How did a few notes scribbled on a legal pad in 1973 by George Lucas, a man who hated writing, turn into a four billion dollar franchise that has quite literally transformed the way we think about entertainment, merchandizing, politics, and even religion? A cultural touchstone and cinematic classic, Star Wars has a cosmic appeal that no other movie franchise has been able to replicate. From Jedi-themed weddings and international storm-trooper legions, to impassioned debates over the digitization of the three Star Wars prequels, to the shockwaves that continue to reverberate from Disney's purchase of the beloved franchise in 2012, the series hasn't stopped inspiring and inciting viewers for almost forty years. Yet surprisingly little is known about its history, its impact -- or where it's headed next.
Yesterday I posted a video looking at the influence of Akira Kurosawa on Star Wars. Well, Michael Heilemann has posted an amazing feature-length exploration of Star Wars and the films that influenced it.
It's not Heilemann talking about anything...it's a sort of meta-Star Wars comprised of dozens of elements from other films that influenced Lucas in making it. For instance, here's the opening crawl from Forbidden Planet (1956):
Heilemann also includes a crawl from a 1936 Flash Gordan serial. For more, check out Kitbashed, particularly the extensive ebook on Star Wars sources.
This video looks at the influence of Akira Kurosawa and his films (especially The Hidden Fortress) on George Lucas and Star Wars.
How are Samurai films and a car crash responsible for Star Wars? How did World War II affect the global film industry in the 20th century? Why are Jedi called Jedi?? Give us 8 minutes, and we'll explain it all...
Wow. In 1978, George Lucus gathered together Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan to go over ideas for a film Lucas had wanted to make about a swashbuckling archeologist, i.e. Raiders of the Lost Ark. Their sessions were recorded and there's a transcript available online.
Lucas - Now, several aspects that we've discussed before: The image of him which is the strongest image is the "Treasure Of Sierra Madre" outfit, which is the khaki pants, he's got the leather jacket, that sort of felt hat, and the pistol and holster with a World War One sort of flap over it. He's going into the jungle carrying his gun. The other thing we've added to him, which may be fun, is a bull whip. That's really his trade mark. That's really what he's good at. He has a pistol, and he's probably very good at that, but at the same time he happens to be very good with a bull whip. It's really more of a hobby than anything else. Maybe he came from Montana, someplace, and he... There are freaks who love bull whips. They just do it all the time. It's a device that hasn't been used in a long time.
Spielberg - You can knock somebody's belt off and the guys pants fall down.
Lucas - You can swing over things, you can...there are so many things you can do with it. I thought he carried it rolled up. It's like a Samurai sword. He carries it back there and you don't even notice it. That way it's not in the way or anything. It's just there whenever he wants it.
Spielberg - At some point in the movie he must use it to get a girl back who's walking out of the room. Wrap her up and she twirls as he pulls her back. She spins into his arms. You have to use it for more things than just saving himself.
Lucas - We'll have to work that part out. In a way it's important that it be a dangerous weapon. It looks sort of like a snake that's coiled up behind him, and any time it strikes it's a real threat.
Kasdan - Except there has to be that moment when he's alone with a can of beer and he just whips it to him.
Over the intervening decades of enormous wealth and success, both Lucas and Spielberg have carefully tended their public images, so there is a voyeuristic thrill to seeing them converse in so unguarded a manner. As the screenwriters Craig Mazin and John August pointed out recently on the Scriptnotes podcast, one delight of reading the transcript is watching Spielberg throw out bad ideas, and then noting how Lucas gently shuts him down. Spielberg, who had sought to direct a Bond movie-and, astonishingly, been rejected-thought that their hero should be an avid gambler. Lucas replied that perhaps they shouldn't overload him with attributes. (Lucas himself had briefly entertained, then mercifully set aside, the notion that his archaeologist might also be a practitioner of kung fu.) There's a good reason we seldom get to spy on these conversations: really good spitballing, like improv comedy, requires a high degree of social disinhibition. So the writers' room, like a therapist's office, must remain inviolable.
From the March 1979 issue of The Atlantic, a profile of George Lucas, who at the time was only two years removed from creating a cultural movement.
Star Wars was manufactured. When a competent corporation prepares a new product, it does market research. George Lucas did precisely that. When he says that the film was written for toys ("I love them, I'm really into that"), he also means he had merchandising in mind, all the sideshow goods that go with a really successful film. He thought of T-shirts and transfers, records, models, kits, and dolls. His enthusiasm for the comic strips was real and unforced; he had a gallery selling comic-book art in New York.
From the start, Lucas was determined to control the selling of the film, and of its by-products. "Normally you just sign a standard contract with a studio," he says, "but we wanted merchandising, sequels, all those things. I didn't ask for another $1 million -- just the merchandising rights. And Fox thought that was a fair trade." Lucasfilm Ltd., the production company George Lucas set up in July 1971, "already had a merchandising department as big as Twentieth Century-Fox has. And it was better. When I was doing the film deal, I had already hired the guy to handle that stuff."
This article is like a time capsule of how the movie business used to work. Empire Strikes Back was a year away from release and there was no specific mention of it in the article. Star Wars opened in only 25 theaters and made only $9 million in the first two months. Those numbers don't quite match those from Box Office Mojo but they are close enough, especially when you note that the film's biggest grossing weekend was 43 weeks after the initial release.
I've been offline for two days and Aaron already posted this (and had the information relayed to me via land line into my power-less house) but this is just too, like, wow to pass up. Disney is buying Lucasfilm for $4 billion.
Under the deal, Disney will acquire ownership of Lucasfilm, a leader in entertainment, innovation and technology, including its massively popular and "evergreen" Star Wars franchise and its operating businesses in live action film production, consumer products, animation, visual effects, and audio post production. Disney will also acquire the substantial portfolio of cutting-edge entertainment technologies that have kept audiences enthralled for many years. Lucasfilm, headquartered in San Francisco, operates under the names Lucasfilm Ltd., LucasArts, Industrial Light & Magic, and Skywalker Sound, and the present intent is for Lucasfilm employees to remain in their current locations.
And they're gonna release a 7th Star Wars film:
Ms. Kennedy will serve as executive producer on new Star Wars feature films, with George Lucas serving as creative consultant. Star Wars Episode 7 is targeted for release in 2015, with more feature films expected to continue the Star Wars saga and grow the franchise well into the future.
Crazy. A non-Lucas non-prequel Star Wars film will hopefully be pretty great, but the purchase price is puzzling. Only $4 billion?
Lucas has decided to devote the rest of his life to what cineastes in the 1970s used to call personal films. They'll be small in scope, esoteric in subject and screened mostly in art houses. They'll be like the experimental movies Lucas made in the 1960s, around the time he was at U.S.C. film school, when he recorded clouds moving over the desert and made a movie based on an E. E. Cummings poem. During that period, Lucas assumed he would spend his career on the fringes. Then "Star Wars" happened -- and though Lucas often mused about it, he never committed himself to the uncommercial world until now.
Sitting in a sun-drenched office, his voice boyish, Lucas talked about himself as if he were a character in one of his movies. He's at the end of an epic saga; he's embracing a new destiny ("Make the art films, George"); he's battling former acolytes who have become his sworn enemies; and George Lucas is -- no kidding -- in love. Before he takes his digital camera with him into obscurity, though, Lucas has one last mission. He wants to prove that with "Red Tails," he can still make the kind of movie everyone in the world will want to see.
That got me thinking...what were George Lucas' seven sins related to the Star Wars movies? Here's my crack at an answer:
1. Greedo shoots first. The obvious #1. In the original theatrical release, Han shot Greedo without any return fire. In subsequent releases, the sequence was sanitized by Lucas for younger viewers: Greedo shoots at Han first and Han kills him in retaliation.
2. Jar Jar Binks. Or perhaps this should be #1?
3. Digital Jabba talking to Han outside the Falcon in Episode IV (and many of the other digital alterations Lucas made starting in 1997). Fake fake fake.
4. Young Anakin. Jake Lloyd and Hayden Christensen were both horrible.
5. Ewoks. Not as bad as Jar Jar, but...man. You know, for kids.
6. Natalie Portman. She can be a really good actress but needs strong direction. Guess who sucks at directing actors? Lucas!
7. Midiclorians. No one needed a scientific explanation of The Force. Just do a bunch of hand-waving about "the Force is strong with this one" and leave it at that.
Did I miss anything big? (I mean, aside from Episodes I-III?)
And that's what this post it about; the creative process. Cultural touchstones like Star Wars might seem to have sprung fully formed from the minds of their lauded creators, but as in all creative endeavours, movie making, web design or this very post, nothing could be further from the truth. Creation is a process, and strangely, by looking at how everyone's favority plush first-mate sprang into existance, we can learn a lot about any collaborative creative endeavour.
In 1980, Boeing employee Loren Carpenter presented a film called Vol Libre at the SIGGRAPH computer graphics conference. It was the world's first film using fractals to generate the graphics. Even now it's impressive to watch:
That must have been absolutely mindblowing in 1980. The audience went nuts and Carpenter, the Boeing engineer from out of nowhere, was offered a job at Lucasfilm on the spot. He accepted immediately. This account comes from Droidmaker, a fascinating-looking book about George Lucas, Lucasfilm, and Pixar:
Fournier gave his talk on fractal math, and Loren gave his talk on all the different algorithms there were for generating fractals, and how some were better than others for making lightning bolts or boundaries. "All pretty technical stuff," recalled Carpenter. "Then I showed the film."
He stood before the thousand engineers crammed into the conference hall, all of whom had seen the image on the cover of the conference proceedings, many of whom had a hunch something cool was going to happen. He introduced his little film that would demonstrate that these algorithms were real. The hall darkened. And the Beatles began.
Vol Libre soared over rocky mountains with snowy peaks, banking and diving like a glider. It was utterly realistic, certainly more so than anything ever before created by a computer. After a minute there was a small interlude demonstrating some surrealistic floating objects, spheres with lightning bolts electrifying their insides. And then it ended with a climatic zooming flight through the landscape, finally coming to rest on a tiny teapot, Martin Newell's infamous creation, sitting on the mountainside.
The audience erupted. The entire hall was on their feet and hollering. They wanted to see it again. "There had never been anything like it," recalled Ed Catmull. Loren was beaming.
"There was strategy in this," said Loren, "because I knew that Ed and Alvy were going to be in the front row of the room when I was giving this talk." Everyone at Siggraph knew about Ed and Alvy and the aggregation at Lucasfilm. They were already rock stars. Ed and Alvy walked up to Loren Carpenter after the film and asked if he could start in October.
Carpenter's fractal technique was used by the computer graphics department at ILM (a subsidiary of Lucasfilm) for their first feature film sequence and the first film sequence to be completely computer generated: the Genesis effect in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The sequence was intended to act as a commerical of sorts for the computer graphics group, aimed at an audience outside the company and for George Lucas himself. Lucas, it seems, wasn't up to speed on what the ILM CG people were capable of. Again, from Droidmaker:
It was important to Alvy that the effects support the story, and not eclipse it. "No gratuitous 3-D graphics," he told the team in their first production meeting. "This is our chance to tell George Lucas what it is we do."
The commercial worked on Lucas but a few years later, the computer graphics group at ILM was sold by Lucas to Steve Jobs for $5 million and became Pixar. Loren Carpenter is still at Pixar today; he's the company's Chief Scientist. (via binary bonsai)
On Stanley Kubrick, George Lucas, Robert Morris, Robert Smithson, Jane Jacobs, 2001, Star Wars, and minimalism: Star Wars: A New Heap.
Kubrick's film presented a future of company men moving with assurance and clear intention toward a godlike minimalist object. Lucas, on the other hand, gave us a slapdash world of knuckleheads pursued by industrial-scale minimalists. Visually, Kubrick's film is as seamless and smooth as the modernist authority it mirrored. Like the mid-century modernists, 2001 associated abstraction with the progressive ideals of the United Nations as embodied by its New York headquarters. Lucas, on the other hand, was a nonbeliever. Even the initially smooth and unitary form of the Death Star was shown, as the rebel fighters skimmed its surface, to be deeply fissured with an ever-diminishing body of structural fragments. These crenulated details suggested a depth and complexity to modern life that modernism's pure geometries often obscured.
A flying saucer had never been a slum before. The immaculate silver sheen of the saucer was reinvented as a dingy Dumpster full of boiler parts, dirty dishes, and decomposing upholstery. Lucas's visual program not only captured the stark utopian logic that girded modern urban planning, it surpassed it. The Millennium Falcon resisted the modernist demand for purity and separation, pushing into the eclecticism of the minimalist expanded field. Its tangled bastard asymmetry made it a truer dream ship than any of its purebred predecessors. It is the first flying saucer imagined as architecture without architects.