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Exclusive: The Lucas POV

Digital Content Producer‘s and Millimeter‘s coverage of past and present award nominees/winners

See more photos from the VES awards

Photo: Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All rights reserved.

Even though he has received more than a few Lifetime Achievement awards, George Lucas isn’t ready to view his career in terms of his “legacy” just yet. The awards on his resume range from the Irving B. Thalberg Award in 1992 from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his accomplishments as a movie producer to the first-ever Visual Effects Society Lifetime Achievement Award, which was presented to him last month by his friend, James Cameron, at the 2nd Annual VES Awards Ceremony at the Hollywood Palladium.

Rather than viewing his work in digital filmmaking and visual effects as a legacy, Lucas prefers to consider it an act of necessity, designed to propel him along his chosen storytelling path. Therefore, with this in mind, Lucas paused carefully when asked to explain his contributions to the visual effects industry.

Was his primary effects achievement the seminal Star Wars trilogy that forever elevated the effects equation across the industry? Was it his vision as a pioneering businessman, founding Lucas Digital, Industrial Light + Magic (ILM), and their various sister companies to serve as templates for modern effects facilities and somehow invent whatever tools might be necessary to serve a project’s needs? Or does his legacy lie in his leadership role championing all-digital filmmaking?

“For me, digital effects are necessary to my craft — an enhancement to tell stories. Everything we did was driven by that goal — finding better ways to tell stories,” Lucas says.

Indeed, Lucas the storyteller appeared clearly to be driving Lucas the business titan during his exclusive interview with Millimeter. “Digital effects, unfortunately, aren’t much of a business,” he says. “It’s sort of like racing cars — it’s for somebody who is crazy enough to love the medium enough to just do it. It’s not really for people looking to get rich.

In February, George Lucas was honored by the Visual Effects Society with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Photo: Tony Donaldson

“So the reason ILM got started was because, [back during the making of the original Star Wars], I wanted to make a space opera that was very fast, very cinematic, with short cuts, lots of movement, very kinetic. I did not want it to be like 2001, which sort of carried the art form of realistic visual effects as far as anybody, even now, has carried it. I wanted to do it cinematic style, and the truth was, there was no way [technically] to do it. Therefore, we pulled a group together — especially John Dykstra — and we agreed the way to accomplish what I wanted was to do several passes on something and then match it all up, the same way you do things with an animation camera. That led to the creation of an automated animation camera, placed on its side [as an early motion control rig] and the use of models, instead of artwork, and later, digital imagery. That really revolutionized the cinematic process in terms of how you tell a story using special effects. But it was all done, on both the filmmaking side and the business side, in order to solve the problem of how to tell the stories we wanted to tell.”

Sitting down backstage at the Palladium for a one-on-one discussion just prior to receiving his VES award, Lucas emphasized two themes he’s passionate about: a plea for proper recognition for the role visual effects play in filmmaking and an ironclad conviction that the filmmaking craft will succumb to all-digital workflows.

Legacy and Lessons

Ironically, Lucas held the VES spotlight on a night when The Lord of the Rings visual effects team received four VES awards, and just days before that film dominated the Academy Awards. Pointing to that project, Lucas expressed pride and relief about the expansion of effects-driven, epic-scale filmmaking beyond his own empire.

“A lot of the people throughout the special effects business today came through ILM,” says Lucas. “A lot of people at [New Zealand’s] Weta Digital came through ILM. In fact, we cooperated a lot with Peter Jackson on the picture and sound side of that project, particularly in helping him get set up. What they have going on at Weta is very similar to what we’re doing in San Francisco, which is we are kind of an outpost with no resources down the street. So, in San Francisco, we had to build up our own sound and postproduction studios, our own special effects studio, and pretty much do everything on our own.”

James Cameron presented the award at the ceremony. Photo: Tony Donaldson

But Lucas admits he never could have accomplished any of this were it not for the efforts of a small group of legendary visual effects supervisors — John Dykstra, Dennis Muren, Richard Edlund, Rob Coleman — who were every bit as essential to the creative success of their movies as the DP or any other collaborator.

“As time goes on, I feel the visual effects supervisor will become more obvious as being integral to filmmaking as people become more facile in the breadth of filmmaking,” he says. “If you say, I’m going to tell all kinds of stories in all kinds of ways, you have to become part of the special effects arena sooner or later. People who work in special effects are extremely important creative partners in this regard. They are all artists. There are no technicians in the special effects business. I know thousands of people in the special effects business, and they are all artists. They have a unique talent you can’t easily learn. Yes, you have to learn the technological side, just like in any business. But how these people create reality and the amount of taste, talent, and sheer observation they have about what the real world looks like, is unprecedented, and it’s equal to anything, including people involved in photography, painting, music, or even writing.

“My view is that all films are, by their nature, a special effect in and of themselves, in the sense that they are all illusions. Therefore, we need people in this industry that make it easier to make those illusions, and who continually advance themselves and the industry to the point where the medium is more facile, so you can actually think faster and work faster and not have to spend all your time trying to overcome hurdles like we had to do.”

Why Digital?

Lucas notes that this evolution has already moved the industry to a point where he and many filmmakers, “no longer accept barriers or ceilings on what we want to do. We just refuse to say ‘no.’ I’ve gotten extremely tenacious about things like that. That was something that was very frustrating when we did the original Star Wars films, and that experience taught me that this has to do with resources. Therefore, I felt we could actually save resources by improving the technology as quickly as possible, and this is what we set out to do at ILM. After all, if you can make the car go faster, you can get there quicker. That saves you money, and then you can use that money someplace else. That is precisely what we are doing today.”

Before accepting the award, Lucas discusses digital filmmaking with Millimeter senior editor Michael Goldman. Photo: Tony Donaldson

This refusal to accept restrictions is what moved him to the front of the digital filmmaking line — a position he vigorously defends and promotes.

“Digital is very cheap, yet super high quality for anybody who knows how to make a movie,” Lucas explains. “Suddenly, you can do things on a Macintosh for a few thousand dollars that used to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. You can save money on lab costs, yet have a clearer picture than with film cameras. This should really level the playing field in terms of people’s entry into the medium, if you are committed to telling stories and the art of cinema.”

At the same time, such technology has permitted Lucas, Jackson, and others with far greater resources than entry-level filmmakers to make “much grander stories, historical epics, things we could not have done even 10 years ago.

“You can barely think of a large, historical epic film that existed in the 1960s,” he says. “You look and say Lawrence of Arabia, but then, what else? There was Cleopatra, but that basically killed the whole genre because it was so expensive. Yet, today, we are seeing The Lord of the Rings as a perfect example: Tens of thousands of people fighting in the battles. You could never afford to do that in real life today. Nobody could bring 10,000 extras out to a field, set up tents, feed them, and transport them back to hotels. It just can’t be done with today’s economics. But with digital technology, it’s very accessible — almost easy, in fact.”

Intimately related to all this digital postproduction magic is Lucas’ decision to go digital on the front end — for now, shooting with Sony’s 24p CineAlta system and broadly open to any future camera systems that come along. As has been well documented, the Sony system is one that Lucas’ team of experts helped R&D while shooting Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace a few years ago. Since then, Lucas reports, the technology has come “quite far,” to the point where he simply can’t understand why more filmmakers aren’t on board.

“When we were doing Phantom Menace, we were trying for six years to get those cameras made, get lenses for them, in order to shoot the whole movie in HD 24p,” he recalls. “What we got was a prototype camera, and eventually, we were able to shoot part of that movie that way, but it was too early to do the whole production that way. At that time, it was ragged, at best — huge cameras, a crude system. By the time we got to Attack of the Clones, we had very good cameras to work with, about the size of a Betacam unit, and finally, we got lenses from Panavision that are now widely being used in the industry. At the time, Panavision was kind to us, experimenting and trying to build lenses that would work. We shot that movie HD, and I think the images look brilliant, and now, we are shooting [the final Star Wars movie] that way. We are to the point where we have the same, basic system we had on Clones, but with the major bugs worked out of it.

“It seemed quite obvious to me more people would get going with it,” Lucas says. “Robert Rodriguez certainly did, and there are others, but not as many as I thought. Jim Cameron is very interested in 24p — he shot his 3D movie [the Titanic documentary, Ghosts of the Abyss] using them. If you watch that film, that movie simply could not have been shot on film. I’ve used IMAX cameras, I’ve used 3D cameras, and believe me, you could not have gotten a film camera into one of those tiny submarines — they are just too big. So, HD and other digital formats are helping us creatively, by being smaller, more flexible, going to places where film cameras can’t go. This means we can get more angles. Filmmaking is all about getting angles, and now, we have cameras for that, and that means better filmmaking. Now, we have Cameron as a proponent, and I’m reasonably sure he’ll shoot his next film that way. [Francis Ford] Coppola is shooting a film using digital cameras. It will probably be a while before Marty [Scorsese] goes in that direction, but on the other hand, he told me he would never use nonlinear, digital editing, and now he does.

“So people are beginning to pick up with it, but I remain amazed that since we did Attack of the Clones not everyone in this industry is shooting 24p. They are still fighting it tooth and nail. They are also doing everything they can to stall digital projection in theaters, even though those systems are obviously higher quality.”

Why Not Film?

Lucas remains wholly unmoved by loud arguments defending film as a superior and unique capture and display medium and a more reliable archival medium. He dismisses such arguments as “crazy B.S.”

James Cameron presenting George Lucas with his Lifetime Achievement Award at the VES Awards ceremony at the Hollywood Palladium on Feb. 18. Photo: (c)2004 Visual Effects Society/by Ron Wolfson

“It’s true that HD has certain unique characteristics that a lot of people complain about,” he says. “But film has them too — it’s always had them, and they aren’t necessarily that flattering to look at. It’s just that film’s flaws are built into the system — everyone has been using it for so long that no one recognizes the flaws anymore. No one wants to talk about them. People just maneuver around them silently, pretending they are not there, like big elephants that sit around the room. They pretend not to see the film elephant, but they point out the digital elephant. But the real truth is, digital has such high quality, sometimes too high, and it’s easy to send images into the digital realm on low-cost equipment and manipulate them. It’s just a more facile medium in terms of how you tell your stories.

“Cinema is simply about the use of moving images to tell your stories, so the medium you use to capture those moving images shouldn’t be that important. In that sense, it shouldn’t matter what you use. But, the medium does matter to the studios, which finance our pictures, and digital cinema — on the capture and display side — is simply more cost-effective and it allows you to finance much grander stories. So why stick with a medium that is limited as a technology, developed in the 19th century?”

Lucas also lobbies for digital projection as an inherently superior method of making sure that audiences see movies the way filmmakers intended them. As with HD image acquisition, he’s likewise disappointed that digital cinema has not proliferated more rapidly.

George Lucas receives a standing ovation from VES Awards attendees. Photo: (c)2004 Visual Effects Society/by Ron Wolfson.

“People say that digital projection in theaters is not quite ‘there’ yet, whatever that means,” he says. “But they must not have ever seen a release print in its fourth or fifth week in a typical theater. We have a company called THX that has a theater alignment program, and all we do in that program is have hundreds of people go around the country and check theaters, trying to make sure print quality is good on motion pictures. With digital projection, it’s so much easier to do that, because the image won’t degrade the way film does. The degradation of film for release prints is a constant battle filmmakers deal with. Film actually collapses if it plays constantly in a theater for two or three months. It’s hard to even recognize what you are seeing after all that time. And if you let it sit two or three years, the color goes out. It looks terrible, even in some of the negative over time, and that makes it harder to restore it.

“We do a good business with restoration. What has become quite obvious is the best way to restore films now is to do it digitally, because you can restore that original quality, whether it was 1940s Technicolor or 1950s black-and-white crispness. You can make the film look exactly the way it was meant to look, rather than saying ‘OK, this is as far as the photo-chemical process can take us.’”

As to the archival issue, Lucas sees that as little more than a red herring. His point: Images will break down and eventually need to be restored and transferred from any medium. Therefore, adherence to a fear that there will be no way to transfer or play back images from earlier digital formats, in Lucas’ view, is simply a waste of good angst.

“We’ve been using digital technology at ILM for over 20 years,” he says. “We have machines that are 20 years old. We have to refurbish our material all the time. We know that. That’s what all studios should be doing. That is what studios should have been doing with film all along. So many films were destroyed because no one bothered to make new negatives and new copies. But we all know that film deteriorates and data can deteriorate. What that means is, in either medium, you must copy it every 20 years or something like that. Every time you copy it, the technology gets better; not worse. We live in a digital world right now and it will only be more so in 20 years, so why not archive it digitally?

“If you don’t think that the technology for storing digital material is going to advance in the next 50 years beyond anything you could possibly imagine today, with almost everything being stored that way, you have your head in a hole. So people saying we don’t know how to archive digitally, that’s just crazy B.S. There are lots of excuses that people use to not try new technology. Mainly, that’s because they don’t know how to use it, and they don’t want to learn how to use it.”

Fear of Mischief

Lucas does recognize that digital technology’s proliferation does open a potential Pandora’s Box for “digital mischief” to interfere with the intent and hard work of artists. In fact, the potential for such mischief angers him.

“That’s what the [Director’s Guild of America’s] Artists’ Rights Foundation [consolidated in 2002 with The Film Foundation, and now part of that larger film preservation organization] is all about,” he says. “The Artists’ Rights Foundation was founded several years ago to protect filmmakers from this problem. The issue of people changing movies is a very big and important issue. It’s one thing for the artist who made the film to continue to work on it until he or she dies. Most artists, painters, and filmmakers, have done that over the years when they have had the opportunity. But that is much different than having other people monkey with your work, and then put your name back on it. That is not fair, and it will happen a lot if we aren’t vigilant — it’s already happening, in fact.

“Part of this is a copyright issue, and part of it is just what we consider the moral rights of artists, which is, if you create something, you have the right to have it stay the way that you, the artist, wanted it, not the way some studio executive or some corporation overseas or somebody who just wants to fool around wants it. That is something I’m very concerned about.”

For a complete list of the Visual Effects’ Society award winners and more photos from the event,