How George Lucas Looks at Life
By: John Shepler
Your pulse synchronizes with the throbbing of the soundtrack as a collage of images flash across the screen. It's a riveting sixty second window on the late 1960s, a time of agitation, a time of unrest, a time of wrenching transition in America. For one minute George Lucas has your full attention. He fills it with the images of photojournalism, images you might have browsed through in Look or Life Magazine. But this is no browse. You are being pulled at hyperspeed across the landscape of society.
George Lucas, you say? This award winning cinematographer, the creative force behind Star Wars, American Graffiti and Indiana Jones, could no doubt parlay his film experience from the last twenty years to produce a short feature that would grab you for a minute or less. It may be no surprise that this film, "Look at Life" garnered award after award at film festivals. What might surprise you, though, is that it is George Lucas' first film. "Look at Life," an award winner that broke new ground in animation, was a student project for his first film class at the University of Southern California. It wasn't even supposed to be a movie.
If you're looking for the secret of success, start with this. Every student in the beginning animation class is given 32 feet of 16 millimeter film, a minute's worth, to learn how to operate the camera. Most do exactly as they are told. They fiddle with the mechanism, move the camera around and see what develops...so to speak. Some get bored and whine that they "wish they could make a movie." Lucas uses his 32 feet of film to revolutionize a type of animation called kinestatis, which is doing fast movements over photographs. Same class, same assignment, same experience level. While most of the class waits for someone to empower them, one student takes his film and goes out to start changing the world.
Looking at the incredible impact George Lucas has made on the film industry, we might be tempted to ask him the same question his classmates posed in 1965. "How did you do that?" His answer would probably be the same now as it was then. "I just did it." When aspiring young filmmakers ask him today how to get into the movie business, he tells them "you just start doing it." It's not a flip response. It's exactly how Lucas got started and how he's overcome every business and technical obstacle since. He just started doing it and lo and behold, it happened.
The key to success may be that simple, but it's not necessarily that easy. Lucas describes his first six years in the business as "hopeless." He'd made another film while in college called "Electronic Labyrinth: THX-1138: 4EB." It took first prize at the 1967-1968 National Student Film Festival. It also won him a scholarship to observe Francis Ford Coppola, a graduate of that same USC film class, at work on "Finian's Rainbow." Lucas and Coppola hit it off immediately and a couple of years later went into business together with a company called American Zoetrope. Their first film was a full length version of George Lucas's "THX-1138," financed by Warner Brothers. So far it sounds like another success story brewing, but Warner Brothers was unimpressed with what they saw in "THX-1138." They cut it severely and released it with little fanfare. The movie bombed at the box office. Coppola went off to film "The Godfather."
This could have been the end of a budding film career, but Lucas pressed on. Taking some advice Francis Ford Coppola gave him, he concentrated on writing a script that would appeal to a mass audience. The result was "American Graffiti," a story about one summer night's teen age fun and adventures in his hometown of Modesto, California. Perhaps it was seeded with his own story or fantasy of those years. Whatever he tapped, he managed to share it on the screen, and "American Graffiti" became a hit. It received five Academy Award nominations.
"American Graffiti" also made Lucas a millionaire and gave him the funds and reputation to take his career in whatever direction he pleased. He was now ready to fulfill his mission, one that he believed was given to him when his life was spared in a terrible car crash just before high school graduation. His Fiat had been broadsided and started tumbling at 60 miles an hour. Just before smashing into a tree, his seat belt broke and Lucas was thrown free. During his months of recuperation in the hospital, he thought up the concept of the Force and studied Joseph Campbell's writings on legend and myths. Now, with the resources to make it happen, George Lucas was ready to offer the universe a story of values and heroism...in a galaxy far away.
"Star Wars," "The Empire Strikes Back," "Return of the Jedi" and now "The Phantom Menace" are as much about the mission of their creator, George Lucas, as about adventure stories set in the future. He says he put The Force into the movie to try to awaken a spirituality in young viewers. His foundation, The George Lucas Educational Foundation, is also on a mission to improve public education. Founded in 1991, it has distributed 20,000 copies of a documentary film hosted by Robin Williams and a 300 page resource book for parents, teachers and children. The message is a simple one. Learning starts with a student's passion. Find that passion and encourage them to follow it and great things will happen. After all, it's worked for George Lucas.
Books of Interest:
George Lucas Close Up The Making of His Movies by Chris Salewicz.
George Lucas by Dana White.Traces the life of the man who became well-known for his Star Wars movies, from his childhood in California to his career in films. A great biography book for kids.
George Lucas: The Creative Impulse by Charles Champlin, Foreword by Steven Spielberg, Foreword by Francis Coppola. In the 20 years since director/producer George Lucas formed Lucasfilm, Ltd., he has had an unparalleled record of creative and technical innovations and box-office successes. This is the first book to deal with all the films in which Lucas has been involved. Lucas' biography; summaries of each movie; a complete filmography. Index. 221 illustrations, including 90 in full color.
George Lucas Close up; The Making of His Movies by Chris Salewicz. This book covers the latest about the man, his projects and his company, Industrial Light and Magic.
Also visit Books-A-Million for an excellent selection of new books, magazines, e-books, audio books and more at low, low prices.
Also visit these related sites:
George Lucas - A profile, biography and in-depth interview from the hall of Business at Achievement.Org.
Copyright 1999 - 2018 by John E. Shepler. Contact me at: John (at) JohnShepler.com
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First Published: May 16, 1999 as part of A Positive Light