Each week we pay homage to a select “Original Creator”—an iconic artist from days gone by whose work influences and informs today’s creators. These are artists who were innovative and revolutionary in their fields. Bold visionaries and radicals, groundbreaking frontiersmen and women who inspired and informed culture as we know it today. This week: George Lucas.
A creative can spend a lifetime constructing a fictional universe without anyone ever knowing and caring. To make one so compelling that it’s adopted as a favorite, not only captivating audiences but fostering their contribution to what becomes an honest to goodness culture, is a process that requires talent, a vision, and deep obsession. Through his career, George Lucas has given us more than one franchise that enthralls us, revolutionizing film and special effects in the process.
Lucas began as a film student at USC with a raw passion for film. He won a scholarship that allowed him to observe the production of a film of his choosing, and he chose Finian’s Rainbow, a 1968 film directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Following this experience, Coppola saw a spark in Lucas and agreed to produce his debut film through Coppola’s company American Zoetrope.
This first film, unlike the bulk of Lucas’ later work, was not a monetary success. The dystopian future world depicted in the sci-fi film THX 1138 (1971) would only be recognized as a solid work years later, even after its post Star Wars rerelease.
The next step in his film career was a work of personal passion, a story inspired by his upbringing in a sleepy California town. American Graffiti (1973) was a vignette of rock ‘n’ roll, hot rods, and teenage drama that helped inspire a subsequent generation of nostalgic teenage drama movies. This was the first release on Lucasfilm, Lucas’ then brand new production company. In the face of attempts by Universal Studios to alter his film, Lucas offered to buy it back from them rather than have them change it. In the end, the studio recognized the film’s marketability in its original form and released it, seeing it become sleeper hit.
Mel’s Diner in American Graffiti
With new clout achieved through the success of American Graffiti, Lucas eventually earned a production deal with Fox to create Star Wars, part of an epic that would become his most famous work. After the the first Star Wars film was greenlit, Lucas discovered that the special effects department at Fox had been shut down, which prompted him to create his own special effects studio to take on the task of creating a visual universe for the film. Beyond the original Star Wars trilogy, the company he created, Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), continued to make breakthroughs in visual effects for decades. The firsts achieved by ILM include the first successful morphing sequence (Willow), the first fully computer-generated main character (Dragonheart), and the development of the iMocap system for use with the character Davy Jones and his crew in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.
iMocap for Pirates of the Caribbean
Lucas then gained wide praise with the Indiana Jones trilogy (1981 to 1989). The films employed several of ILM’s special effects advances, and also saw Lucas collaborating extensively with Steven Spielberg. The two filmmakers known for their work in science fiction applied their skills to action/adventure films of a different sort, and the result was another instant classic.
George Lucas and Steven Spielberg
Lucas stepped away from the directors chair after the first Star Wars film, before finally returning to direct the three prequels to the original Star Wars film trilogy. With Star Wars fandom having reached epic cult status by this time, and film technology having made leaps and bounds since the production of the first three, Episodes I, II, and III had a lot to live up to. Despite the potential for high scrutiny, the movies performed well worldwide. Whereas CG characters were considered a modern marvel a mere decade earlier, Star Wars fans criticized aspects of the film such as comic relief character Jar Jar Binks. Regardless, Lucas successfully expanded the universe he had set out to create 30 years earlier.
George Lucas and C-3PO
ILM remains a powerhouse in the creation of special effects, forging breathtaking visuals for almost every major hollywood picture that employs them. Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, Titanic, Planet of the Apes, A.I., War of the Worlds, the Transformers films, and most recently The Avengers (and that’s the short list).
This year, George Lucas returned as a producer on a non-Star Wars or Indiana Jones production for the first time since 1994. Red Tails tells the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of black pilots who fought for the US in World War II. Though it received a lukewarm critical reception, Lucas received some praise for tackling a little-told story without much inherent pop appeal. The very attempt at telling this story in a compelling way reflected the boldness and courage Lucas called upon when he first took an artistic risk on a story that ended up becoming a global phenomenon that is continually growing. While doing press for Red Tails, Lucas told “The Daily Show” that, in his classic style, both a sequel and a prequel to the film will be released at a later date, making it another classic trilogy.
Some intense George Lucas fan art