Lucas launches digital digs

Sprawling studio driven by games and f/x design may prove model for H'w'd

The Letterman Digital Arts Center, George Lucas’ new state-of-the-art production complex in San Francisco’s Presidio, may be a model for the digital studio of the future. If so, the Hollywood studios — not to mention their back lots — are headed for a facelift.

The $300 million Letterman Center (on the site of the former Letterman Hospital) turns the traditional studio pecking order upside down. Actors, grips and soundstages are almost entirely banished, while digital effects, animation and — perhaps most importantly — games jump to the top of the heap.

For the most part, the majors haven’t entered the game biz directly, instead licensing their content to game companies.

But games are now a fast-expanding business that already rakes in $7 billionannually. The Letterman Center is what studio lots might look like if CGI and game design replaced live-action shooting at the top of the studio food chain.

Today, studio lots are a peculiar combination of office complex and industrial park, dominated by the trappings of physical production. It’s the soundstages, actors and hardware that separate a studio lot from any other office complex.

That’s what’s needed for businesses built around selling filmed images of actors’ performances.

But George Lucas’ vision of a studio is a place where more content (and more revenue) is created by artists on computers than by actors on soundstages, and his new complex reflects that.

The four-building, 23-acre compound, due to open later this month, will be home to Industrial Light & Magic, LucasArtsgames and Lucasfilm Corporate (the legal and licensing side of the Lucas empire).

From the outside, the complex could be any upscale office park or college campus. There’s no “Lucasfilm” signage and the understated architecture is meant to blend in with the the 19th-century buildings around it. Only a small (i.e., life-sized) statue of Yoda at the guest entrance betrays the movie connection.

For Lucas, the action is on the inside. One of his goals with the project is to integrate his digital animation, special effects and game-design staffs.The plan is to put all the artists on the same computers and software so they can move interchangeably among tasks, depending on the workload.

Even among digital artists, though, the old pecking order holds sway: movies on top, then TV, then everything else. Some movie f/x artists may not be keen on being shunted from ILM, the most prestigious company in the business, to either games or animation.

To break down those barriers, Lucas asked the architects of the Letterman Center to include attractive common spaces that would encourage these previously separate staffs to mix.

Lucas also is installing new technology to help people work together more collaboratively and make digital production cheaper and faster.

Lucasfilm’s new system allows several artists to work simultaneously on a digital image, seeing all changes instantly. For Lucas, the system promises to boost margins in games, animation and f/x while encouraging people to work together. The software also allows people in scattered locations to collaborate in ways that have been impossible until now.

The flip side is that there are no soundstages on the Lucasfilm campus.

Though Lucasfilm continues to talk about producing movies and TV series, there is almost no physical production capacity on site. There’s a motion-capture stage but no dressing rooms, no place for props or electrics. You couldn’t park a trailer there if you wanted to.

There’s talk that some soundstages may be built nearby, but no deal is imminent.

The complex is on National Park land, so Lucas was required to open the grounds to the public, but it was his choice to reserve 16 of the 23 acres for public green space.

Parking is underground and the entrance is out of sight. Since there’s no need for paved alleys to haul scenery and equipment, the asphalt and concrete of a Hollywood lot are replaced by grass, trees and a meandering walking path.

There’s space for a restaurant and a coffee shop. There diners will have views of a broad lawn with an artificial stream, with boulders handpicked by landscape architect Larry Halpern, running downhill to a pond so scenic it’s already generated inquiries about its availability for weddings.

It’s a far cry from the Hollywood studios, which have never been inclined to view their back lots as amenities for the surrounding community and have ramped up security to fortresslike levels.

The Hollywood studios host their share of invitation-only events, but not because of their physical beauty.

Their very inaccessibility makes them attractive venues for certain high-security events, like premieres or the Mardi Gras-themed party at Paramount during the 2000 Democratic convention. Other lots, including Warner’s, rent out facilities for private events and have even been the venue for high school proms, but by and large they’re quite isolated from their surrounding communities.

Nobody, not even Lucas, is suggesting that the major studios could or should tear down their soundstages and turn their lots into public parks. Even Lucas used soundstages for his largely digital recent “Star Wars” trilogy — he just rented them as he needed them, mainly in overseas locations like Australia and London that offered either lower costs or better tax breaks than California.

But Lucasfilm isn’t the only company that’s thriving without soundstages.

Take the newest major, DreamWorks. After abandoning its original plan to build a lot in Playa del Rey, Calif., it has simply rented stages from the other studios when it’s shooting.

“You get a lot of overhead with soundstages,” says Michael Grillo, the company’s head of physical production.

Grillo says that soundstages are still essential and that Lucasfilm-style digital filmmaking, with a lot of shooting in front of greenscreens, doesn’t make sense for every kind of project anyway.

Scripted TV series in particular, with their lower budgets, compressed schedules and mostly down-to-earth settings are unlikely to abandon shooting on physical sets anytime soon.

It may not be a coincidence that DreamWorks’ interest in having a lot has faded along with its TV arm.

The priorities of the Letterman Center are Lucas’ priorities. But Warner and Disney have already brought games into the corporate family, and all the studios are relying more and more on digital f/x in their tentpoles., CGI animation is already a big part of the slates at Disney, Fox and Sony, not to mention DreamWorks Animation.

Maybe, if CGI keeps taking off and the majors dive into the game business, Lucas’ priorities will turn out to be Hollywood’s priorities, too.

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