Disney likely to treat Lucasfilm like Pixar

Lucasfilm will face task of ramping up production

As far as many visual effects mavens were concerned, the Disney-Lucasfilm merger sent a great disturbance through the Force.

While Disney is the ideal company to exploit “Star Wars” through theme parks, the acquisition included Industrial Light & Magic, the greatest name in visual effects.

Vfx pros remember Disney’s acquisition and dismantling of another vfx studio, Dream Quest Images, and still resent it.

At the 2006 Visual Effects Society Awards, just weeks after the Disney-Pixar merger, John Lasseter recounted his early days at Disney (He was fired for daring to experiment with CG animation), and some in the audience booed the very mention of the company. Those wounds may not be fresh, but they are deep.

I think their concern is misplaced. It’s the larger Lucasfilm, not ILM, that I’m going to be keeping an eye on. I expect Lucasfilm will be treated a lot like Pixar, and that’s not entirely a good thing.

Pixar is one of two relevant precedents for such an acquisition under the Bob Iger regime, the other being Marvel.

Pixar and its leadership were paid billions to come in and resuscitate Disney’s animation operation, and if the excellent “Wreck-It Ralph” is any indication, that effort seems to be succeeding. But in exchange for Disney’s billions, Pixar had to commit to making sequels, which it had refused to do before the merger. They’ve had to ramp up production from a movie every one to two years to a movie about every nine months.

The problem is that Pixar’s approach to filmmaking, which made it the most reliable hitmaker in the business and the most trusted brand in entertainment, can’t be scaled up that much, so it had to change. Originally, every staffer worked on every Pixar feature, sometimes doing multiple tasks on each picture. Now they have multiple production teams and more specialists.

Moreover, their “brain trust” approach, in which every Pixar director participates in reviews of every other director’s footage, works well when there are two or three movies in production but is much harder to implement when there are eight or nine movies in the pipeline.

Pixar’s tech side, its animation and CG, is magnificent and always improving. But their once-unerring story sense seems to be wavering. “Cars 2” and “Brave” looked gorgeous but weren’t great stories. They seem to be slipping.

What about Marvel Studios? It has long had a road map for up to three pics a year, so Disney didn’t need to ramp it up. Marvel doesn’t have a vfx company, but Marvel’s Victoria Alonso oversees vfx on Marvel pics, taking over some of a vfx studio’s traditional management functions.

Disney lets Marvel do what it does, and since Marvel already does it inexpensively, it’s a good fit. Under Alonso, Marvel opted not to bring back ILM for vfx on “Iron Man 3.” (It had done the first two “Iron Man” pics.) Vfx work on that pic has been split between several vfx studios, including Digital Domain and a Chinese company. Alonso says Disney wasn’t involved in that decision, and given Marvel’s penchant for keeping costs down, I don’t see any reason to doubt her.

Like Pixar, Lucasfilm has a built-in tech operation that’s the envy of the industry, plus a layer of creative and business leadership to protect it from Disney micromanagement. Like Marvel, Lucasfilm has its own pre-existing intellectual property. But Lucasfilm doesn’t have a proven history of being able to make several movies a year. It will have to go from making a movie every now and then, when the spirit moved George Lucas, to delivering movies on a consistent schedule. In that respect, too, it’s more like Pixar.

So I’m not worried about ILM under Disney. Given the pressures on the vfx industry in California, Disney is the least of ILM’s problems. I think Kathy Kennedy’s bigger challenge is revitalizing Lucasfilm to meet the new production schedule. She’s taking a roadster that’s been up on blocks for a while and restoring it for a punishing cross-country rally. ILM’s the one part of the car that’s road-tested and proven. It’s the rest of the vehicle that needs adjustment.

Kennedy must make the rest of Lucasfilm’s development and production operation match ILM’s quality, speed and flexibility. I expect Disney will leave her alone to do what she does, like Marvel. And I expect that internally, ILM will show the rest of Lucasfilm the way.

But, as Pixar has found, accelerating production to meet Disney’s hungry merchandising and theme park pipelines can bring tradeoffs. Let’s hope Lucasfilm is ready for the race.

Bits & Bytes

Paramount’s “Star Trek Into Darkness” will be released in the Dolby Atmos audio format. Dolby has announced pre-sale availability for the Dolby Atmos Cinema Processor for theaters. … The Blu-ray release of Lionsgate’s “The Expendables 2” is the first to feature DTS Neo:X sound, which delivers 11.1 surround sound to the home. High-end home theater receivers released this year support Neo:X 11.1. … Mixer Paul Hurtubise has joined Fotokem’s Margarita Mix audio post company.

Cinedeck has appointed Suzette Ferguson VP of Sales for North America. … Createasphere’s biannual Post Production Master Class will be held today, Nov. 8, at the Entertainment Technology Expo at the Burbank Marriott. Oscar-winner Hughes Winborne is among the speakers. … OnePlusHub will hold an “Animation in New York City” event on Nov. 15 at Professor Thom’s on 2nd Ave in Manhattan. Guests include Lisa Goldman of Women in Animation; Linda Beck of ASIFA-East; and Sarah Wallendjack of Children’s Media Association.

The Emily Carr University of Art + Design has produced a variable-high-frame-rate live-action short, “Soulmates.” Pic includes scenes at 24, 48 and 60 fps to show the creative potential of changing frame rates within a single movie.

Look Effects did over 125 vfx shots for “Alex Cross.” … Method Studios did 398 vfx shots for “Cloud Atlas.” … Level 256 did over 70 vfx shots for Paramount’s “Fun Size.”

Technicolor has pacted a strategic alliance allowing Mexican logisitics provider Contiendo Alternativo to offer integrated d-cinema distribution services in Latin America, including drive replication and support.

RealD has pacted with Womei Theaters of China to put RealD 3D on 100 Womei screens. RealD is also the official 3D technology provider for the world premiere and the 65th Royal Film Performance screening of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” Preem will be held Nov. 28 at the Embassy Theater in Wellington, New Zealand. The Royal Film Performance will be Dec. 12 at the Odeon Leicester Square in London.

3D computer graphics rendering solutions maker Lightworks has formed a partnership with online software store Novedge. … Autodesk has released its Flame 20th Anniversary Edition. … Autodesk has also released game “Starforce Battlement,” which was created by the company’s Gameware team to show off its Scaleform Moble software development kit. …

Thinkbox Software has launched Cinelab, a video editing app for Windows 8 devices, including the new Surface tablet. … Facility management software company Xytech has expanded East Coast services as part of an overall expansion. Jim Hegarty, principal consultant, has taken on primary responsibility for client implementations and service deliveries for the Eastern region. Todd Avenarius is now director of sales. He is based in Los Angeles.