The New Force at Lucasfilm

The tech convergence has George Lucas’s gaming and movie divisions working hand-in-glove. R&D honcho Steve Sullivan and project lead Chris Williams explain how it’s working

There's a natural affinity between the fantasy worlds created in movies and video games. At Lucasfilm Ltd., George Lucas' privately held entertainment company, the convergence of technology and manpower is hastening that collision. The ultimate goal is to boost collaboration between Industrial Light & Magic, the vaunted effects shop and biggest Lucasfilm unit, and its smaller game division, LucasArts.

The payoff is two-fold. ILM's legendary technological prowess helps improve the next generation of video games. Exposure to LucasArts is expected to help imbue ILM with some of the game unit's faster-paced culture -- and it will yield more video-game-like tools for use in movie-making.

The core technology driving the convergence is a proprietary internal software platform called Zeno, which both ILM and LucasArts will now use. Having a common technology lays the groundwork for each division to access the other's work and -- the hope is -- will lead to increased collaboration and borrowing.


  The convergence is also aided quite literally by Lucasfilm's new facility at the Presidio in San Francisco, which brings together units previously separated by geography and corporate culture. LucasArts moved in last July, and most of ILM was in house by October.

On Friday, Mar. 24, Steve Sullivan, ILM's head of research and development, and Project Lead Chris Williams, a LucasArts producer, spoke to the Game Developer's Conference in San Jose about the convergence between the two units. BusinessWeek Corporate Strategies editor Brian Hindo caught up with them by phone. Here are edited excerpts of their chat:

What was the impetus of this drive for more collaboration between LucasArts and ILM?

Sullivan: I think George [Lucas] has intended this for quite a long time. It was hard before because we were geographically separate. The technology wasn't far enough that ILM and LucasArts could actually trade all that much.

Computers had to get to a certain speed before it could really be meaningful to use film graphics in games. The consoles had to be powerful enough to support that kind of thing. We really had a sweet spot where the companies have co-located in the same building. And George is really strongly dedicated to this now that Star Wars is done.

What's the hope for all this collaboration?

Williams: George views LucasArts as a company that can do things very, very quickly and in real time. But we still have a lot of room to grow in terms of our visual quality and our visual target. And ILM is a company that can do things with very high visual quality. But that takes them a lot of time. So this is not just ILM helping Lucasarts make our games look better. It's really a shared benefit.

Sullivan: We're definitely not real time. We're more concerned with "can we do it," rather than "how fast can we do it." Because our pipeline is built on taking a long time to get a perfect image, it slows down that period of iterative process, where you're looking at something -- "Is this right? Now, let's change that." The game engines they're building at LucasArts and the way they're pushing their tools, they're going to provide us with techniques that are maybe approximate, but really fast -- like real time. You can converge very quickly to 95% and then send it off to the render farm (where computer generated images are rendered).

So that can save you time and money?

Sullivan: Yeah. It also changes the content of the projects, because you can iterate very quickly through ideas, brainstorm things. You might get two or three stabs at some big idea.

What else might more collaboration with LucasArts enable ILM to do?

Sullivan: Pre-visualization, which is a big thing that George has been pushing lately. It's a tool that directors would use to quickly mock up the ideas of a story and see what's going to work. It's really like building up a preview of a movie in a video game world. Instead of using static story boards, you can really just get in and create 3D content and camera moves directly. It's the best example of the kind of collaboration we've got going on. It came from George -- it didn't come from either division. But it requires things that both divisions have expertise in.

What's different about movie people vs. game people?

Williams: Fundamentally, movie people are all about shots. How they get to the shot, and the process that they go through, is new and different and there are unique challenges associated with that. But at the end of the day the final output is something that goes on film. In game development you're making a software application. It's code that needs to run on a piece of hardware. So that's a very fundamental shift in terms of what your output is.

You also just have to do a shot once, while a game has to work over and over again, in different ways.

Sullivan: Quality assurance (QA) is a fundamental part of their culture and we don't have it at ILM. They have to have QA, and it's really rigorous, because it's not just for their development process. The product going out the door is going to be judged on whether there are bugs in it.

As a result of the convergence, moving into new offices and using a new software platform, Zeno, what sorts of cultural shifts have been going on at LucasArts?

Williams: What LucasArts needed to do, from a cultural standpoint, was really embrace this notion of developing a cross-company tool with a pretty well established code base. And obviously not everything about that code base is going to be optimal for what we want to do, so there were certain concessions and compromises that we made early on. But now we're in a really good place where the tool's working really well for us. That was a challenge. The history of game development is one of small groups of engineers growing it from scratch. And this was us embracing a huge set of already established code.

This collaboration seems to imply that the traditional way video games and films are made will change.

Sullivan: An example would be, ILM is doing a shot for a film, but LucasArts artists can have that exact shot sitting on their desk, and they can start building a game environment around it or incorporating that somehow.

Is that happening already?

Williams: It's not happening right now, in that there's no project that ILM and LucasArts are both collaborating on right now. But there is full intention that we get to that place. That's certainly a key part of the vision.

We're not in a space right now where we just want to be cranking out movie games. To the extent that we did that with the Episode III game, we're kind of done with that. We want to be telling new stories, new experiences, and really taking advantage of the interactive medium. And not just rehashing or serving up a film experience in a sort of interactive way. We're not sitting here right now waiting for ILM to come to us with some big film project so we can just crank out a movie game of it. The goal is use these tools, techniques, and knowledge to make a really exciting, innovative, next-gen product.

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