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Director series George Lucas

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George Lucas has been on the forefront of filmmaking since the early 1970s. Unlike his contemporary Steven Spielberg, whose creative achievements have not been mirrored by equally startling technical advances, Lucas has kept his feet solidly in both camps. Each new Lucas film is usually accompanied by breakthroughs in sound or digital technology, in previs methods, and in production and postproduction procedures.In the case of Star Wars, Lucas combined Buck Rogers and a heavy dose of Joseph Campbell to create the most famous movie series of all time, and which in the 70s transformed the entire medium of film. Indeed, every blockbuster that came after 1977 was in some way trying to achieve the incredible success of the original Star Wars. To appreciate the size of that, one can look back at disaster 70s disaster films like Earthquake and The Towering Inferno, which utterly lacked the personal touch Lucas was able to bring to his stories. Given his massive contributions to cinema, it is difficult to narrow Lucas down to a discussion of one film. Hence what he has to say about Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith flows all the way back to THX 1138. On this incredible journey Lucas has kept with him some of the most remarkable crew in the industry, and he never fails in acknowledging their contribution to the Star Wars phenomenon.Below the Line: The Star Wars films are so huge and complex. Where does the process begin after you’ve written the script?George Lucas: It actually starts while I’m writing the script. The sound and editorial people are there; in the case of [sound editor] Ben Burtt, he was there before anybody else, creating sound effects and determining the characters’ voices, how they move, and the general ambiance of the environments, which helps quite a bit in developing the screenplay. Also the effects can aid in determining how the film is cut, because sometimes the soundtrack precedes the cut, and you’re cutting to the soundtrack rather than the other way around. It allows you to have a fuller picture of the whole experience, rather than to just do the picture separately and attach everything to that and let that be the lead.BTL: You can actually watch the film with your eyes closed and follow the story.Lucas: Sound and music have always been important to me. When I was doing American Graffiti I was listening to the music while I was writing the screenplay. In the case of Sith, it really went beyond just sound. What I did was have a design department of about seven or eight guys, and while I was writing they were designing the environments, the vehicles, the aliens, the costumes; all that stuff was being designed at the same time I was writing, before anybody else comes on. And as I get the first draft done, we bring on the previs department who work with the computer to create a rough visualization of what the movie’s going to be. Ben did a lot of that because he was primarily responsible for action sequences. That is also helped along by the guys in the design department, who do storyboards that we give to the previs department. So there’s a whole group of people at that time thinking out a previs movie that could be as much as an hour of the film. And I’m still writing the script; I see things cut, I look at them, I rewrite them, and I’m constantly sort of evolving things, especially the action sequences, how long they can be sustained, how complicated they need to be, and all that in relationship to the other part of the script I’m writing, which is the story, the characters, to get a balance between those two. We spend about a year working on the overall design of the movie. Not only the design group, but also camera, lighting, costume, sets, and editing the action scenes to get the pace and how all of it fits together.BTL: How do you communicate everything to your department heads?Lucas: I’ve worked with this crew, the key people, since Young Indy. It’s been 15 years or more. The same department heads. [production designer] Gavin Bocquet, [cinematographer] David Tattersall, [costume designer] Trisha Biggar, [visual effects supervisor] John Knoll and other ILM guys have worked with me for a long time, so once we get some rough versions of how this stuff is starting to work, then they come in, and again this is all about a year before we’re going to shoot the movie. They consult, look at things, make notes about things that can or can’t be built, and whether they’re going to be done digitally or in real life. We do paintings of the lighting and what David thinks would look great and how that fits into the script, so by the time we get to the end of that process, we have pretty much a book of all the scenes and how they will look, what the lighting is going to be, how the sets and costumes fit together. Everybody works off that book. They give their input, but we’re doing it hypothetically. For instance, we’re seeing the costumes sometimes painted into the sets, and we’re seeing a painting of how it’s going to be lit, so you can see it all ahead of time. Then we line the paintings up and sort of pre-edit the movie with a lot of these beautiful pictures that go around the room, and you can see scenes one, two, three, etc., and then we have discussions about everything, whether the costumes fit in the scene, or the lighting, perhaps we should make it night where it was day, or whether the sets need adjustments. It goes down to props and everything.BTL: Using the same crew obviously saves a lot of time.Lucas: Yeah, it’s very easy to have shorthand. But when we made Phantom Menace, we had an extra year of design. We were going places we’d never gone before, and every single detail had to be designed from scratch. That’s very hard—thousands upon thousands of things have to be designed. It takes General Motors five years to do one car—we’re doing 50 cars in one year. And they’re from different societies, different cultures, different planets and technologies, and each one has to be designed individually, and then you have to have 20 of those to fill in the backgrounds.BTL: I’ve read that you divide the shoot into two phases.Lucas: We shoot for about 50 days and then I have about another 10 days scheduled for a year later. I even did this on THX; I did it on American Graffiti; I did it on all the films. It’s just saying, I’m not quite sure how this is going to finish itself out so I’ll do a rough version, shoot as fast as I can, get it in essence all finished, not leaving things out, then I’ll cut the film, bring it down to the right size, make sure it’s what I want. Then I rewrite it, and then sometimes I shoot as many as 25 or 30 pages in that next 10 days. That allows me to adjust things to what is actually happening on the screen, rather than in theory from a script. I take advantage of the characters the actors have created and make them stronger. Same thing with story—things get lost, so I beef them up; I cut scenes down, eliminate scenes. Instead of trying to do it on the set when we’re all distracted by a lot of other things, or beforehand, when you’re not quite sure of what you need, we do it afterward, after we have a pretty fine cut of the movie. I edit, and as I cut I say, well I’m going to add a scene here or there, and I just write the new scenes as I sit in the editing room. Then we go in for the 10 days and get it all shot.BTL: What were the innovations on Sith?Lucas: There’s always growth, especially at ILM, because we’re always pushing the envelope. But this time the growth at ILM really had to do with changing the pipeline in a way that we could do things more efficiently and a lot faster. I think the focus on Sith was mostly on cutting costs, and doing things more efficiently, rather than invention. We did have to deal with new things, lava and flames; we had to develop software for that. But in the long run,
most of the effort was just trying to get it done as efficiently as possible. The other two films had a lot of breakthroughs, Phantom Menace especially in terms of digital characters that could act, and then Clones had a lot more to do with digital sets and doing things on blue screen. In Sith we took all those things and refined them and tried to do them more efficiently. You know, it’s a magical process for me, because in the first trilogy each film cost 25 percent more than the last; but in the new trilogy each one cost about 10 percent less than the previous one. Just that is a miracle—even if we’d kept costs the same it would have been a miracle. We were able to capitalize on the R&D we’d done on Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, but instead of doing more and having it cost more we were able to cut corners, do the same thing, and save a little bit of money and time. But while being more efficient we certainly had the same quality of work.BTL: There’s a very funny title in the credit roll: Assistant Director, Action Sequences, Steven Spielberg. How did that come about?Lucas: (laughs) Steven was supposed to do a picture that summer, but it didn’t go through, so he was basically sitting in his house in the Hamptons, unhappy about having nothing to do. So I said I’ve got this new digital previs system, you should really learn how to use it, and I’ve got a couple action sequences here. I’ll send one of my previs guys to East Hampton, and you can sit around the pool and do some of the sequences. So that’s how he ended up doing it, and basically he did the videomatic storyboards and then I sort of decided whether I wanted to use them or not.

Written by Henry Turner

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