"Digital Cinema Technology Is Our Technology" (1) - Interview with George Lucas

Aug 12, 2005
Hiroki Eda, Nikkei Electronics

George Lucas, Chairman, Lucasfilm Ltd.

George Lucas has a vision of totally flexible movie making, and to meet that Lucasfilm with its various related companies have been the major force in relentlessly pushed the bleeding edge of the digital video technologies. Already, the video and sound editing technologies Lucasfilm pioneered are showing up in today's consumer computers. As Mr. Lucas continues to push digital technologies in Episode III and future projects, we can expect to see these sort of technologies show up in the consumer's hands in the future. Mr. Lucas talked with Nikkei Electronics about his company's technology past and the future of digital cinema and consumer electronics.

In the end, with a movie you're trying to tell a story, but in a very technological medium. And, as in any art form but especially in the cinema, you very quickly run up against technological blocks, especially if you're telling a fantasy film or a science-fiction film or, now any sort of epic film.

The (digital) technology involved in making movies now is an aggregate of a whole bunch of different technologies we either encouraged or developed over the years ourselves. It really started in 1980 when we started our computer division to position ourselves in the world of making cinema through digital technology. At that point, we were building a laser printer to get film into and out of a computer, which eventually Kodak joined in helping to develop. Then, we developed the EditDroid, a digital editing system, and SoundDroid, a digital sound editing system. Next, we also did Pixar, which was a special purpose computer really designed for graphics work.

We began to move those technologies over into ILM, (Industrial Light & Magic) which was what they were designed for. We then split Pixar off because they wanted to make movies. You know, we didn't really want to invest in movies at that point and we were closing down developing our own technology. We were moving more into the software area, doing things like Photoshop or other things that would help us do our job.

-- Episode I - The Phantom Menace, released in 1999, was the first Star Wars movie to be released since 1983. During the interval, the work that Lucasfilm did on the TV series Young Indiana Jones (first aired in 1992) and through ILM, the movie Jurassic Park (1993) showed that digital technologies had progressed to where Mr. Lucas had confidence to make the film. Episode I.

We kept moving along and improving the system of basically using digital technology to do special effects. We continued to use it in a more photo-realistic way, which we really accomplished in terms of the prototype of what we were trying to do in Jurassic Park. That was really a technological milestone, the first time anybody created living creatures that looked photo-realistic using totally digital technology. Along with that came Toy Story (the first digital animated movie). There were still lots of cumbersome problems, but at that point, I started to feel that I could do a new Star Wars using this new technology.

By that time we had sold the EditDroid to Avid (Technology) and the SoundDroid to New England Technologies, which ultimately sold it back to a subsidiary of Avid. But we'd been working in that area in terms of making movies with the Young Indiana Jones series using digital editing and that sort of thing. Most people just weren't into it at that time. So we were started understanding the production problems, the programming, how do you put this through the process and make it work well.

-- Episode I marked the start of Lucasfilm's to work Sony and others to take digital video camera and supporting systems originally meant for TV production into the cinema realm. It also set the stage for Episode II - Attack of the Clones, the first major movie to be shot and produced all digitally. Episode III - Revenge of the Sith, cemented the technology.

When I started Episode I, the goal was to shot it digitally. We worked very hard to find a partner to develop that technology, and we had a bunch of friends at Sony. They actually had the (camera and tape deck) technology already developed, but what we tried to do was convince them that it wasn't going to work as a theatrical film technology unless they dumbed it down to be 24 frames (per second), so we could make a better transfer to film. Because, we figured it would take quite a while before we had digital projection and for the short run, you would have to transfer this to film. Unless it was 24 frames, the transfer process doesn't work very well because you're dropping frames and picking up frames. That doesn't give good quality. So we focused on trying to get the very best quality that could be transferred to film.

We've been doing this digital technology development with ILM for a while. So, we combined ILM with Sony, went through the whole thing and with a lot of contact between our engineers and their engineers, they re-did their whole system. We then had to struggle to find somebody who would build a lens for the camera. Finally, we couldn't really get everything in time to shoot Episode I, so we went and shot it on film.

But the camera still wasn't quite finished. So, about nine months later I came back and did some more shooting for two weeks. By this time, we had a very rough prototype from Sony. It was big (laughs) and it had these wires out of it... But we did two weeks of shooting digitally with the Sony prototype, and from that we had a lot of input and a lot of exchange of ideas (between us and Sony). They'd been trying to get the camera done for Episode I and then we said, okay, 18 months from now, we're going to start shooting Episode II and so we want this done by Episode II. And they really worked very hard to get on schedule and to get us a camera by then.

We helped by putting people together to see if we can get somebody to build the lens and found the engineers at Panavision. Panavision kind of realized that this was the future and we got Panavision to build the lens for us. So in Episode II, we were able to shoot it completely digitally, transferred into the computers, manipulated at ILM completely digitally, and then finish the movie.

At this point, we created the first digital, photo-realistic speaking character, and that was Jar Jar Binks. On this film, we were also able to work with Sony, to improve the camera. Fujinon also started building lenses, so now we had a lot of lens makers. We had done some what we call ‘digital sets' in the Episode I, but now we did almost all digital sets. On the first film, Phantom Menace (Episode I), we tried to do a digital Yoda. Didn't quite make it. So we got the digital Yoda from the second film, and we were really able to improve that for this film.

One of the keys for us is that, now, the crew had gotten used to the system, how it worked, use it on a set. For all the departments, the actors, and everybody involved in the movie, it was sort of learning how to work in this (digital) medium. So Episode II was a training exercise for us. III was the actual real deal.

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