SAN FRANCISCO, CA - In his office at the Letterman Digital Arts Center, his state-of-the-art production headquarters, George Lucas is hard at work preparing the initial episodes of his much anticipated new Star Wars live-action television series. Production on the series, which is being readied for a 2009 debut, continues despite the fact that, 375 miles to the south, in Hollywood, members of the Writer's Guild of America continue to walk picket lines.
Within its first few days, the WGA strike has forced many of American television's most-watched scripted series to halt production, with reruns or hastily assembled alternative programming scheduled to air until the dispute between the Writer's Guild and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers can be resolved.
"I wish the writers the best of luck," Lucas explains from behind his stained mahogany desk, turning for a moment to his flat-screen computer monitor and using his wireless mouse to make some minute adjustment, "but the strike doesn't affect me. I haven't actually had to write anything for years."
Asked to explain, Lucas proudly demonstrates the latest version of his ForceShop software. ForceShop, he explains, was created by Microsoft specifically for the production of Star Wars projects through his company, LucasFilm. In the span of just a few minutes, he demonstrates how a visually complex action sequence can be assembled using the software, by simply dragging and dropping characters into the desired setting, adding the appropriate weapons and vehicles, inputting the desired outcome, including any character injuries or deaths, and allowing the program to play out the scenario. The finished sequence can be saved as a DVD-ready high definition digital video file, ready to be incorporated into a film or, as in this case, a television episode.
"We used earlier versions of this for the first prequel," says Lucas, speaking of Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace, the 1999 film which marked the return of his Star Wars franchise to the big screen and has grossed nearly $1 billion worldwide. "Of course, the technology then wasn't quite what it is today. For many of the characters, we still had to use actors, and since the actors needed something to say while they were on the screen, I had to do a little writing here and there. Still," he says, "it was way better than working on the original trilogy. Back then, I had to use a typewriter, or later a word processor, to write a full 120, 130-page script! I hated it so much that after the first one I just hired other people to do it for me. I didn't even read 'em most of the time."
By the time production began on the second prequel, 2002's Attack of the Clones, Lucas says most of the technological problems had been solved. "When I said that Episode II was going to be the first fully digital motion picture, I meant exactly that," Lucas says. "We had to pay Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Hayden Christensen to use their likenesses and digitally recreate their voices, but that was just for some legal thing. The second and third prequels were made pretty much at my desk, with one or two minor sequences put together on my laptop during plane rides."
Lucas is quick to assert that ForceShop is not screenwriting software. "Other than choosing which characters appear in which scene, it asks for no creative input," he says. "As a program, it's a lot more like The Sims or The Movies than something like Final Draft - have you ever played that, Final Draft? It is like the most boring game I've ever played. I don't know how they can keep making it."
Rather than requiring the user to employ his or her own imagination, ForceShop utilizes a complex artificial intelligence that is able to stage scenes, generate dialogue, and direct sequences that, if produced in the traditional method, using human actors in a physical setting, would take days or even weeks to complete. "And," Lucas adds, "the AI has so many options to choose from that you can run the same scene more than once and come up with something completely different each time! Those opening scenes for Episode I are just the first thing that the program came up with. I could run that scene over again with the same variables and wind up with something completely different. Instead of the Trade Federation, it might come up with the Cosmic Confederacy, or something. Doesn't that sound cool? The Cosmic Confederacy . . ."
Lucas leans back in his chair and gazes contentedly up at the high carved ceiling of his office. A momentary look of panic flashes across his face and he leans forward. "I didn't write that," he declares, frantically waving his hands, "the Cosmic Confederacy. That wasn't me. That was the program."