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

Red Hat Process Automation 7 Goes Cloud-Native

Business process management (BPM) technology helps organizations with operations management issues and processes. Among the vendors that develop and support BPM technology is Red Hat, which released its Red Hat Process Automation Manager 7 update on June 19. The new release extends the BPM platform to Red Hat's OpenShift Kubernetes container platform. It also adds new dynamic case management capabilities for different types of operational workflows. The core business process automation functionality in Process Automation Manager 7 is based on the open-source jBPM project. Read more

Qseven duo showcases i.MX8M and i.MX8Quad

Seco unveiled a pair Qseven modules that run Linux or Android and offer optional industrial temp support. The Q7-C25 uses NXP’s quad -A53 i.MX8M while the Q7-C26 features the i.MX8Quad, which adds up to 2x -A72 cores. Starter kits are also available. At Computex earlier this month, Seco showed off two 70 x 70mm Qseven 1.2 modules that are still listed as being “under development.” The i.MX8M based Q7-C25 and i.MX8Quad based Q7-C26 run Linux and Android, and are available in 0 to 60°C and -40 to 85°C models. The 5V modules have many similar features, but the Q7-C26 based on the more powerful, up to hexa-core i.MX8Quad adds some extras such as SATA III support. Read more

Android Leftovers

Peppermint 9 Officially Released Based on Ubuntu 18.04 LTS, Here's What's New

Based on Ubuntu 18.04 LTS (Bionic Beaver), Peppermint 9 is using the Linux 4.15 kernel and supports both 32-bit and 64-bit hardware architectures. Highlights of this release include a new default system theme based on the popular Arc GTK+ theme, support for both Snap and Flatpak universal binary packages via GNOME Software, which will now be displayed in the main menu. Also installed by default is the Menulibre menu editor, the Xfce Panel Switch utility, xfce4-screenshooter as default screenshot utility instead of pyshot, and xfce4-display-setttings replaces the lxrandr utility for monitor settings. The Htop system monitor utiliy is available as well and has its own menu item, and the Mozilla Firerefox is now the default web browser instead of Chromium. Read more