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George Lucas is a techie at heart

NEW YORK--The day may never come when kids can make "Star Wars" movies in their bedrooms, but next year they'll have the equipment to do it with. The new Sony Playstation II, which is set for release in 2000, will allow its owners to create and play games in real time. It clocks at five million instructions a second. The computers that made "Star Wars -- Episode I: The Phantom Menace" were not that fast. They cost a lot of money. The PSII will retail at around $200.

George Lucas is shaking his head at these factoids. We are sitting in a New York hotel talking about the hidden side of the "Star Wars" saga--its technology. No live-action films have ever used more animation, more muppetry and more computer-generated images than the "Star Wars" series, and there is scarcely a shot in "Phantom Menace" that doesn't involve at least one element that wasn't visible to the actors while they were on the set. Lucas estimates, indeed, that 95 percent of the shots use digital effects, and that's apart from other kinds of special effects trickery.

All of this costs money, but the price is coming down. I remember a day in 1990 when I visited Lucas at his Skywalker Ranch and he explained that he'd put the "Star Wars" saga on hold until computers got fast enough and cheap enough to allow him to create any image he could dream up. Now that day is not only here for Lucas--but is approaching at warp speed for ordinary computer owners.

"It's coming in leaps and bounds," Lucas told me. "You know something funny? I have a computer game company, and we have a relationship with Sony, and we're desperately trying to get our hands on the Playstation II so we can start developing games for it. But you can't bring it into the country because it's classified as a supercomputer!"

He shook his head in delight. This was on the day after "Phantom Menace" had screened in New York, and we'd started out to talk about it, but the conversation veered into technology, and he started talking faster and faster.

"I just finished this movie which is kinda state-of-the-art, you know. Nobody's been able to do some of these things. We've created full 3-D digital characters and 3-D environments that are photorealistic, and we were sitting there being extremely proud of ourselves--boy, we're way ahead of everybody.

"And then they put this toy on the desk that is more powerful than anything we're using. It can recreate what we're doing in the movie. I mean, it's like we struggled for four years to get there and a year from now, it's gonna be available to everybody. It's not quite the same quality as what we're putting on film, but it's high enough quality for TV. It's astounding."

Whenever I talk with Lucas, we get off on tangents like this. I think it's because technology is where his imagination is really centered. Yes, he cares deeply about the "Star Wars" universe, and yes, he can talk at length about how Anakin Skywalker has been fathered by sub-microscopic beings who live within our cells. But when the history of 20th century cinema is written, Lucas will be singled out as an inventor and innovator. Most directors see technology as the way to get their stories told. Lucas, I suspect, sees stories as a way to drive breakthroughs in technology.

It has indeed been 16 years since the previous "Star Wars" movie, "Return of the Jedi," but that wasn't down time. Lucas was busier than ever, with the wizards at his Industrial Light and Magic Company leading the charge in special effects (the dinosaurs in "Jurassic Park" were by Lucas as well as Spielberg). Now comes the dawn of unimaginable computing speed, cheap. Five million instructions a second? In a toy?

"The thing about the Playstation II," George Lucas was saying, "is that it works in real time. We didn't make 'Phantom Menace' in real time. Some of the shots in the film took 48 hours to render. We had huge, giant computers cranking every minute of the day. Here they're doing it in real time as you sit there."

Help me to understand something, I said. How can they put that much computing in a $200 toy?"

"I was just as blown away as you were. I looked at it and thought, this is going way too fast. I can't keep up. It's mind-boggling. What they've accomplished is just beyond comprehension, if you know anything about computers."

Somewhere, I said, there will be kids inspired by you, who can create their own fantasies on these machines.

"One thing about 'Star Wars' that I'm really proud of is that it expands the imagination. That's why I like the 'Star Wars' toys. The best part of playing with toys is lying on the rug and moving your little critters around while you're telling a little story to yourself: This guy is gonna go and get that guy... and, you know. I think that's a very healthy thing for children, to be able to create their own little worlds,. To have their imaginations sparked by something like 'Star Wars,' and then be able to re-create that, and play with it, and make new stories.

"Well, that kind of play has progressed, and now it exists on the Internet. There are Web sites that do nothing but create little 'Star Wars.' They make little films and some of them are very sophisticated. They're using bits and pieces from movies, and cutting them up, and adding stuff; they're making trailers, they're making short films and they're using digital betacams, and then they're broadcasting them on web sites with names like 'Star Wars' Fans Movie Festival.

"It's just a matter of time before these little movies start getting longer, and they stop being based on copyrighted property, and they start creating their own characters and broadcasting those. They're just using home digital cameras, and Macintoshes with PhotoShop, and they're creating effects and things that aren't quite at the level where we're doing them--but they're close enough to where you say, gee, this is interesting.

"It's happening at light speed. And now you've got these games where they'll be able to create that same kind of thing in real time. The amazing thing about the Playstation is, you can just walk down the hall and say, 'let's turn left,' and you go left. And it's in the same resolution as the Pixar film called 'Jerry's Game,' which won the Academy Award. The characters aren't super photo-realistic but they're way beyond anything you'll see in a video game today. "That's a Web phenomena. That whole thing was created by the Web and it's broadcast on the Web. It's not really a 'Star Wars' event. The 'Star Wars' thing was sort of the catalyst, but we're gonna live in a very, very different world ten years from now."

Lucas chuckled. "It's a little scary," he said, "but a lot of fun."

And where do you go next? I asked. You have more than $200 to spend on your next machines. People keep talking about how one day we'll just feed all of Marilyn Monroe's performances into a computer, and out will come a new Monroe performance, just as convincing as anything she ever did in her lifetime. You create a convincing character in "Phantom Menace," with the alien Jar Jar Binks, who is completely computer-generated, interacts three-dimensionally with humans in every one of his scenes, and has a captivating personality.

"People say oh, you're gonna replace actors, and it's all gonna be digital," Lucas said. "But in the end, you know, Ahmed Best was the actor who played the part of Jar Jar Binks. He was on the set, he played the scenes with the actors, and then we based the computer images on his performance. I saw him on the stage in "Stomp" and hired him because of his way of body movement.

"In the auditions I auditioned body movement because I wasn't sure whether I was gonna use the voice or not. But just like it happened with Tony Daniels in the first film [the actor who did the voice for the robot C3PO], once an actor gets into that part they kinda become the character. So you have an actor like Ahmed who's there performing on the set with everybody else. And then, with a digital character, you have to bring in a second actor who has the same skills as the first one. Only this actor has other skills, too--because he's an animator. Animators are actors too, They have to understand how to move faces, and how to get expressions and how to create a motion.

"So you ending up actually having to hire two actors to create one character. And it's twice as hard to build a digital character as it is to just hire an actor and have him the say the lines on the set. An alien is one thing, but I think it'll be a long, long time before anybody's digitally creating human actors."

He grinned. "One day they may have Jack Nicholson-type computers, but in our lifetimes, human actors are safe."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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