George Lucas Talks Animation And Art As Engineering

Monday was a surreal experience, like some strange middle-school dream come back to haunt me in my still fresh and uncertain early thirties. I woke up in a San Francisco hotel, hopped on a bus crammed with other journalists who since they were all up drinking the night before, may or may not have had time to shower before hitting the transportation, and was shuttled out to Lucasfilm’s Big Rock Ranch. No not Skywalker Ranch, I’m talking the next Lucas ranch over. This is the place where Star Wars: The Clone Wars was created, the place where George Lucas and his young padawan Dave Feloni turned Anakin and Obi Wan into a bunch of pixels. Granted, with all the CGI used in the live action movies they were already mostly pixels anyway, but this time they’re less realistic looking pixels… intentionally.

My mission was to sit at the feet of the supreme Jedi Master, George Lucas himself, and listen as he instructed my fellow travelers in the ways of using the Force to make an animated movie. It’s strange, ten years ago this would have been the most exciting experience of my life. Now, while I was excited, that excitement was tinged with a sort of wistful regret, a longing for what Star Wars might have been had 1999 gone a different way. The kid inside me who used to do obeisance every time he saw George Lucas’s name plastered on anything and everything isn’t dead, but he’s a little more low key these days.

Suddenly, George Lucas was there in front of me, live and in person, accompanied by his Star Wars: The Clone Wars’ director Dave Feloni. Unfortunately, he had time to answer only a scant few questions, before being whisked away by his publicist. Even Feloni seemed surprised by the brevity of our press packed interview session, remarking to Lucas as their publicist attempted to usher them out, “I thought there would be so much more.” To which even the notoriously media shy Lucas responded “yeah.” In his short time preaching the power of his hokey religion though, George and plenty to say; not just about his animated movie but about the entertainment industry in general. He may not have answered many questions, but Lucas seemed ready and willing to say whatever the heck happened to be on his mind that morning, and I was happy to be there. This was George freakin Lucas after all. Hey, I think that inner child of mine may have just woken up.

The thing that really caught my attention was the way he talked about animation and art in general. It’s no secret that George Lucas is a total techno-freak, and he’s often been criticized for putting technology before story and for going overboard with CGI. George though, thinks that it doesn’t matter whether something is live action or animated, it’s all about how realistic it looks. Poised in front us in his traditional interview pose, with his arms folded as if to brace himself against our questions he said: “Photorealistic is what live action movies are. Animation is an art. It’s like, and I, uh, this is an art, philosophical discussion. You either like photorealistic art, that looks exactly like a photograph… or you like something that actually tries to find the truth behind the realism. To me animation is an art, it’s all about design, it’s all about style, it’s not about making it look photo real. Photo real, I’ve been making photo real movies all my life. And they have a lot of animation in them, but they’re still photo real. That’s not what animation is. Animation is something else entirely, it’s a completely different medium.”

It’s not just that he doesn’t see any difference between actually shooting something real with a camera and faking it with realistic computer animation though. Heck, he thinks art is really just engineering. He says, “Art is a technological medium. All art is. So a lot of it has to do with engineering and, trying to figure out how to create what you imagine. It’s also a medium that is dictated primarily by the amount of resources you have available to you. If you’re pharaoh you can build pyramids. If you’re a shaman, you really only have a few pieces of chalk and the wall of a cave, and you have to work within that.” In other words, according to Lucas, “Given enough time and money you can make anything.” Speaking as someone who used to actually be an engineer though George, let me assure you there’s absolutely nothing artistic about it, unless you consider writing code in a cubicle until it slowly eats away your soul as artistic. Art may be engineering, but engineering definitely isn’t art.

However it’s that technology first viewpoint which has made the man what he is today, one of the film industry’s most incredible innovators. But it’s hard not to wonder if that same viewpoint is what’s often left so many Star Wars fans disappointed. Though are they really disappointed? It doesn’t seem to have hurt his franchise any, and no doubt once Clone Wars hits, it’ll pull in plenty of us hungry Star Wars nerds. Who are we kidding, it has lightsabers. We won’t be able to help ourselves. Lucas, you’ve got us hooked bad.

We were there to talk Clone Wars though, and things kept turning back to that. One of the big questions on the mind of a lot of fans is why so few of the live action Star Wars cast showed up to participate voicing their animated versions. According to Lucas and his team, it all boils down to budget and timing. This was supposed to be a TV series after all, and though it’s now a movie, their original plan didn’t have the likes of Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen in the cards. Once they got around to asking them, time was too short.

But what’s really interesting is this got Lucas going on the subject of voice talent in general, and the way it’s changed in recent years. He doesn’t seem entirely certain whether or not it’s changed for the better. He told us, “It used to be animation you had actors play the parts. The secret is that a lot of people, especially in television animation, didn’t hire really great actors, and even in features they didn’t. So the idea of hiring a really good actor, you know, a Tom Hanks to play something, was a really revolutionary idea. It was mostly Jeff Katzenberg who said we need really top actors. Well there are a lot of top actors that aren’t movie stars. Partly they did it because they were great actors, partly they did it because they wanted to use it for publicity, so they could sit up here and talk to you. And to be very honest with you… I don’t really think I need to hire an actor, a big movie star to go and publicize my movie. If the movie works, and you like it, you love it, that’s fine. But I don’t need Angelina Jolie here to have you guys come and say, ‘I’m only going to the press conference because Angelina Jolie is going to be there and I want to get her autograph.’ That’s what it comes down to, that’s what they do. They have 2 days in a studio or 3 days in a studio, and then they have like 2 weeks doing press. So they’re mainly paid for the press, they’re not really paid for the movie. I’m sure I’m going to hear from Jeff about that.”

The press conference was called to an end, and rather than thanking him for his time, most of the assembled press leaped out of their seats to bum rush the man. His attempts to exit the little press room gracefully were stymied. He couldn’t have left if he wanted to, pinned against a wall with a dozen reporters shoving microphones in his face and desperately trying to drag some question or scoop out of him in order to get traffic for their particular website or publication. I’m probably not supposed to reveal that this sort half-crazed press pouncing happens, I’m sure it’s in the reporter brotherhood code or something, but then I’ve never claimed to be much of a reporter. I’m sure most of the folks involved in the Lucas post-press conference full-court press will tell their readers they boldly and heroically took a recorder up to Lucas’s table, in something resembling a professional and polite manner, to get their all important question in and bring out a scoop. But that’s not what happened. It was a frenzied information gang rape, a last ditch effort to trap the man and squeeze him dry before he could exit the room. It’s understandable I suppose, after all Lucas doesn’t exactly do a lot of interviews and most of us are likely never to have another chance to question him. I don’t blame anyone for doing it, and perhaps I should have done it as well, even if it made me feel like a heel for pawing at someone I admire and respect. But on the other hand maybe that sort of frantic attack questioning has played a part in turning him off to the media in the first place.

Check back with Cinema Blend next week when we’ll have more on Star Wars: The Clone Wars, including a complete review of the film and if you’re lucky glamour shots of me wearing my newly purchased Industrial Light and Magic t-shirt while holding a sign that says, “Meesa shared air with George Lucas!”

Josh Tyler