What did George Lucas ever do for us?

Feature Ryan Lambie 1 Nov 2012 - 08:11

As George Lucas announces his retirement from the Star Wars universe, we look at the filmmaker's lasting cultural impact...

With Disney's acquisition of Lucasfilm, George Lucas's 35 year tenure at the helm of the Star Wars franchise came to an end. Although Lucas will remain as a 'creative consultant' - he's already turned in treatments for the three Star Wars sequels currently planned to arrive in 2015 and on - his direct involvement with his science fantasy universe is now over.

The announcement has already been met with equal parts optimism and cynicism, with some arguing that Lucas' sale of his company is a further example of his late-career hunger for profits, while others have suggested that he might be about to use his sizeable fortune to build a retirement Death Star.

It's arguable that Lucas brought some of this cynicism on himself. Much of the fan goodwill towards the filmmaker ebbed away as the special editions and disappointing sequels rolled out, and some of his contradictory statements in interviews haven't helped his case, either. Back in 2008, Lucas told Total Film that "I've left pretty explicit instructions for there not to be any more features." Evidently, Lucas has since changed his mind.

Putting all such negativity aside, though, it's worth remembering just how much influence and change Lucas has brought to filmmaking and modern culture in general. Aside from the direct impact of the Star Wars movies themselves, Lucas has made lasting contributions to videogames, special effects and numerous other filmmaking disciplines.

Without the input of George Lucas, it's likely that much of what you'll find below would have been very different, or may never have occurred at all...

Special effects

When Lucas began work on Star Wars in the mid-1970s, dedicated special effects houses no longer existed. On finding that 20th Century Fox lacked the facilities to bring to life the various intergalactic vistas and fully operational battle stations he had in mind, Lucas founded Industrial Light & Magic.

Headed by John Dykstra and a young crew of artists and technical boffins, ILM didn't just produce some stunning effects for Star Wars - it dragged an entire section of the filmmaking industry out of the doldrums.  As well as producing effects work for movies outside the Star Wars franchise, from the Indiana Jones series to The Abyss, Terminator 2, and Pirates Of The Caribbean, ILM forged a path that other special effects studios could follow.

Pixar

Now known the world over for its beloved animated features, Pixar began in 1979 as a small subdivision of Lucasfilm. Computer scientist Ed Catmull was the first employee of the company, then called The Graphics Group. One of its earliest contributions was the extraordinary Genesis terraforming scene in 1982's Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan.

In 1986, Apple founder Steve Jobs provided an injection of cash, and The Graphics Group became an independent corporation called Pixar. Although its initial aim was to sell the Pixar Image computer system, the studio quickly became known for its advertising work and the short film Luxo Jr, an early piece of CG filmmaking by John Lasseter.

Those early projects would form the groundwork for the groundbreaking Toy Story in 1995, the first full-length computer animated movie, and a landmark moment in filmmaking.

Photoshop

An image editing package so commonly used that it's passed into common language as a verb, Photoshop has an early yet strong historical link to Industrial Light & Magic. The application began life in 1987 as a simple image display program called Display. Creator Thomas Knoll soon showed his work in progress to John Knoll, who was an employee in ILM's computer graphics department. John began to give his brother suggestions as to how he could improve the program, and together, the pair worked on  building in the various tools that would become so widespread.

By late 1988, the first version of Photoshop was born. It was Adobe Systems that eventually sold the finished product the following year, but without ILM as its proving ground, it's possible that one of this most used of software packages would never have existed at all.

As John Knoll said himself in a 2010 interview with Time magazine, “ILM was the first place I went to that had a computer graphics department. So in a way, George [Lucas] had kind of fostered the creation of Photoshop.”

Videogames

LucasArts, the videogame arm of George Lucas' empire, was founded in 1982. Early titles included Rescue On Fractalus, which made innovative use of fractals (hence its name) to produce a rocky off-world landscape for the player to explore. It was later in the 80s that LucasArts found its niche - the graphic adventure genre.

Using the SCUMM engine (Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion), LucasArts created such classic games as the aforementioned Maniac Mansion, Zak McKracken And The Alien Mindbenders, Loom, Grim Fandango and, best of all, The Secret Of Monkey Island.  Thanks to the design brilliance of Ron Gilbert, Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman, Monkey Island quickly became regarded as one of the finest point-and-click adventures ever made - an expertly told pirate yarn, it was full of detail, humour and charm.

With LucasArts now also owned by Disney, it remains to be seen where the studio will go next - though presumably, more Star Wars games will follow in the next few years. Whatever happens, the studio's highpoints are still fondly remembered, with high-definition remakes of Monkey Island available for modern systems.

Movie presentation

Star Wars didn't just set the tempo for modern special effects movies. With the launch of the film, Lucas also gave theatre owners a reason to upgrade their projection and sound systems. The company THX was later founded by Lucas and engineer Tomlinson Holman to provide a standard quality of movie presentation between theatres, ensuring that films (starting with Return Of The Jedi) were screened to an even standard in each cinema.

Science fiction cinema

George Lucas did more than any other director to reassert science fiction as a bankable genre in Hollywood. Admittedly, Star Wars did open the floodgates to numerous imitators and daft, family-friendly fantasy movies that could only be loosely termed sci-fi, but without the success of Lucas' 1977 hit, the script for Alien would probably have remained a stack of paper, or worse, merely churned out as a cheap B-movie.

It was the success of Star Wars that prompted Fox boss Alan Ladd Jr to give Alien a more generous budget, thus launching a decidedly adult sci-fi franchise, and itself inspiring a legion imitators. Similarly, the success of Star Wars triggered the large-screen relaunch of the Star Trek franchise, and many other sci-fi movies besides. A young James Cameron began his career producing the special effects for Roger Corman's low-budget Battle Beyond The Stars - which was, of course, a space fantasy in the Star Wars mould.

It would be remiss not to mention Lucas' earlier work of sci-fi, THX-1138. Although its influence is inevitably less far-reaching than that of Star Wars, it's still a visually captivating movie, and its dystopian imagery is referenced and quoted by artists and filmmakers over 40 years after its release. Those white-suited drones of the State seen in this year's The Hunger Games adaptation bear a striking resemblance to the robotic law enforcers of THX-1138, to cite one example.

Some of George Lucas' filmmaking decisions be difficult to defend - particularly those made over the last decade. But while those Jar-Jar Binks jokes and Greedo-shot-first complaints will probably never go away, neither should we forget these and other positive contributions Lucas has made to our cultural landscape. 

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I find it tricky to quantify Lucas in my eyes.
On one hand he created some really influential media that defined a large part of my childhood that I am still incredibly fond of to this day.
On the other, he's the man (to para-quote South Park) who raped my childhood with the god awful prequels and last Indy film.
The 12 year old me wants to worship him and the 36 year old me wants to punch him on the nose.

I already knew all of those but it was still a good read :)

George Lucas has been an immeasurable pioneer of cinema, and he will be remembered as such upon his passing, the problems I have with him is his utter refusal to release remastered and anamorphic presentations of the OT's theatrical versions (which he both should and easily could have done at little cost back in 2007) on DVD, and the fact he took it upon himself to both write and direct the prequels himself when he knew - and stated many times - that writing and working with actors were not his strong points but that he "couldn't resist tinkering with the technology" (and if that doesn't sum up everything wrong with the prequels...), other than all that, I have no feelings about the man, good or bad...

What about music? - he kept John Williams employed for quite a while!

Lucas's press office announced the majority of the money from the sale is going to charity. So, not that money grabbing after all.

Now Disney own the originals, there is nothing to stop them releasing them finally. They are all about how much cash they can make from the fans afterall.

Disney didn't get the rights to distribute the original films. Fox still owns those.

I just IMDB'd THX-1138, WTF? How come I didn't know about this? It looks amazing.

If that's so, perhaps I can finally forgive him for Jar Jar. Perhaps not. Nope.

I'm just concerned as to which of the dwarves will be Luke's real father.

Id be interested to know how 'hands on' Lucas has actually been beyond the conception of a lot of these things. Was he there, driving the businesses forward, or is he the 'man behind the man' so to speak. Still, despite what people say he deserves respect for staying independant all these years. I mean depite the HUUUUGE amounts of revenue from merch/tie ins/happy meals etc the prequels made he still essentially financed them out of his own, admittedly deep, pocket. That alone is admirable i think. People can bash him, but for me he gave me some of the most cherished memories of my childhood, and has also allowed me to have some of my most cherished memories with my own kids, watching them watch A New Hope for the first time and seeing them hold their breath as Luke began his final trench run then jump up whooping with joy when the torpedos went in was a truly magical experience and for that alone I'll love him, forever.

Wow, I never knew that he did all those things himself. Single handedly.

Not as often as Steven Spielberg- Star Wars came out in 1977, Jaws in 1975...Star Wars is certainly remembered as the John Williams track to a wider audience but without it he would still have Jaws, Close Encounters, Superman, Schindler's List etc. Steven Spielberg has employed (and continues to employ) John Williams for far longer than Lucas did.

The weird thing about Lucas is when you watch THX 1138. Dark, disturbing and mildly interesting and look where he ended up by The Phantom Menace. A lesson for us all there.

Not amazing, but worth a watch. Don't expect Ewoks.

Except for the first film, Fox has never owned any part of the Star Wars saga. They only distributed the prequels because Lucas was loyal. After Star Wars was a massive hit, Lucas bought all of the rights back from Fox and self financed the other five films. Fox might still have distribution rights, for the time being, but they do not own the existing trilogies.

... well, now you know ;)

I would never say that Lucas has not left a huge legacy to Hollywood and science fiction. The original Star Wars trilogy was (and is) brilliant and he has made a mark in nearly every area of movie producing today. However, when it comes to the Star Wars story and where it goes next I think it is time for someone else to take over and move it into the next phase of it's life.

I feel the best person to compare George Lucas to is Stan Lee.
Both have been unbelieveably influential in defining their respective mediums, coming up with ideas that have not only passed the test of time but set the bar for practically everything that followed.
However, those ideas have been developed so much by other people since that, these days, it's probably best for both men to leave the heavy lifting to others...

I
think it's fair to say that Lucas will be primarily remembered for his
technical contributions to film-making (either directly or indirectly)
and less so for his abilities as an actual film-maker / director. He certainly had a knack for attracting / finding talented people who made the technical magic happen. If he would have been as astute when it came to including talented people in some of the writing / directing aspects of his film-making....

He also showed that independent filmmakers can be very successful economically, thus giving others clout. He helped others, like Irvin Kershner or Richard Marquand, land big jobs. When nobody in Japan wanted to finance Kurosawa pics, Lucas was instrumental in getting money and names behind Kagemusha. GL seems also to be the go to guy for his old gang from film school, ie .Francis Ford Coppola, to get creative input.

The importance of American Graffiti should also be noted.

He's giving most of the money from this sale to charity, apparently. As terrible as he was as a solo screenwriter and director, he is actually a very nice human being.

Great article, and I agree, George has taken way more bashing over the years than he ever deserved. While it's true he probably should have delegated more of his work to others, he still was the inspiration behind Star Wars, and if that was all he brought to the world that would still be an incredible gift. Factor in all of the things mentioned in this article (plus more), and he is truly one of the icons of the film industry.

If George would have contended himself to humourous cameos in the antecedent Star Wars films (a la Stan Lee), geekdom would look in him in a far more favourable light.

He exec produced Powaqqatsi, too. Let's not forget Willow and Labyrinth, either :-)

George Lucas himself wasn't happy at how 'The Phantom Menace' turned out - leaked internal memos from Lucasfilm confirmed this - and also you can see by the body language and tone of voice his reaction upon watching the first assembly cut of that film... his head was literally in his hands. If he'd brought someone like Walter Murch (not only one of the best editors in the world today but a longtime Lucas friend and confidante) on board at that point to give the film a thorough and needed editing rethink, shooting only additional material where absolutely needed in the overall narrative, that film could have been largely saved, and it would have been even better if Murch had went on to edit the two subsequent prequels as well - not to mention Lucas bringing in an outside screenwriter to help on the shooting script - but that's all academic now, although Lucas could still go back and extensively re-edit those three films if he wanted to... the current 3-D theatrical re-releases would have been the perfect opportunity to create definitive versions of that trilogy before he retires permanently from the galaxy far, far away that has consumed so much of his life!

All of these are good points, except video games one. While the LucasArts made some great games, I can't say they innovated things, atleast not to the same degree as these other things.

One important thing that should be mentioned is action figures and tie-in-toy-lines.

Not only did Star Wars practically create the movie tie-in toy-lines, but it was the Star Wars action figures that ressurected the action figures, leading to the "He-Man" and "Thundercats" and all that other wonderful action figures and toys of the 80's. The reason why the "G.I.Joe" toys of the 80's were some 4 inches tall as opposed to the 12 inches of the earlier ones was because of the Star Wars toys.

Ofcourse, action figures in general ultimately owe their existence to Barbie.

> Not only did Star Wars practically create the movie tie-in toy-lines

Nope. That already existed with stuff like Planet of the Apes.

Star Wars probably gave the concept of movie-as-commercial a boost though. Although that's not necessarily a good though.

Nice article. One thing puzzles me though. Why is Star Wars 1 "The Phantom Menace" so sneered at? For me, it was outstandingly the very best of all the franchise so far, with "Return of the Jedi" in 2nd place. It was "Attack of the Clones" and "Revenge of the Sith" that were the utter rubbish ones which should have been burned before release.

his neck cameod as jabbas stunt double. true story.

except the "Disney Vault". hopefully Indy & Star Wars dont get locked away for dvd release once per decade like peter pan, snow white etc etc

He ruined two out of four of the Indiana Jones films, that's what he did!

But apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, viniculture,
public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system and public
health, what has George Lucas ever done for us?

That's a good thing for sure. On the other hand the bloke has more money than his great Grandchildren could ever spend, so it isn't exactly a huge sacrifice.

Yeah, because without George Lucas Williams would be unemployed and on welfare... It isn't like he is one of the most sought after composers in Hollywood.

Yeah, but he rectified that by making Attack of the Clones, right?

Lay off the acid, man! ;)

He's briefly glimpsed (along with his daughter Katie) as one Baron Papanoida in Revenge of the Sith, as Anakin makes his way to see Palpatine at the 'opera'.

He collaborated with one Jonathan Hales on Episode II's screenplay, so he's not quite the dictator he's made out to be.

He wasn't happy with a film he had complete creative control of? That doesn't make sense.

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