Sky’s limit in tech advances

Lucas made innovations in sound, editing, image capture, effects

George Lucas’ technological innovations go far beyond lightsaber-wielding cyborgs and star ships that can make the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs. Michael Rubin, author of “Droidmaker: George Lucas and the Digital Revolution,” explains how Lucas has pushed the entertainment biz toward new technology to enhance the movie experience.

Movie sound: After the original “Star Wars,” Lucas expressed his dissatisfaction with the available technology.

“He had already pushed the limits of an archaic system in the first ‘Star Wars,’ ” Rubin says. “When it came time to make ‘Return of the Jedi,’ you can almost feel the loathing of reopening that can of worms.” In 1982, Lucas used money from the success of “Star Wars” to create what would become the THX sound system, a format that raised the bar for movie theater sound and is still used today.

Video editing: Limitations in editing prompted Lucas to establish a computer division in 1979 to explore new uses of the computer for digital imaging, electronic editing and interactivity. Industrial Light & Magic’s EditDroid was one of the first few nonlinear systems, stemming from research that started in ’79. This technology allowed editors to cut and recut a movie without the original film.

Rubin believes that while the EditDroid was not a financial success, it had an enormous influence on modern equipment. “The system was still analog, but it clearly demonstrated what it would look like editing on digital equipment,” he says.

Image capture: Lucas has lead the industry’s transition from celluloid to the digital format. “Attack of the Clones” became the first movie ever to be shot completely in digital, using Sony’s HDW-F900 camcorder 4:2:2 technology. In “Revenge of the Sith,” Lucas refined the process by using the more powerful HDC-F950 CineAlta camera and 4:4:4 RGB compression technology for a higher-definition picture.

“Each film pushed the envelope,” Rubin says. “Lucas went from having a vision in ‘Episode I’ to finally being able to live out the vision in ‘Episode III.’ ”

Special Effects: From innovative use of models to cutting-edge CGI, Lucas changed the way the industry creates effects. ILM, started in 1975 to do the special effects for “Star Wars,” has developed industry standards ranging from motion-capture technology to animation software to texturing 3-D models.

Lucas also founded animation company Pixar, before selling it to Steve Jobs in 1986.

“Seminal isn’t enough of a word to describe what was going on in that group,” Rubin says. “‘Star Wars’ overshadows what Lucas has done for the industry. If it weren’t for those movies, Lucas instead would be known as being one of the greatest innovators in film technology.”

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