The house that George built

Lucas helped USC film school gain respect, Dean Daley sez

Woody Omens distinctly remembers the first time he met George Lucas, but his memory is fuzzy on when and why the neophyte filmmaker first made an impression on him. All he knows for sure is that his awareness of Lucas’ formidable skills preceded their initial meeting at USC film school in 1965, when Lucas showed up in Omens’ classroom to inform the young adjunct instructor that he would be enrolling in his course, Filmic Expression.

Although Lucas would first earn fame two years hence by winning a National Student Film Festival award for the student version of his film “Electronic Labyrinth: THX1138 4EB,” Omens somehow knew that Lucas was already very advanced.

“When you have a strong student, news travels fast,” says Omens, now a retired professor emeritus at USC. “I remember telling him he didn’t need the class. He told me he wanted to take it anyway, and use it like a gym to work out. Obviously, even back then, he was no ordinary student.”

Lucas was merely one of a cadre of bright hopefuls at USC; his classmates included John Milius, Walter Murch and Caleb Deschanel, among others. But it was the Modesto, Calif., transplant who would become the leader of a group of high-profile alumni who have had a profound impact upon the fortunes of the USC School of Cinema-Television in recent years, according to the school’s dean, Elizabeth Daley.

During their one semester together, Omens proudly recalls Lucas creating his second student film –“Herbie,” a black-and-white, 16mm, experimental short set to the sounds of jazz pianist Herbie Hancock that synchronized music with flashing light shapes, reflected off an automobile.

“The exercise was meant to explore nonverbal use of imagery, and I have never seen a film that was as successful with the idea as that one,” says Omens. “I even see a thread of continuity between ‘Herbie’ and the ‘Star Wars’ films. On ‘Herbie,’ he was exploring a visceral ballet of light, which is the same thing you see going on with the lightsaber battles. If you lifted those portions out of the (‘Star Wars’) films, you would have an avant-garde light show — pure motion of light. Forty-some years after ‘Herbie,’ he’s still playing with those themes.”

Around the same time, Lucas cast classmate Randal Kleiser, who went on to become a director (“Grease,” “The Blue Lagoon”), in his third student short, “Freiheit.” Kleiser and Lucas quickly became friends, and Lucas rented Kleiser a room in his house.

“Back then, I figured he’d end up being an art director, because he’s so visual,” says Kleiser. “He didn’t seem outgoing enough to be a director. But I do remember him finding ways around rules. We were really limited with resources, for example, and each student project had a limit to the amount of film stock students could use. But George met some Air Force guys that were sent to USC to learn cinematography, and they had tons of film available. George rounded them up, and said let’s take your test stock and make a film out of it. That’s how he made ‘THX.’ He was not a normal film student by any means.”

Nor has Lucas been a normal alumnus. His relationship to USC and his history of giving millions of dollars, equipment, time, resources, advice and jobs to students and alumni are well documented (neither LucasFilm nor the university would provide specific dollar figures).

The school’s George Lucas Building was dedicated in 1984; he serves on the film school’s advisory board; he jointly funded with Steven Spielberg two, $2 million-dollar endowed faculty chairs, with the announcement of a third endowed chair funded by the duo expected later this year; and he was a key financial contributor to the Robert Zemeckis Center for the Digital Arts.

USC officials also point out that Lucas conceived of and cajoled to fruition the seminal fundraising campaign in the early ’80s that led to the construction of a block of buildings that now comprise the film school, including the Lucas Building.

And in recent years he has helped USC get massive infusions of filmmaking technology from various manufacturers to make life easier for today’s students.

In his day, Lucas recalls, students were scrounging for equipment all the time. His subsequent commitment to changing that paradigm is why Dean Daley uses such terms as “ideal alumnus,” “leader,” “role model” and “passionate advocate” when praising Lucas.”This school would not be the same without George,” she says. “George and a few others have created respect in the community not only for our school, but for film schools generally. After his generation came through here and went on to influence the industry, people started to see that film schools have significant value.

“Our school is 75 years old, but in those early days, attending film school did not get the respect it gets today. That is largely due to George — he has provided that leadership. Our school is very much the house that George built.”

(Michael Goldman is senior editor of Millimeter magazine.)

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