On Book Stands: DroidMaker: George Lucas and the Digital Revolution

The original Star Wars mesmerized audiences in 1977 with its new, fantastical style of filmmaking. With each subsequent Star Wars film, Lucas upped the ante in visual innovation, breaking new ground and setting the bar more than a few notches higher than what had previously been accomplished.
But while the Star Wars films set up a fictional view of the future, Lucas was also working on a vision of the future of filmmaking, one that 20 years later has been fully realized.
As difficult as it is to fathom, Lucas’ films are perhaps not as important to filmmaking as his other endeavors to change the very way films were made. In the new book, DroidMaker: George Lucas and the Digital Revolution, author Michael Rubin gives a first person account of the early days of LucasFilm and how it shaped and developed the building blocks of digital filmmaking that remain to this day.
“I guess people had some idea that Lucas changed something about filmmaking,” says Rubin. “I don’t think people realize how much of what we have today, whether it’s desktop editing, sound editing all the CG tools or high def in general, is a result from LucasFilm computer division. When I set out to write this book I wanted to explore what really happened at LucasFilm back in the ’70s and what would possess a regular filmmaker to spend a disproportionate amount of money on pure academic research in media.”
Lucas was certainly not just a regular filmmaker and from the mid-70s to mid-80s became the predominant force pushing filmmaking into the digital realm.
In 1979, while Lucas was putting together Empire Strikes Back and preparing for Raiders of the Lost Ark, he hired Ed Catmull (now head of Pixar), a pioneering computer researcher in computer graphics at the time to head up research and development at LucasFilm. But this was not your the typical R&D department at any company. Instead of trying to address a particular problem for a particular film project, Catmull was given virtually carte blanche to figure out ways in which computers could change filmmaking.
“Catmull was able to dig into this without production pressure,” notes Rubin. “We all know what it’s like to be on a film and trying to solve a particular problem with technology. But this was different. Lucas just sent Catmull off and told him to come back when he figured things out.”
Catmull was tasked with three primary areas of focus: optical printing, editing and sound (with video games coming later). Four years later in 1984, LucasFilm debuted both the nonlinear editing systems the EditDroid and the SoundDroid at NAB.
Concurrently with the LucasFilm R&D, Francis Ford Coppola was doing his own research in technology. While he didn’t have the resources that Lucas did, Coppola’s influence resulted in the VideoAssist and more importantly high definition.
“People know that Lucas and Coppola were connected and that Lucas had first come up with the idea for Apocalypse Now, or that Coppola was the producer of Lucas’ American Graffiti and THX. But I found it fascinating how they were both looking similar technology innovations at the same time and influencing each other to a degree. But they weren’t sharing these ideas, they were competing,” says Rubin.
And it is not an exaggeration to say that digital filmmaking would not have progressed as quickly as it has today and would certainly not look the same if it were not for Lucas and Coppola.
“As early as 1970 Coppola is talking about a facility of the future which would be available by 2000. And Lucas is saying stuff like someday a kid will be able to make a movie at home. And the fact that this has happened you can’t help but say is a result of these guys’ passions. Obviously something this big took a lot of people, but looking at the digital revolution, these guys were the architects of it.”
Proof of this is seen in the dissemination of LucasFilm/ILM technology and innovation in the decade after EditDroid and Sound Droid were first premiered. In 1986, it sold the portion of the computer division specializing in rendering software. This group would later become Pixar Animation, headed by Ed Catmull. Then in 1993, Avid Technology acquired the EditDroid, though Rubin notes that this was merely marketing deal not a technology deal, and that Avid developed its solution independently. The technology for the SoundDroid spun off and became Sonic Solutions.
“It’s not so much the any certain product that was created as much as the style and the interface of the tools,” notes Rubin. “When we look at the computer today, with a Bitmap display with a timeline running horizontally with picture labels and all that, that is directly from the EditDroid. The EditDroid and the Sound Droid presented a vision for the future.”
And thanks to Lucas and Coppola, that future is now.
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