George Lucas is most widely known as the man who created Star Wars but he is also an influential person in many other ways. Not just in Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking and the resurgance of science fiction in popular culture, but in independent films, visual effects, sound, animation, video games and the theater experience in general.
Born in Modesto, California in 1944, George Lucas was a creative young nerd who, just like many kids his age, loved Disney, comic books, science fiction and Flash Gordon. He was also ambitious because he planned on going to art school and becoming rich ever since he was a teenager.
An aspiring young Walt Disney, Lucas studied literature, sociology and anthropology in college but his true passion came when he began making short films with his 8mm camera. Just like many of Lucas’ filmmaking peers in the New Hollywood era, he was a fan of European films of the Italian Neorealism and French New Wave period and experimental art films. His friends recognized his talent and knack for visual storytelling and recommended he transfer from Modesto Junior College to the University of Southern California (USC) School of Cinematic Arts, which was one of the earliest schools devoted to motion picture film and learning ground of such alumni as John Carpenter, Ron Howard, Joe Johnston, John Milius, John Singleton, Robert Zemeckis and many other filmmakers of note.
Lucas was inspired by a variety of films, filmmakers and teachers at USC, becoming a particular fan of “pure cinema” (an avant-garde movement from France which saw film as its own independent art form with no influence from literature and stage, often implementing non-narrative and abstract art to convey emotion).
In 1967 after graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, he directed a 15-minute film that won first prize at a student film festival. It was a sci-fi film called Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB and it received mainstream attention from film studios, publications like the Los Angeles Times and fellow filmmakers like Steven Spielberg.
Lucas adapted the film to feature length for Warner Bros. in 1971 with THX 1138. He later directed American Graffiti (1973) and Star Wars (1977), wrote the stories for The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, the Indiana Jones trilogy, Willow and Radioland Murders and executive produced such films as Kagemusha, Twice Upon a Time, Labyrinth, Howard the Duck and The Land Before Time before returning to directing with the Star Wars prequel trilogy.
All of these films were produced by Lucas’ production company Lucasfilm, first founded in 1971 with American Graffiti as its first production. Lucasfilm, which Lucas sold to Disney in 2012, is the company most people associate with the filmmaker although he is involved with the creation of a few other significant companies in the entertainment landscape. Here is the proof that Lucas’ influence has had a huge ripple effect beyond just his own film studio.
American Zoetrope is a film studio that was founded by George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola in San Francisco, California in 1969 as an independent creator-friendly studio. Similar to the anti-Hollywood United Artists and with similar ambitions of self-distribution. United Artists would ultimately be purchased by MGM in the eighties but American Zoetrope managed to avoid that fate as the Coppola family remains the owner to this day. While the studio wasn’t a game changer like Lucas hoped it would be, it has been responsible for producing many well-known movies including The Godfather (1972), Apocalypse Now (1979), Koyaanisqatsi (1982), Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), The Virgin Suicides (1999), Sleepy Hollow (1999), Lost in Translation (2003) and Marie Antoinette (2006) as well as the Amazon Video series Mozart in the Jungle (2014-18).
Industrial Light & Magic
Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) is a motion picture visual effects company founded by George Lucas in 1975 while he was making Star Wars, mainly because 20th Century Fox’s in-house effects department was no longer operational. Lucas recruited John Dykstra and a team of artists and engineers in Van Nuys, California which included such legends as Joe Johnston, Dennis Muren, Phil Tippett and Richard Edlund to work on the special effects for Star Wars and following the film’s huge success, the company moved to Marin County where it expanded and has gone on to provide the special effects for hundreds of films, including all the Star Wars films, the Indiana Jones films, the Star Trek films, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Jurassic Park, Forrest Gump, the Mission: Impossible films, the Harry Potter films, the Pirates of the Caribbean films, the Transformers films, the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Avatar, Pacific Rim and even the TV shows Star Trek: The Next Generation, Tales from the Crypt, The Mandalorian, The Boys and WandaVision as well as the animation for the Oscar-winning film Rango.
This sound effects, sound design, sound mixing and music recording company was first founded by George Lucas as Sprocket Systems the same year ILM was founded before it moved to Skywalker Ranch (Lucas’ office building in Nicasio, California) and being renamed Skywalker Sound in 1987. It is the sound building that is obviously used to record all the films of Lucasfilm but also a lot of Steven Spielberg, Disney, Marvel and Pixar films as well as many animated films from Blue Sky, DreamWorks, Illumination, Laika and other studios plus a lot of episodes of The Simpsons in the early nineties.
A computer animation studio located in Emeryville, California that began in 1979 as the graphics department of Lucasfilm’s computer division before getting spun off into its own corporation in 1986 with financial aid from Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. After gaining attention with its amazing short films in the eighties such as The Adventures of André & Wally B., Luxo Jr., Red’s Dream, Tin Toy and Knick Knack, the animation studio made history when it made the first fully computer-animated feature film Toy Story in 1995 and it has had a string of success ever since with such films as Monsters, Inc. (2001), Finding Nemo (2003), The Incredibles (2004), Cars (2006), Ratatouille (2007), WALL-E (2008), Up (2009), Inside Out (2015), Coco (2017) and Soul (2020).
In addition to the graphics department of George Lucas’ computer division that led to the creation of Pixar, Lucas also created the computer games department which became known as Lucasfilm Games in 1982. The company started out developing games for other video game publishers like Atari, Activision and Electronic Arts but it later self-published its own games. It is most famous for its games based on the Star Wars series, some of the best being flight combat PC game Star Wars: X-Wing (1993), its sequel Star Wars: TIE Fighter (1994), Star Wars: Rogue Squadron (1998) and Star Wars: Episode I – Racer (1999), but in the eighties, Atari owned the video game rights to Star Wars, thus forcing the team of artists at Lucasfilm Games to get creative and come up with original concepts, which was for the best since they never would have made some amazing games had Star Wars taken up their time, including the humorous and critically acclaimed point-and-click adventure game Maniac Mansion (1987) and other great games like Battlehawks 1942 (1988), Loom (1990), The Secret of Monkey Island (1990), Day of the Tentacle (1993), Sam & Max Hit the Road (1993), Full Throttle (1995), Afterlife (1996) and Grim Fandango (1998).
George Lucas originally co-founded THX alongside audio engineer Tomlinson Holman in 1983 as a way of guaranteeing quality assurance and high-standard sound reproduction for films shown in movie theaters and later home theaters, cars, computers, consoles and video games. Holman developed it because Lucas was unsatisfied with the sound quality of his films in theaters and he wanted to make sure Return of the Jedi’s soundtrack was an accurate representation of the work from his sound designers. Theaters had started to implement THX for certain films afterward and began promoting it at the beginning of their films as a way of assuring the best sound quality, often with the famous “deep note” crescendo created by audio engineer James A. Moorer loudly greeting audiences. It is no longer owned by Lucasfilm. Hardware company Razor Inc. owns it now. But the high sound quality of the average theater has made its existence less relevant.
Many of these influential companies would likely not exist without George Lucas and the success of Star Wars. It’s crazy to think about how significant that movie was to the existence of so many things I love. All because Lucas never lost faith in his own creativity as a storyteller and maintained his independent spirit while Hollywood was trying to convince him that no one in the seventies would ever be interested in a sci-fi adventure film. His response to that was to redefine Hollywood.