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The Force Is Still With Him : Lucas Showcases Gadgets to Show He Remains King of Special-Effects Hill

April 08, 1993|JONATHAN WEBER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN RAFAEL, Calif. — Call it the Empire Strikes Back.

George Lucas, creator of "Star Wars" and a pioneer in contemporary special effects for movies, served notice Wednesday that he's determined to beat back all who aspire to his crown as king of high-tech movie production.

The normally reclusive Lucas held a press conference at his special effects company here, Industrial Light & Magic, to show off its latest weapons: a massive network of high-powered graphics computers; a technology development accord with their manufacturer, Silicon Graphics Inc., and new communications capabilities that let directors in Hollywood instantly see the work that's being done in San Rafael, the Marin County community where Lucas' concern is based.

But the event had several unstated purposes as well--to show that ILM was on the move after a series of high-level executive departures and a major reorganization earlier this year, and to demonstrate that it isn't worried about the recent entry of International Business Machines, Sony Pictures, and a host of smaller companies into a business that it once virtually owned.

The event also gave Lucas a chance to lay out his vision of how digital technology will transform movie making, simultaneously slashing production costs and opening up broad new creative horizons.

"We see the world of special effects and the world of production moving into one entity," Lucas said. "It changes the production process. Writers have been restricted in the way they think by what they think is possible." Now, he said, creative talents will be freed from the constraints of traditional image-making and thus will be able to create entirely new kinds of movies.

The key to all this is the remarkably rapid advance of computer technology over the last several years. Movies have always been based on photochemical processes, and until the late 1980s even the most expensive special effects were created with elaborate models, stunts and photographic exposure tricks.

But with the recent emergence of high-powered computers that can create and manipulate high-resolution images needed for big-screen movies, ILM and a few other companies began developing ways to use computers for movie effects. Instead of building a physical model of something, a computer image could be created and then grafted into the film.

It's an expensive process, but it yielded spectacular results on movies such as "Terminator II." And it has also been used to great effect in creating animated television commercials.

While it will be some time before there are electronic cameras that can match the resolution of 35-millimeter film, Lucas believes that it will only be a few years before film will be converted to digital form immediately after it is shot, and then all post-production work--including effects--will be done on a computer.

Not only will that open up new creative horizons, he said, but it will also cut production costs by as much as 90%. The TV series he is now producing, "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles," is being produced digitally, he said, and is costing one-tenth of what comparable TV shows cost.

Of course, if Lucas is right, the major movie studios are hardly likely to leave the whole digital arena to companies such as ILM. And indeed, Sony Pictures is moving aggressively to build an in-house special effects unit. Disney already has one, and many in the business expect other studios to take similar initiatives.

Lucas professes not to be worried. "This is not a high-profit business," he said, and the studios are handicapped by their own bureaucratic structures and high costs. "The studios will lose interest."

Richard Edlund, founder of Boss Film Studios in Marina del Rey and one of a number of ILM alumnae who people the special effects business, agreed: "The studios all used to have photo effects departments, and they closed them down when they saw it would be less expensive to deal with outside vendors."

IBM, however, may not be so easily discouraged. The computer giant--the main competitor to Silicon Graphics in selling high-powered visual computing systems--is backing "Terminator II" producer James Cameron, former ILM chief Scott Ross and model builder Stan Winston in a new special effects company called Digital Domain. There are also plenty of computer whizzes with powerful workstations who are willing and able to underprice the big players.

And competition aside, ILM has to show that it hasn't been damaged by a massive exodus of top managers over the last year and a recent reorganization, which grouped ILM and Lucas' sound company, Skywalker Sound, into a new unit called Lucas Digital. Another company, Lucasarts, groups the video game and computer software operations, which also stand to benefit from the technologies being used at ILM.

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