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

 Kevin Winter/Getty

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.

It might seem like a no-brainer, but the decision to convert the six Star Wars movies into 3D wasn’t an easy one for producer, director, writer and movie mogul George Lucas.

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For Lucas, it was never just about finding another way to exploit the same pictures that have already been in theaters several times (grossing more than $4.4 billion in worldwide box office since 1977) and on home video (where they have raked in more than $3.8 billion).

The biggest reason to do it, Lucas told The Hollywood Reporter recently, was to give a new generation an opportunity to see the movies on the big screen in a theater, the way he always intended.

Star Wars is one of those films — old films — that was designed for the big screen,” he said. “It makes a big difference to see it on the big screen with the overwhelming sound, the picture and now 3D. We’ve had two generations be able to see it on the big screen and it was great. Now kids who have never seen it on the big screen, who have no idea how powerful it was — because all they had was DVD — have that chance.”

Whether there is still a huge market for movies widely available on video, cable and free TV for years will be clear Friday when Star Wars: Episode 1 — The Phantom Menace opens in more than 2,500 North American theaters in 3D and in selected countries around the world. 

To sweeten the appeal, Lucasfilm and Fox have worked to make the rerelease an event. At all AMC theaters nationwide, fans who buy digital 3D tickets the first weekend will get a Hasbro Star Wars Fighter Pod toy (one per ticket while supplies last). At select AMC locations, there also will be special events including a Lego feature area, Darth Maul face-painting, costumed character appearances, pod-racer 3D glasses and demonstrations of an upcoming Xbox Kinect Star Wars game.

The plan, said Lucas, is to release one Star Wars movie each year for the next five years. While some believe Phantom Menace is one of the weaker movies in the series and a poor choice to kick off the rerelease, Lucas believes they should be seen in the order that he has assigned them (though they were made and released in a different order).

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The studio handling the release for Lucasfilm agrees with his plan. “Star Wars has always been a communal experience, an experience that people want to share — not just across generations, but with their friends,” said Jim Gianopulos, co-chairman and co-CEO of 20th Century Fox. “There’s a whole generation that wasn’t born the last time we released the film theatrically. Those were huge successes at the time. Now we had the chance to do it again through the advent of 3D technology, to add a dimension so to speak, literally and figuratively, to that experience.”

Lucas said at first, he “wasn’t a giant fan of 3D. The process was very difficult, and it wasn’t something that I felt that much affection for. I just didn’t think the effect was worth it. It was all about the effects and putting everything right out there. The idea of going to a movie and having people stick things in your face just because of an effect or the trick of it wasn’t really that interesting to me.”

In 2005, Lucas joined fellow film directors including James Cameron and Robert Zemeckis for a presentation at the ShoWest movie exhibitor’s convention in Las Vegas to convince the people who own and run theaters to make the multimillion-dollar conversion from analog film projection to digital presentation.

To help make the point, Lucas oversaw the conversion of 10 minutes of one of the Star Wars movies to digital 3D. His point to theater owners was that 3D, which can bring in new audiences and justify higher ticket prices, is only possible after they make the switch to digital projection.

To his surprise, when he saw the 10 minutes on a theater screen, he said to himself, “ ‘Hey, this actually looks better. This is actually more interesting to me. The three-dimension is actually the better way of looking at things,’” he recalled. “So I got converted at that point.”

However, there was not yet an installed base of digital 3D in theaters and he didn’t feel the technology was fully developed yet. “The company that did the test for us wasn’t really up for primetime and doing the whole movie,” said Lucas. "We worked with them for years, and we worked with WETA and Peter Jackson to help do King Kong, but it wasn’t ready. We needed it to be really good.”

During the next couple of years, Lucasfilm’s special effects company Industrial Light & Magic moved into digital animated 3D production, which added to Lucas’s knowledge — yet he still wasn’t ready. Then he saw what Cameron had done with Avatar in 3D and had a revelation. “I realized that movies that have a lot of CG characters worked a lot better in 3D because the CG characters actually became real.”

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Lucas had been frustrated when he had to use puppet models, or even with CG in live action movies, because it never seemed quite real. As a result of what he saw with Avatar, Lucas went on to redo the character of Yoda for the Blu-ray rerelease of Phantom Menace in December; and that is the version of the movie that has been converted to 3D for theaters.

“We decided now is the time to do it,” said Lucas, “because we have lots and lots of CG characters (in Star Wars). That prompted us to go forward.”

Lucas has no qualms about making changes in his movies if he thinks it will make them better. Those changes have angered some fans of the films, who want them to be exactly the same each time they watch.

Lucas could do as he wished because he is not only director, producer and writer on most of the movies, but also wholly owns the company that holds the copyright on the movies. So he is both the financier and the creative director.

“All art is technology and it improves every year,” said Lucas. “Whether it is on stage or in music or in painting, there’s technological answers that happen. Just because movies are so technological, the technological advances become more obvious.”

Lucas knew that they could make available to the company that did the conversion detailed scene sketches, maps of how characters move and more that would assist them. Lucas also asked John Knoll, a visual effects supervisor who had worked on every Star Wars movie since 1983, to take a lead role in overseeing the conversion, reporting back to him on every decision of consequence.

Knoll and others then set out to find the right company to work with. Lucasfilm contacted several and had each of them do presentations and a series of tests.

“The issue about 3D is not a technical issue,” said Lucas. “It’s a creative issue. You need people with certain taste and certain talent to make it work. It’s hard to explain but if you talk about color timing, people will say ‘Oh that’s just a technical thing.’ It’s not. You can actually completely change the way people view a movie by color timing and/or sound mixing. These are highly technical but they’re very important creative endeavors. You need talented people to do it. You can’t just hire people off the street.”

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Ultimately Lucasfilm chose Prime Focus, a company founded in India which  now has its corporate headquarters in Hollywood. It also has facilities that do visual effects, post-production and provide other services in India, the U.K. and Canada. It promotes its “global digital pipeline,” a high-speed Internet network, which connects some 3,000 employees working for them worldwide.

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