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

today's howtos

Leftovers: OSS

  • Report: If DOD Doesn't Embrace Open Source, It'll 'Be Left Behind'
    Unless the Defense Department and its military components levy increased importance on software development, they risk losing military technical superiority, according to a new report from the Center for a New American Security. In the report, the Washington, D.C.-based bipartisan think tank argues the Pentagon, which for years has relied heavily on proprietary software systems, “must actively embrace open source software” and buck the status quo. Currently, DOD uses open source software “infrequently and on an ad hoc basis,” unlike tech companies like Google, Amazon and Facebook that wouldn’t exist without open source software.
  • The Honey Trap of Copy/Pasting Open Source Code
    I couldn’t agree more with Bill Sourour’s article ‘Copy.Paste.Code?’ which says that copying and pasting code snippets from sources like Google and StackOverflow is fine as long as you understand how they work. However, the same logic can’t be applied to open source code. When I started open source coding at the tender age of fourteen, I was none the wiser to the pitfalls of copy/pasting open source code. I took it for granted that if a particular snippet performed my desired function, I could just insert it into my code, revelling in the fact that I'd just gotten one step closer to getting my software up and running. Yet, since then, through much trial and error, I’ve learned a thing or two about how to use open source code effectively.
  • Affordable, Open Source, 3D Printable CNC Machine is Now on Kickstarter
    The appeals of Kickstarter campaigns are many. There are the rewards for backers, frequently taking the form of either deep discounts on the final product or unusual items that can’t be found anywhere else. Pledging to support any crowdfunding campaign is a gamble, but it’s an exciting gamble; just browsing Kickstarter is pretty exciting, in fact, especially in the technological categories. Inventive individuals and startups offer new twists on machines like 3D printers and CNC machines – often for much less cost than others on the market.
  • Open Standards and Open Source
    Much has changed in the telecommunications industry in the years since Standards Development Organization (SDOs) such as 3GPP, ITU and OMA were formed. In the early days of telecom and the Internet, as fundamental technology was being invented, it was imperative for the growth of the new markets that standards were established prior to large-scale deployment of technology and related services. The process for development of these standards followed a traditional "waterfall" approach, which helped to harmonize (sometimes competing) pre-standard technical solutions to market needs.

Leftovers: BSD

  • The Voicemail Scammers Never Got Past Our OpenBSD Greylisting
    We usually don't see much of the scammy spam and malware. But that one time we went looking for them, we found a campaign where our OpenBSD greylisting setup was 100% effective in stopping the miscreants' messages. During August 23rd to August 24th 2016, a spam campaign was executed with what appears to have been a ransomware payload. I had not noticed anything particularly unusual about the bsdly.net and friends setup that morning, but then Xavier Mertens' post at isc.sans.edu Voice Message Notifications Deliver Ransomware caught my attention in the tweetstream, and I decided to have a look.
  • Why FreeBSD Doesn't Aim For OpenMP Support Out-Of-The-Box

Security Leftovers

  • FBI detects breaches against two state voter systems
    The Federal Bureau of Investigation has found breaches in Illinois and Arizona's voter registration databases and is urging states to increase computer security ahead of the Nov. 8 presidential election, according to a U.S. official familiar with the probe. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said on Monday that investigators were also seeking evidence of whether other states may have been targeted. The FBI warning in an Aug. 18 flash alert from the agency's Cyber Division did not identify the intruders or the two states targeted. Reuters obtained a copy of the document after Yahoo News first reported the story Monday.
  • Russians Hacked Two U.S. Voter Databases, Say Officials [Ed: blaming without evidence again]
    Two other officials said that U.S. intelligence agencies have not yet concluded that the Russian government is trying to do that, but they are worried about it.
  • FBI Says Foreign Hackers Got Into Election Computers
    We've written probably hundreds of stories on just what a dumb idea electronic voting systems are, highlighting how poorly implemented they are, and how easily hacked. And, yet, despite lots of security experts sounding the alarm over and over again, you still get election officials ridiculously declaring that their own systems are somehow hack proof. And now, along comes the FBI to alert people that it's discovered at least two state election computer systems have been hacked already, and both by foreign entities.
  • Researchers Reveal SDN Security Vulnerability, Propose Solution
    Three Italian researchers have published a paper highlighting a security vulnerability in software-defined networking (SDN) that isn't intrinsic to legacy networks. It's not a showstopper, though, and they propose a solution to protect against it. "It" is a new attack they call Know Your Enemy (KYE), through which the bad guys could potentially collect information about a network, such as security tool configuration data that could, for example, reveal attack detection thresholds for network security scanning tools. Or the collected information could be more general in nature, such as quality-of-service or network virtualization policies.
  • NV Gains Momentum for a Secure DMZ
    When it comes to making the shift to network virtualization (NV) and software-defined networking (SDN), one of the approaches gaining momentum is using virtualization technology to build a secure demilitarized zone (DMZ) in the data center. Historically, there have been two major drawbacks to deploying firewalls as a secure mechanism inside a data center. The first is the impact a physical hardware appliance has on application performance once another network hop gets introduced. The second is the complexity associated with managing the firewall rules. NV technologies make it possible to employ virtual firewalls that can be attached to specific applications and segregate them based on risk. This is the concept of building a secure DMZ in the data center. The end result is that the virtual firewall is not only capable of examining every packet associated with a specific application, but keeping track of what specific firewall rules are associated with a particular application becomes much simpler.