What 'Star Wars' in 3D Means to George Lucas

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The creator of the biggest sci-fi franchise employs the latest technology to bring the movies to a whole new generation, who can see them in theaters with their parents.

While Prime Focus has done 3D conversions for a number of big movies including parts of Harry Potter and Avatar, they were still a surprise choice to some. That is because in 2010 there was a lot of criticism of the conversion they did on Clash of the Titans.

That criticism still angers Malhotra. He says that they were rushed to finish that job and that there were other technical problems with the way the movie was delivered to theaters which were not their fault. He says that was not the case with Star Wars, which was done by a team that worked at a proper pace to do the best job possible.

Lucasfilm, said Prime Focus chairman and global CEO Namit Malhotra,  “did a pretty exhaustive testing process. They wanted to make sure that we would be able to hit a basic benchmark that they were expecting to see. They tested some of the best companies out there. It completely went on merit and quality, who came up to their expectations. We qualified on that basis.”

Prime Focus set up a process for the 3D conversion of the 115-minute movie,  which was mostly done at their facilities in India and in London. It involved at various times 600 of their employees. “Everything was sent back for review,” said Malhotra, “by (the Lucasfilm team) and George Lucas himself. We would get notes from them, suggestions for enhancements and any direction they had. It worked pretty smoothly.”

Still it was an intense eight month process with Lucasfilm keeping a close eye on everything, which Malhotra insisted they welcomed: “They really cared about what need to be done and how much depth they wanted in each scene. They wanted to make sure each shot was as consistent as any other. The core objective was to keep that consistency and maintain the quality bar across every show, which made it pretty special.”

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During the process of the conversion, Lucas said he often had conversations about what they were doing with friends including Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and James Cameron, all of whom have been working on 3D projects as well – some very notable ones. “Cameron is obviously the godfather of 3D,” said Lucas. “We all talk to each other about what’s going on, what’s happening now. We’re all dedicated to improving the medium, not necessarily just to use it exclusively in our films.”

When it came time to distribute the movies, Lucas turned to Twentieth Century Fox, which has done the theatrical release on all the Star Wars movies since 1977. However, this time it was not the usual deal; Lucasfilm essentially was using Fox as a rent-a-distributor that would handle the relations with exhibitors and physical distribution of the movies. It was also a benefit that Fox’s head of distribution is Bruce Snyder, who is not only experienced with how to get it into the best theaters, but also an executive who has been with the studio through all the Star Wars releases and re-releases over the years.

Snyder said they booked every theater that has 3D capability and a few 2D versions in areas where 3D is not available. There is no IMAX release.

“This is all about delivering a big screen experience to a new generation,” said Howard Roffman, Lucasfilm’s longtime head of licensing and merchandising. “This is something near and dear to George’s heart. He made these films for the big screen. He’s a believer in the communal experience of being in a theater with lots of people.”

But in a business sense, Lucas still needed an excuse to bring them back to theaters. “You have to have that in today’s world with the expectations of television and video,” said Roffman. “You have to give people a reason to come back to the theater. In this case the perfect reason was 3D. Its just giving the original audience something they  have never had before. And it will be exciting for kids who weren’t even born during Episode I. That was the vision and that is why we see it as a big theatrical event.’

Michael Kaminski, author of the unauthorized 2008 book The Secret History of Star Wars, who has been critical of Lucas in the past when he changed things in the movies, is on board with this re-release. “A lot of people say ‘3D, oh its crap,’ because there are so many 3D releases done badly,” said Kaminski. “And it’s true. Often the film is done badly. But the fact Lucas is a supporter of 3D and spent a lot of time getting it right, I think it’s a fun way to re-energize the movies.”

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Lucas said there were those who wanted him to release all six movies in 3D at once to make it a giant event. He refused. “I said, ‘this won’t sustain for six years (doing it that way)’” recalled Lucas. “Everyone will go to the first one or two and pretty soon you’ll be spending a lot of money and not having a lot of people come see the movie. I wanted to do it every year and I wanted to make something that was sort of reliable. I wanted to put the same amount of effort into each conversion. It takes about nine months to do it.”

So they will come out one a year. Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones  is being converted and the others will follow. He said they sought out a time of year that there would not be a lot of competition, and then chose February. Episode II will also be in February but after that the releases may move to other times of the year, according to Lucas, depending on what seems to work best.

After the theatrical run, Lucas eventually expects that the movies will also be released in 3D on Blu-ray, although he thinks that too will take time. “That’s a few years away before they get to the point where that’s viable,” said Lucas. “but you know were just looking for better ways of showing the movies so it’s a better experience, which is why THX got invented, why I did digital, why I’ve done 3D. It’s really to try and enhance the experience for the audience.”

In March 2011 when Lucas returned to address movie exhibitor sin Las Vegas, this time at CinemaCon on a panel with Cameron and Jeffrey Katzenberg, the Dreamworks Animation head who has also been a strong advocate of 3D, Lucas told exhibitors that 3D makes it more than watching a movie for viewers, “it puts you behind the proscenium,” meaning you feel you are inside the movie.

Lucas’s words that day at Caesar’s Palace struck a very special and positive note with one member of the audience, Namit Malhotra, who had worked on the conversion for a year but had never actually met Lucas face to face. After that panel he got his chance to discuss the work they had done with the Star Wars creator.

Malhotra has started life in modest circumstances in India and worked his way up, just as he knew Lucas has started in a middle class family in Northern California and gone on to build an empire based on his art, creativity and business ability.

“It was a moment of huge pride for a company like us which originated in a garage in India 12 or 13 years ago,” said Malhotra. “When I was in my early teenage years, the first book I ever bought was the Industrial Light & Magic book. That sort of got me into the business before I even knew the intricacies of visual effects and conversions.”

So when he got praise from Lucas, it was a moment he would never forget. “To stand in front of the man and have him say, ‘You’ve done a good job,’ it’s a big homerun for us in that regard. It’s sort of like everything meshed, al of our professional goals had come together.”

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