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Monday, August 01, 2005

George Lucas keynote at SIGGRAPH 2005

I arrived at the LA Convention Center this afternoon just in time to find a seat in the back of the hall for George Lucas' opening keynote at SIGGRAPH 2005. (No special seating for media or bloggers - boo hoo.)

Lucas is introduced as "the father of digital cinema" and then a short film on his career lauds him as "a tireless champion of digital projection. `Attack of the Clones' was the first film to receive a major digital projection release." (It also mentions THX digital audio, his work on developing the Sony 24p camera, and non-linear editing.)

It continues: "Many people make movies, but George Lucas has changed them forever."

The moderator is Bruce Carse; the two of them sit down in overstuffed leather chairs... and suddenly the audience's digital cameras start firing.

Referring to his recently-opened Letterman Digital Arts Center in the Presidio, Lucas says: "This is the first group I can come to, and nobody is going to ask me what digital arts are."

"Anybody who works in the arts eventually faces running into that technological ceiling, whether you're doing cave paintings on a wall and you want to add color - or you're painting the Sistine Chapel... You're constantly pushing that technological envelope. Art is technology. ..You need to know how to use technology..."

He quotes Akira Kurosawa, who was one of his major influences: "The secret of this whole thing is immaculate reality."

"Whatever has happened in my quest for innovation has been part of my quest for immaculate reality."

"I am not a computer person," he says. Lucas isn't so interested in how effects are created - but rather in using them to tell stories. "All I do is think it up, and say, `I want to do that.' And they say, `That's impossible.' And then I say, `Well, figure out how to do it.'"

"I'm not afraid of risks as long as I think I can win. The problem with the leading edge of technology is, the one thing you can be sure of is you're never going to win." The first guys out of the box - the ones who demonstrate their breakthroughs at SIGGRAPH - aren't always the ones with solutions that are ready for the real world.

He says his companies are moving away from an "assembly line process" - and toward trying to get everyone to work simultaneously on the same thing, with better tools for real-time collaboration and communication. He adds that they're working now on tools for "pre-viz" - software that can animate and enliven the storyboard process, making them look a lot more like the finished film.

He says there weren't any major tech breakthroughs required to make "Episode III" - just "taking the technology we develped on `Phantom Menace' and `Attack of the Clones' and using it to tell the story, and having the story be bigger." More digital environments and characters. "This one was a known mountain - [even if] it was higher than the others."

"Now, between the digital editing and post-production and pre-viz and digital shooting... it's a completely different way of dealing with cinema. And I do believe that this is the future...this is the way movies will get made. People will look back at film, and say, `That is so 19th century.'"

On gaming: "What I want to get to is that point is where you can talk to the game, and the game will talk back." Today, you can kind of do that - "but I'm really rooting for the advancements in artificial intelligence and voice recognition technology to really become commonplace in the gaming industry. I thnk that will really change the paradigm from the shooter type genres to a more intellectually challenging (pause) shooter-type genre." (Audience laughs.)

Carse asks about pre-visualization. Lucas talks about cutting together snippets of old documentary films of World War II to storyboard the first 'Star Wars.' WIth 'Empire Strikes Back,' he used traditional cell animation. With 'Return of the Jedi,' he used models on coat hangers (like characters on speeders), moved them around, and captured the action using video cameras. Now, he's got people like the talented Dan Gregoire creating digital animations of sequences, then handing them off to ILM.

On Steven Spielberg: "I won't say Luddite, but he was a little slow to accept the new world." He used pre-viz to help plan "War of the Worlds." "Now, he's completely enthralled with pre-viz." (Gregoire has worked with Spielberg, too.)

Lucas says, "We're trying to develop a pre-viz system that is idiot-proof - dumbed down to the point where I can use it. I think that a really simple pre-viz system is going to really change a lot about the way people direct movies."

Carse asks him how he looks at "the big blank canvas" beyond 'Star Wars.'

Lucas says he doesn't feel as if he's facing a blank canvas: "I have hundreds of projects that I want to do, and I'm running out of time - so they'll never get done, I'm afraid."

One thing that's coming up is "Clone Wars," a 3-D animated TV series. Lucas is setting up a studio in Singapore. He says he's really interested in anime, and this is an opportunity to dip a toe into those waters, and take advantage of the "amazing talent" in Asia.

Lucasfilm will be working much more in television. "My life is too short to become a film studio," Lucas says. "TV is an easier medium to work in. It's more fun. There's not as much pressure. [It's] a good medium to experiment in, without as much downside [as film]."

In terms of his own feature films, Lucas says he plans to do "more esoteric work."

Carse asks: "A return to your roots?"

Lucas: "A return to more pure film-making, that focuses more on the visual side of things."

He talks a bit about Peter Jackson's visual effects shop, Weta Digital, which he visited recently. "Weta is like ILM was 20 years ago." He invited Jackson to come see ILM now, and see if that's really the direction he wants Weta to go. Referring to ILM, he says: "A big corporation has its downside. Companies are kind of like sharks. If they don't swim, they die. You either have to grow and get bigger and bigger, or you begin to collapse. I think ILM, we've all agreed, has reached a level that we want to stick with. We don't want to get any bigger. We're the oldest, we're the largest, we're the most advanced. And that's a fun position to be in." He says if a studio or someone else wanted to build a bigger shop, ILM wouldn't necessarily try to compete.

Lucas says he's surprised that the digital cinema wave has taken so long to reach the shore. "`The Phantom Menace' was the first film to be projected digitally, and `Attack of the Clones' was the first film to be shot entirely digitaly." Lucas says that he thought those two films would serve as case studies, and spark more digital cinema activity throughout the industry.

"We're still sitting here waiting for the revolution to happen." He refers to a conference he holds sporadically at Skywalker Ranch, a gathering of directors who work digitally. "There are about five of us who've worked with digital - now there's six, including 'Superman' - a very small group of people, out of thosuands who work in the film business." He acknowledges later that d cinema "doesn't always work as well as we'd like," and there's still plenty of room for improvement - but he characterizes those improvements as "bells and whistles" and "cupholders."

"I know that it's going to happen - but how long is it going to drag on before we get to the digital world?"

The widespread arrival of d cinema will "democratize the entire system" of making and distributing movies, Lucas predicts.

"People who are making films on the internet are doing a great job, with very little money." (And not just on the 'Star Wars' fan sites, he says.) "That's going to expand, as the technology is accepted by the world at large."