George Lucas – American Film Institute

George Lucas

33th AFI Life Achievement Award Honoree

George Lucas

George Lucas loves movies. He loves thinking about them. He loves watching them. But, most of all, he loves pushing the boundaries of creativity as he challenges himself and his colleagues to bring to life the most unthinkable scenarios and visual effects. If he imagines it, we’ll experience it.

Lucas’ impact on modern filmmaking is nothing short of astounding. Starting in 1971 with THX 1138–and continuing on through AMERICAN GRAFFITI, the INDIANA JONES trilogy and, of course, the STAR WARS series–Lucas has forever changed our perception of the reach and power of cinema.

Lucas’ pioneering filmmaking advances– from non-linear picture editing with EditDroid, digital sound editing with SoundDroid and his incomparable THX sound system in 1982; to computer graphics with his Pixar computer in 1985; to his revolutionary digital projection on THE PHANTOM MENACE in 1999 and the first live-action all digital film, ATTACK OF THE CLONES, in 2002–have cemented his leadership role in digital technology.

Yet Lucas was not a kid who lived in a darkened theatre. At age eight, he was a voracious reader–his early interest in history and adventure fueled by a series of historical novels, along with classics like Treasure Island and Mutiny on the Bounty. An unmotivated, bored high school student, he planned on becoming a racecar driver until those dreams were shattered by a horrific car accident. After a long recuperation, he followed his best friend to USC Film School with a vague notion of pursuing photography and art. Instead, the kid whose family didn’t own a TV until age 10, who’d gone to movies to scrutinize the girls rather than the images on screen, found his metier–filmmaking.

Ignoring his classmates’ gripes about assignment constraints and lack of equipment, Lucas walked out the door and started shooting. By the time he graduated, he had nine impressive credits, ranging from the one-minute animated LOOK AT LIFE to ELECTRIC LABYRINTH THX 1138 4EB, the 15-minute precursor to his first feature. His insistence on making his movies his way resulted in a slew of student filmmaking awards and studio scholarship offers, heralding the emergence of an independent, avant-garde spirit.

Perhaps too avant-garde for the studio system. Deeply disappointed by Warner Bros.’ dismissal of his first full-length feature, the fleshed out THX 1138, as too “out there,” Lucas turned to a subject with mass appeal. AMERICAN GRAFFITI’s simple yet universal story of a Saturday night in the life of one town’s teenagers resonated with audiences and critics alike, while ushering in a brand new type of filmmaking, complete with nonlinear storytelling and wall-to-wall pop music.

And then, Lucas sent us to a place “A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away.” But getting there was not easy. When Lucas began pitching STAR WARS, no studio would touch it. The story combined three seemingly disparate genres–mythology, westerns and samurai films–into a modern fairytale. It took the faith of one executive at Twentieth Century Fox, Alan Ladd Jr., to believe in Lucas enough to give him a chance, and, in 1977, a new movie-going experience was born. STAR WARS captivated audiences not only by its extraordinary visual effects and pioneering sound design, but also by Lucas’ unique take on the classic good versus evil story, with his passion for history, anthropology and the mythological teachings of Joseph Campbell lacing even the most alien characters with a sense of place and purpose.

Over the next six years, Lucas continued to explore the psychological archeology of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo, et al. With the success of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and RETURN OF THE JEDI, the man who envisioned himself an independent, cinema verite documentarian had undeniably become a filmmaker for the masses. While Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford are forever linked to the enormously popular INDIANA JONES trilogy, it is George Lucas who created the iconic character and story.

And the devotion of his fans is astonishing. Six weeks before the May 19, 2005, opening of STAR WARS: EPISODE III REVENGE OF THE SITH, they were storming stores at midnight to buy new action-figures. A month in advance, they were already camping outside theatres. The final installment of the STAR WARS oeuvre is a testament to the power of Lucas’ storytelling, as the kids who thrilled to the original episode returned 28 years later to share the adventure with their own children. A fitting conclusion to this most extraordinary cinematic journey, as Lucas considers raising his three children to be his greatest accomplishment.

Lucas’ commitment to film extends well beyond his STAR WARS franchise. A fiercely loyal friend, he has generously– and quietly–offered his name and financial support to films such as Akira Kurosawa’s KAGEMUSHA, Paul Schrader’s MISHIMA: A LIFE IN FOUR CHAPTERS and Jim Henson’s LABYRINTH; while producing, under the Lucasfilm banner, movies as diverse as WILLOW, HOWARD THE DUCK and TUCKER: THE MAN AND HIS DREAM.

Lucas’ success has always been on his own terms. Which means choosing to work at Skywalker Ranch in California’s Marin County, affording him an unprecedented level of creative freedom. Fellow filmmakers also take refuge there as they finish their own projects at Lucas’ state-of-the-art post-production facility. But the consequences of his independence are considerable–Lucas is inarguably the hardest-working man in show business. Surrounding himself with trusted, highly gifted artisans, he immerses himself in every aspect of the production process, earning his colleagues’ respect of and commitment to his creative vision.

With 1,500 employees, Lucas is Chairman of the Board of Lucasfilm, a banner that includes Industrial Light & Magic, Skywalker Sound, LucasArts Entertainment Company and Lucas Licensing. A man with an exceptional moral center, Lucas’ sense of right and wrong defines him as much as his professional triumphs. A strong believer in giving back to society–and remembering his own frustrating early school years–in 1991 he founded the George Lucas Educational Foundation, bringing fun and creativity to the learning process. And he continues to generously support the USC School of Cinema-Television.

By tirelessly pushing himself and his team to previously unimaginable levels, George Lucas has redefined American cinema. Because of his incomparable work ethic, expert insight into the American Zeitgeist and extraordinary ability to craft a cultural phenomenon from his seemingly limitless imagination, the American Film Institute is honored to present George Lucas with AFI’s 33rd Life Achievement Award.




The AFI Life Achievement Award — the highest honor for a career in film — was established by the AFI Board of Trustees on February 23, 1973 to celebrate an individual whose career in motion pictures or television has greatly contributed to the enrichment of American culture.

The award is given to a “recipient whose talent has in a fundamental way advanced the film art; whose accomplishment has been acknowledged by scholars, critics, professional peers and the general public; and whose work has stood the test of time.”

In 1993, the AFI Board of Trustees extended the criteria to encompass individuals with active careers and work of significance yet to be accomplished.