Language Selection

English French German Italian Portuguese Spanish

Tech Firms Owe Debt to 'Star Wars' Creator

Filed under
Sci/Tech

After filming the first "Star Wars" movie with special effects far from special, George Lucas spent millions to develop a complete digital editing system to populate his sequels with armies of X-wing fighters and Gungan warriors. Then, he virtually gave it away.

"We were 10 years ahead of the commercial reality," said Bob Doris, co-general manager of Lucas' computer division during the mid-1980s. "He inspired some very worthwhile ventures ... but the innovations weren't close to paying for themselves."

So Lucas sold many of his technologies for cheap - technologies that would later appear in home stereos, cell phones, medical imaging devices and virtually every Hollywood studio, driving billion-dollar companies and employing thousands of people.

Apple Computer Inc. chief executive Steve Jobs paid $10 million for the team that became Pixar Inc., and the movie company went on to make $3 billion at the box office.

And so it goes with Lucas, who was famous for saying "I'm not a venture capitalist."

Lucas recognized the absurdity of his situation as he made the first "Star Wars" movie. There he was trying to tell a futuristic story about intergalactic revolution, space travel and androids, and Hollywood was stuck using 50-year-old film-making techniques.

To create space ships or alien creatures, his artists built small models and hoped for audiences with vivid imaginations. The first "Death Star" was made out of plastic.

Lucas aspired for something much more grand, and after the first movie was released in 1977, he gathered a small group of computer artists and told them to spare no expense in creating a system that would include software capable of rendering images in three dimensions.

First, the computer team created "EditDroid," the first digital-editing system. It allowed movies to be transferred to computer disks so editors won't have to fiddle with cumbersome film reels. Lucas sold that technology to Avid Technology Inc., which went on to sell the forerunner of modern movie-editing bays.

Then he sold the computer division - later to become Pixar - to Jobs in 1986 in arguably one of the worst deals in movie history.

Using talent and technology that Lucas had let go, Pixar developed RenderMan, the software that has since transformed the film industry by infusing computer images with real-world qualities, such as shadows, glossy reflections, motion-blur and depth of field.

Emeryville-based Pixar used RenderMan in 1995 to release the first entirely computer-animated film, "Toy Story," and then five more hits.

Other studios used RenderMan or software inspired by it to make the form-changing cyborg in "Terminator 2," the massive waves in "The Perfect Storm" and even the computer-generated smoke and fire in the final installment of the six-film "Star Wars" saga, "Revenge of the Sith," which debuts May 19.

In all, the software has helped studios win 33 of the past 35 Academy Awards for special-effects.

But Lucas - already financially secure because he owned the "Star Wars" franchise - had good reason for unloading some of the technology. Most of the editing and production tools were so advanced that there was little market for them at the time.

Also, he wasn't motivated by profits - he just wanted to make better films, said Doris, who left with three other Lucas staffers in 1986 to form Sonic Solutions, which makes DVD-creation software.

In fact, dozens of groundbreaking technologies were initially developed at Lucasfilm Ltd.'s San Rafael headquarters, known as Skywalker Ranch.

"Half the technology companies here are spinoffs" of a Lucas' company, said Robert Huebener, a former LucasArts videogame developer who in 1998 founded a competing firm in nearby Redwood City.

Perhaps not half, but the list of companies that in one way or another got their start at Skywalker Ranch is long.

Besides the Lucasfilm divisions Industrial Light & Magic for special effects, Lucasfilm for movie production, Skywalker Sound for audio post-production and LucasArts for video games, Lucas inspired Pixar, Avid and Sonic Solutions.

Other spinoffs include visual effects developer Visual Concept Entertainment, production studio Digital Domain and video game software companies BioWare and Nihilistic Software, to name a few.

Some of those companies found other applications for the technology developed at Skywalker Ranch.

THX, the theater sound system developed in 1983 and rolled out to more than 2,000 theaters across the country, is now in car and home stereo systems. Sound effects designed by Skywalker Sound's Gary Rydstrom are available on Apple computers. Before Pixar became a powerhouse in animated-movie making, the company sold computers that helped doctors create digital three-dimensional models.

Lucas may not have profited from this galaxy of businesses, but he's earned lasting respect and gratitude from his fans as well as many in the movie industry, said BZ Petroff, who oversees production at San Francisco's Wild Brain Inc. animation studio.

"Back in 1980s you'd have a director of photography on a crane performing incredibly complex and long camera moves going through these miniature sets," Petroff said. "Now, you have a 25-year-old getting the same shots on his computer."

Special effects had fallen out of favor in the 1970s when Lucas began the "Star Wars" saga, Lucas recalled as he promoted his final "Star Wars" movie last week. Some studios had dismantled their special-effects departments entirely.

"I'm most proud," Lucas said, "of the fact that I was able to take special effects out of the cellar."

GREG SANDOVAL
Associated Press

More in Tux Machines

OpenSUSE fonts – The sleeping beauty guide

Pandora’s box of fonts is one of the many ailments of the distro world. As long as we do not have standards, and some rather strict ones at that, we will continue to suffer from bad fonts, bad contrast, bad ergonomics, and in general, settings that are not designed for sustained, prolonged use. It’s a shame, because humans actually use computers to interface with information, to READ text and interpret knowledge using the power of language. It’s the most critical element of the whole thing. OpenSUSE under-delivers on two fonts – anti-aliasing and hinting options that are less than ideal, and then it lacks the necessary font libraries to make a relevant, modern and pleasing desktop for general use. All of this can be easily solved if there’s more attention, love and passion for the end product. After all, don’t you want people to be spending a lot of time interacting, using and enjoying the distro? Hopefully, one day, all this will be ancient history. We will be able to choose any which system and never worry or wonder how our experience is going to be impacted by the choice of drivers, monitors, software frameworks, or even where we live. For the time being, if you intend on using openSUSE, this little guide should help you achieve a better, smoother, higher-quality rendering of fonts on the screen, allowing you to enjoy the truly neat Plasma desktop to the fullest. Oh, in the openSUSE review, I promised we would handle this, and handle it we did! Take care. Read more

Today in Techrights

Direct Rendering Manager and VR HMDs Under Linux

  • Intel Prepping Support For Huge GTT Pages
    Intel OTC developers are working on support for huge GTT pages for their Direct Rendering Manager driver.
  • Keith Packard's Work On Better Supporting VR HMDs Under Linux With X.Org/DRM
    Earlier this year Keith Packard started a contract gig for Valve working to improve Linux's support for virtual reality head-mounted displays (VR HMDs). In particular, working on Direct Rendering Manager (DRM) and X.Org changes needed so VR HMDs will work well under Linux with the non-NVIDIA drivers. A big part of this work is the concept of DRM leases, a new Vulkan extension, and other changes to the stack.

Software: Security Tools, cmus, Atom-IDE, Skimmer Scanner

  • Security Tools to Check for Viruses and Malware on Linux
    First and foremost, no operating system is 100 percent immune to attack. Whether a machine is online or offline, it can fall victim to malicious code. Although Linux is less prone to such attacks than, say, Windows, there is no absolute when it comes to security. I have witnessed, first hand, Linux servers hit by rootkits that were so nasty, the only solution was to reinstall and hope the data backup was current. I’ve been a victim of a (very brief) hacker getting onto my desktop, because I accidentally left desktop sharing running (that was certainly an eye opener). The lesson? Even Linux can be vulnerable. So why does Linux need tools to prevent viruses, malware, and rootkits? It should be obvious why every server needs protection from rootkits — because once you are hit with a rootkit, all bets are off as to whether you can recover without reinstalling the platform. It’s antivirus and anti-malware where admins start getting a bit confused. Let me put it simply — if your server (or desktop for that matter) makes use of Samba or sshfs (or any other sharing means), those files will be opened by users running operating systems that are vulnerable. Do you really want to take the chance that your Samba share directory could be dishing out files that contain malicious code? If that should happen, your job becomes exponentially more difficult. Similarly, if that Linux machine performs as a mail server, you would be remiss to not include AV scanning (lest your users be forwarding malicious mail).
  • cmus – A Small, Fast And Powerful Console Music Player For Linux
    You may ask a question yourself when you see this article. Is it possible to listen music in Linux terminal? Yes because nothing is impossible in Linux. We have covered many popular GUI-based media players in our previous articles but we didn’t cover any CLI based media players as of now, so today we are going to cover about cmus, is one of the famous console-based media players among others (For CLI, very few applications is available in Linux).
  • You Can Now Transform the Atom Hackable Text Editor into an IDE with Atom-IDE
    GitHub and Facebook recently launched a set of tools that promise to allow you to transform your Atom hackable text editor into a veritable IDE (Integrated Development Environment). They call the project Atom-IDE. With the release of Atom 1.21 Beta last week, GitHub introduced Language Server Protocol support to integrate its brand-new Atom-IDE project, which comes with built-in support for five popular language servers, including JavaScript, TypeScript, PHP, Java, C#, and Flow. But many others will come with future Atom updates.
  • This open-source Android app is designed to detect nearby credit card skimmers
    Protecting our data is a constant battle, especially as technology continues to advance. A recent trend that has popped up is the installation of credit card skimmers, especially at locations such as gas pumps. With a simple piece of hardware and 30 seconds to install it, a hacker can easily steal credit card numbers from a gas pump without anyone knowing. Now, an open-source app for Android is attempting to help users avoid these skimmers.