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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