The recent recap of last year’s biggest events reminded me of something that has been largely overlooked: George Lucas is retiring. Granted, he’s tried to retire before – a couple of times, if memory serves – with limited success. And the news was understandably overshadowed by the double-whammy of the Sequel Trilogy and the sale to Disney. But still. The Flannelled One is stepping down, off to work on experimental films or build a working X-wing or become a lumberjack or whatever retired billionaires do. Yes, there were the starwars.com videos, where he talked a bit about his future plans, but in general, this story has been ignored. Heck, I saw more chatter about Rick McCallum’s retirement. Rick McCallum is a wonderful guy, but there’s only one George Lucas. He deserves a little more attention.
So let’s talk about ol’ Uncle George. He’s got a reputation as a modern-day mythographer and someone who likes reviving old-school movie serials. Maybe that’s his legacy as a writer and a director – but as a producer, he’s an innovator. Dare I say it, he changed the movie business more than anyone since Edison. He constantly thinks about the future of technology, and has a knack for hiring talented folks who can execute his vision. Think of him, perhaps, as the Steve Jobs of movies.
So to celebrate his long-gestating retirement, here’s a short primer on some of his biggest innovations. They’re listed in alphabetical order, and they all left a permanent mark on an industry that’s famously resistant to change.
Everyone praises Pixar’s storytelling skills (and rightly so), but it wasn’t always that way. Back when the original Toy Story was released, it was lauded more for its groundbreaking “3-D computer animation.” (Seriously, that’s what they called it. The 90s weren’t always elegant.) And that style, which basically defines animation these days, was developed by Lucasfilm in the 80s. LFL created Pixar as a way of integrating CGI into live-action, and won raves for the effect. But they also produced an animated short, “The Adventures of Andre and Wally B,” which was a clear precursor to the Oscar-winning shorts that put Pixar on the map. Lucas sold Pixar to Steve Jobs in 1986, a rare bit of shortsightedness in a lifetime of smart business moves. So there’s a nice bit of symmetry that Lucasfilm is now reunited with its long-lost sibling under the Disney tent.
Once upon a time, all credits came at the beginning of a movie, and when a title card said “The End,” it meant it. Additional credits were gradually added to the end of movies, but the major names stayed at the beginning – until Star Wars came along. Lucas wanted to plunge the audience straight into the narrative, so he didn’t include anybody’s name (including his own) until after the movie was over. This led to a nasty rift between him and a couple of unions, but eventually Lucas’ vision won out. Nowadays it’s completely acceptable to skip the opening credits, and in some cases (Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy comes to mind), even a movie’s title appears at the end.
2002’s Attack of the Clones was the first major motion-picture to be shot on high-def digital cameras, which Lucas swore gave resolution equal to traditional film stock. Some critics disagreed (most notably Roger Ebert), citing blurry or muted images – to which Lucas insisted that the movie also needs to be projected digitally. Theater owners slowly came around to his way of thinking (in addition to image quality, there are other advantages to digital projection, including economic ones), and now most multiplexes are exclusively digital. Even years before, though, Lucasfilm was working on removing the film from filmmaking; the company developed “EditDroid,” which spliced shots on a computer instead of using actual film frames. The EditDroid system grew up to become Avid editing software, which (along with competitors like Final Cut) essentially erased frame-by-frame linear editing. Film isn’t extinct yet – the “Save 35mm” crowd continues to put up a fight – but if it does one day disappear, Uncle George is at least partly responsible.
Because Star Wars had such groundbreaking effects, it became the first movie to make stars out of its behind-the-scenes crew. Folks like John Dykstra, Phil Tippett and Ralph McQuarrie suddenly became cult heroes, and luckily a lot of their efforts were documented – enough to make a TV special called The Making of Star Wars. For The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Return of the Jedi, Lucas made sure to record even more pre- and post-production footage, leading to the most extensive documentaries seen at that time – and the first to be given their own home video releases. But he topped it all with the Star Wars prequels, which built up hype by introducing the first web-only featurettes and producing an unflinching DVD documentary about The Phantom Menace. Even those who couldn’t stand Episode I agreed that its DVD redefined bonus features.
Star Wars didn’t fundamentally change the way movies are edited – the story is extremely straightforward, with no flashbacks or jump cuts or dream sequences – but it did speed everything way up. Lucas and his Oscar-winning editing team used quick shots of multiple elements (X-wings, gun towers, enemy ships, reaction shots of Princess Leia, etc.,) often showing them for less than a second with the action literally flying in from all directions. Yet Lucas trusted his audience to follow along, and when he was proven right, action scenes in general became much more complex… not to mention, you guessed it, faster and more intense.
Uncle George’s most famous business move is also his most misunderstood. Here’s what happened: when the original Star Wars was running behind schedule and over-budget, Lucas gave up his directing fee in order to hang onto the licensing rights. This seemed nutty at the time, but soon the merchandising benefits brought in billions upon billions of dollars to Lucasfilm. (You may have seen one or two Star Wars products in your day.) Critics often blame Lucas for bringing toy sales into the movie business, but the truth is that merchandising wasn’t his goal at all – he was thinking about the franchise. Lucas knew the potential for more movies existed, and he didn’t want outsiders mishandling his characters or his sequels. He grew even more hands-on after the debacle of The Star Wars Holiday Special, and since then, Lucasfilm has maintained strict control of its properties. There are now people in place to ensure that every book, action figure and t-shirt doesn’t sully the brand. Artists all over learned a valuable lesson from Lucas: if you want to protect your work, make sure you own it. Everyone from J.K. Rowling to Michael Jackson to Todd McFarlane took this advice to heart, and creative control has never been stronger.
Sound mixing and sound editing had already become something of an art by the late 60s, but few outside Hollywood appreciated all that hard work. Lucas recognized that the problem was on the consumer end, since most movie theaters still used archaic, mono-sourced speakers. So he went about convincing theater owners to upgrade their sound systems, adding a three-dimensional feel to movies well before modern 3D became popular. Some theaters converted to Lucas’ signature THX system, but even those that didn’t felt the need to upgrade their sound, just to keep up with the competition. This spilled over to home entertainment systems, car stereos, even headphone technology.
Lucas’ biggest contribution to film scores actually happened before Star Wars, on his 1973 hit American Graffiti. To properly convey his nostalgia for growing up in the early 1960s, Lucas inundated the soundtrack with a slew of classic oldies. This was a rare move – until then, movie producers preferred original songs, and if an old song was used, it was often performed by somebody in the film. Lucas bucked the trend by licensing original rock’n’roll hits, sung by their original artists, and it gave American Graffiti an added sheen of authenticity. It also made the soundtrack one of the biggest-selling albums of the 70s, which encouraged studios to start licensing original recordings – and now, of course, it’s standard practice in Hollywood.
Yes, this is the most obvious one on the list, but it’s worth remembering that Lucas didn’t just start his own special effects company, he allowed it to succeed through a series of smart business decisions. Most importantly, he didn’t horde the technology for himself. He allowed Industrial Light & Magic to take on outside projects and hire more people, which kept the company solvent – and kept ILM on the cutting edge. ILM reinvigorated classic effects, including stop-motion, model work, and blue-screen composites, while at the same time developing new methods such as computerized camera control and digital CGI. Nowadays there are plenty of impressive special effects companies out there, but the entire mindset of how to create modern effects was born at ILM.