Along with his friend and occasional collaborator Steven Spielberg, George Lucas was the key figure behind the American film industry's evolution (or, according to most critics, de-evolution) from cinema to spectacle during the late '70s. The mastermind behind two of the most lucrative franchises in history -- Star Wars and the Indiana Jones features, respectively -- Lucas redefined the concept of the Hollywood motion picture, shifting the focus of film away from acting and personal storytelling to special effects, production design, and rapid-fire action. Remaining at all times on the cutting edge of merchandising and technology, he forever altered the ways in which movies are perceived by audiences and studios alike.
Born May 14, 1944, in Modesto, CA, George Walton Lucas Jr.'s first love was not filmmaking, but auto racing. Only a serious wreck forced him out of the sport, and he eventually enrolled in the University of Southern California's famed film school program. There his experimental short subject THX 1138 won a number of awards and helped earn him an internship at Warner Bros. studios, where he worked as a production assistant on fellow U.S.C. alum Francis Ford Coppola's 1969 effort The Rain People. After working on the Al and David Maysles brothers' 1970 Rolling Stones documentary Gimme Shelter, Lucas (with Coppola's financial assistance) mounted a feature-length remake of THX 1138. The end result, starring Robert Duvall, won rave reviews, and swiftly established itself as a major cult favorite. The success of THX 1138 brought Lucas to the attention of Universal Studios, which agreed to finance 1973's nostalgic American Graffiti, a superb reminiscence on early-'60s America which launched the motion-picture careers of talents including Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, and Harrison Ford. Even more important was the film's soundtrack, a collection of vintage rock & roll hits which became an immediate best-seller and established the formula for movie soundtracks for decades to come. Shot on a miniscule budget, American Graffiti grossed over 145 million dollars, and earned a number of Academy Award nominations including nods for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. Suddenly, Lucas was a major Hollywood player, and he was given much greater latitude and support in developing his next project. That next project proved to be 1977's Star Wars, one of the most important and successful films in Hollywood history. A space opera inspired by the writings of Joseph Campbell (as well as, in no small part, Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress), it incorporated elements of mythology and religion to create a self-contained universe populated by larger-than-life characters in extraordinary situations, all achieved with the latest in cutting-edge technology. Made for just under ten million dollars, Star Wars grossed over 400 million dollars globally on just its initial run alone, creating a cottage industry of toys, comic books, and other collectibles and establishing science fiction as Hollywood's dominant genre. The overwhelming success of Star Wars did more than simply alter the kinds of films the studios looked to produce, however; it also forever changed the way films were made. The most notable aspect of the picture's storytelling was its breakneck pacing, edited by Lucas himself in tandem with his wife. Seemingly no film had ever moved so quickly, and its overwhelming success proved not only that a generation weaned on the rapid pace of television could easily absorb such an onslaught of image and sound, but that this was the kind of narrative they wanted to see on a regular basis. Studios scrambled to develop their own sci-fi projects, while Lucas himself turned to studying the pioneering special effects work of innovators like Willis O'Brien and Linwood Dunn, ultimately establishing his own F/X company, Industrial Light and Magic, to assist other filmmakers and technicians in creating the most accomplished visuals possible. The work of the Industrial Light and Magic team quickly became the industry standard, constantly remaining two or three steps ahead of their competition by applying the latest technological advances to manufacture seamless visual effects. Eventually, they became among the very first to work with computer graphics. Lucas also established Skywalker Sound, a state-of-the-art post-production audio facility which later developed THX, a means of creating new levels of sophistication in motion-picture soundtracks.