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.
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
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
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
Q: You've made four Star
Wars movies, and two are still to come. What makes
you so committed to these Star Wars
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
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
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
Q: Do you think the average moviegoer
would be surprised how many films have invisible effects in
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
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
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
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
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
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.