell the story I always wanted to tell in a way that I wasn't able to before because of the technology required. So I thought, this will be fun. I can tell the story any way I want, as if I were writing a book. In the other films I was constantly saying I can't do that, it's too expensive, too hard or technically impossible. I wanted to tell the story of Darth Vader, because he'd become such an icon. And I was driven by being able to move around in his world technically. It's been enjoyable taking a new medium and pushing it to its limits.

Q: Is it safe to say the best of ILM goes into the latest Star Wars film?

A: It's hard to say now, things move so fast now. The really major breakthrough was Jurassic Park. That's where digital technology became a real entity. It was hard to figure out how those effects were done. From then on, everything was really an adjustment to that. Small moves. But for people in the field, these things are very large. Getting skin correct, getting hair correct, fire and water correct. It takes several years to tackle each one.

Q: ILM did well with water in The Perfect Storm.

A: They do water better than anyone else. I know (Cast Away director) Bob Zemeckis well, but I thought the water in Cast Away wasn't as good as it could have been. It didn't look perfect.

Q: With the notion of the "digital backlot" growing in scope and more actors required to act against a blank blue screen, will this affect the nature of film acting as a craft?

A: I tend to make a lot of my films in England, and British actors are used to working on the stage, and the stage is like working with a blue screen. You're creating a world and you're playing a part, and yet you're not in the environment. You pretend. Rather than saying it's a new form of acting, we're really going back to stage acting. But computers taking over for actors is complete nonsense, said by people who have no idea what the craft of acting is all about.

Q: Do you think the average moviegoer would be surprised how many films have invisible effects in them?

A: I think so. One thing that does always surprise me is encountering intelligent people who say, "You know, the problem with this digital stuff is it's all phony." Well, it's always been phony, whether it was a facade built with wood or the digital version of the same thing. Movies aren't real. The actors aren't real, and the lines they're saying aren't real. Especially now with the convergence of reality programming, it's harder for people to understand that a movie is a very carefully laid out art form not done by happenstance.

Q: Do you think our fascination with reality-based shows like Survivor signals a shift in what audiences want?

A: No. People have always wanted the same thing. The reality shows tend toward the circus. People have always been interested in the circus, whether they're throwing people to the bears or the lions or the gladiators. That early form of entertainment has always been pervasive. It's a traffic accident; everyone will watch it. I call it "the puppy on the freeway story" throw a puppy on the freeway and film it. Very dramatic, and people will watch it forever.

Q: This doesn't indicate a new low to you?

A: No. I think that low has been there for 10,000 years. It hasn't changed at all and it never will. Shakespeare played to that low in his own way, certainly. When you're dealing with telling a story, you're dealing with drama, and no matter how you tell it, you have to deal with a dash of low spectacle and circus in with your high ideals and your interesting insights into the human condition.

Q: Tell me about syn-Thespians, these digital versions of real actors .

A: Well, people call them different things, but basically it's a re-creation of our actors in digital form who can do stunts and things in a way that even a stuntman can't, but he's realistic enough so that you can't tell that it's not the actual actor. And we are doing it in fairly close shots, which has never been tried before. It's all about moving a character from point A to point B seamlessly. Whenever someone jumps from a building, there's always a cut after the jump to when they land. Now we can follow them. Sometimes people see the big uses of technology (in film), but most of the time effects are used in really quiet ways that no one really knows about. And it's not important that they know about it. It just enables the filmmaker to be more flexible in telling the story.

Q: There's been some talk about producers wondering if famous dead actors can be re-cast in modern films digitally. How does, say, the notion of John Wayne starring in the next Indiana Jones film strike you?

A: There is always a group in every medium that isn't as creative as one would hope. And they are the people that always go back and resurrect stuff. Other than for the gimmick of it, I can't see a producer putting John Wayne into a movie today. So you'd be getting digital animators to re-create these legends, but you couldn't get real performances from them because they were unique talents.

Q: What will the role of the Internet be on moviemaking?

A: When broadband gets here, it will really open up what we'll be able to see. Because right now product is still very controlled. The big issue will be paying the bills, the Napster-type problem. You can make tiny movies for free, but bigger films have expenses that will have to be paid. The Internet will have to grow up to deal with that, and I think it will. People will accept the fact that they'll have to pay for what they see via the Net.

Q: How is Hollywood reacting to this?

A: Right now, the people who control moviemaking are scared to death about losing a paying audience, and they have no imagination. And so what do you get? Exactly what you've seen before.

Q: Any chance Episodes 7-9 will seduce you?

A: No way. I guarantee that. After the next one (Episode III), I'll move on.

Q: What's next for you?

A: I've got some ideas for movies, but I have much more that I want to do than I have time.

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