Saturday, July 17, 2010

July 17, 1976 – Young Filmmaker Dies of Heart Attack

George Lucas, best known for his directing triumph in the film American Graffiti, died after complications from a stress-induced heart attack. He had been working on his new project, a "space opera" film that was something of a Flash Gordon adaptation with dogfights and samurai. After his previous science fiction film THX 1138 won the National Student Film Festival, he championed his new project, serving as writer, director, and producer in many sittings, consistently fighting with Fox Studios to keep funding secure. While the film would never be completed after his death, he had imagined it as something world-changing.

Lucas had just returned to San Francisco from reviewing his film company Lucasfilm’s special effects unit (“Industrial Light and Magic”) that had spent half of its budget and only completed three shots, none of them to his standards. Depression and stress struck the director hard, and he arranged to assume control of the special effects himself before returning home to San Francisco. Upon arrival, he complained of chest pains. His wife drove him to Marin General Hospital, where he would pass away.

The death of the young is always a tragedy, but life and Hollywood go on. None can say what his special effects were to do, but our own effects continued impressively with 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, groundbreaking in its own right. Puppetry, miniatures, costumes, and camera tricks always have been and always will be a great facet of fantasy film.

In reality, George Lucas survived his hypertension and vowed to reduce his workload, perhaps even never to direct again. He would still guide his special effects team at ILM, eventually growing it so massive and technologically advanced that it would split into different companies, each changing the sensation of viewing a film. Skywalker Sound and THX would serve as incredible new sources for digital sound editing and production. ILM itself would revolutionize special effects by using computer graphics for such landmarks as the Genesis Sequence in Star Trek II, the Stained-Glass Man in Young Sherlock Holmes, and the fully computer generated character of the Pseudopod in The Abyss. A portion of ILM, Pixar, would be itself responsible for bringing respectability to using full computer animation with such films as Toy Story and Up.

Of course, Lucas was also responsible for the creation of two of the greatest film franchises in history: Indiana Jones with Steven Spielberg and Star Wars, which very nearly killed him.

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