2005 George Lucas Tribute

By Rochelle L. Levy

George Lucas loves movies. He loves thinking about them. He loves watching them. But, most of all, he loves pushing the boundaries of creativity as he challenges himself and his colleagues to bring to life the most unthinkable scenarios and visual effects. If he imagines it, we'll experience it.

Lucas' impact on modern filmmaking is nothing short of astounding. Starting in 1971 with THX 1138--and continuing on through AMERICAN GRAFFITI, the INDIANA JONES trilogy and, of course, the STAR WARS series--Lucas has forever changed our perception of the reach and power of cinema.

Lucas' pioneering filmmaking advances-- from non-linear picture editing with EditDroid, digital sound editing with SoundDroid and his incomparable THX sound system in 1982; to computer graphics with his Pixar computer in 1985; to his revolutionary digital projection on THE PHANTOM MENACE in 1999 and the first live-action all digital film, ATTACK OF THE CLONES, in 2002--have cemented his leadership role in digital technology.

Yet Lucas was not a kid who lived in a darkened theatre. At age eight, he was a voracious reader--his early interest in history and adventure fueled by a series of historical novels, along with classics like Treasure Island and Mutiny on the Bounty. An unmotivated, bored high school student, he planned on becoming a racecar driver until those dreams were shattered by a horrific car accident. After a long recuperation, he followed his best friend to USC Film School with a vague notion of pursuing photography and art. Instead, the kid whose family didn't own a TV until age 10, who'd gone to movies to scrutinize the girls rather than the images on screen, found his metier--filmmaking.

Ignoring his classmates' gripes about assignment constraints and lack of equipment, Lucas walked out the door and started shooting. By the time he graduated, he had nine impressive credits, ranging from the one-minute animated LOOK AT LIFE to ELECTRIC LABYRINTH THX 1138 4EB, the 15-minute precursor to his first feature. His insistence on making his movies his way resulted in a slew of student filmmaking awards and studio scholarship offers, heralding the emergence of an independent, avant-garde spirit.

Perhaps too avant-garde for the studio system. Deeply disappointed by Warner Bros.' dismissal of his first full-length feature, the fleshed out THX 1138, as too "out there," Lucas turned to a subject with mass appeal. AMERICAN GRAFFITI's simple yet universal story of a Saturday night in the life of one town's teenagers resonated with audiences and critics alike, while ushering in a brand new type of filmmaking, complete with nonlinear storytelling and wall-to-wall pop music.

And then, Lucas sent us to a place "A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away." But getting there was not easy. When Lucas began pitching STAR WARS, no studio would touch it. The story combined three seemingly disparate genres--mythology, westerns and samurai films--into a modern fairytale. It took the faith of one executive at Twentieth Century Fox, Alan Ladd Jr., to believe in Lucas enough to give him a chance, and, in 1977, a new movie-going experience was born. STAR WARS captivated audiences not only by its extraordinary visual effects and pioneering sound design, but also by Lucas' unique take on the classic good versus evil story, with his passion for history, anthropology and the mythological teachings of Joseph Campbell lacing even the most alien characters with a sense of place and purpose.

Over the next six years, Lucas continued to explore the psychological archeology of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo, et al. With the success of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and RETURN OF THE JEDI, the man who envisioned himself an independent, cinema verite documentarian had undeniably become a filmmaker for the masses. While Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford are forever linked to the enormously popular INDIANA JONES trilogy, it is George Lucas who created the iconic character and story.

And the devotion of his fans is astonishing. Six weeks before the May 19, 2005, opening of STAR WARS: EPISODE III REVENGE OF THE SITH, they were storming stores at midnight to buy new action-figures. A month in advance, they were already camping outside theatres. The final installment of the STAR WARS oeuvre is a testament to the power of Lucas' storytelling, as the kids who thrilled to the original episode returned 28 years later to share the adventure with their own children. A fitting conclusion to this most extraordinary cinematic journey, as Lucas considers raising his three children to be his greatest accomplishment.

Lucas' commitment to film extends well beyond his STAR WARS franchise. A fiercely loyal friend, he has generously-- and quietly--offered his name and financial support to films such as Akira Kurosawa's KAGEMUSHA, Paul Schrader's MISHIMA: A LIFE IN FOUR CHAPTERS and Jim Henson's LABYRINTH; while producing, under the Lucasfilm banner, movies as diverse as WILLOW, HOWARD THE DUCK and TUCKER: THE MAN AND HIS DREAM.

Lucas' success has always been on his own terms. Which means choosing to work at Skywalker Ranch in California's Marin County, affording him an unprecedented level of creative freedom. Fellow filmmakers also take refuge there as they finish their own projects at Lucas' state-of-the-art post-production facility. But the consequences of his independence are considerable--Lucas is inarguably the hardest-working man in show business. Surrounding himself with trusted, highly gifted artisans, he immerses himself in every aspect of the production process, earning his colleagues' respect of and commitment to his creative vision.

With 1,500 employees, Lucas is Chairman of the Board of Lucasfilm, a banner that includes Industrial Light & Magic, Skywalker Sound, LucasArts Entertainment Company and Lucas Licensing. A man with an exceptional moral center, Lucas' sense of right and wrong defines him as much as his professional triumphs. A strong believer in giving back to society--and remembering his own frustrating early school years--in 1991 he founded the George Lucas Educational Foundation, bringing fun and creativity to the learning process. And he continues to generously support the USC School of Cinema-Television.

By tirelessly pushing himself and his team to previously unimaginable levels, George Lucas has redefined American cinema. Because of his incomparable work ethic, expert insight into the American Zeitgeist and extraordinary ability to craft a cultural phenomenon from his seemingly limitless imagination, the American Film Institute is honored to present George Lucas with AFI's 33rd Life Achievement Award.

by Tenzin Bob Thurman

George Lucas--We honor you as a visionary, a bard and a hi-tech scientific artist, a kind of Da Vinci of the digital age.

The first time I met George, almost before we sat down, he turned to me and said: "All my films are about compassion! Compassion! That's all I care about!" I was startled because at that time George didn't know much about me, or even about Buddhism. And the mythology George had always been so interested in--much of which he learned from the great Joseph Campbell--illustrated not just compassion but many other sins and virtues as well. But George had an affinity for compassion--the heart of all religions and all spiritualities--and the vision to see that, without it, the world is lost.

The great STAR WARS epic traces the lifeline of compassion. The Jedi power stems from the goodness of the light side, their honor code resisting the evil temptations of the dark side. Unable to overcome his despair over the death of his mother and the loss of his wife, however, Anakin tragically loses his compassion. Luke and Princess Leia's determination and compassion are unwavering in the face of the crushing oppression of the Evil Empire. Finally, Anakin as Darth Vader finds redemption once again through the power of love and compassion, giving his life to save his son from the Emperor.

As bard, George has transcended Homer in this most vibrant medium of our age. No matter where I am in the world, incorporating the heroic Luke into my lectures on hope and courage sparks instant recognition and assent from audiences of all generations. To illustrate how the force of selfless love and compassion is more powerful, ultimately, than egotistical greed and rage, I speak of Luke encountering the luminous presence of Obi-Wan, who entreats him calmly to, "Remember the Force, Luke! Trust the Force! The Force is with you!" A tale of liberation, the STAR WARS epic celebrates the triumph of the meek, as its heroes and heroines model the supreme power of compassion.

As scientific artist, a digital da Vinci, George has pushed the frontiers of movie magic, inspiring people by the billions with his storytelling. He has turned an oxymoron into a thriving business, making light and magic into an industry. He has etherealized the iron chains of the industrial with the clear light of loving imagination, releasing the sparkling magic so desperately needed to inspire the children who will joyfully create the new world of the coming millennium of peace.

Now, George, don't let it all go to your head. But do accept our loving and grateful tribute in honor of the gentleness of your being and the magnificence of your vision. Bathe in it and enjoy it to the full. But do not for a minute think your mission is complete--far from it! The horizon of compassion is infinite, its theatre unending in its call for encores. The freer you are from pressure, the better you can see the open upturned faces of the future, the more energized will be your creativity. The "Hero of a Thousand Faces" also has thousands of eyes and thousands of hands, seeing all who need. And reaching out to them just so. OM MANI PADME HUM!

Robert Thurman is Professor of Buddhist Studies and Chair of the Department of Religion at Columbia University. His latest book is "Infinite Life".