Tom Kobayashi, George Lucas' General Manager at Skywalker Sound, Dies at 91

Courtesy of Kobayashi Family
Tom Kobayashi

He also set up a sister postproduction facility in Santa Monica and launched EDnet to share video through fiber-optic networks.

Tom Kobayashi, the respected Hollywood sound engineer who ran George Lucas' Skywalker Sound postproduction facilities in Marin County and Santa Monica, has died. He was 91.

Kobayashi died March 3 in Bakersfield, California, his family announced.

After leaving the Lucas fold, Kobayashi in 1992 launched the Entertainment Digital Network, or EDnet, which employs fiber-optic networks to send high-quality video and audio great distances. Its then-revolutionary technology enabled the industry to link together talent, execs and production facilities at great cost savings.

A child of Japanese immigrants, Kobayashi was interned during World War II before serving in the U.S. Army from 1946-51. After graduating from USC's Marshall Business School in 1953, he began his career in Hollywood as an accounting clerk at a film laboratory.

Following more than two decades as vice president, president and COO of audio postproduction company Glen Glenn Sound in Hollywood, the well-connected Kobayashi was recruited in 1985 by Lucas to head his new Skywalker Sound division at Lucasfilm.

Kobayashi at first was tasked with completing the construction of the Technical Building, a 700,000-square-foot postproduction facility on Skywalker Ranch north of San Francisco. The studio was to be equipped with advanced digital-picture, sound-editing and mixing devices developed by Lucasfilm's Droidworks division, the computer/R&D arm that would spawn Pixar.   

The studio was to be used solely for the Star Wars creator and his friends and colleagues. But after two films were completed — the 1988 releases Tucker: The Man and His Dream, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, and Willow, produced by Lucas and directed by Ron Howard — it became clear a bigger business plan was required: Kobayashi would need to bring outside productions north to complete their films at Skywalker Ranch.

To help feed that pipeline, Kobayashi constructed a second post facility, Skywalker Sound South, in Santa Monica. Both facilities would flourish as dozens of films were made; among the first were Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), Backdraft (1991) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991).

Meanwhile, Droidworks development work was restarted inside Skywalker Sound. In 1990, the EditDroid, an advanced computer film- and video-editing machine, found use in Hollywood, New York, Vancouver and Toronto, presaging the digital filmmaking revolution by more than a decade.

In 1992, Kobayashi and his engineers simplified postproduction by using digital telephone technology and new audio compression devices from Dolby. They connected the North and South ranches, essentially creating a 400-mile-long "digital extension cord" that allowed editors and mixers at Skywalker Ranch to play completed work each afternoon to directors and producers in Southern California.

Kobayashi approached Lucas with a plan to sell the technology to other studios. Lucas wasn't interested but did offer to let him start his own new company at Skywalker Ranch. So, with a Lucasfilm colleague, Oscar winner Tom Scott, and executive David Gustafson (his brother-in-law), Kobayashi set EDnet in motion.

The company soon moved to San Francisco, where it exists today. It has been estimated that more than a quarter-million collaborative long-distance sessions have been accomplished thanks to EDnet technology.

Kobayashi retired in 2000 and served on the board of directors of Azusa Pacific University, helping to initiate its film program. In 2009, he joined Penteo, which transforms recordings into true 5.1 surround sound, as its first CFO.

Survivors include his wife of 43 years, Christine; children Jesse and Kimiko and their respective spouses, Micah and Jake; six grandchildren; and sisters Fujiko and Tsutako. 

A memorial contribution can be made to M.A.R.E. Therapeutic Riding Center in Bakersfield.