High Magic

“Star Wars” and the start of my career.

Star Wars was made for kids, and the kid in everyone. In 1977 when the film released, while Lucas was celebrating his thirty-third birthday on the beach in Maui, I struggled through Central Florida’s ungodly humidity, waiting in record lines to see the flick before heading off to summer camp. As a thirteen-year-old boy, I was in the target market for this film. Like so much of America, I was inexplicably drawn to those first images I had seen in Time magazine, to the strange names of characters and places.That summer I was at a camp in the woods of northern Wisconsin, a thousand miles from my home.

Throughout the small cabins were a black market of photographs snapped in darkened theaters — of X-wing fighters and storm troopers — usually bartered for candy bars and Sunday cabin cleaning favors. The camp’s program director (who campers called “Starn”) kept a wary eye on the illicit activities. Starn wasn’t like other counselors. At twenty-three, he was the personification of cool. His composure was Arthurian, or a Jedi master; he was deeply admired by campers and staff alike. He maintained an eerie control over kids that itself became a source of camp lore; it was said he was a master of “high magic,” an expression Starn himself used sometimes. If you asked him about high magic, if you were lucky you might find yourself in a deep talk around the campfire; by morning, you were never quite sure if he admitted he was a wizard or had told you there was no such thing.

“There are things that are known and things that are not known,” he’d say to his padawan, “and there are things that are real and things that are not real. Just because something is not known does not necessarily mean it is not real.” Heady stuff for pre-teens.

With images of Star Wars fresh in our minds, we always felt a direct connection with the fantastical story through the magic of our real-life Jedi counselor. You couldn’t get close enough to the warmth of that glow.

Years later, after having lost touch with those wilderness days, I was a college junior at Brown University. Crossing the green early in spring I came across two freshmen who were oddly familiar — former campmates! Not only were we excited to see each other, but they were — at that precise moment — on their way to meet up with a grown-up Starn who was visiting campus that day. “Would I like to come? I’m sure he’d love to see you.” Would I possibly pass up an opportunity to re-connect with the wizard of high magic himself? I wondered silently what he’d really be like, far from the firelight and the northwoods mythology. After warm hugs and a soda, we faced off in a small café for a recap of our lives. What does a charismatic legend like Starn do for a job?

“I work for George Lucas,” he said.

Of course he did.

Before we said good-bye, he told me he figured I’d like it at Lucasfilm, although he wasn’t in a position to hire me. Maybe a summer job? Maybe an internship? Lucasfilm didn’t have summer jobs or internships, but there’s always a first. With Starn as my principal connection, I began obsessively following the public face of the company—reading articles, shooting off pithy letters to executives, making strategic phone calls—to try to secure a position. Periodically there would be hope only a month later to be dashed. This continued for eighteen months. My parents insisted I come up with a plan for a career after graduation. I insisted my schedule had to remain open.

Three days before graduation I got the call that I had been waiting for. I was invited to join a new project Lucas was initiating, involving computers and Hollywood.

The Lucasfilm Computer Division was a skunkworks that Lucas had enacted in 1979, during the making of Empire Strikes Back. By 1984 the advanced (and secretive) research in editing movies, sound, computer graphics and games had crystalized into tangible tools and products. I expected to join the graphics project (later known as Pixar), but by the time I arrived at my desk in San Rafael, California, I found I had been assigned to The Droid Works, introducing new editing and sound tools to Hollywood. I demonstrated the EditDroid and SoundDroid to directors; I wrote the user manual; I trained editors in New York and Los Angeles. Eventually I became an editor myself.

The executives and managers in the company considered me sufficiently non-threatening that they exposed me to their tribulations. Because I had no other life, it was not uncommon for my evenings to be spent with someone or another who was happy to rant about our company, Hollywood, and Silicon Valley. I was young enough that my social circle of underlings extended throughout the divisions of Lucasfilm and all the subgroups in the splintering Computer Division. For almost two years I experienced remarkable events first-hand, events that not only changed filmmaking but resonated through all of media technology.

By the time George Lucas began making the prequel trilogy to Star Wars in the late 1990s, his visions for modernizing Hollywood had become well-established practices, and the legacy of the Computer Division was wide-spread. Everywhere I turned were reminders of those days — Pixar movies,THX logos, epic blockbusters with computer-generated characters, immersive multi-user videogames, a host of consumer software for editing, sound and graphics — but few people I spoke with realized how much had come directly from Lucasfilm research. Because the company was privately held, and because George is so secretive anyway, there were only bits of information available, much of it erroneous or exaggerated, some of it mythologized.

I decided then that I should research the story of the Computer Division — how it came to be, why a filmmaker spent a disproportionate amount of his wealth to create it, what historical events happened there, and what became of it. It would span the history of filmmaking and the history of technology. It would be comprised of the experiences of the people I had met there — the executives, the filmmakers, the scientists, the competitors, and the friends — who along with George Lucas reveal this story. Starn continued to be my friend, my guide and advisor through my years at Lucasfilm and beyond. As Yoda said in Episode I, “There are always two: the master and the apprentice.” Lucas had Coppola. I guess I had Starn.

But I could never get the question out of my head, “Was all that talk about magic real or just camp stuff?” Typically, it was hard to say if he ever answered.

There was only one question I did recall him answering.“What is magic?” I asked him one evening over dinner, as my years at Lucasfilm were coming to an end. Starn said, “Magic means ‘to amaze and delight.’ Of course there is magic.” If the Lucasfilm Computer Division did anything with consistency, it was to amaze and delight. High magic, I always believed, was Lucasfilm’s best kept secret.

Living a creative life, a student of high magic, and hopefully growing wiser as I age. • Ex-Lucasfilm, Netflix, Adobe. • Here are my stories and photos.

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