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Wednesday, October 29, 1997

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Star Wars

Four years passed between the release of American Graffiti and the masterwork of George's life, Star Wars, episode IV (1977). During this period he adjusted to being a millionaire, shared some of his good fortune with those who helped make Graffiti a success, and pitched the camp of his new company, Lucasfilm Ltd., in northern California, far from the hurry and scrape of Hollywood.

He also became more the patient, dogged perfectionist than ever before, writing Star Wars alone and sweating through draft after draft, making himself learn how to write.

The film was a gigantic, unprecedented undertaking, and though he tried to maintain faith that it would be at least a modest success, he went through times of terrible doubt. Shooting took months of eighteen-hour days, with George overseeing the tiniest details until, at one point, he was hospitalized for hypertension. The stress of directing Star Wars led George to hire Irvin Kershner to direct the sequel, The Empire Strikes Back.

While composing Star Wars George had studied fairy tales, ancient mythology, and the theoretical works of Joseph Campbell, a popular teacher whose life's work had been to catalogue the religious and social myths of the world. Campbell found a common thread in all myths, a central humanity that George wanted to reach with his space heroes Luke Skywalker and Han Solo.

Just how successful George was in tapping the common thread is a matter for debate, but there is no doubt he touched something in the global psyche, for Star Wars became the runaway international hit of its decade and literally changed the course of moviemaking forever. His film was a high-energy spectacle that folded in comic book art, Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers heroics, the perpetual cliffhanging style of old movie serials and pulp fiction, and the visual frenzy of World War II "flyboy" epics. Star Wars Errol Flynn as it did to ancient lore.

In fact, a list of the sources George brought to bear on his epic space fantasy would lead to the conclusion that Star Wars represented everything he knew about movies and moviemaking. When the technology to create the film's dizzying visual and sound effects proved nonexistent, he put his own money into the formation of Industrial Light and Magic, a special effects house and laboratory committed to finding ways of doing what had never been done on film before. This time, George did not merely redefine the interplay of image, sound, and film editing, he reinvented it.


Thanks to his willingness to bank on Star Wars' success, George's deal with Twentieth Century Fox to finance Star Wars made him wealthy beyond his wildest dreams. The studio originally offered him a fee for writing and directing the film, expecting him to ask for more money. Instead, he accepted their offer, asking only for sequel rights, and full participation in the ancillary rights - giving him the lion's share of profit from toys, games, soundtrack albums, posters, costumes, coffee cups, buttons, anything with the Star Wars name.

He has turned the resulting fortune back onto Lucasfilm, expanding the company's reach into post production facilities and multimedia research. In fact, he has formed two new companies, entirely separate from Lucasfilm. Lucas Digital is the umbrella term for Industrial Light and Magic, which thrives almost twenty years after its formation as the premier special effects company on the planet, and for Skywalker Sound, a state-of-the-art recording studio that provides post production technology to many filmmakers and is developing into a favorite mixing studio for the music industry. Meanwhile, LucasArts was one of the first R&D companies to create games on CD-ROM, bringing the whole of Lucas' expertise in visual storytelling to an emerging technology. LucasArts also makes interactive learning games for children, and a multimedia station for classroom use.

Finally at what George considers the halfway point of his career, he has embarked on the creation of a second Star Wars trilogy, a project that should keep Lucasfilm and Lucas Digital busy until the close of the century. George is in the process of writing all three films himself, and may put on his director's cap for at least one. He has not directed a film since Star Wars, preferring the less hectic world of the producer's office, though he has occasionally supervised the second unit of some of his later work.

George is living proof that a filmmaker can grab a large audience with life-affirming material. In 1992, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave George the Irving G. Thalberg Award for maintaining an exceptionally high standard of filmmaking. "I've always tried to be aware of what I say in my films," he said in his acceptance speech, "because all of us who make motion pictures are teachers; teachers with very loud voices."

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