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

Darth Vader George Lucas Scream Awards - H
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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.

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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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.”